Category Archives: Winston On the Run

Winston, the Victorian Missionary

By Freddie Machin

We opened the autumn tour of Winston on the Run at the Chipping Norton Theatre, a stone’s throw from Winston’s birthplace and the seat of the dukedom he never inherited, Blenheim Palace. Merely by dint of dates and programming the show opened to an Oxfordshire audience, many of whom, we discovered during the post-show presentation knew a great deal already about Winston. I am delighted to say that we have in fact been invited for tea at Ditchley, Churchill’s hideout half a century after he hid out down our mineshaft, during the Second World War.

The theatre at Chipping Norton was built in 1878 as a Salvation Army citadel. ‘These stones were laid by one hundred of those who through great persecution boldly and conscientiously served their God’ reads the foundation stone inside the auditorium. It is a beautiful space with a very intimate feel despite the depth of the raised stage. The theatre is much the envy of the theatrical community and has become one of the highlights of the touring circuit. Catherine and William Booth, founders of the Salvation Army are buried not far from where I live in London, their mission when they began in 1865 was to bring salvation to the poor, destitute and hungry by meeting both their physical and spiritual needs.

These stones were laid by one hundred of those who through great persecution boldly and conscientiously served their God

These stones were laid by one hundred of those who through great persecution boldly and conscientiously served their God

This was not an uncommon assignment during the Victorian era, 1878 is the same year as my football team, Everton, was established. Begun as a Catholic team to give the local boys somewhere to focus their energies, St. Domingo FC began playing on what is now Anfield – the home of Everton’s closest rivals (just a few hundred yards today). Shelter, the housing charity still operating today, was also founded in the 19th century, contributing to a whole culture of philanthropy, alms giving and helping those in need.

This evangelism spread along with British imperial ambitions, colonialism aiming to elevate and ennoble what were presumed to be sinful and barbaric societies. Colonial administrators and Christian missionaries around the world were preaching about an ordered and sophisticated society, to nations lacking the development seen in Britain under Christianity.

In Winston on the Run, we suggest that the war in South Africa might indeed be the catalyst that makes Churchill question how right and good British implementation of that mission actually was. Winston’s attitude was that winning the war would ultimately be for the good of the defeated as well as the victors. But what the Empire found itself up against in South Africa was a capable and fierce adversary determined to protect its own identity and independence, whatever the cost.

British forces found the Boer communities so resilient that they resorted to rounding up the women and children and detaining them in camps in an attempt to break their spirits and the back of the war. These were not the first camps of their kind, but helped to set a precedent that would have an even graver outcome half a century later.

It turned out not to be the just and righteous walkover that Great Britain was accustomed to (and was expecting). In fact, it would be an embarrassment; our first war fought in Khaki instead of the red coats of the Zulu wars just a few years before and a blot on the apparently flawless history of Britain.

Warfare was changing and the British Empire’s unquestioned primacy had received a knock to its confidence and credibility. Queen Victoria had reigned over an incredible fifth of the earth’s surface and almost a quarter of the world’s population owed her allegiance during the 1800s but the turn of the century would usher in a new epoch. Born in 1874, Winston was resolutely a Victorian but following Victoria’s death in 1901 would come a new Edwardian period, characterised less by peace and goodwill but by war.

 

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Dashing discoveries.

By John Walton

A bookstore hidden down a curving Edinburgh backstreet, its rough wooden shelves crammed with history, classical passion and beautiful early editions; an antiquarian owner practically covered with his own thin layer of dust. I was holding a worn book with yellowing pages, a navy hardback cover, and a look of having been once loved.

Back on tour with Potted Potter, the photo of a young man I had glimpsed in the Cabinet War Rooms was constantly on my mind. Who was he? What was he doing in a cavalry officer’s uniform? And why wasn’t he fat, middle-aged and balding? I needed to find out more. I was not only curious, I sniffed a story.

The book in my hands was ‘My Early Life’, Churchill’s description of his youthful days from first memories to nascent parliamentary success. Limping home from my gruelling schedule (two incredibly high-energy shows a day, every day, for a month – don’t let anyone tell you acting is an easy life) I plunged into a hot bath and began reading; immediately I was hooked. As a child I had adored the adventure stories of Dan Dare, Biggles, The Hardy Boys and Willard Price. Here was someone living that life for real, ricocheting around the world in a blur of action, high society and hilarity. One moment he was fleeing from his governess, next he was rioting in a music-hall; finally, he escaped from the South African Boers and became an international celebrity. Audacious tales were strewn with huge personalities: Winston’s father Randolph, a maverick politician who ultimately destroyed his own career; his mother Jennie, a glamorous New York socialite and unparalleled beauty; Mrs Everest, Winston’s nanny and closest friend. Alongside these principals was a roster of fascinating and often hilarious supporting characters: Prime Ministers, Princes, workers, clergymen, Dickensian teachers and my favourite, Colonel Brabazon: an hilarious, lisping epitome of a gloriously brave but utterly ridiculous Victorian cavalry officer.

"Colonel Brabazon: an hilarious, lisping epitome of a gloriously brave but utterly ridiculous Victorian cavalry officer."

“Colonel Brabazon: an hilarious, lisping epitome of a gloriously brave but utterly ridiculous Victorian cavalry officer.”

Reading ‘My Early Life’ was like discovering a different world, one so often suppressed by our country’s collective embarrassment over the colonial era. In the young Winston you could see the tenacity, bravery and leadership that would echo and reverberate into the future; at this point though his destiny was anything but certain. There was tender honesty, the tragically unreciprocated adoration Winston had for his father, the young man’s constant money problems and the impetuousness that would often be his own undoing. Written by Churchill decades later, the entire book also had a fascinating tint: the dying rays of what Churchill himself called a ‘vanished age’. The aristocracy’s grip on power was diminishing, the labour movement growing, and by the book’s end mechanised guns were swiftly bringing an end to the gentlemanly pursuit of war. Yet this was still a time where British officers played party games on the way to battle and fretted about smuggling champagne to the front lines.

As I suspected, the book was ripe for adaptation. Moreover, it’s central character was an intoxicating storyteller pumped full of bravery, arrogance, wit and sheer bloody-mindedness. I knew immediately that there could be only one actor on-stage. At the time, I imagined that might be myself. I re-read the book, this time making notes at the top of every page, eventually constructing an intricate timeline of his early life. Then I sat down at my sitting room table and took a notepad, ready to begin writing. Nothing. Nothing came out at all. I sat for a bit longer. Still nothing. I had assumed that writing a play would be easy: string together the bits of the story you want to tell and fill the gaps in-between. How wrong I was. I had absolutely no idea where to begin, and quickly, the rest of the world took over. A translating project took over my creative juices, and for the next two years, the project would be relegated to a constant niggle in the back of my head. Until, that is, I stumbled across Freddie Machin…

An Actor Prepares

 by Freddie Machin
 
The rejection I could cope with, the perseverance I could muster but no-one tells you that when you get that elusive and long longed for acting job, it might not be as fulfilling as you first thought.
 
Drama school was an incredibly invigorating and challenging three years for me. Characterised by a huge variety of material, contrasting approaches to drama and inspiring tutors and directors from the professional world. But what followed was less interesting. The professional life of an actor is rarely defined by a sustained foray into new theatrical worlds, new perspectives and ideologies. In fact (at least at the early stages) it seemed to me that what plays most on an actors mind (when they are working) is getting the show on.
 
This was my experience at least. The opposition of the Actor’s Studio style intensive character creation and the oft-quoted Lawrence Olivier approach of “why not try acting, darling” was the subject of much discourse at school and was now no longer a matter for debate. The general message was: we have three weeks before we open and you need to know where to stand.
Very quickly, following graduation from Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Theatre I could feel my highly valued discipline waning. The actors I worked with in the real world smoked and didn’t bother with warm ups. The Alexander technique was sniffed at and as for phonetics – completely obsolete.
 
My acting career flourished but my ideals about art were being gradually deflated and eroded and I wasn’t being pushed hard enough. I like to have tough challenges set me and to know when I must complete them by. My perspective on the acting process, which had comforted me so much whilst training – “take whatever works, and if it doesn’t work don’t worry about it” was now starting to feel like an excuse for inactivity. Surely having a process is not optional? Acting is not just something you do. I don’t believe in talent, I would argue, I believe in the 10,000 hours principle – that geniuses are made on the path to Carnegie Hall – by practice, baby, practice. Commitment, sweat and passion.
 
I stumbled upon a fantastic opportunity as an actor-writer with Action Transport Theatre and began writing. They gave me the time, the focus and the license to write. But most importantly they set me a tough challenge and they gave me a deadline. I realised that is what I had been hankering after. Writing a play, I would suggest, is less subjective than performing in one. It is much easier to fake it or fluke it on stage than when you are being committed to ink. Stories follow certain structures which can be adhered to or not, but beware that the audience will have an innate expectation of the resolution of your story and you need to know how to sculpt that. You can’t simply say the words – you must create them.
 
Maybe I was too serious in the early days, about art, about acting, about society – maybe I’m too serious now. Maybe I was too easily deterred. Or maybe I was wrong. But it was writing for the stage that re-invigorated me. Using my keen dramatic sense, honed at drama school I embarked on a new craft: playwrighting. Banging words together on the page, crashing characters together in new locations re-inspired me and gave me back my mojo for acting too. I was eager for more and greater challenges. Enter John Walton, stage left.

Blocked beginnings

By John Walton

In 2009, on the face of things, everything was going brilliantly. I had graduated from drama school two years earlier and landed a succession of acting parts, culminating in the Australasian tour of “Potted Potter” – the West-End Harry Potter spoof which boldly crashed through “all seven books in seventy minutes”. We had taken the show to Adelaide, Melbourne and Auckland. In my time off I had been to Ayer’s Rock, Sydney and even the Pacific Kingdom of Tonga. Despite all this, something in me was desperately frustrated. I was unhappy, constantly catching colds or the flu. I was deeply passionate about theatre, and fitting into other people’s productions just wasn’t what I wanted my life to be about. I wanted to be creating my own work.

 

There were two problems. Firstly, I was terrified. The idea of putting on my own show was overwhelmingly daunting. Where would I find the money? Who could I convince to programme my work? The task felt monumental. Besides, I was earning decent money as an actor – wasn’t that achievement enough? Secondly, I had no clue what I wanted to direct. There were plays I adored, but that didn’t seem reason enough to put them on stage. For the time-being, I was stuck.

 

It was on a break from Potted Potter that the breakthrough began. My dad was visiting, and we both wanted to explore the Cabinet War Rooms – the bunkers below Whitehall where Churchill orchestrated Britain’s military defense. Unknown to us, the same building also housed the Churchill Museum – a large, low-ceilinged room crammed with photos, posters, touchscreens, monitors and other high-tech audio-visual paraphernalia. After the relative serenity of waxwork dummies and 1940s maps, the sensory onslaught was mind-boggling, and both my dad and I wanted nothing more than to run away. We had each paid £17 entrance though, and dutifully, we decided to get our money’s worth.

 

There were, admittedly, some great items amongst the archival anarchy. The first to grab my attention was a Second World War photo of Churchill dressed in a pin-striped suit and top-hat, waving a ferocious looking Tommy Gun and chomping on an enormous cigar. He looked like a crazy Chicago mob-boss, and the British squaddie to the right of him looked decidedly uncomfortable. There was also fascinating material on Churchill’s constant ping-ponging between political victory, absolute defeat and maverick decision making.

 

Away from all of the glory (and disaster) of his political career was a small area dedicated to his childhood and early life. It was there that I stumbled across an astonishing photo of a pale, thin, fragile young man dressed in the splendor of a cavalry officer’s uniform. What relation I wondered was Churchill to this beautiful, if slightly uncomfortable young soldier? I checked. Incredibly, it was the man himself. Unrecognisable from the heavy, bald, demi-god of British history, here was a nervous twenty-one year old, yet to make his mark on the world. How could this seemingly Napolenoic-era hero be a man who would see the dropping of the atomic bomb? The contrast between everything that I knew of Churchill and this image was monumental. To the right was more intrigue – relics from his time spent in South Africa during the Boer War. This was a conflict I knew almost nothing about; but, because of a memorial plaque on my school stairways, it was a war for which I had long held a romantic fascination.

 

So there it was – two intrigues. A photo of a young man who bore absolutely no resemblance to the Churchill that everybody knew; and a century-old war thousands of miles from Blighty. Back on tour with Potted Potter I stumbled into a second hand book shop in Edinburgh. I would soon have found a story strong enough to overcome my director’s block.

 

The picture of Churchill that inspired the show.  (Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons).

The picture of Churchill that inspired the show. (Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons).