There aren't many minutes of Winston Churchill's life left undramatized, or not covered by documentary films, but for the next eight weeks, public television's "Masterpiece Theater" will devote itself to "Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years," and thereby recall the 10 years, 1929 to 1939, that Churchill was out of power.
He may have been out of power, but it wasn't The Decade in Which Nothing Happened. In the first one-hour installment, tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 26 and other PBS stations, Winnie and the conservatives are booted out in an election, and Churchill travels to the United States for a lecture tour. He invests all his lecture fees in the stock market which promptly crashes, and he returns home to sit on a tree stump and brood.
"Wilderness Years" is not what you'd call rousing--the first chapter is titled "Down and Out"--but it is absorbing, and naturally, it is well-acted and attractively put together. Adapted from Martin Gilbert's biography "Winston S. Churchill" by John Prebbel and William Humble, the film traffics in more details about British politics than most American viewers will want to know, but it includes such surprises as the first episode's depiction of Churchill's meetings in this country with William Randolph Hearst (played with backslapping bravado by the unerringly dependable Stephen Elliott), Hearst's mistress Marion Davies (portrayed as a touchingly self-deprecating ingenue by Merrie Lynn Ross) and a very hospitable Bernard Baruch (Sam Wanamaker).
"Since the British won't listen to me anymore, perhaps I can find some foreigners who will," says Robert Hardy, engaging and buoyant as Churchill. At that line, director Ferdinand Fairfax cuts to Monument Valley, Ariz., where mock cowboys and hired Indians are chasing one another about for the benefit of a movie company. Actually, according to production notes, Churchill met Hearst and Davies on a Hollywood sound stage, but this variance from fact accommodates a welcome and spectacular change of scene.
The script's way with symbol and irony is a trifle heavy-handed. The film opens with a 1928 stag hunt in Scotland; George V aims at the beast (which seems to have run about 40 miles from the stationary hunters by the time he fires) and, apparently, wounds it. That gives Churchill the chance to say, "He may be wounded, sir, but he has the light of survival in his eyes. A noble beast--he will come again." Rrrrright.
Things are just as obvious much later, when the director intercuts between the stock market crash in America and the felling of a large tree on Churchill's property back home. It's the kind of symbolism that makes one want to say "ouch."
Fairfax seems to have been shooting for a big screen rather than television; he keeps too much distance from his subjects much of the time. As for keeping distance about Churchill's private life, the script treads a careful line. In the opening chapter, we do see Churchill scratching and meowing outside his wife Clemmie's bedroom, but when she lets him in, a discussion of politics and world conditions ensues. "We must win," he says of the coming election. "We shall win, Clem-begs."
The fact that Clem-begs is played by the imposing, and always rather intimidating, Sian Phillips (of "I, Claudius" fame, among other fames) is a tremendous asset, but Hardy's portrayal of Churchill looks as though it will wear well, too, stopping short of caricature, full of life and profoundly plucky, except for momentary pouts on tree stumps. "Wilderness Years" is primarily for insatiable Anglophiles, but "Masterpiece Theater" seems to have won innumerable converts to those ranks over the years.