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Churchill: Shunned Without Speeches

12/06/2017 12:10
Hulton Archive via Getty Images

In the upcoming film Churchill, releasing in cinemas June 16, we get a rare glimpse at the iconic Prime Minister's anxious hours before D-Day. The film, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and starring Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson, shows Winston in a new and interesting light, as both a courageous and steadfast leader, haunted by past mistakes.

There has, and always will be, a fascination with Winston Churchill, and as the new film shows, there is a depth to him beyond the political poster-image. As Brian Cox displays in his tremendous performance, the intellect of Churchill brought both success and sorrow. Interestingly, he wasn't always that popular, and many would argue that it was his speeches above all else that secured his standing.

The thing most people think of with Winston Churchill is a set of phrases including 'blood, toil, tears and sweat', 'we will fight them on the beaches', 'their finest hour' and 'never was so much owed by so many to so few'. These all originate in speeches he made in the summer of 1940, the year in which his reputation as a national leader lies.

The fact that these phrases have almost become clichés shows that Churchill was a master of the sound bite (a catchy phrase always helps - just think of his canine insurance incarnation and "Ooooh yes"). They have taken on a life of their own outside the speeches. Yet the power of oratory cannot be reduced to a string of memorable phrases. The sound bites were part of long speeches and derived a lot of their original effect from their context.

Hard to imagine, but Churchill's speeches were not universally admired at the time, particularly in Parliament. One Tory MP commented after a Conservative Party meeting on 9th October 1940 that Churchill was 'a word-spinner, a second-rate rhetorician'. Churchill became Prime Minister on 10th May 1940, against the wishes of the King and of many Conservative MP's who would have preferred the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, to take over from Chamberlain. Oratory was the main instrument he used to maintain his shaky position in Parliament, solidify support in the nation and to get what he called the 'Battle of Britain' fought. It was a very personal instrument, for he employed no speechwriters. He was his own spin-doctor.

The speech he gave in the House of Commons on the 18th June 1940 has become one of his most famous. It gave the Battle of Britain its name, and ends with the phrase about England resisting Hitler: 'their finest hour'. At times, Churchill's exact meaning is obscure, but he employs formal linguistic tools, which have moved and persuaded people since ancient times. Few - if any - of his listeners would themselves have been aware of this, but the effect was felt by them all the same. By and large, the less sophisticated they were, the greater the effect was.

The speech lasted for a hefty 36 minutes. In the Commons, the reaction to Churchill's words was muted. His Private Secretary, John Colville, wrote that 'he spoke less well than on the last occasion, and referred more often to his notes; but he ended magnificently'. The MP Harold Nicolson wrote that he thought Churchill sounded 'ghastly' on the wireless. Cecil King, a Newspaper owner, thought he was either ill or drunk and wrote in his diary that it was 'the poorest possible effort'.

Whatever MPs or newspaper proprietors thought, Churchill had the attention of the nation. The audience research carried out by the BBC at the time showed that 51% of the population listened to his first broadcast as Prime Minister on 19th May. The size of his audience increased with every broadcast, reaching almost 60% on 18th June, and it increased further after that. His performance throughout the summer drove his approval rating up an extraordinary 88%, and in October - after the bombing of London had begun - up to 89%.

Churchill knew how to grab his audience's attention, and it's what made him an immortal figure. We grow up with that image on television and film, and referenced in core History lessons. It's hard to imagine Blair, Cameron, and May sustaining such iconic stature for as long as Churchill has, and yet they've all done the same job. It's the power of words and delivery that cements your status. "Strong and stable" ain't gonna cut it if you have no faith in the words or the expression. Churchill didn't always have complete support, but by believing in himself, and in the words he was writing, he became an icon.

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