STANDING ON GUARD

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First Churchills, The

Release Year:         1969
Studio:         Acorn Media
Format:         Full Screen; Colour; NTSC
Rated:         Not Rated
# of Discs/Episodes:         3 / 12
Running Time:         532 minutes plus bonus
DVD Release Date:         June 4, 2013
Screenwriter:         Donald Wilson
Director:         David Giles
Actors:         John Neville, Susan Hampshire
DVD Features:         SDH subtitles
E:Top Picks Rating:         10/10

Acorn Media Write-up:  
At a time when most marriages were motivated by money and position, Sarah Jennings and John Churchill married for love. Their union lasted through long lives spent at the epicenter of political power in 17th- and 18th-century England. He was a military genius who never lost a battle; she was the intimate friend of a queen.

Based on Sir Winston Churchill’s biography of his ancestors, the first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, this addictive BBC drama follows the couple from their budding romance in the bawdy court of King Charles II through five tumultuous decades and five Stuart monarchs. Starring John Neville (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The X-Files) and Susan Hampshire (Monarch of the Glen, The Pallisers) in an Emmy-winning performance, this classic miniseries helped establish Masterpiece Theatre as the venue for acclaimed British productions.

BONUS Exclusive interview with Susan Hampshire (19 min.); photo gallery; and 10-page insert with a sampling of the Churchills’ real love letters, glossary of historical figures and terms, and a House of Stuart family tree.

Jon Ted Wynne Review: 
Sheer bliss. Such is the feeling watching John Neville in THE FIRST CHURCHILLS, who was then still in his prime, shortly before emigrating from the United Kingdom and choosing to live and work in Canada in 1972. Always an actor of towering presence and impeccable technique, Neville was as good as his more famous English contemporaries from Richard Burton to Paul Scofield.

Neville was an acting legend whose international profile was created playing Shakespeare at the Old Vic (including alternating the parts of Othello and Iago with Richard Burton); originating the role of Alfie, (later immortalized on film with Michael Caine in the role); and contributing a memorable Sherlock to the Holmes cinematic canon in the excellent 1965 thriller A Study In Terror. Neville’s star status was arguably somewhat diminished by his move to Canada. Nonetheless he never regretted the change and made a huge impact on Canadian theatre from Edmonton to Stratford, Ontario to Nova Scotia. On occasion he still managed to find roles which reminded people around the globe of his extraordinary talents.

Neville plays John Churchill in THE FIRST CHURCHILLS, and he brings an elegance, ease and weight to this central character, the first significant ancestor of Winston Churchill, the great English statesman who, in addition to being a lifelong politician (including Great Britain’s leader during the Second World War) was also a prolific author, and whose chronicle of his family history was the main source material for this magnificent 12-part miniseries.

The story of the first Churchills features political intrigue, military accomplishment and domestic affairs both touching and tawdry. It is precisely the sort of historical dramatization that has proved to be the staple of Masterpiece Theatre here in North America for decades.

Of course, being from 1969, the series is shot on video (film is used for exteriors) and this dates the production. The small budget is evident by the creative way battle scenes are conveyed, usually in montage with period lithographs and maps rather than epic scenes involving hundreds of extras. Despite these limitations, THE FIRST CHURCHILLS is superior drama and is not to be missed.

Along with the brilliant John Neville, the luminous Susan Hampshire also leads the cast. A last minute replacement for the magnificent Judi Dench, Susan Hampshire was arguably better known at the time than Ms Dench, at least on television, thanks to the success of The Forsyte Saga a few years earlier. Hampshire went on to win accolades for THE FIRST CHURCHILLS whereas, curiously, Neville did not. This is unfortunate, for though Hampshire is the central character (also serving as narrator), it is John Neville who is the more accomplished star here. There are times when Ms Hampshire is obviously “acting”, though you never see this in Neville’s performance. She is wonderful 98% of the time, but he is 100% genuine, with a brilliance you rarely see on television from this period. Robert Hardy’s turn as Winston Churchill in The Wilderness Years comes close.

Of the supporting performances three stand out as exceptional, James Villiers as Charles II, John Standing as Godolphin, and Margaret Tyzack as Princess, later Queen Anne, with whom Sarah Churchill had a most painful falling out later in life.

THE FIRST CHURCHILLS is literate, intelligent, brilliant and fascinating. And, thanks to Acorn Media’s re-release, it now has subtitles, a wise move as many in the target audience for this masterpiece will be older and perhaps hard of hearing. Anything that makes this magnificent achievement more accessible is cause for celebration.

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