British culture is replete with images of Winston Churchill: the cigar-chomping walnut with his two fingered salute that’s more Fuck you Fritz than V for Victory; the bronze bulldog with a guerrilla garden mohican; Timothy Spall rising from Big Ben and spouting Shakespeare like a jowly bardic overload. Winston on the Run gives us another, and while simultaneously illuminating a more obscure period in Britain’s Favourite Briton’s life, offers us a whining, entitled prig – a Bullingdon bugger who would fit right in with the oikish inhabitants of Laura Wade’s Posh.
Churchill is holed up in a methane-filled mine in the African savannah. Captured by the Boers while working as a war correspondent for the Morning Post, he has escaped from a POW camp and as anxiously awaits his rescue – knee deep in rats and his own filth – he delivers a jittery account of his life. From his dismal failure at the Oldham by-election, where he failed even to win a dead man’s seat, to his abortive career as a reporter, Churchill rails against the idiocy of others and cowers beneath disturbing memories of his famous father’s disapproval. There’s a mixture of pathos and disgust in seeing the great man insisting that he wants nothing from his father but cravenly crowing ‘I’m the son of a lord!’ when cornered.
With a boisterous but intricately researched script by Freddie Machin and John Walton, and played with Toad of Toad Hall bluster by Machin, Winston on the Run is consistently entertaining, often hilarious and makes a strong case for a more skeptical appraisal of the wartime leader’s qualities. Machin’s Churchill is more snotty child than dignified national treasure, trolling Kitchener like a schoolboy travestying his headmaster, squirming with Freudian moustache envy and penning sweet nothings to his mumsy. His trademark cigar is present, but if he lights it he’ll die in a conflagration of faeces and rodents.
Machin and Walton have given Winston a thorough debagging, but while the conventional hagiography is nowhere to be seen, it’s far from an outright character assassination. The wit Churchill would later sharpen to a keen edge can be seen in embryo, Machin gives him a fresh, springy, even manic sense of humour. His brutally effective strategic intelligence is obvious, his intolerance and warmongering is frightening. Churchill feels dangerous, he’s a reactionary, a Tory, his view of the world blinkered by empire. It is this sense of controlled but endemic aggression that makes the moral cowardice he frequently displays all the more concerning, but it also sheds light on the reasons for that disparity between his wartime efficacy and his subsequent political impotence.
The production design is suitably grimy, and barring occasional moments of structural haziness, Walton’s direction is pacy and forceful. Winston on the Run is a smart and entertaining glimpse of a man whose resolution turned the tide of one war, kicking against his own insignificance in an earlier one.