Starkey contrasts; history WATCH Famed for his outspoken views, David 'Dr Rude' Starkey is turning his attention to the Churchills. Get ready for another history lesson with a difference.
Q: Silly question, but what's your new series about? A: I suppose it sounds rather unpromising that we want to make a TV series about the writing of a book. Lots of close-ups of pens cutting across the page, things like that. But don't be fooled. The Churchills is about one of the UK's greatest leaders, Winston, penning a biography of another great man: John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, a fearsome soldier who saved the country from French king Louis XIV. It's a tale of friendship, betrayal, love and sex, and even hints at lesbianism: in a nutshell, a veritable soap opera. I use the voice of Winston Churchill to talk about his ancestor's crucial role in history, and explore the extraordinary parallels between the two men. Q: So the former PM was a bit of a scribe then.
A: Winston wrote the four-volume million-word biography Marlborough: His Life And Times in the 1930s, in a period known as his "wilderness years" when he withdrew from politics after the Tories were defeated in 1929. In May 1940, he would be summoned to Buckingham Palace and invited to form a new government, to replace the discredited Neville Chamberlain administration. He wrote of the moment: "I felt as though I were walking with destiny and that all my past life had been a preparation for this hour and for this trial." This sense of destiny came, in part, from being inspired by his ancestor Marlborough, who had led an alliance to protect Europe from being dominated by a single power, just as Churchill would have to in the Second World War. The book helped him to warn about the rise of Hitler and would earn its author the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Q: Is the argument of the series that it's writing that book on Marlborough that makes Churchill a great politician? A: Yes, I think so. Up to 1929, everybody recognised he was a man of astonishing promise, brilliance of wit, this energy, this drive. He made some terrible mistakes, yet in the '40s, he's transformed from an outsider into the destined national leader, and this book is why.
Q: As in your previous documentary, Henry VIII: Mind Of A Tyrant, do you use primary sources to tell the personal story the family? A: When it comes to John Churchill, we see letters he wrote to his wife Sarah, and letters between Sarah and Queen Anne, with whom she's said to have been intimate. I also travel to key locations including Blenheim Palace (in Oxfordshire), given to John Churchill by the Queen in recognition for his heroism, Louis XIV's palace of Versailles, scenes of Marlborough's battles and Chartwell House, where Churchill actually wrote the biography. Q: How do you find making TV? A: Hard going. People think you get up, learn three lines, have an elaborate breakfast, then champagne at lunch, but it's not like that. You have fun in the evening, but you're up between 4.30 and 5am polishing material, taking on board what's been discussed the day before. When you're filming somewhere like Versailles, it's an absolute torment, because despite the fact you're paying an enormous amount of money, the palace only makes itself available in a very half-hearted way, with processions of delegates parading through and interrupting what you're doing. It's really very stressful.
Q: Did you know much about the Churchills before making the series? A: My mother was a pie-minded liberal who loved Churchill but my father thought he was an abomination. So I grew up with a rounded view of the former prime minister. I never really read Churchill seriously as a historian at all before I started work on this. Now, I would not claim that the book is even and the long passages do read as though they've been dictated, but there are whole chapters with the most brilliant analysis and astonishing sharpness of mind.
Q: You've courted no small amount of controversy over the years, most recently being labelled a "racist" and "bigot" for your comments about the Rochdale sex gang. How does that sit with you? A: I think we all have different sides of our personalities and that side of me is regularly labelled Dr Rude - it's a bit like Jekyll and Hyde. I don't think it's the whole me, at least I hope it's not. If you're taking part in a public debate, you have to make an impact. But equally, there has to be a serious point behind it.
* The Churchills begins on Channel 4 on Thursday at 8pm
Sir Winston Churchill David Starkey