Masterpiece Theatre project: The First Churchills

The First Churchills (1969), produced by Donald Wilson.

Starring John Neville as John Churchill Duke of Marlborough, Susan Hampshire as Sarah Churchill, Margaret Tyzack as Queen Anne, James Villiers as Charles II, James Kerry as James Duke of Monmouth, and Jill Balcon as Abigail Hill.

12x episodes, written by Donald Wilson, based on the book by Winston Churchill.

The first production to air on Masterpiece Theatre, this programme was somewhat unique in not being a dramatization of a classic novel.  It was not highly regarded by series presenter Alistair Cooke, who nevertheless introduced it to American audiences on the strength of Susan Hampshire’s performance (she was familiar to the target audience from her appearance as Fleur in The Forsyte Saga).

Viewed now the series does drag in places, but remains a reasonable depiction of a time in history which perhaps does not have the same romance and excitement as the Tudors.  It does help if you have some prior knowledge of the period so you can follow who the various characters are, for example knowing of Sarah’s friendship with Anne and their correspondence as ‘Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley’ makes sense of the Churchills’ eventual fall from favour as Sarah loses her place as favourite to her poor relation, Abigail Hill, who is presented her as something of a schemer against her powerful cousin.

The best thing about this series for me, though, isn’t in Hampshire’s performance, good though it is, but in a rare television appearance by John Neville, one of gravitas and dignity against the more emotional centre of his ambitious wife.  There are a few too many period wigs, and photographed backdrops in lieu of expensive location filming, but this series has a certain charm if you make allowances for the time it was made.

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