Edinburgh Fringe 2009
Touching and tender portrayal of a woman that had more influence on her powerful and dominant husband than many so-called first ladies before or since. Unlike many of her modern day equivalents, however, this lady is the model of discretion and possesses diplomatic skills to rival the best of them.
Clementine Churchill must have been a remarkable woman. Married for fifty seven years to a man who was one of the most powerful in the world and who could be irascible, charming, rude, intelligent, belligerent, kind, insensitive, depressed, loving and (nearly always) late, she must have had the patience and tolerance of a saint, two qualities notably absent from a husband to whom she was so obviously devoted.
Rohan McCullogh’s loving and tender portrayal of Clemmie afforded a compelling insight to calming influence behind arguably Britain’s greatest leader. Elegantly attired and possessed of that grace and poise that you suspect was bred into la crème de la crème of even the more impecunious elements of the upper classes, she took us with great lucidity through the life and times of one of the few people who really knew Winston and, moreover, knew how to handle him.
Her own upbringing was in a somewhat stormy household, dominated by her mother’s succession of affairs which eventually ended her parents’ marriage. Indeed, there is some doubt as to the identity of Clemmie’s biological father – it certainly wasn’t the man she called her father and from whom she became estranged as a teenager. She had a relatively unremarkable education in a mid-shires public school followed by a search for the employment necessary to fund the social lifestyle which was thought essential to girls of her class at the dawn of the 20th century. Hardly a glittering prologue for what was to follow.
As an impressionable teenager, an initial chance meeting with Winston was followed by a second meeting four years later from which romance blossomed. He must have seemed like quite a catch to Clemmie and, more particularly her mother, anxious as she was to get her daughter married and off her hands. A dashing Boer War hero, some ten years older than his bride, Winston was a politician with strong principles who crossed the floor of the House to join the Liberals following a fall-out with the Tories over the issue of free trade. Yet he was marrying an educated woman who shared many of his political convictions and who had the courage and intelligence to argue her convictions, never being afraid to lambast those whom she thought were being unjust to him.
The narration brings out Clemmie’s utter devotion to her husband but at the same time reveals her as a woman of some substance and no little guile. Whilst she might have been the one to concede on matters more often than not, she was an astute negotiator and was possessed of considerable diplomatic talents. Who else could have told Winston that his behavior towards key members of his war cabinet and supporting staff had become so intolerable that it was threatening the effort to defeat Hitler.
This was a gentle tale that steered around the sadder and more controversial parts of Clemmie’s long and very active life. So we touched only briefly on the tragedies that hit some of their five children – one died at a very young age, one committed suicide and one battled with alcohol addiction – and avoided any reference to her alleged infidelity or Winston’s fondness for more than just a wee dram. But does that really matter? It was a union that stood the test of time and her contribution to their partnership should not be under estimated.
Winston famously said after the end of the war that history would be kind to him as he intended to write it himself. Perhaps history should also be kind to his devoted wife, ever the model of discretion, ever the one to compromise. Sometimes airbrushing out a little of the tittle tattle is no bad thing. And she certainly proves the point that behind every great man lies an even greater woman.