He’s a marvelous person for a dramatist to write about. He’s almost an Everyman.
Into the Storm, a new historical drama about British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill during World War II starring Brendan Gleeson, premiers on HBO May 31 at 9 pm Eastern Time. Presented by HBO Films in association with BBC, a Scott Free production and a Rainmark Films production of a film by Thaddeus O’Sullivan, the script was written by Hugh Whitemore. It is the latest in a long line of scripts Whitemore has written, including the screenplays for the 1983 TV movie Concealed Enemies (about the Alger Hiss case) and The Final Days, a dramatization of the Bob Woodward – Carl Bernstein book about the fall of President Richard M. Nixon. He also scripted The Gathering Storm, a 2002 HBO Films’ drama about Churchill’s life leading up to World War II, for which he won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing and The Writers Guild of America Award. Recently, he talked with HistoryNet from his home in England about his work in historical dramas, particularly those about Churchill.
HistoryNet.com: The first movie you scripted was All Neat in Black Stockings for Warner Brothers/Pathe in 1969, wasn’t it?
Hugh Whitemore: The first one I actually had a hand in was Evelyn Waugh’s book Decline and Fall – “Additional dialogue by/” It wasn’t much money, but I was credited.
HN: And your first work with the BBC appeared in the 1970s?
Hugh: The 1960s, actually. The BBC then had single plays, a series called Wednesday Play and Play of the Month, which were supposed to be fairly serious, fairly controversial plays. I wrote my first one in 1963.
HN: You also wrote the screenplay for The Gathering Storm, which covers Churchill’s life prior to Britain’s entry into World War II. Into the Storm isn’t a sequel; it is its own film, written several years after The Gathering Storm was scripted. Did those intervening years change anything about your interpretation of Churchill?
Hugh: A number of things happened. We wanted to cover the Second World War period, of course, but didn’t want to cover the entire war. It took a while to figure out how to do it. I realized I was exactly the same age as Churchill was at the end of the Thirties, so I approached the story not as a historical reconstructing, but as the story of a man approaching middle age, on a human level: a husband, a father, a man whose political career had been in decline. I decided to write it as a man at the crossroads of middle age.
HN: And of course, all film scripts are first drafts that undergo many changes during production.
Hugh: Oh, yes, and I love that. I like the collaborative dynamic of writing for TV, for movies. We all work together. I love it when we get into production. Writing a film is difficult; you have to come up with so much visual material.
For me one of most exciting things of all is when the actors are cast. Such creative people, such as Brendan (Gleeson)—they have such insights into characters.
HN: There is a line in the film in which King George VI wistfully says Lord Halifax “would have made the most perfect prime minister” and expresses his discomfort with the idea of Churchill as PM. How much resistance was there to Churchill being given this position?
Hugh: I think quite a bit. Although Churchill was a member of the Conservative Party, he had been a rebel. He switched parties once, then switched back. He came from an aristocratic family, but was not part of the upper class ordre. He was not a snob; he was a thinking person. I think the upper class found him a loose cannon. They were afraid of him.Of course, there was also his record from World War I. The Gallipoli campaign was his idea—he was first Lord of the Admiralty. The campaign was badly organized, a ghastly failure. Churchill was held very much to blame. He was fired from his post. He left the cabinet and became a solider and went to France. There was a feeling he had betrayed his class, but by 1939, the working classes, the middle classes were very happy with him.
You also have to remember the king was a personal friend of Lord Halifax. The king gave him the key to the gardens at Buckingham Palace, told him to use the gardens as he wished. So, yes, the king was disappointed that Halifax wasn’t the prime minister.
One of the first things Churchill did when he became prime minister was fire Halifax and make him ambassador to America. He became an outstanding ambassador, but he loved his home in England. His wife went to Churchill and begged him on her knees not to send Halifax away, but Churchill refused.
HN: During one of the scenes when Churchill is waiting to learn if he and his party have been reelected, he ponders how he’ll earn a living if he loses. When his wife suggests writing as a profession, he responds, “And pay my nineteen-and-six-pound income tax? Not bloody likely!” What do you think that scene communicates about him?
Hugh: Income taxes were very high at that time. If you earned a pound, all you got to keep was six pence, which was a 40th of a pound.
There was huge austerity in the 1950s. The war had left the country basically bankrupt. The government had to impose huge taxes to get the money needed.
HN: This film does a good job of depicting Churchill at his best and his worst. How did you go about presenting the complex Churchill we see through your script?
Hugh: He’s a marvelous person for a dramatist to write about. He’s almost an Everyman. He loves his family, yet he treats them roughly sometimes. He blows hot and cold and presents a huge range of emotions. I came to identify with him because he is an Everyman, a mixture of emotions. His daughter, Lady (Mary) Soames, looked at my script and encouraged me to be honest about him.
He said that painting a picture was like fighting a battle. He approached the planning of war like painting a picture. He’s able to use all these disparate parts of his character. He showed a wide range of emotions and talents, and when he focused them on problems of war or finance, he raided all his different experiences and focused his wide range of experience on the problem at hand. He didn’t come at things from a single point of view.
HN: That really set him apart from other members of his class at the time, didn’t it.
Hugh: He had a wide range of friends and talents. He was a wonderful painter, a marvelous wrier. A less attractive side was that he was selfish. He rushed through life like a tornado and left everyone else to pick up the pieces.
But that was what the country needed in the war. It seemed absolute madness in 1940 to think we could fight Germany—they conquered France in 17 days—but he had that madness. He appointed a friend as Minister of Aircraft Production, because he realized we desperately needed weapons to fight the Germans. When Italy offered to broker a peace, Churchill said, “You can’t trust Hitler.” He went straight to the heart of the matter—if you can’t trust someone, there’s no use talking to him.
British victory was miraculous. Three months—May, June and July 1940—that’s when Churchill really made his mark. He decided to keep fighting. Once he pushed the ball down hill, then the other people, the generals and admirals came along. After those months, the lesser players took over, the leaders of the army, the air force, but he’d already made his mark.
Once America and Russia joined the war, Churchill’s power gradually diminished. By the end of the war, America and Russia were creating the post-war world at Yalta.
He wasn’t interested in bookkeeping, in the running of a country in peacetime. He became bored easily.
HN: One of the more humorous scenes is the one in which Churchill proposes the ludicrous idea of disguising ships as icebergs, then that scene immediately segues into him discussing an idea for floating harbors, the Mulberries that proved critical to success in invading Europe. What do you think of Churchill as a strategist?
Hugh: He crackled with ideas all the time. A number of them were silly, but cheek-by-jowl with the silly ones were some that were brilliant, like the floating harbor. D-Day would never have worked without it. (Who originated the floating harbor concept is debated, but Churchill presented the idea at the Quebec Conference in 1943.–HN) He was constantly searching for new ideas, and he would throw them out there. He was not one for self-censorship. He had brilliant use of words, and he understood how important that was. He said the British people had the lion’s heart; he was called upon to give the roar.
HN: What appeals to you about scripting history-based films?
Hugh: I love it. I love the research. I like finding in history themes and ideas which have some sort of response in me. The treasure trove of history is so marvelous. I find it absorbing, fascinating and enormous fun. It’s always a nice idea to love what you do, isn’t it?
HN: What were some of the most valuable sources for you in researching this film?
Hugh: Stacks of books, at least 100. Talking to Lady Soames, to Sir Edward Ford, who was the king’s personal secretary—he’s now dead. I spoke to Patrick Kinna who was Churchill’s shorthand writer and talked to a woman who was one of the secretaries working for Churchill.
HN: In the film, he just throws out the line in conversation, “Never in history have so many owed so much to so few,” then tells his assistant to write it down. Did that really happen that way?
Hugh: Yes, it did. I didn’t want to make things up. Thomas Hardy said fact is far more astonishing than fiction, and he was right.
HN: How would you sum up Winston Churchill, as you see him?
Hugh: It sounds sentimental, but I think he was the essence of humanity. He was what we all are and what we can all be at times.