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Churchill Nostalgia Takes A Hold In The U.K.

Feb 24, 2018
Originally published on February 28, 2018 7:38 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Winston Churchill is enjoying a revival these days. In the past year, three movies and at least one television series has focused on his wartime leadership, including "Darkest Hour," which is up for six Oscars. In these uncertain political times, some Britons are nostalgic for Churchill's authority and vision. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: An afternoon showing has just let out for "Darkest Hour," which features Churchill at his best - tough, decisive, and standing up to the Nazis - leaving some moviegoers wistful when they think about the current British and American leadership.

CHRISTOPHER GRAVES: They're children compared to what Churchill was. I mean, they have no idea how to run the country - no idea at all.

JAMIE KELLY: He was a smarter man. He had brains in comparison to what we've got in America, I would say.

JOHNATHAN TINC: Do we need a strong leader at this time? Yeah, we need somebody to put up to, you know, Putin in the East and, indeed, North Korea as well. He's someone who's forceful but equally not over-the-top.

LANGFITT: That was Christopher Graves, director of a hotel company, Jamie Kelly, recently a student, and Jonathan Tinc, an operations manager.

About an hour by train from London sits the Churchill Archives at the University of Cambridge...

(SOUNDBITE OF SLIDING SHELVES SQUEAKING)

LANGFITT: ...Where archivist Allen Packwood cranks open the sliding shelves, pulls out a box filled with old paper.

ALLEN PACKWOOD: Here you have the first draft of that speech about fighting on the beaches.

LANGFITT: In 1940, when Churchill used oratory to inspire Britain to take on Hitler.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

WINSTON CHURCHILL: We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.

LANGFITT: Today, we live in anxious times. President Donald Trump's America First agenda threatens old alliances, while prime minister Theresa May struggles to lead the UK out of the European Union, the country's biggest challenge in decades - which Packwood, the archivist, says makes Churchill a natural draw.

PACKWOOD: You know we are living in a time of great uncertainty on the international stage. And I think in such moments, people look for strong leaders, and they look back to the last big international crisis, the Second World War.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

LANGFITT: Every day, hundreds of tourists descend into Churchill's underground war rooms here in central London, where he directed the fight against Hitler.

JENNIFER LEATHERBY: So this is the map room.

LANGFITT: Jennifer Leatherby, a tour guide, shows me a wall-sized map where Churchill plotted the war at sea.

LEATHERBY: If you look at this map here, you'll see that there's absolutely thousands of pinholes. And each pinhole represents a whole convoy of ships.

LANGFITT: Leatherby says the war rooms and Churchill are very popular with foreigners, especially Americans.

LEATHERBY: He's kind of, you know, that sort of stand-up British man of empire that's of days past that I think is just interesting to people, really.

LANGFITT: Of course, not everyone's a fan. Churchill was an imperialist who made all kinds of mistakes during his career and was blamed for the loss of tens of thousands of lives in the disastrous attack on Gallipoli in World War I. Robert Harris is a historical novelist who's written books about the Second World War.

ROBERT HARRIS: The focus on Churchill, which we get at the moment, the obsession with Churchill, the constant stream of movies about Churchill, I think, is both entertaining but also does us a disservice.

LANGFITT: Because today's global landscape is far more ambiguous than the one Churchill faced.

HARRIS: And maybe one of the reasons those films are so popular is because it's so easy to see that Churchill was right to stand up against Hitler. And it becomes almost like a cartoon battle without any of the gray complexities that we get in the modern world.

LANGFITT: As America and Britain pull back from the post-war order they helped create, some look to a time when the world was more clear-cut for reassurance. Frank Langfitt, NPR News London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.