Monday, June 9, 2014

The First Churchills (1969)

The love story and political careers of Sarah Jennings and John Churchill, the first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, are the subject of the 1969 series The First Churchills. Starring Susan Hampshire and John Neville, the drama was the first program ever on Masterpiece Theater. While the production suffers from a shoestring budget, the acting, dialog, and historical authenticity, especially of the costumes, are all first rate. For any student of English history, especially of the Stuart dynasty, the program is a must-see. It should be understood by all Jacobites that the story is told from the point of view of John and Sarah, which is a distinctly Whiggish and Protestant point of view. Nevertheless, James II is treated by the script with dignity and compassion, as is his Catholic Queen Mary of Modena.

In fact, while the saga obviously revolves around the Churchills and the Duke is treated as a sort of demi-god, it has a balanced approach towards all the Stuart monarchs whom John and Sarah served. Their follies and foibles are laid bare, as well as the nobility of manner and grandeur of spirit which the Stuarts as a family were known to manifest most charmingly when the occasion demanded. Charles II, in spite of his notorious private life, was probably the best politician of the entire dynasty. Everyone forgets that his grandfather was the great Henri IV of France. As for James II, he exhibited the frustrating Stuart tendency to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. His pain when he discovers his daughters have betrayed him is most touching, however. One cannot help suffer with Mary II, who must endure the unfaithfulness of the husband she adores as well as her childlessness, compounded by the guilt she feels over usurping her father's throne. Yet her treatment of her sister Anne is puzzling as well as maddening. As for William III, I have nothing nice to say about him, and the film portrays him accurately as a mean, cold, little man.

Anne Stuart, Princess of Denmark, and the fourth Queen Regnant of England, is in some ways the true heroine of the piece. It is her devotion to the headstrong Sarah, who has been her friend since childhood, which saves the Churchills throughout all the political turbulence. After John makes England victorious on the Continent, Queen Anne builds Blenheim palace for her friends. They in turn support her amid a great deal of public and private turmoil. Anne, while happily married to George of Denmark, loses seventeen children.  She endures the tragic deaths with faith and Christian fortitude, although in her grief she comes under the influence of the enemies of John and Sarah. When George dies, Sarah's outspoken ways finally alienate the Queen and the longstanding friendship is broken. Anne's death as the last of the Stuarts, bereft of family and her true friends, is one of the most truly heart-breaking scenes.

Because of the generosity of the Stuart monarchs, John and Sarah both rise from poverty and obscurity to the heights of power. However, they many times put the Protestant cause and Whig politics before loyalty to their benefactors. In this way they survived, their first loyalty being to each other. While one can say with admiration that while they could not be bought, they paved the way for the Hanoverian dynasty and the gradual dwindling of royal power in England. One can say they helped to overthrow the very cause they had long served. Share


May said...

I was just recently watching this series!

Dymphna said...

I loved that show. Susan Hampshire is one of my favorite actresses.