Blocked beginnings

By John Walton

In 2009, on the face of things, everything was going brilliantly. I had graduated from drama school two years earlier and landed a succession of acting parts, culminating in the Australasian tour of “Potted Potter” – the West-End Harry Potter spoof which boldly crashed through “all seven books in seventy minutes”. We had taken the show to Adelaide, Melbourne and Auckland. In my time off I had been to Ayer’s Rock, Sydney and even the Pacific Kingdom of Tonga. Despite all this, something in me was desperately frustrated. I was unhappy, constantly catching colds or the flu. I was deeply passionate about theatre, and fitting into other people’s productions just wasn’t what I wanted my life to be about. I wanted to be creating my own work.


There were two problems. Firstly, I was terrified. The idea of putting on my own show was overwhelmingly daunting. Where would I find the money? Who could I convince to programme my work? The task felt monumental. Besides, I was earning decent money as an actor – wasn’t that achievement enough? Secondly, I had no clue what I wanted to direct. There were plays I adored, but that didn’t seem reason enough to put them on stage. For the time-being, I was stuck.


It was on a break from Potted Potter that the breakthrough began. My dad was visiting, and we both wanted to explore the Cabinet War Rooms – the bunkers below Whitehall where Churchill orchestrated Britain’s military defense. Unknown to us, the same building also housed the Churchill Museum – a large, low-ceilinged room crammed with photos, posters, touchscreens, monitors and other high-tech audio-visual paraphernalia. After the relative serenity of waxwork dummies and 1940s maps, the sensory onslaught was mind-boggling, and both my dad and I wanted nothing more than to run away. We had each paid £17 entrance though, and dutifully, we decided to get our money’s worth.


There were, admittedly, some great items amongst the archival anarchy. The first to grab my attention was a Second World War photo of Churchill dressed in a pin-striped suit and top-hat, waving a ferocious looking Tommy Gun and chomping on an enormous cigar. He looked like a crazy Chicago mob-boss, and the British squaddie to the right of him looked decidedly uncomfortable. There was also fascinating material on Churchill’s constant ping-ponging between political victory, absolute defeat and maverick decision making.


Away from all of the glory (and disaster) of his political career was a small area dedicated to his childhood and early life. It was there that I stumbled across an astonishing photo of a pale, thin, fragile young man dressed in the splendor of a cavalry officer’s uniform. What relation I wondered was Churchill to this beautiful, if slightly uncomfortable young soldier? I checked. Incredibly, it was the man himself. Unrecognisable from the heavy, bald, demi-god of British history, here was a nervous twenty-one year old, yet to make his mark on the world. How could this seemingly Napolenoic-era hero be a man who would see the dropping of the atomic bomb? The contrast between everything that I knew of Churchill and this image was monumental. To the right was more intrigue – relics from his time spent in South Africa during the Boer War. This was a conflict I knew almost nothing about; but, because of a memorial plaque on my school stairways, it was a war for which I had long held a romantic fascination.


So there it was – two intrigues. A photo of a young man who bore absolutely no resemblance to the Churchill that everybody knew; and a century-old war thousands of miles from Blighty. Back on tour with Potted Potter I stumbled into a second hand book shop in Edinburgh. I would soon have found a story strong enough to overcome my director’s block.


The picture of Churchill that inspired the show.  (Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons).
The picture of Churchill that inspired the show. (Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons).


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