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.