Five Days in London, May 1940

by Harry on April 30, 2007

Its difficult for a republican to watch The Queen, and for several reasons. First, its not very good — Helen Mirren is fine, of course, but none of the set pieces rings true, Cherie is overacted and implausible, anyone who has watched enough Rory Bremner could have written the Campbell/Blair dialogue, and, although the actor playing Blair captures his mannerisms, he does so too obviously (why didn’t they just cast Bremner, I wonder?). Second, just as at the time 10 years ago, one’s loyalties are torn. Of course, in some sense one wants the monarchy abolished. But, while one finds the Queen utterly despicable in most respects, her reaction to the collective insanity of a large part of her nation does her credit. The indecent and frankly lunatic mourning of millions for someone they didn’t know and who was, basically, a manipulative wastrel, bemused at the time. My feeling was something like: “Well, if this is what sinks the monarchy, what’s the point? Let’s just keep the sods”. Finally, and crucially, you just cannot suspend your knowledge that, in the end, the Queen wins, with Blair’s help. There’s just no dramatic tension for anyone over the age of 18 who is not senile.

Which brings me to the question which started bugging me about half way through the film: why isn’t there a film of Five Days in London, May 1940 (UK)? Author John Lukacs tells the story of the first 5 days of Churchill’s premiership, the period during which the war was not won, but, more importantly, was not lost. The focus is on the struggle between Churchill on the one hand, and the defeatists Chamberlain and Halifax (Halifax having, apparently, been the King’s preference for Chamberain’s successor), with Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, having joined the War Cabinet when Labour became part of the coalition government, starting out as observers but then getting drawn in to the battle. You see Attlee starting to realise that he had play the self-abnegating role as Churchill’s ballast that he maintained throughout the war. (A possibly apocryphal moment, which the ungossipy Lukacs does not treat us to, has Attlee pointing out to Greenwood that if Churchill loses to the Tory grandees civilisation in Europe will be gone, Greenwood retorting that if so, “it won’t be our fault” and Attlee responding “I don’t want to go down in history as someone whose fault it wasn’t when civilisation was destroyed”). Lukacs takes the struggle a day at a time, interweaving the high-level political struggle with documentary accounts of the mood of the country. The characters are larger than life; there is no collective insanity; and the stakes are high. Best of all, when you’re reading it, you keep forgetting what the outcome is going to be. It’s a thriller — perfect material for a movie, and a much better one than The Queen.

I hope it’s not a spoiler to reveal that Churchill’s faction won, and civilisation was saved to live another day. What a relief!