It seemed appropriate on this VE Day weekend to review something which linked to the period in question. A short play about Churchill entitled The Turning Point appeared to be an ideal choice especially as I intended to use it as a curtain raiser to the film Darkest Hour which was on TV later the same evening*. The play turned out to be a little gem with some excellent writing and acting and kept within a tight format which meant it did not outstay its welcome.
Michael Dobbs is a writer fascinated by politics in general (he wrote the original House of Cards) and by Churchill in particular. His four novel series about the great man gives a comprehensive overview of his career whereas The Turning Point focuses on one specific encounter on October 1st 1938. Chamberlain had just the day before returned from Munich declaring “peace in our time”. Churchill out in the political wilderness and facing crippling debts is discovered trying to keep his infamous ‘black dog’ at bay by building a wall. A young man arrives from the BBC to talk to Churchill about a programme he hopes to make. He soon reveals himself to be Guy Burgess, later to be unmasked as a notorious spy. The two debate the current situation with each egging the other on and forming a grudging respect for the intellect of the other. The play goes on to suggest that it is Burgess’s goading that prompts Churchill to take up the cudgels and re-enter politics as a force to be reckoned with. Similarly, it suggests that Churchill kick starts Burgess’s career at the Foreign Office which allows him to get hold of the secrets with which he can betray his country. It is, indeed, a turning point for both men and for the country they belong to. Before much longer one will be held up as the hero of the nation and the other will be reviled and despised.
The dialogue carries the play along at a tremendous rate fuelled by the very good performances of Matthew Marsh as Churchill and Benedict Cumberbatch as Burgess. While Marsh’s resemblance to Churchill is mostly superficial, he more than successfully captures the voice and gravelly tones which are so familiar. Cumberbatch has much the easier time of it, as who can recall how Burgess sounds or even what he looks like? In truth he looks and sounds exactly like Benedict Cumberbatch but that’s no bad thing really as he is always worth watching and listening to. He highlights Burgess’s idealism and gives some indication of why he did what he did – and by all accounts was doing it even as this particular meeting took place.
Performed and recorded in 2009 as part of an initiative from Sky Arts called Theatre Live! it is, perhaps, a shame that not more of the plays from this strand survive online. This particular play was, as far as I could discover, never performed on stage. However, it has all the feel of a theatrical production and there are even a couple of fluffed lines to prove it. Experienced theatre director Fiona Laird creates an intimate drama which examines a key moment in the pair’s personal history which also had great repercussions for the nation as a whole.
*If you missed Darkest Hour with a terrific central performance by Gary Oldman, this is now on the BBC iPlayer for the next 29 days.
Production photos by Robert Day
The Turning Point is available on Vimeo. Click here
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