Larger than life

The ‘‘imagined’’ family gathering of the Churchills is portrayed in Winston’s Birthday, featuring Geoffrey Heath as Sir Winston Churchill and Yvonne Martin as Lady Clementine Churchill. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The ‘‘imagined’’ family gathering of the Churchills is portrayed in Winston’s Birthday, featuring Geoffrey Heath as Sir Winston Churchill and Yvonne Martin as Lady Clementine Churchill. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Former rector of Waitaki Boys' High School Dr Paul Baker has turned his hand to writing plays. Rebecca Fox discovers why he cannot let his creation, Winston's Birthday, go.

It was a bout of flu that led Paul Baker to write a play about Winston Churchill and his family. 

• Challenges of co-production

While recovering, he read a biography about Winston's wife, Clementine, and inspiration struck.

‘‘It gave me an insight into the domestic life of the Churchills, how tumultuous and unhappy they were.

‘‘I was pretty confident nobody else had dramatised that part of Churchill and his family life.''

Dr Baker, who has Parkinson's, chose to write about the Churchill family gathering for a fictional luncheon to celebrate Winston's 88th birthday in 1962, loosely based on a family cruise on which Winston and son Randolph had a ‘‘huge blow-up''.

However, from that point on, the play took on a life of its own as the characters took over writing the play, he said.

‘‘It can be hugely frustrating as they can take it in a direction you hadn't anticipated. They dug a couple of holes I had to find my way out of.''

As the writer, you came to know the characters and how they would react, but you often felt a sense of amazement when you came to the end of a scene, he said.

‘‘Probably a playwright who takes a more mechanical approach would be aghast, but it's much more exciting and I think the end result is better.''

But he does admit there has not really been an end result, as he continued to tinker with it.

It had been read or rehearsed in four New Zealand professional theatres in the past five years since its only production at Wellington's Circa Theatre under the title of Meet the Churchills, a title described as ‘‘naff'' when he was in England, so he changed it.

As a co-production with the Court Theatre, this latest production, which had its Christchurch season in February, features Geoffrey Heath as Sir Winston Churchill, Yvonne Martin as Lady Clementine Churchill, Jonathan Martin as Dr Stephen Jenkins (a fictional character), Hilary Halba as Sarah Churchill (Lady Audley) and Roy Snow as Randolph Churchill.

‘‘In each of those there has been a process of redrafting and refining the script. Even now, I'm working on small things.''

Dr Baker could ‘‘carry on forever'' tinkering with the play.

‘‘They are endearing in their own horrible way. They are larger than life.''

Churchill was one of those extraordinary people who had a phenomenal range of skills.

‘‘About two-thirds of the decisions he made were wrong, maybe three-quarters, but the ones he got right were the ones that saved a nation in 1940.''

With no shortage of books written on Churchill and his family - he had five children but only two feature in the play - it was not hard to get a picture of the family.

He was an extremely self-centred and inconsiderate man, although a loving father and husband.

‘‘Winston was the sun and they all revolved around him and, if they got too close, they got very, very burnt.''

By 1962 when the play was set, Churchill, was old, very tired and quite depressed, a ‘‘flicker'' of his old self, while his wife Clementine was highly strung and their marriage was loving but littered with huge rows.

His daughter Sarah, who had a similar temperament, was a washed-up actress with several drunk and disorderly convictions and an alcohol problem, as did her brother Randolph who, while brighter and more skilled, lived in his father's shadow and failed to live up to expectations.

‘‘It [alcoholism] seemed to run in the family.''

In the play, while unhappy, the family were ‘‘unhappy in the most entertaining way'', he said.

‘‘It's not all doom and gloom.''

It is also not a history lesson.

‘‘Emphatically not. I've worked hard for it not to be.

‘‘It is essentially a play about a family struggling to connect; it could be any family.''

But it does show the flip side of a very public and famous family, a man considered to be the greatest in British culture.

‘‘It illustrates the price family members pay for somebody's greatness.''

Now living in Auckland, close to family and friends, Dr Baker planned to see the play in Dunedin but he no longer did opening nights.

‘‘It's a funny feeling. You are never entirely satisfied. Opening nights are almost never the best performance so I don't go anymore. It's too much of an ordeal.''

The Dunedin season would be interesting, given the actors had already played a season in Christchurch.

‘‘Having six weeks is very unusual in New Zealand, so it'll be interesting to see how the actors have developed in the roles.''

It would be the last play he wrote as the Parkinson's had developed to the point where he struggled to read or write.

‘‘My health is not good. I live a very slow life.''

• To see: Wintson’s Birthday, Fortune Theatre, March 12 to April 2.

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