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STAR TURNS: The man who captured Winston Churchill

Portrait of Robert Hardy as Winston Churchill - Credit: Sygma via Getty Images

Boris Johnson’s spinmeisters have been going on a lot just lately about how “Churchillian” his rhetoric has been. Ian Blackford, the SNP politician, was probably closer to the mark when he characterised what Johnson had been saying – and his delivery – as “yapping, bumbling, mumbling”. I’ve no doubt, too, that if Robert Hardy were alive today he’d have had something to say about the sheer presumptuousness of employing such an adjective.

The much-loved actor of course played the great wartime leader on innumerable occasions – most notably in the celebrated television series Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years – but he always approached the part with a deference and humility that Johnson would never comprehend. “The thing about Churchill is that people always sensed his greatness,” Hardy told me when I met him. “That makes it enormously difficult to do him justice because an actor can never fake that. It has to come from within.”

The year was 1988, and, as improbable as it may seem, Hardy was preparing to play Churchill in a musical called Winnie. While the project was inherently frivolous, he was, as ever, determined to retain his character’s dignity, come what may. “I’ve played him so many times I feel protective of him. I mean I could have sat this one out, but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable letting anyone else play him. I wanted to make sure it was done properly.”

Hardy professed to be no more than “a middle-of-the road actor, lucky to be working,” but he was a lot more than that. There were few, if any, parts he played in which he wasn’t memorable, and that is always what makes an actor special. It wasn’t just Churchill he made his own, but also Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter films. I’ve fond memories of him, too, as the Tory grandee Willie Whitelaw in the television film Margaret about the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. I made a conscious decision not to watch the new series of All Creatures Great and Small because Hardy was for me Siegfried Farnon, the irascible, impossible but also intensely human vet loosely based on the books’ author James Herriot.

Hardy’s performances were almost always big, flamboyant and just this side of being hammy. He was especially good at communicating raw fury. In person, the actor was, however, a nervous, anxious man. He was also impeccably polite. He told me that he felt no role had ever come easily to him, and when he was playing a real-life character he first had to read just about every single word ever printed about him, which – in the case of Churchill – had made it an all-consuming passion.

Hardy talked a lot about his old friend Richard Burton, whom he met at Oxford University and revered. It may well have been this proximity to such an exceptional actor at an early age that gave him a life-long sense of his own fallibility. “I absolutely loved Rich and of course he made me want to be a better actor every time I saw him on stage, but he had these unique gifts that I could never hope to compete with,” he told me. “I loved him with all my heart and he was a wonderful friend to me, but I do think sometimes that if I hadn’t known him – hadn’t seen him on stage so many times and been so close to that magic – I’d probably have been a lot more contented with my lot as an actor.”

Hardy must have been hurt when Burton’s diaries were published a few years before his death and he saw how his hero had noted he’d lent him, when he was a struggling actor, a lot of money and resented that he’d never repaid it. Still, even Burton could see that Hardy had charm and that shone through in all of his performances.
Hardy was working until virtually the very end. At the age of 87, he courageously consented to play Churchill one last time in Peter Morgan’s play The Audience, which looked at the Queen’s relationships with her prime ministers over the years. Hardy suffered cracked ribs in a fall, and, after soldiering on for a whole week’s performances, eventually decided the pain was too much and “reluctantly” bowed out before the first night. He died four years later at Denville Hall, a home for retired actors.