The First Churchills

1969 | United Kingdom

Based on Sir Winston Churchill's biography of his distinguished ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, this period piece, written and produced by former BBC Head of Serials, Donald Wilson, was a lavish costume drama full of political intrigue, manipulating women and sexual promiscuity. 

The period in question was the 17th century, during the Restoration (the return of the monarch, Charles ll, to Britain and his throne), a time renowned for its lack of moral virtue and licentiousness. John Churchill's sister was the mistress of the king's brother (the future James ll), and Churchill himself became the lover of Charles' most influential mistress, Lady Castlemaine. So it's not surprising that by the end of the first episode Churchill has bedded Princess Anne's 16-year old lady-in-waiting, Sarah Jennings (he was 26-years old). But Sarah is no fair maiden and for one so young is already a vain, superior and argumentative soul with her own agenda. 

The couple are soon married and when he goes off on a successful military campaign she stays at home touting his victories. When he returns he is rewarded by Anne, now Queen of England, with a Dukedom, an estate at Woodstock and £100,000 of public money to build a palace there (Blenheim Palace). 

The First Churchills
A scene from The First Churchills

But when Marlborough's position in London is undermined by a costly battle (in terms of human life) at Malplaquet, the Queen and Sarah fall out over politics and she is soon replaced as the monarch's favourite by Abigail Hill, one of Sarah's poorer relations and a spy at court for Churchill's enemies. Eventually Marlborough is dismissed from all his offices and forced to live abroad. 

The series ends with the enthronement of George l, who reinstates the pair and invites them to live the rest of their days in England. John Neville was superb in the role of John Churchill and Susan Hampshire, already a household name after her starring role in The Forsyte Saga (also by Donald Wilson), portrayed Sarah as a woman with a fiery temper who was as domineering as she was politically brilliant. 

The series was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and in the USA it has the distinction of being the first presentation in a series entitled Masterpiece Theatre, which showcased the best of British drama including Upstairs, Downstairs - I, Claudius and Elizabeth R. In fact the Americans were so impressed that they awarded Ms Hampshire her second (but not last) Emmy Award for Best Actress.

Published on December 11th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.

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