Churchill's People

Part 4
BBC1, 20.1.75

Adapted for television by Keith Dewhurst
Directed by Herbert Wise

King Alfred
Queen Aelswith
Viking Chief

Alan Howard
Anna Massey
Brian Blessed

Last night,in this continuing saga of our island race, we saw how King Alfred, having been beaten by the Danish invaders, sought refuge in an extremely small television studio. It was there, among the cardboard rocks and rubber grass of his beloved Shepherds Bush, that Alfred came face to face for the first time with the common people of Wessex.

A terse, retarded folk, they eked out a poor living as character actors, pursuing their primitive belief that by slapping a bit of greasepaint on their cheeks and matting their wigs, they could pass for west Saxons of the ninth century, and that by speaking in the accents of Hardy's peasants and rolling their eyes, could bring authenticity to a script in which Danes screamed "I'll smash yer face in!" at one another, and English soldiers asked prisoners what their bleeding names were.

Alfred, on the other hand, anticipating the Oxford degree course in which he was later to play such a significant part, had clearly mugged up his set texts. At the moment of stress, he would mutter about men falling sticky with blood in the shield-wall, echoing the Anglo-Saxon voice with the sort of fidelity with which Charlton Heston handled Aramaic a thousand years earlier.

Alan Howard and Anna Massey

Alan Howard as Alfred and Anna Massey as Queen Aelswith.

It was an earthy period. We saw how honestly the great king explained his constipation to his subjects, and we saw him in bed with his wife, discussing life much in the manner of the 7,000 other couples who have discussed it without any clothes on on television during the past six months.

We saw him burn the cakes, and recognise the symbolism of the accident with a penetration that passed, sadly, over the head of the lady to whom they belonged, but which you and I, fortunately, did not miss, being bright enough to twig when something was being drummed into us again and again.

We saw him emerge from his wilderness, win back Wessex, and grow old, all in less time than it took him to philosophize upon his rotten cooking; and when the moment came for him to gum on a white beard and go deaf, we were treated to a delightful sub-Beckett exchange between him and his decayed consort that reached a peak of inexplicable comedy one would never have expected from the man who, among all his myriad talents, was also, on the evidence of last night's dire doings, the father of schools broadcasting.

Alan Coren

The Times, 21.1.75

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