Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years

Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years is an eight-part 1981 drama serial based on Winston Churchill's years in enforced exile from political position during the 1920s and 1930s. It was made by Southern Television on a budget of £3¼ million and originally broadcast on ITV on Sunday nights at 10 pm.[1] It was written and directed by Ferdinand Fairfax, with historian Martin Gilbert as co-writer. Churchill was played by Robert Hardy, who earned a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor and went on to play him in several other productions.

Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years
Picture of Robert Hardy as Winston Churchill from DVD cover
DVD cover art
Written byFerdinand Fairfax, William Humble
Directed byFerdinand Fairfax
StarringRobert Hardy
Siân Phillips
Nigel Havers
Tim Pigott-Smith
Eric Porter
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
No. of series1
No. of episodes8
Executive producerMark Shivas
ProducerRichard Broke
Production companySouthern Television
Original networkITV
Original release6 September (1981-09-06) –
25 October 1981 (1981-10-25)

Plot summaryEdit

The series focuses on the decade from 1929 to 1939 during which Winston Churchill was out of power and out of favour. During that time he attempted to make his colleagues and countrymen aware of Nazi Germany's threat to Britain. He comes up against much resistance from fellow politicians Stanley Baldwin, Samuel Hoare and the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain. He faces problems not only in politics but at home as well.


Episode Title Original air date
1"Down and Out"6 September 1981 (1981-09-06)
Churchill resigns as Chancellor of the Exchequer after the Conservative Party under the leadership of Stanley Baldwin loses the 1929 election. He travels to the United States in an attempt to make some money. He meets with William Randolph Hearst and Bernard Baruch. He loses his earnings, however, in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Meanwhile, back at home, the Prime Minister and Baldwin plan to introduce democracy to India.
2"Politics Are Foul"13 September 1981 (1981-09-13)
Baldwin sends for Churchill asking for his support in giving India dominion status, something Churchill is against. Churchill attacks Ramsay MacDonald in parliament and resigns from the shadow cabinet. The division in the conservative party leads Baldwin to make a political deal with MacDonald. A general election is called for a national government and Churchill is not offered office. While in New York, he suffers an accident.
3"In High Places"20 September 1981 (1981-09-20)
While in Germany, Churchill hopes to meet with Hitler. Samuel Hoare and Lord Derby become the centers of intrigue regarding a report from the cotton industry related to the India question. A witness seeks out Churchill. Brendan Bracken and Churchill have a falling-out.
4"A Menace in The House"27 September 1981 (1981-09-27)
Armed with papers as evidence of Hoare's tampering with the cotton industry's report to parliament, the investigation begins and ends. Churchill is incensed with the result and suffers for it in the house. In France, Churchill is approached by Ralph Wigram.
5"The Flying Peril"4 October 1981 (1981-10-04)
Churchill warns of Germany's re-arming and their air superiority over Britain. The MacDonald government falls. Churchill is again denied a cabinet position when the conservatives return to power. He also must contend with troubles at home.
6"His Own Funeral"11 October 1981 (1981-10-11)
King George dies and trouble looms with the new king's relationship with a divorced woman. Churchill loses popularity due to his support. Hitler occupies the Rhineland and Baldwin's cabinet continues to dawdle in any war preparations.
7"The Long Tide of Surrender"18 October 1981 (1981-10-18)
Baldwin retires and Neville Chamberlain becomes Prime Minister. With Sir Horace Wilson as an aide, appeasement and reduction of defense spending is his policy. Chamberlain flies to Munich to meet with Hitler on Czechoslovakia.
8"What Price Churchill"25 October 1981 (1981-10-25)
Hitler invades Czechoslovakia and then Poland. Chamberlain initially refuses to believe it is war but finally relents under pressure. He offers Churchill a place in the government.



Writing for The New York Times, Walter Goodman noted Hardy "gives a remarkable impersonation of Churchill", but wrote "Unfortunately, the impersonation does not quite rise to full characterization; at moments the mannerisms bury the human being beneath them." He summarized: "... drama-heightening liberties are the indispensable grease to this kind of vehicle; eight hours of speeches about the national peril and the shortage of aircraft could prove wearing even to Churchill buffs. Events and personalities are strained and strained again through the historian, the dramatist, the director, the actors. If the result works as well as it does here, if it does not distort events out of recognizable shape, if it brings the dead to a semblance of life, that is an accomplishment."[2]

People magazine panned the series premiere as "an aimless and excruciatingly dull premiere of an eight-part miniseries... the production remains mired in a dramatic desert."[3]

However, in 2016 Mark Lawson was far more favourable in The Guardian, ranking Hardy's portrayal as the second most memorable television representation of Churchill, beaten only by Albert Finney in The Gathering Storm. Lawson wrote: "With an acting style that tends towards the large, loud and posh, Hardy was destined to be one of those actors who seems to have spent almost as much of his life being Churchill as the man himself did. Among Hardy's armful of portrayals, this TV drama musically explores the politician's unusual rhetorical range from whisper to shout."[4] An even more positive appraisal soon followed from Churchill biographer Andrew Roberts in The Spectator, who described Hardy's performance as "still the best depiction of Churchill on a screen." Hardy's intensive research into Churchill, Roberts concluded, "helped make the series the success it was, and set the standard for everything that followed." [5]


Hardy's performance as Churchill won a BAFTA nomination in 1982. Eric Porter as Neville Chamberlain also received praise. The series was nominated for a total of 8 BAFTA awards, namely:

  • Best Actor (Robert Hardy)
  • Best Costume Design (Evangeline Harrison)
  • Best Design (Roger Murray-Leach)
  • Best Drama Series (Richard Broke/Ferdinand Fairfax)
  • Best Film Cameraman (Norman G. Langley)
  • Best Film Editor (Lesley Walker)
  • Best Make Up (Christine Beveridge/Mary Hillman)
  • Best Original Television Music (Carl Davis)


Hardy also portrayed Churchill in The Sittaford Mystery, Bomber Harris and War and Remembrance. At the 50th anniversary celebrations of the end of World War II in 1995, he quoted a number of Churchill's wartime speeches in character.


  1. ^ 'Pick of the week's television', The Times (London, 4 Sept. 1981), xii.
  2. ^ Goodman, Walter (15 January 1983). "Churchill: The Wilderness Years". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  3. ^ "Churchill: The Wilderness Years". People. 17 January 1983. Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  4. ^ Lawson, Mark (26 February 2016). "Close but no cigar: TV's Winston Churchills – ranked". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
  5. ^ Roberts, Andrew (10 January 2018). "A tough act to follow: From Soviet propaganda and revisionist nonsense to Simon Ward and Gary Oldman: the best and worst Churchills on film and TV". The Spectator. London. Retrieved 6 March 2020.

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