The Life of Winston Churchill
In our enthusiasm for radio's "golden age", many long-time aficionados in the United States tend to forget that, in other countries throughout the world, original radio drama was just as vibrant, just as creative, and just as innovative. There is no better evidence of that than "Imperial Leader", an ambitious 52-episode Australian radio serial that depicts the life of Winston Spencer Churchill, then Prime Minister of the British Empire. Produced in late 1940 and first aired in January 1941, "Imperial Leader" would soon make its way into world-wide syndication, demonstrating once and for all that countries other than the United States could and did produce high quality audio entertainment that could be appreciated and enjoyed by a wide range of audiences.
To give you some background on "Imperial Leader", offered complete in this collection, Radio Archives has asked Ian Grieve, long-time collector and historian of Australian radio programming, to share some information and personal commentary on the series:
In January 1941, a short article appeared in the Australian "Listener In" magazine, letting readers know that a new radio serial would soon be heading their way. A thirty minute preview of the series had been recorded and previewed by radio journalists, one of whom commented, "This serial is an ambitious attempt to incorporate into a radio serial all the varied phases of the colorful life of Britain's man of the hour, Winston Spencer Churchill. The author has probably relied for his material on some of the more picturesque of the many biographies of Churchill and, if one may judge from the aforementioned 'preview', he has done the job well. Even within the inevitably narrow limits of this radio "trailer", the serial held the attention and gave such promise of exciting listening that I anticipate for it a big audience".
"Imperial Leader" traces the life of one of the most important men in world history at that time: Winston Churchill. Through the 52 episodes, we trace Churchill from his birth in 1874 to his election as Prime Minister of England. We eavesdrop as he makes his youthful decision to follow adventure and document his experiences mostly as a war correspondent. We find him chasing wars and skirmishes in Cuba, India, and the Sudan. As a correspondent in the Boer War, he becomes the most talked about man in the British Empire when he is captured by Botha and then later escapes from prison to make his way back to safety with the help of a group of sympathizers. After these exploits, his political career is practically guaranteed and we hear him making speeches of national pride and move with him as he goes from being a soldier to testing his feet in politics.
We listen as he moves through the political scene, holding many political and cabinet positions. We are there when he attains one of his life-long goals and becomes, like his father before him, Chancellor of the Exchequer. After the outbreak of World War II, Churchill is appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and, following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain on 10 May 1940, he becomes Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. By the time "Imperial Leader" reaches its conclusion, we know exactly why the Empire stood behind this man in its greatest time of need, why this man was in exactly the right place and time when he was most needed, and what he went through to get there.
"Imperial Leader' is a very powerful serial and an enjoyable way to learn about the life of one of the most important men of the 20th century. It is also a rare opportunity to experience a full-length Australian radio production and learn that radio serials and series were produced in many countries other than the United States.
"Imperial Leader" was created by the little-known Melbourne based production company, Legionnaire Sound Productions. Legionnaire was around only a short time - about 1937 thru 1942, when the company was absorbed into Broadcast Exchange Agencies (BEA) - but, in its short life, it produced some important and successful serials - programs such as "Beau Geste" starring Melbourne's most popular actor at the time, Arundel Nixon, who then played T. E. Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia - in "Broken Idol". Legionnaire also had a huge national impact with serials such as "Dr Danton", described as 'adventures in the occult' and produced by Hal Percy, who also played the leading role. Percy also produced "The Enemy Within", a wartime serial about fifth column activities, featuring leading actors Richard Davies, Douglas Kelly, Catherine Duncan and Walter Pym, which had important sales overseas. This was followed by "Imperial Leader" in 1941. Some 18 serials have been documented as produced in Legionnaire's short time of existence.
The Cast Hal Percy (Percy Ewart Henry, born October 2nd, 1898) was involved with Legionnaire as an actor and producer. By the time of "Imperial Leader", Percy had already had an extensive career in theatre, travelling shows, managing radio stations, and running his own serial production company, Hal Percy Productions. Percy was probably better known to Australians from his 'Canteen Capers' segment in "Merry-Go-Round" on ABC radio nationally. He also had a column by the same name in the radio magazine, "ABC Weekly". Whilst most reference books credit Hal Percy as the producer of "Imperial Leader", the popular "Listener In" magazine, which reported radio entertainment news, particularly in the state of Victoria where "Imperial Leader" was recorded, noted that the producer of the series was John Hickling. The confusion stems from the way the term 'producer' was commonly used to denote the head of the production company as well as the director and actual producer of individual series.
John Hickling, an important producer in Melbourne, is documented as the producer in some 70 serials and as an actor in about twenty more. His specific script writing credits are undocumented, but in 1942, when he set up his own production company, it was publicized that he wrote many of the scripts for his shows and wrote them at great speed. Contemporary radio actors commented at the time that he made many shows and made them very fast, recording as many as 20 or more episodes on a good day. Most of these recordings were "flown" - meaning that there was no prior rehearsal and the initial performance went straight to the recording.
The script writer for "Imperial Leader" is John Ormiston Reid. Prior to writing the series, Reid was little-known; most of his most famous credits such as that for "Melba Story" would come much later. Altogether he is currently credited with writing about 25 serials and acting in 12 others.
The young Winston Churchill is played by John Ewart, who would later go on to become one of Australia's finest radio actors, as well as to pursue a career in television, theatre and movies. Ewart is currently credited with over 26 series and serials and almost 100 radio plays.
The lead actor in this serial, playing Winston Churchill, is Douglas Kelly. In roles known outside Australia, Kelly played Inspector West in the various series of that character and also played Dick Barton in the series of the same name. In all, he is documented as acting in over 100 series and serials and over 200 plays.
Churchill's father, Lord Randolph Churchill, is played by Norman Shepherd, who is credited with roles in 16 series and serials and at least 14 plays. Churchill's mother, Jennie Jerome, is played by experienced radio and theatre actor and writer Catherine Duncan. Established by the late 1930's as Melbourne's leading radio actress, Duncan was successfully able to combine the skills of acting and writing with verve, wit, and lively intelligence.
In the later episodes many statesmen and soldiers, living and dead, will be introduced, among them Lord Salisbury (Walter Pym), Lloyd George (Dougals Reid), Mr. Asquith (Howard Smith), the Kaiser (Robert Burnard), Mr. Baldwin (Austen Milroy), and Lord Beaverbrook (Mayne Lynton). Alfred Bristowe doubles the parts of Earl Grey and Mr. Chamberlain and Norman Shepherd, in addition to playing Lord Randolph Churchill, also doubles as Kitchener and Mussolini.
Promotion and Reviews
"Imperial Leader" was first broadcast on Melbourne radio Station 3UZ 7:00 PM Monday January 13th 1941; in Sydney, it commenced in February 1941 on 2UE, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:15 PM.
The "Radio Pictorial" magazine issue of March 1941 reported "The Legionnaire production, "Imperial Leader," is a glowing example of the production of an Australian company. Certainly the life of this man provides the script writer with a wealth of outstanding material, but this alone is not enough. A topline cast which includes such well known players as Douglas Kelly, Catherine Duncan, Walter Pym and Mayne Linton, gives us a show worth remembering." Also in the same issue, it was reported that the current series of "Frank and Archie" would be interrupted in order to bring to listeners "The First Great Churchill", a serial depicting "the ancestor of the man whom today the whole world looks to for deliverance from the menace of the dictators". (Produced in Melbourne, "The First Great Churchill" had first been broadcast the previous year. A third serial - "Churchill's Men", produced by John Hickling and based on the lives of the leaders of the British Empire - would commence on station 3AW in July of 1941.)
(References: "The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923 - 1960" by Richard Lane)
A Note on the Source Recordings
The master recordings used in the creation of this collection are original blank labels test pressings, made as the series was being prepared for syndication throughout the world.