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The First Churchills
The First Churchills
Actors: Susan Hampshire, John Neville, John Standing, Robert Robinson, Margaret Tyzack
Genres: Drama, Television
NR     2004     8hr 53min

Based on Sir Winston Churchill?s biography of his ancestors, the first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, this classic BBC miniseries is a tender love story played out amid the intrigues of the 17th-century English court. At...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Susan Hampshire, John Neville, John Standing, Robert Robinson, Margaret Tyzack
Genres: Drama, Television
Sub-Genres: Drama, Drama, Miniseries
Studio: Acorn Media
Format: DVD - Color,Full Screen - Miniseries
DVD Release Date: 09/21/2004
Original Release Date: 01/10/1971
Theatrical Release Date: 01/10/1971
Release Year: 2004
Run Time: 8hr 53min
Screens: Color,Full Screen
Number of Discs: 4
SwapaDVD Credits: 4
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 13
Edition: Box set
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English
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Movie Reviews

Historical drama at its very best.
Paul Magnussen | Campbell, CA USA | 11/05/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Anyone seeking to widen their acquaintance with either history or historical drama need look no further than this wonderful BBC set from 1969.

Based on Winston Churchill's Marlborough: His Life and Times, this production is virtually faultless in scripting, acting, direction, costumes and just about everything else. All the settings are completely believable (putting French television's Les rois maudits into unfavourable contrast); even the battle scenes are convincingly done, although the cast is not huge.

But dominating everything is the magnificent performance of Susan Hampshire as Sarah Churchill, which justly won her an Emmy; right now I can't think of a more commanding performance in any medium, even Paul Scofield's Thomas More. Neither are any of the supporting cast less than first rate -- I must make particular mention of Margaret Tyzack's lonely and rather pathetic Queen Anne, John Standing's lovely sympathetic Sidney Godolphin, and a host of delightfully repulsive political back-stabbers and other minor characters.

I do not have Churchill's huge Marlborough opus to hand, but I do have The History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and in nearly nine hours the only historical error I noticed was a brief glimpse of a lute with machine-heads.

If you loved Elizabeth R and I, Claudius, then this saga of the most brilliant soldier of his day, sandbagged by dim-witted monarchs and spiteful politicians, will not fail to fascinate you too."
Fascinating Historical Drama
Donegal Dan | Southwest United States | 12/03/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This 12-episode series of the life and turbulent times of John Churchill and wife Sarah in the revolving-door House of Stuart England is beautifully done and totally engrossing. Churchill, the brilliant general and ancestor of the equally brilliant Sir Winston,is played by John Neville in an admirable performance and his fiery wife, Sarah, by Susan Hampshire in a bravura one.However, all the acting is of the highest order and the political and royal figures of the time are fleshed out admirably. The story, of course, needs no embellishment to be fascinating, what with the constant intrigues and political skulduggery that went on in 17th century England. This is a wonderful, painless way to add to your education about that era and the men and women who were the movers and shakers in the court and on the battlefield, and the central figures of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough constitute one of the great historical love matches. Highly recommended."
More Than Historical Drama
L. M. Petriccione | Brooklyn, NY, USA | 01/31/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I find it curious that this twelve-part miniseries, classified as historical drama and remembered for its commencement of PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, had its premiere long before social history formed the thrust of so much historical research. On the one hand, it seems that the creators of this series have given us a magnificent retrospective of Charles II's era: all the pageantry, artistry, politics, religious fervor; petty alliances,lifelong allegiances,blessed triumphs, ill-fated outcomes. On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore what may be this drama's most outstanding offering -- thanks to a truly memorable cast: its universal human appeal. Each episode is its own rich survey of humanity. Enter the future Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, ever loyal and loveable (John Neville and Susan Hampshire), and the ever vital role they played in the court of Charles II and each of his "Stuart" successors. A second noteworthy feature is this drama's psychological implications. Take, for example, the maiden Sarah's progressive assertiveness at such a young age; her apparent ambivalence towards her mother; her steadfast refusal to marry for reasons other than love or be "kept" by men in high places. Consider Churchill's own refusal to marry merely for the sake of bettering his social position; his singular, almost godlike, willingness to serve strictly on his honor when false patronage among courtiers was quite the fashion. Imagine, from the vantage point of 17th century "nobility," the notion of constancy in love equalling that of desire and seeming to override the importance of it: hence, John's (almost too) oft repeated words to Sarah: "My dearest soul." Take a Princess-turned-Queen: Anne; her overwhelming (to the point of childlike) attachment to her maid-of-honor, Sarah. Childlike that is, until we realize that the veritable Queen Anne was utterly friendless (certainly in the absence of Ms.Churchill), and, in a manner of speaking, quite childless. Ought we to mention here sister Mary's manner of disfavoring Anne, upon the former's ascendence to the throne? If so, then Anne likely found in Sarah the sister she had not. Last but not least, ponder the nature of Sarah's solemn dependency on Anne's need for her ready counsel and confidence into advanced middle age -- an unreasonable expectation by most standards. Plausibly enough, the writers seem to have adopted the stance that this marriage of female intellects need not have served to fill any void within Sarah's or Anne's one true "marriage" that endured, that is respectively, the union with John Churchill or George of Denmark. That being the case, who can explain the way in which Anne's private regard for Sarah suddenly "soured," after thirty years of heartfelt confidences? Ms. Hampshire has a theory as to why this rift occurred, and if we add to her theory the fact that Anne had long been a tormented soul (but for the support of her very loving husband,George, and her hitherto abiding friendship with Sarah), we may well conclude that there was a method to Anne's madness. Ah, but no matter the method, we view such madness as an unpardonable offense. Despite the overwhelming injustices Anne has been made to endure, the viewer naturally feels more sympathy for Sarah, who for thirty years has been an unfaltering pillar of strength,deference and fortitude, all at Anne's behest. To say that the manner in which Ms. Hampshire (as actress) depicts Sarah's witness of the queen's final rejection is heartrending, is perhaps to say too little. Watch this powerful drama, fraught with countless captivating moments, and see for yourself. The interview on DVD with Susan Hampshire is an engrossing one, offering fascinating historical exposition, the Emmy-winning actress's praiseworthy views on acting technique, and recollections of what it was like to be on the set. Although Ms. Hampshire informs us that she was not the actress originally slated for the role of Sarah Churchill (Duchess of Marlborough), it is difficult to conceive of any other actress succeeding so well in that role."
Jay Dickson | Portland, OR | 04/01/2007
(3 out of 5 stars)

"This miniseries, detailing the rise of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and the end of the House of Stuart, was the maiden broadcast of "Masterpiece Theatre"in the United States, and was to set a pattern for many great series to follow. As such series as "The Pallisers" and "I, Claudius" would do after it, the series is anchored by its title characters but really finds its greatest interest in those who surround them: here, a series of Stuart Kings, from Charles II to James II to William III and Mary II to Anne, with the accession of George of Hanover ending the story. The budget isn't quite what viewers of later series would come to expect, and so crowd scenes are hard to manage: thus the battles of Blenheim and Oudenarde and Malplaquet, and the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion, are done pretty much on the cheap. Much more money was lavished on the costumes and perukes, which are quite in abundance, and get more and more spectacular: William III is dwarfed by his enormous periwig, and Mary II looks like a ship in full sail with her collection of giant lace mantillas and silk bustles.

The miniseries doesn't come with many extras, but there is an interesting interview with Sarah Hampshire who famously plays Sarah Churchill: in the interview, Hampshire reveals she did not get along very well with John Neville (who plays her husband), and that he and many of the other actors in the show did not take the miniseries very seriously. She did get the best revenge of living well by winning an Emmy for the role, as well as the last word here, though unfortunately this is not one of her better parts (she is simply too likable to be a fearsome termagant). Because this was based on Winston Churchill's memoirs of his ancestors, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough are pretty much whitewashed: in this version, neither ever ask for any money, but just keep getting showered with guineas and gifts by Anne Stuart. The Duke's waverings of loyalty are never shown to be self-serving, but always rather to teach the monarch in power a good lesson, and they never amount to much danger for the kings or queens anyway, though the bad ones always take it for ill. Thus the screenplay is forced to remake Mary II, the "faultless queen," into something of a wicked witch, which is not very historically accurate but great fun for Lisa Daniely, who plays her with real zest. The best performers (and the ones who make this really worth seeing) are John Westbrook and Sheila Gish, who make something very complex and moving out of James II and his queen Mary of Modena, and above all the great Margaret Tyzack as the tortured and much wronged Queen Anne. There's a terrific scene fairly early in the series when the well-meaning Anne tries to comfort her distressed pregnant stepmother that is marvelously accomplished by Tyzack and Gish, and this and a few other choice scenes hit just the right note of intrigue and ambiguity for which the screenwriters seem to aim. But others lose focus, and simply parade names and events... and perukes, lots and lots of perukes."