The First Churchills
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69 of 71 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2004
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.
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84 of 88 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2004
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.
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54 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2005
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.
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 31, 2007
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.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 2005
As Masterpiece Theater's launching series, "The First Churchills" was a landmark for TV viewers desiring intelligent, historically accurate stories. Masterpiece Theater continues as a feeding station for those starved viewers whose choices prior to this were among westerns and unpalatable sitcoms.

So much English history flies by in "The First Churchills" that the viewer may find it useful, as I did, to have background reference material that keeps the characters sorted out.

Winston Churchill reveals his ancestors with truth, tempermental warts and all. The duchess is quick tempered and self-serving even when it causes her husband difficulty with the queen. She defies his wishes as she did her parents' and she pays dearly.

Susan Hampshire won an Emmy for her role, yet I felt uncomfortable with her somewhat overly-strident performance. John Neville, as her husband, played a tough general loyal to kings and queens, and a pussycat at home tolerating her frequent table-pounding. As much as this series is considered a love story, there is not much chemistry between the two lovers. The scenes showing passionate reunions and reconciliations between the two seemed forced and embarassing. Yet that minor flaw may not be noticable to others. It could also be because I had just viewed "The Last KIng", based on the same era, which was a lively romp with decidedly passionate scenes strewn throughout. Regardless, "The First Churchills" is first-rate!
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2005
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.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 12, 2006
While watching the first scene of this mini series, I thought that everything that I'd read about The First Churchills was complete rubbish, and I felt inclined to stop watching it right then and there. But I didn't do so, and it wasn't long before my opinion of the series had changed completely--so much so that I watched all twelve episodes in just three days.

While the story centres on John Churchill, the 1st duke of Marlborough, one of the greatest military leaders in British history, and his politically astute wife, Sarah Jennings, The First Churchills is really a survey of British history from the end of the reign of Charles II to the arrival of George I.

There not much that is bad that can be said about the series. The set design is not exactly on par with what most of us expect these days, and the outdoor scenes are not all that convincing, but this is more than made up for by the superb acting of all the main characters, excellent costume design and lively dialogue.

Definitely worth watching.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2007
I have a feeling that this series creaked and clunked a bit even when it was first shown. The production values are on the cheap (most of the money seemingly went into wigs), and my experience with the marvelous original 'Forsyte Saga', which was filmed in black and white, bears out my hypothesis that 'cheap', shows itself worse in color than in b & w. In most cases the performances are excellent, especially Susan Hampshire who deservedly won an Emmy for this. John Neville is okay, the acting of James Villiers as Charles II is a bit over the top but keeps the interest going. Without Susan I think the series would have too dull. There is a feature on the DVD with a recent interview with Susan--she does not have fond memories of making this series, and though she tries to be discreet, she clearly had little respect or affection for her male co-star. Susan tells us that, like the Forsyte Saga, each episode was filmed as a play, with no cuts in the tape between scenes--when one character exits, the others carry on, or move to another set, or the camera simply shifts the focus, while the exited actor is backstage changing costumes, in order to return later. This is a period of English history that many people, especially in the USA, know little about, and I was glad to refresh my memory about how important the Catholic vs Protestant succession to the throne, was at that time. I can't give this a rave, but I am far from sorry to have seen it again after many many years. Brava Susan.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 13, 2008
I was only in high school when this series was first shown. It was on Masterpiece Theater with Alister Cooke on WPBS channel 13 in New York. I loved the costumes and really enjoyed the classical music of that time. Very well done. I have thought about it for years. I can not wait to buy the remainder of the series. I also plan to buy the DVD. Thank you very much Amazon.com for the series.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2008
Ambitious series about early generations of Churchills. Drama spans from the time of King Charles II reign thru King James (his brother), King William of Orange (King James' eldest daughter's husband) to Queen Anne, Princess of Denmark (King James' younger daughter). We meet Sara and John who are the first Chruchill couple that marries out of love during brief courtship on the court of King Charles II. Both love each other deeply but are are driven by desire for success, wealth and political ambition. They are devoted to monarchy and while John rises thru the ranks in the British Army and later government, Sara is devoting her life to serving Princess Anne as her favorite Lady in Waiting. It is interesting to see that living in the court is term of employment and it is amazing that these two have been able to survive thru four very different rulers of England. Over the course of 30 years of living at the court they manage to rise thru the ranks and finally establish themselves as Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. But their hard work and devotion do not come without price. They loose one of their sons early, Sarah ends up being estranged from her daughter. Both Sarah and John get to realize that their marriage is unique and is built on same values and principles. Even their daughter's marriage cannot sustain itself in that fashion. It is interesting to learn about European countries strife for balance of power, royal arranged marriages as means of creating alliances and internal fight between members of the Parlament. It is also interesting to learn how often Kings and Queens are used by their advisors who often have their own interest in mind rather than interest of the nation. Excellent drama about politics at its best. Acting is uneven - especially Susan Hamilton's. Too ofter actors are too old in portraying their characters at certain age. Last disc with the last three episodes seems rushed and superficial. Valuable lessons in friendhip and common ground amongst people of culture that one does not see very much in today's world.
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