I went to see the movie, Darkest Hour, at the cinema this morning. It is superb. Highly recommended.
The cinematography is stunning and so are the settings. You almost think that you are inside the palace in the Buckingham Palace scenes. Gary Oldman is quite extraordinary as Churchill. I felt that I was actually watching Churchill himself in a wartime newsreel. Surely an Oscar winning performance.
To me it was weird seeing the scenes and thinking how all this happened only six years before I was born in Charing Cross, London.
When I first went to primary school in Putney in south London, the school was brand new as the old building had been bombed and the local area was populated by prefabricated homes — known as prefabs — and bomb sites. I remember that even in 1955 things were still pretty grim, but at the time I did not appreciate the deprivation and terror my mother, who stayed in Putney throughout the blitz, had been through.
I had my personal encounter with Churchill, or at least his coffin, in January 1965. At the time I was working at Barclays Bank, Borough High Street branch in Southwark, just over London Bridge. I had to work on the Saturday morning of Churchill’s funeral and I was on London Bridge when his coffin was loaded onto a boat at the Tower of London and came up the river to Waterloo.
I had brought a half-frame camera to work that day. I think it belonged to my brother. I cannot remember the brand but I suspect it was either an Olympus or a Ricoh. Half frame gave 72 photos on a 36 exposure roll of 35mm film. I was using Kodak Plus-X film as I can see from the negatives. It was probably in the camera when I borrowed it. Being London in January it was pretty gloomy and I force processed the film to push up the ISO — or ASA as it was then known.
The slow passage of the boat carrying the coffin was a most impressive sight and all the dockside cranes had their jibs lowered as a mark of respect.
Now all the docks have moved way down the river so it is a scene which will never be repeated. The riverside has changed dramatically in the past 53 years. Where the wharves and docks once hugged the river, it is now a broad pedestrian promenade flanked by museums, cafes and restaurants.
A few seconds after I took this photo a V formation of RAF English Electric Lightning jet fighters flew overhead and I took a photo of them over the flotilla. It is a great photo but I put the negative in a “safe” file and I have mislaid it!
My journey home that day took me my usual route by foot to London Bridge station where I caught a train to Waterloo on a little back line. Then I caught a train home to Ewell in Surrey where I then lived.
When I came onto the concourse at Waterloo I was surprised to find that my suburban train was on the next platform to the train which was carrying Churchill’s coffin and the funeral party to Oxfordshire where he was going to be buried in the churchyard at Bladon.
The funeral train, pulled by Battle of Britain Class Pacific “Winston Churchill”, departed just ahead of mine but we soon passed it and I took the photograph of the famous engine.
So that’s my personal connection to the Darkest Hour. The quality of the photos leaves a lot to be desired but they had a difficult birth and, like many of us, they are showing their age.
A couple of moving videos, one to bring back the sombre mood of the funeral day and the other a recording of what many believe to have been Churchill’s personal Finest Hour. The music in the above video is the apposite hymn I Vow to Thee my Country, adapted by Gustav Holst from his “Jupiter” and set to the words of Cecil Spring Rice in 1921
Editor’s Note: Thank you, John, for this timely story. I also enjoyed Darkest Hour and agree with your assessment of Gary Oldman’s performance. I was in London on the day of the funeral but watched the occasion on television. I regret not having taken my Agfa Silette to record the proceedings. You were in the right place at the right time and your photographs perfectly capture the moment.
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