The First Churchills (1971), based on the biography written by Sir Winston Churchill of his ancestors, is the BBC drama that launched Masterpiece Theater. And rightly so. The First Churchills is a fun period drama containing all the elements that make these shows great; romance, intrigue, ambition, politics, wars, and heartbreak. All twelve episodes, which span five Stuart monarchs, are so full of these elements that you quickly find yourself absorbed into the lives of these people during the 17th and 18th centuries.
John Churchill is a poor military man who is trying to work his way up through the ranks and Sarah Jennings is a maid-in-waiting in the service of the Queen. While at court, John and Sarah meet and thus begin a life-long love affair. Although thanks to Sarah Jennings’ head-strong personality, it doesn’t start as romantically as one may think in a period piece. During the ensuing years, the Churchills are put through many tests of loyalty and end up being rewarded for their work under the various monarchs. As the times and monarchs change, so does their lives and roles in the government. This is particularly true for Sarah and Queen Anne. Sarah comes into the service of Princess Anne when she marries and the two are great friends. Life, love, and politics soon begin to get in the way of this friendship.
To say that The First Churchills is a perfect piece is not entirely true, there are some lack luster performances and it does feel as if some of the relationships and scripts could have been fuller. But, in the end, this is outshined by what does work. In the first episode alone, the ending creates such a stir in anyone that knows anything about history that you sit with your mouth agape for a few seconds. I don’t want to ruin it because it is such a great ending to that episode, but suffice it to say snubbing is involved of the highest regard. Throughout the rest of the series there are beautiful interchanges between characters and this is all backed up by the great set pieces and ever changing fashions.
Along with the twelve episodes there is a 19 minute interview with Susan Hampshire (Sarah Jennings Churchill). This interview sheds a light on the making of The First Churchills, which in turn creates more respect for what was done with the series to have it stand the test of time after first airing forty years ago. Along with the DVD, there is a booklet which contains information on the important players of the time, a family tree of the Stuart house, and excerpts from actual love letters of the Churchills. When reading the love letters, you hear some of the same dialog from the show, which makes you feel as if you were truly getting to see these people come to life.