Highgate man who won Bafta for Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral marks anniversary
- Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images
The last military operation planned and undertaken by wartime hero Sir Winston Churchill is remembered this week, with Saturday marking 50 years since his death.
Operation Hope Not, as labeled by the military, became the codename for the former prime minister’s state funeral.
A rare privilege to be granted to someone outside the Royal Family, it was planned with military precision and in extraordinary detail by Sir Winston himself. It became the largest state funeral in world history.
It was also a first for television, with black and white pictures broadcast around the world. An astonishing 350million people in Europe, and 25million in the UK, were said to have tuned in.
One of those who remembers the day better than most, and whose life intertwined with Churchill’s on more than
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one occasion, is filmmaker Peter Morley, a Jewish émigré from 1930s Germany who fought for Britain against his native country in the Second World War.
The 90-year-old of Hill Way, Highgate, was hired by ITV to direct Churchill’s funeral months after his work on the broadcast of Princess Margaret’s wedding in 1960.
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Working towards an unspecified date, he said the five year task that followed was “incredibly daunting”.
He said: “I’d never done anything like this before and was put totally in charge of the whole thing from day one.
“One day, a courier arrived at my house with a huge, beautifully bound book called ‘The State Funeral of Winston Churchill’. The planning was unbelievably complex. The man had organised everything down to the last detail.
“After five years of working on it, he died. Days later, on a bitterly cold January 30, I was sat in front of a battery of monitors, in charge of 450 people and 45 cameras.
“For five hours, I didn’t stop talking – it was like conducting a fantastic orchestra.
“The technology was primitive back then, but these images brought staggering views of London into peoples’ homes in a way the city had never been seen before or indeed since.”
Pre-recordings featuring actors Sir Laurence Olivier and Paul Schofield, along with radio broadcaster Joseph C. Harsch, recreated Churchillian speeches while a 19-gun salute by the Royal Artillery, a fly-by of RAF fighters and a fleet of dockland cranes bowing in salute added to the pomp.
After passing down the Thames, Churchill’s coffin was loaded onto a train destined for his final resting place in Bladon. Thousands lined the train’s route to pay respect.
For many, watching this statesman’s passing at the age of 90 was a symbolic moment.
Commentators noted his death as the end of the British Empire with then French President Charles de Gaulle writing on hearing the news: “From today onward, Britain is no longer a great power.”
For Mr Morley, the ceremony was a “celebration of the man to whom London and the whole nation was saying farewell”.
Beginning his career in 1940 as a rewind-boy in a West End theatre, the filmmaker’s training was interrupted by the war.
Joining the Seventh Armoured Division, he went to Europe during the D-Day landings, joining Churchill in his fight against his native
Germany and fighting from Normandy all the way to
Berlin. He was later tasked with guarding the prime minister while at the Potsdam Conference in 1945.
Winning a BAFTA for his direction of Churchill’s funeral, his celebrated career saw him direct many films about the war, becoming one of the few to secretly interview Hitler’s sister, Paula Wolf (whom he described as a “dozy old woman who seemed to know very little about what was going on”).
Astonished to find ITV refusing to mark Churchill’s passing with a re-run of the footage, “because it thinks its viewers aren’t interested in history”, he is now keen to ensure the story of Churchill is not forgotten.
He said: “Despite some of the bad things he did, I was a great fan of his. He had won us the war, and he really loved this country.”