Prime Ministers' Props

Episodes

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0101Neville Chamberlain's Umbrella2016081020171002
20170306 (R4)

Professor Sir David Cannadine explores political fame and image by looking at how an object or prop, whether chosen deliberately or otherwise, can come to define a political leader - from Winston Churchill's cigar and siren suit to Margaret Thatcher's handbag.

Sir David looks at the significance of these props of power - what they mean and what they become, and what happens when, almost inevitably, Prime Ministers lose control of their image and their props take on a hostile meaning, very different from their original intentions.

Neville Chamberlain always liked to carry a big black umbrella. It was intended to project an image of the quintessential Englishman, who was always smart, prepared and, in a manner of speaking, neatly furled. When Chamberlain arrived home after meeting Hitler at Munich in 1938, he was clutching Hitler's signed piece of paper in one hand and his brolly in the other. His umbrella now took on a new and potent symbolism as a "peace umbrella" and one that would keep the German bombs from raining down on British heads. He was sent hundreds of umbrellas by a grateful public and there was even a song composed at the time which contained the lyrics, "You look swell holding your umbrella / All the world loves a wonderful fella".

Yet as war broke out in Europe, Chamberlain's trademark brolly was quickly seized upon by his enemies as a laughable symbol of his gentlemanly ineffectiveness and it became a lightening-rod for critics of appeasement. Declassified MI5 records reveal how Hitler mocked him for it - and Chamberlain's once so celebrated umbrella morphed from useful trademark into an embarrassing symbol of political weakness and pusillanimity.

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

Sir David Cannadine explores the changing image of Neville Chamberlain's umbrella.

Professor Sir David Cannadine explores political fame and image by looking at how an object or prop, whether chosen deliberately or otherwise, can come to define a political leader.

Sir David looks at the significance of these props of power - what they mean and what they become, and what happens when, almost inevitably, Prime Ministers lose control of their image and their props take on a hostile meaning, very different from their original intentions.

Neville Chamberlain always liked to carry a big black umbrella. It was intended to project an image of the quintessential Englishman, who was always smart, prepared and, in a manner of speaking, neatly furled. When Chamberlain arrived home after meeting Hitler at Munich in 1938, he was clutching Hitler's signed piece of paper in one hand and his brolly in the other. His umbrella now took on a new and potent symbolism as a "peace umbrella" and one that would keep the German bombs from raining down on British heads. He was sent hundreds of umbrellas by a grateful public and there was even a song composed at the time which contained the lyrics, "You look swell holding your umbrella / All the world loves a wonderful fella".

Yet as war broke out in Europe, Chamberlain's trademark brolly was quickly seized upon by his enemies as a laughable symbol of his gentlemanly ineffectiveness and it became a lightening-rod for critics of appeasement. Declassified MI5 records reveal how Hitler mocked him for it - and Chamberlain's once so celebrated umbrella morphed from useful trademark into an embarrassing symbol of political weakness and pusillanimity.

Produced by Melissa FitzGerald
A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

0102Stanley Baldwin's Iron Gates2016081720171003

Professor Sir David Cannadine explores political fame and image by looking at how an object or prop, whether chosen deliberately or otherwise, can come to define a political leader - from Winston Churchill's cigar and siren suit to Margaret Thatcher's handbag.

Sir David looks at the significance of these props of power - what they mean and what they become, and what happens when, almost inevitably, Prime Ministers lose control of their image and their props take on a hostile meaning, very different from their original intentions.

In 1937, Stanley Baldwin retired in what was considered a blaze of glory, and he expected to live out his remaining days as a revered elder statesman behind his wrought-iron gates at his country estate, Astley Hall. But the Second World War changed everything and Baldwin's reputation collapsed when he became the scapegoat for Britain being ill-equipped to fight Hitler.

The problem became centred on his iron gates when, in September 1941, Stanley Baldwin's old enemy, Lord Beaverbrook, asked all local authorities to survey their area's iron and steel gates for requisitioning as scrap metal. Baldwin duly applied for exemption for the Astley Hall gates on the grounds of artistic merit. However Beaverbrook bit back and Baldwin's gates became something of a cause celebre and the focus for a national campaign hounding an old appeaser who was now seen to be hampering the war effort.

Stanley Baldwin's iron gates at Astley Hall were eventually removed, all except the pair of presentation gates given to him by the Worcestershire Association on his retirement. Sir David Cannadine goes in search of Baldwin's remaining gates to find out what happened to them.

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

David Cannadine explores Stanley Baldwin's controversial iron gates.

Professor Sir David Cannadine explores political fame and image by looking at how an object or prop, whether chosen deliberately or otherwise, can come to define a political leader - from Winston Churchill's cigar and siren suit to Margaret Thatcher's handbag.

Sir David looks at the significance of these props of power - what they mean and what they become, and what happens when, almost inevitably, Prime Ministers lose control of their image and their props take on a hostile meaning, very different from their original intentions.

In 1937, Stanley Baldwin retired in what was considered a blaze of glory, and he expected to live out his remaining days as a revered elder statesman behind his wrought-iron gates at his country estate, Astley Hall. But the Second World War changed everything and Baldwin's reputation collapsed when he became the scapegoat for Britain being ill-equipped to fight Hitler.

The problem became centred on his iron gates when, in September 1941, Stanley Baldwin's old enemy, Lord Beaverbrook, asked all local authorities to survey their area's iron and steel gates for requisitioning as scrap metal. Baldwin duly applied for exemption for the Astley Hall gates on the grounds of artistic merit. However Beaverbrook bit back and Baldwin's gates became something of a cause celebre and the focus for a national campaign hounding an old appeaser who was now seen to be hampering the war effort.

Stanley Baldwin's iron gates at Astley Hall were eventually removed, all except the pair of presentation gates given to him by the Worcestershire Association on his retirement. Sir David Cannadine goes in search of Baldwin's remaining gates to find out what happened to them.

Produced by Melissa FitzGerald
A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

0103Anthony Eden's Homburg Hat2016082420171004

Professor Sir David Cannadine explores political fame and image by looking at how an object or prop, whether chosen deliberately or otherwise, can come to define a political leader - from Winston Churchill's cigar and siren suit to Margaret Thatcher's handbag.

Sir David looks at the significance of these props of power - what they mean and what they become, and what happens when, almost inevitably, Prime Ministers lose control of their image and their props take on a hostile meaning, very different from their original intentions.

Anthony Eden was one of the briefest serving Prime Ministers of modern times, and his name became inseparably linked with the Suez fiasco of 1956, from which his reputation has never recovered. But in the earlier stages of his political career, Eden was widely regarded as the most attractive and glamorous figure in British public life. These qualities were both proclaimed and symbolised by his Homburg hat, which he briefly made fashionable when it became known as the Eden on Savile Row. In fact, Anthony Eden is the only British Prime Minister, apart from the Duke of Wellington, to have had an item of apparel named after him.

But with Eden's fall from grace, the Eden hat was quickly forgotten and one biographer wrote scathingly in the 1960s, "who wears an Anthony Eden hat today?"

And while we still use the phrase Wellington boot, and remember the victor of Waterloo, the Eden Homburg, and the man who gave his name to it, have both been largely forgotten.

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

David Cannadine explores the changing significance of Anthony Eden's Homburg hat.

Professor Sir David Cannadine explores political fame and image by looking at how an object or prop, whether chosen deliberately or otherwise, can come to define a political leader - from Winston Churchill's cigar and siren suit to Margaret Thatcher's handbag.

Sir David looks at the significance of these props of power - what they mean and what they become, and what happens when, almost inevitably, Prime Ministers lose control of their image and their props take on a hostile meaning, very different from their original intentions.

Anthony Eden was one of the briefest serving Prime Ministers of modern times, and his name became inseparably linked with the Suez fiasco of 1956, from which his reputation has never recovered. But in the earlier stages of his political career, Eden was widely regarded as the most attractive and glamorous figure in British public life. These qualities were both proclaimed and symbolised by his Homburg hat, which he briefly made fashionable when it became known as the Eden on Savile Row. In fact, Anthony Eden is the only British Prime Minister, apart from the Duke of Wellington, to have had an item of apparel named after him.

But with Eden's fall from grace, the Eden hat was quickly forgotten and one biographer wrote scathingly in the 1960s, "who wears an Anthony Eden hat today?"

And while we still use the phrase Wellington boot, and remember the victor of Waterloo, the Eden Homburg, and the man who gave his name to it, have both been largely forgotten.

Produced by Melissa FitzGerald
A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

0104Sir Alec Douglas-home's Matchsticks2016083120171005
20170307 (R4)

Professor Sir David Cannadine explores political fame and image by looking at how an object or prop, whether chosen deliberately or otherwise, can come to define a political leader.

Sir David looks at the significance of these props of power - what they mean and what they become, and what happens when, almost inevitably, Prime Ministers lose control of their image and their props take on a hostile meaning, very different from their original intentions.

The aristocratic Sir Alec Douglas-Home appeared removed both from the majority of the British people and, to some extent, the modern world itself. He showed the depth of his inexperience when he casually commented to a reporter that he used matchsticks to help him understand economic problems. "When I have to read economic documents I have to have a box of matches and start moving them into position to simplify and illustrate the points to myself."

It was a gift for Leader of the Opposition, Harold Wilson, who used the matchstick comment to goad and embarrass the Conservative Prime Minister at every opportunity. The matchsticks came to define Sir Alec's inadequacies as leader and, when it came to problem-solving, his ultimately successful opponent Wilson was more familiar with slide rules than matchsticks.

Home's premiership was the second briefest of the twentieth century, lasting just two days short of a year. Who knows what would have happened if Sir Alec hadn't made that careless matchstick comment.

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

Professor Sir David Cannadine explores political fame and image by looking at how an object or prop, whether chosen deliberately or otherwise, can come to define a political leader - from Winston Churchill's cigar and siren suit to Margaret Thatcher's handbag.

David Cannadine explores Sir Alec Douglas-Home's matchbox economics.

Professor Sir David Cannadine explores political fame and image by looking at how an object or prop, whether chosen deliberately or otherwise, can come to define a political leader.

Sir David looks at the significance of these props of power - what they mean and what they become, and what happens when, almost inevitably, Prime Ministers lose control of their image and their props take on a hostile meaning, very different from their original intentions.

The aristocratic Sir Alec Douglas-Home appeared removed both from the majority of the British people and, to some extent, the modern world itself. He showed the depth of his inexperience when he casually commented to a reporter that he used matchsticks to help him understand economic problems. "When I have to read economic documents I have to have a box of matches and start moving them into position to simplify and illustrate the points to myself."

It was a gift for Leader of the Opposition, Harold Wilson, who used the matchstick comment to goad and embarrass the Conservative Prime Minister at every opportunity. The matchsticks came to define Sir Alec's inadequacies as leader and, when it came to problem-solving, his ultimately successful opponent Wilson was more familiar with slide rules than matchsticks.

Home's premiership was the second briefest of the twentieth century, lasting just two days short of a year. Who knows what would have happened if Sir Alec hadn't made that careless matchstick comment.

Produced by Melissa FitzGerald
A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

0105Harold Wilson's Pipe And Mac2016090720171006

Professor Sir David Cannadine explores political fame and image by looking at how an object or prop, whether chosen deliberately or otherwise, can come to define a political leader - from Winston Churchill's cigar and siren suit to Margaret Thatcher's handbag.

Sir David looks at the significance of these props of power - what they mean and what they become, and what happens when, almost inevitably, Prime Ministers lose control of their image and their props take on a hostile meaning, very different from their original intentions.

Harold Wilson sought to enhance his political image, in part by wearing a Gannex mac which made him seem ordinary, and also by puffing at his pipe, as memorably expressed in Ruskin Spear's 1974 portrait of him.

Following Stanley Baldwin, who had also made much of his pipe, Harold Wilson hoped to convey an image that was homely, benevolent and avuncular, and to some extent he succeeded. But the unintended consequence was that the pipe also enhanced Wilson's reputation for evasiveness and deviousness. Whenever asked a difficult question by an interviewer, he would delay and distract attention by lighting up - and it was widely believed that, although he puffed his pipe in public, he preferred cigars in private. A rumour that his son, Robin Wilson, scotches.

The Gannex mac was also to become a hostage to fortune for Wilson. While he was the peak of his popularity, the Gannex made him look like a man of the people and the millionaire businessman who invented Gannex, Joseph Kagan, became a close friend of Wilson. But once Kagan fell from grace due to his crooked business dealings, Wilson's Kagan connection was further evidence to his enemies that he was not to be trusted.

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

David Cannadine explores how Harold Wilson's pipe and Gannex mac came to define him.

Professor Sir David Cannadine explores political fame and image by looking at how an object or prop, whether chosen deliberately or otherwise, can come to define a political leader - from Winston Churchill's cigar and siren suit to Margaret Thatcher's handbag.

Sir David looks at the significance of these props of power - what they mean and what they become, and what happens when, almost inevitably, Prime Ministers lose control of their image and their props take on a hostile meaning, very different from their original intentions.

Harold Wilson sought to enhance his political image, in part by wearing a Gannex mac which made him seem ordinary, and also by puffing at his pipe, as memorably expressed in Ruskin Spear's 1974 portrait of him.

Following Stanley Baldwin, who had also made much of his pipe, Harold Wilson hoped to convey an image that was homely, benevolent and avuncular, and to some extent he succeeded. But the unintended consequence was that the pipe also enhanced Wilson's reputation for evasiveness and deviousness. Whenever asked a difficult question by an interviewer, he would delay and distract attention by lighting up - and it was widely believed that, although he puffed his pipe in public, he preferred cigars in private. A rumour that his son, Robin Wilson, scotches.

The Gannex mac was also to become a hostage to fortune for Wilson. While he was the peak of his popularity, the Gannex made him look like a man of the people and the millionaire businessman who invented Gannex, Joseph Kagan, became a close friend of Wilson. But once Kagan fell from grace due to his crooked business dealings, Wilson's Kagan connection was further evidence to his enemies that he was not to be trusted.

Produced by Melissa FitzGerald
A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

02Benjamin Disraeli's Novels20180808

David Cannadine explores how Disraeli merged fact and fiction in his life and work.

David Cannadine explores how an object or prop can come to define a political leader.

David Cannadine examines the careers of British Prime Ministers through their props of power.

In producing his seventeen novels, Benjamin Disraeli was unusual among British Prime Ministers in that he created his own props. Indeed, his duel public persona as author and politician brought him public acclaim and prominence and transformed him into one of the first ever media celebrities. But this turned out to be a very high-risk strategy. Disraeli's novels prompted a great deal of distrust among both his political opponents and those within the Conservative party, and they were used to portray him as an opportunist who was not to be trusted.

David Cannadine visits Hughenden Manor in Buckinghamshire, Disraeli's former home and the place where he wrote his most famous novels, to explore how this Prime Minister merged fact and fiction in his life and in his work.

Readings by Ewan Bailey and Will Huggins

Series Producer: Melissa FitzGerald
Series Researcher: Martin Spychal

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

02Margaret Thatcher's Handbag20180829

David Cannadine explores how Mrs Thatcher's handbag became a visual symbol of her power.

David Cannadine explores how an object or prop can come to define a political leader.

David Cannadine examines the careers of British Prime Ministers through their props of power.

In an inconspicuous-looking box, in a locked drawer, deep in the archives at Churchill College, Cambridge sits Margaret Thatcher's handbag. David comes face-to-face with this artefact which came to represent the most visible symbol of our first female Prime Minister's power to command. As Charles Moore put it in his official biography, "her handbag became the sceptre of her rule". It was a prop that Mrs Thatcher would produce at meetings to show she meant business.

Although Margaret Thatcher didn't like the connotation, by the time of the Falklands conflict, a new verb entered the English language - "to handbag", meaning to subject your opponent to a forthright verbal assault or strident criticism. For the rest of her life, Mrs Thatcher's handbag was almost as newsworthy an item as she was herself and on the day she died, one of her handbag-makers saw a sharp rise in sales of her favourite black structured design.

Readings by Ewan Bailey, Will Huggins and Claire Vousden

Series Producer: Melissa FitzGerald
Series Researcher: Martin Spychal

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

02William Gladstone's Axe20180815

David Cannadine explores how William Gladstone's axe became a powerful political metaphor.

David Cannadine explores how an object or prop can come to define a political leader.

David Cannadine examines the careers of British Prime Ministers through their props of power.

Standing in a fireplace in his Temple of Peace at Hawarden Castle in Wales, is a selection of axes used by William Gladstone to chop down trees. David meets Charlie Gladstone, the current resident at Hawarden, to examine these axes and discuss the attraction of tree-felling for his ancestor, William. It was a vigorous physical activity that took his mind off everything else, especially public affairs.

Gladstone's axe was a Prime Minister's Prop which also became a powerful political metaphor. Gladstone was often depicted by his supporters as swinging his axe to eliminate wrongdoing and error, literally root and branch. And the image of him retreating to Hawarden, working away with his axe, appealed to working people who, as one historian has commented, "found a great statesman and popular leader in the plain clothes of a labourer".

To his critics however, Gladstone's axe was an apt metaphor for his increasingly radical politics, which seemed to them to be violent and destructive. For Tory opponents, and for Queen Victoria, the contrast with William Gladstone's great political rival Benjamin Disraeli was striking. For while Gladstone chopped down trees on his country estate at Hawarden, Disraeli planted them at Hughenden Manor, his rural retreat in Buckinghamshire.

Readings by Ewan Bailey and Will Huggins

Series Producer: Melissa FitzGerald
Series Researcher: Martin Spychal

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

02Winston Churchill's Cigar20180822

David Cannadine explores how Churchill's cigar became synonymous with his image.

David Cannadine explores how an object or prop can come to define a political leader.

David Cannadine examines the careers of British Prime Ministers through their props of power.

It was during the Second World War that Winston Churchill adopted the cigar as his most indispensable Prime Ministerial prop and he rarely appeared in public without it. Clenched tightly between his jaws, his cigar signified defiance and determination, resolve and resolution.

Glowing brightly and accompanied by expansive gestures, it radiated confidence and hope. But the fact that Churchill liked cigars was a sign for Hitler that he was a weak man and a poor leader, and Nazi propaganda depicted Churchill and his cigar as decadent and self-indulgent.

David visits Chartwell, Churchill's Kent country home, to view his famous cigar cabinet which now houses paints in his studio. He discusses the way in which Churchill's cigar became synonymous with his political image - so much so that, towards the end of his life, he gave out cigars as a calling card and his global fame meant they went for thousands at auction.

Readings by Ewan Bailey and Will Huggins

Series Producer: Melissa FitzGerald
Series Researcher: Martin Spychal

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

0201The Duke Of Wellington's Boots20180801

David Cannadine explores how the Duke of Wellington's boots came to define his leadership.

David Cannadine explores how an object or prop can come to define a political leader.

David Cannadine returns with five more programmes examining the careers of British Prime Ministers through their props of power. From the Duke of Wellington's boot to Mrs Thatcher's handbag, he explores political fame and image through the way in which an object or prop can come to define a political leader.

When the Duke of Wellington died, his horse carried a pair of his boots the reverse way around in the stirrups at the end of his funeral procession. The sight of these boots brought tears to the eyes of the thousands of mourners at his state funeral. The Duke became associated with his boots after he wrote to his boot maker from the Iberian Peninsula to request he made shorter boots without a tassel, which fitted under trousers, because the Duke tended to wear civilian dress while on campaign.

David Cannadine meets the present Duke of Wellington to explore how his ancestor's utilitarian boots quickly caught on with patriotic British gentlemen, eager to emulate their war hero. But Wellington's boots were turned against him during his premiership by his enemies, who characterised him as a military despot, complete with jackboots and spurs.

The Duke's eponymous footwear were revived again in the aftermath of the First World War, when Wellingtons reappeared in a new guise as our more familiar and much loved 'wellies' - no longer made of leather, but of rubber.

Readings by Ewan Bailey and Will Huggins

Series Producer: Melissa FitzGerald
Series Researcher: Martin Spychal

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.