25 October 2015
Myths are born from slogans. Does Shakespeare gird more loins, spur more effort, and thrill more hearts than Churchill? Or Martin Luther King or the infamous Hitler? It rather depends in what circumstances one first heard or read the words.
We British tend to imagine we are the only ones to produce great orators: “Oh the British the British the British are best” hang-up; but of course every age and every nation has them. What about the spine-chilling call-to-action speeches in the Old Testament, just for starters?
However, since today is the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, a little flag waving is permissible.
Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V, released in 1944, must have done wonders for Second World War morale. In glorious colour, with a terrific score by William Walton and starring the great Shakespearean actor himself, it couldn’t fail. We were taken to see it in our local market town near which we had spent a blissful war among cows, ponies, lakes, and distant mountains. How lucky we were we only knew when we were much older.
My mother felt permanently guilty – living in safety, minding four children, with no blitz and quite bearable shortages. The guilty idyll ended with a burst appendix – but that’s another story.
I was nine and my little sister eight when we saw Henry V, in the posher of the two cinemas, The Alhamba. We sat in the circle, peering down at the hoi polloi who, we were assured, almost certainly had fleas or impetigo.
Neither my sister nor I ever wanted to see the film again in case in our grown-up cynical selves spoiled the magic of it and we had to admit it had flaws. We made cardboard armour and fought the dastardly French in the garden or the attics if it was raining. We learned chunks of the speeches and sang the theme tune. We fashioned a long bow from hazel and string and spoke in exaggerated broken French when playing Princess Catherine.
As for Laurence Olivier, we worshipped him unreservedly.
We never gave a thought to St Crispin, an almost mythical martyr on whose Feast day the battle at Agincourt was fought. The ravishingly beautiful Cathedral at Soissons is where St Crispin’s bones are buried, and those of his brother, also martyred.
Cue for another speech.