Brit DVD Reviews: The First Churchills from Acorn Media


As a Churchill buff, this DVD set seemed made for me. The First Churchills is a lavish drama from 1969 about the life and times of the first famous Churchills, the first Duke of Marlborough and his wife Sarah Churchill. They started a dynasty and their story is a great source for drama. So, it’s a shame that I didn’t really like this series.

This show suffers from its datedness, which I normally wouldn’t hold against a good drama. But this show is much too different from modern dramas to be completely enjoyable.

This is a famous series – it’s considered the first BBC costume drama to make it big in the USA when it originally aired. But 1969 was a long time ago and it certainly shows.

The video quality if horrendous. This is not the fault of Acorn Media, who’ve done the DVD conversion and done the best with what they have. It was the way it was filmed in 1969, using what appears to be low quality video so it suffers on DVD, blown up on an HDTV. The worst part are the lighting lens flares from any light source on camera.

That said, once the story sucks you in, most people won’t notice the poor quality of the picture. And it will probably look much better on a standard TV.

The story is sprawling. The First Churchills was inspired by Sir Winston Churchill’s biographical writings about 17th-century ancestors John Churchill and Sarah Jennings (themselves massive books). This is a relatively painless way to learn a few things about the revolving-door monarchy of the House of Stuart from that era. That said, the story does move rather slowly.

The series is certainly written with a stately air though its story flows like a steady stream of fresh gossip. The intrigues at the royal court  are interesting and there are many interesting courtly asides. Sometimes, it can be a little too much, if you know what I mean. I really disliked the narration throughout the series, while it’s useful to help put certain things in context, it takes you out of the story.

The performances are fantastic and you can tell that all the actors involved were at the top of their game in the day that this was made. The DVD set sprawls across 3 discs with 12 total episodes (clocking in at 532 minutes of drama!). The set includes a rare interview with Susan Hampshire who played Sarah Churchill. There’s also a fun insert featuring love letters written between the two Churchills as well as a few ‘cliff-notes’ that provide historical perspective.

This is a great show for people who revel in classic British drama or people who want to learn more about the Churchill family history.

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  1. avatarBruce says

    Thanks for the honest review. I remember my mom watching this when it 1st aired on PBS here in the states [in ’71? Some time after it 1st aired on BBC, that’s for certain.] At any rate, my previous experience w/ Acorn releases is universally that of poor video quality, as it appears they work with VHS copies rather than the original film/superBeta masters. In this case, since T1C predates the invention of VHS or Beta, it would have been archived via the filming of the tv output [also seen in old copies of tv news broadcasts, such as the Nixon/Kennedy debates] which exhibit the exact same issues of poor saturation & flare you mention. Bleah!

    Maybe it’s time for the BBC to haul out the old props & redo this classic story for today’s generation, with modern pacing & direction? It’s not like there aren’t any talented modern actors who would jump at sinking their teeth into such great roles! :-)