Eric Sevareid hosts triumphant Churchill docudrama

Eric Sevareid has finally made his way to Winston Churchill's underground headquarters in London . . . 40 years after the Blitz. CBS news consultant Sevareid, now supposedly in retirement, recently narrated Mobil's "Between the Wars" series and is now acting as host on "Churchill and the Generals" (Mobil Showcase Network, Thursday, 8-11 p.m., check local listings for either network or independent station airing this ad hoc network special; some may even air it on another day.)

Although he covered London for CBS radio during the Battle of Britain, Mr. Sevareid never got to visit those now-hallowed underground war cabinet rooms deep in the bowels of London where Churchill and his generals met to make major military and political decisions about what Churchill called "the contest of men's will to win."

Now, dressed in an incongruously elegant dinner jacket, Mr. Sevareid filmed the introduction to this revealing "warts and all" three-hour superdocudrama in the war rooms he never got to visit during World War II.

"Churchill and the Generals" follows Winston Churchill from bulldog resistance, through military triumphs, into D-Day to near senility. Written by Ian Curteis, who based much of the scenario on Churchill's memoirs, directed with no-nonsense skill by Alan Givson, this BBC-LeVien International coproduction stars Timothy West as the old curmudgeon, with Arthur Hill as Roosevelt, Joseph Cotten as General Marshall, Richard Dysart as General Eisenhower, and Ian Richardson as General Montgomery. All act as rather unnerving clones of the real persons; all give totally believable performances. Mr. West's portrayal of Churchill is filled with the gruff, bluff and pathos of this most unforgettable character in Hitler's life, this "former naval person," as all his communications with Roosevelt were signed. It is a triumphant performance, just as it mirrors a triumphant life . . . despite the disappointments in later years.

"Churchill and the Generals" is an absolute must-see for anybody who lived through the daily Sevareid reports from London -- and, perhaps even more important, for those who missed the experience of being part of a united free world, fighting for what was universally acknowledged to be right.

Those vivid blitzful war years are impeccably re-created in this special through the very elite eyes of the inner circle of generals who regarded Churchill as "the mouthpiece of the free world" -- but also often a meddling egomaniac. Although British-produced, this special gives full credit to Marshall and Eisenhower for preventing a catastrophic back-door invasion of Germany rather than the across-the-channel invasion which finally won the war. Churchill is depicted as an inspired bully who made both brilliant and disastrous decisions.

"Churchill" is a riveting behind-the-scenes, under-the-Blitz peek into the horror, frustration, and indecision which enveloped the high command, responsible for millions of men, for the survival of a whole civilization. It is only right that a man who speaks with experience and authority -- Eric Sevareid -- should act as narrator for American TV. It is a distinguished TV show, worthy of the services of a distinguished observer of world events --Eric Sevareid.

Mr. Sevareid spoke to me the other day from CBS Washington headquarters where he still maintains "retirement" offices.

Does "Churchill and the Generals" distort history at all?

"I'm sure the writer put some words in the mouths of the generals, but there is now so much on the record that I don't think there is any serious distortion of the truth. If I had not felt that way, I would not have done it . . .," he says, just a bit indignantly.

But, after all, Mr. Sevareid has often expressed indignation at the distortion of many TV docudramas. He once told that he felt it was a matter of "decent interval" -- allowing a fair amount of time to pass between event and dramatization.

"Yes," he says now. "But there has been a decent interval in this case. As to disortion, I guess you could say that there could have been more attention paid to our involvement in the Pacific. But this is not a program about the whole spectrum of the war -- it is chiefly about Churchill.And I believe, as this script seems to indicate, too, that Churchill's main contribution was in the area of morale. Not only for his own people -- but for people all over Europe. Poles, Norwegians, French -- all kinds of people made their way to England. They had heard Churchill's inspiring words on radio and they were ready to fight."

According to Mr. Sevareid, one of the least understood aspects of Churchill's war career comes through vividly in this program. "He constantly tried to overrule his generals and really run the war on the battlefields. President Roosevelt didn't do that -- he left the fighting much more to his generals. Churchill just couldn't keep his hands off things.

"Churchill and FDR were alike in their flamboyance, their sense of drama, their ability to move people with their words. But, although Churchill knew more about strategy than FDR, neither really thought like a soldier. The program reveals how many of Churchill's decisions were due to instinct and ego."

Has Eric Sevareid been happy in reirement?

He chuckles. "I wouldn't call it a retirement really. I've just reached a point where I am able to pick and choose things that I want to do.I appear now and then on CBS News. And I do things like this Mobile Showcase program. But I will be coming on regularly soon in a new show which may be called 'Eric Sevareid's Chronicles.' It is a magazine-type show, syndicated by Polygram, and I will be a sort of Hugh Downs host."

How dows Mr. Sevareid feel about Dan Rather replacing Walter Cronkite as CBS Evening News anchorman next week?

There is a slight pause and it is apparent Eric Sevareid's years of experience covering the words and actions of diplomats is going to guide him in his answer.

"Millions of viewers are used to Walter, comfortable with him. It's a hard spot for Dan to find himself in. In certainly hope that the celebrity and pressure don't change him. I'me very fond of Dan and I am certain he will make it."

Does Eric Sevareid in semiretirement have any words of advice for Walter Cronkite, about to go into semiretirement?

No hesitation here.

"Keep busy, Walter, keep busy!"

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