As many of you know, Lady Buzzkill can’t stand me. Sometimes I can’t blame her, though. Imagine what it must be like watching a history-based movie or TV series with me. I go ballistic at every false historical reference, and start yelling at the TV. Even I admit that it must get annoying.
But I believe in my very soul that my outrage was morally-justified the other night. We were catching up on episodes of The Crown, the Netflix series that’s supposed to be about Queen Elizabeth II. In terms of allocated screen time, however, it’s practically wall-to-wall Churchill, with brief scenes of the young Queen thrown in, almost as an afterthought. It’s as if the series producers knew they could never sell a British historical drama to an American audience unless the Churchill screen time is 75%, no matter what the main plot is supposed to be.
Anyhoo, there we were, the happy couple sitting on the couch in front of the TV. The servants had given us drinks before retiring for the evening. I was just taking my first sip of port when a Churchill scene from the early 1950s came on. A government minister walks up to Churchill, played by, no kidding, John Lithgow, and mentions something about Clement Attlee, the leader of the opposition Labour Party.
Lithgow-Churchill looks up and says, “an empty taxi-cab pulled up and out stepped Clement Attlee.”
Of course, I lost it. “He never said that!” “There’s no good evidence…” By the time I got a couple of sentences into my rant about the myths of the Attlee-Churchill relationship, Lady Buzzkill had bolted out of the room and locked the wine cellar.
She didn’t hear the full history, but I’m sure you’re here to find out — quote or no quote? Did Churchill ever say anything like that?
First of all, it’s an old music hall-type, vaudeville-type of gag. It dates back at least to 1879, when it was used to describe the superstar fin-de-siecle French actress, Sarah Bernhardt. Mademoiselle Bernhardt was slender. Very, very slender. The joke was that she was so thin that she was almost hard to see. Several newspapers printed and re-printed the following gag in their humor sections in the 1880s: “an empty carriage drove up to the Théâtre Français and Mlle. Sarah-Bernhardt alighted from it.”
The next target was Georgia Senator, Alexander H. Stephens, who was also of insubstantial build. An 1882 political joke had it that, “an empty coach rolled up in front of one of the government departments and Alexander H. Stephens alighted from it.”
This quip bounced around music-halls and vaudeville acts for a few decades, disappearing when it became a cliche, and then reappearing years later after everyone had forgotten it. By the 1930s, it had resurfaced and was starting to be used to refer to non-entities — people supposedly weak at their professions. Comedian Milton Berle, for instance, got jabbed with it in 1939. “An empty taxicab pulled up at the Astor Hotel today and out of it stepped Milton Berle.”
And so it’s not surprising that, when Attlee was prime minister is 1948, and was starting to implement greater welfare state policies, the following appeared in newspapers in Britain and America: “The Upper Classes are upset at the government because the inheritance tax laws prevent them from shooting pheasants, so they have retaliated with this joke: An empty taxi pulled up in front of Number Ten Downing Street and Mr. Attlee got out.”
And like almost all British political witticisms, this one was eventually got attached to Churchill. But, of course, it wasn’t one of Churchill’s, and what’s more, Churchill was angry when told about it. Jock Colville, Assistant Private Secretary to Churchill and one of his closest confidants, wrote that when he told Churchill of the joke, and that it was now being attributed to Winston himself, the following happened:
“Churchill did not smile. There was an awful pause before his reply. ‘Mr. Attlee,’ he said, ‘is an honourable and gallant gentleman, and a faithful colleague who served his country well at the time of her greatest need. I should be obliged if you would make it clear whenever an occasion arises that I would never make such a remark about him, and that I strongly disapprove of anybody who does.'”
Most importantly, no matter how many stories try to paint Clement Attlee as a political nobody (which is also not true), it’s simply not the case that Churchill thought he was an empty taxi (or “a sheep in sheep’s clothing,” as Winston is also misquoted as saying about Attlee). Of course, Churchill was opposed in general to Attlee’s Labour Party, and didn’t agree with a good number of the new social democratic policies they were implementing in the late 1940s.
But wartime was different. Everyone seems to forget that the very first thing that Churchill did after he was appointed prime minister on May 10, 1940 was to ask Clement Attlee to join his cabinet, become Lord Privy Seal, and help form a National Government. Less than two years later, Churchill made Attlee Deputy Prime Minister. They served together remarkably well together, through VE Day, and almost to the end of the world war. Churchill called an election in July 1945 (no doubt thinking that his heroic stature would give the Conservatives an outright majority in the House of Commons). But public opinion had shifted drastically by 1945, and British electorate overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Labour party and their plans for a better post-war world.
Despite this, there is no evidence that Churchill was ever bitter toward Attlee, or childishly changed his good opinion of him after the 1945 election. The wartime partnership had been too solid to let political partisanship stain his regard for the new Labour Prime Minister.
The Buzzkill marital partnership, however, is on the rocks. I’ve been sleeping on the couch for over a week since my outburst while watching television with Lady B.
Talk to you next week.
The inimitable Quote Investigator has done the best research on this. See: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/04/29/empty/
David Cohen, Churchill and Attlee: The Unlikely Allies Who Won the War
In 1940, Clement Attlee took Labour into the wartime coalition government and serving under Churchill, becoming Britain’s first Deputy Prime Minister. Churchill concentrated on the war effort, while Attlee was left in charge of domestic affairs, effectively ensuring the smooth running of the country. Their relationship proved pivotal to the outcome of the Second World War.