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October 3, 2013

MARK BENNETT: ISU professor’s book on Churchill to be TV period drama

TERRE HAUTE — Somewhere, Winston Churchill is lighting a celebratory cigar in Michael Shelden’s honor.

Churchill still fascinates people, nearly a half-century after his death.

Shelden understands that captivation, so well that his perceptiveness might soon provide British TV viewers with “their finest hour,” to borrow Churchill’s inspirational message to his countrymen on the brink of World War II. Shelden has some pretty fine hours ahead, too.

His is an English success story, with a Terre Haute setting.

English is the subject Shelden teaches as an Indiana State University professor. A gigantic figure in English culture is the subject of Shelden’s latest book, “Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill.” And, the hottest production company in English television — and maybe the entire planet — is preparing to turn Shelden’s book into a TV series.

Carnival Films, makers of the most critically acclaimed show in global television history, “Downton Abbey,” bought the film rights to Shelden’s book and has begun initial steps to build another period drama series. Just as “Downton Abbey” portrays the lives of a family of British aristocrats from 1912 to the 1920s, the new series would depict Churchill’s colorful, yet long-overlooked early adult years, from around 1901 to 1915. Shelden’s book illuminated that era when Churchill lived as a brash, globetrotting, romantic, war-hero-turned-liberal politician. It’s a side of Churchill few know, even in Britain.

The “Downton Abbey” masterminds see that untold story as another hit series. That’s a big deal, and Shelden realizes it.

“The company is so good, their work is almost head and shoulders above anyone else’s,” he said Monday. “I’m also sure they’ll give it the same quality as ‘Downton Abbey.’”

Carnival’s reach is Chamberlain-esque. (Wilt, not Neville.) “Downton Abbey” airs in more than 200 countries, including the U.S. on PBS. The London-based Carnival has produced series for the big United Kingdom networks, such as the BBC and ITV, and specializes in transporting those programs overseas to American markets on HBO, A&E and its international parent network, NBC/Universal. Last month, almost 10 million Brits watched the premiere of the fourth season of “Downton Abbey.” There are only 53 million people living in England.

Shelden trusts Carnival’s instincts in delivering good TV — specifically, his “Young Titan” story — to vast audiences.

“They see the cinematic potential that you only dreamed of when you were writing the book,” he said, “and that’s a great feeling.”

He had a hunch Churchill’s dramatic younger years would play well on the screen, big or small. Shelden acted on his inkling, and took the idea straight to the top of the feature film industry — the brain trust behind “Downton Abbey.” Such a move seems bold, but Shelden holds extensive street cred in the literary world. “Young Titan” marks his fifth biography, released just three years after “Mark Twain: Man in White” and published by Simon & Schuster. In addition to his professorial work at ISU, Shelden has served as a London Daily Telegraph features writer and Baltimore Sun book critic. Among numerous high-profile reviews of his Churchill biography, former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw raved, “It’s all here — the boy wonder, adventurer, romantic, orator and eloquent man in the arena. I didn’t want it to end.”

Plus, the saga of a Lincoln-like legend in Britain fits Carnival’s portfolio like a tailor-made tophat.

Despite the seemingly no-brainer, match-made-in-heaven pairing of story and producer, the unequivocal “yes” Carnival gave Shelden still leaves a hint of amazement in the writer’s voice.

“I think it was one shot in a million,” he said, “and the fact that I took it to the right place in the beginning made all the difference.”

The material is powerful.

The world remembers Churchill as the portly British leader who defied Adolf Hitler, standing in the ashes of Nazi-bombed London with a cigar jammed into the corner of his doughy cheek, promising to fight the invading regime to the death. A moral gladiator. Inspirational orator. A victor. That was Churchill at age 65, though. A quarter-century earlier, he was washed up. His meteoric rise in politics crumbled when he made one of the most dubious military miscalculations of World War I as leader of the British Navy.

The man, born of privilege, who once courted a handful of England’s greatest beauties and tackled society’s ills in Parliament, hit rock bottom at 40.

But his eventual emergence from those “wilderness years” of anonymity and depression — book-ended by the two world wars — makes Shelden’s story wildly compelling and its television-series prospects boundless.

“I actually think there’s a lot of hunger to see this on the screen,” he said.

His deal with Carnival includes an option for Shelden to serve as a production consultant. He’d love to witness its filming in historic British locations. Shelden visited Churchill’s stomping grounds, and those of his friends and acquaintances, in his research. They remain virtually intact, “absolutely unchanged since Churchill walked in the door.”

In the meantime, Carnival must find a screenwriter and a cast, including an actor to play Churchill. Already, Brits are buzzing over possible choices, according to a story in Radio Times, a classier UK answer to TV Guide. Shelden likes the interest. “You’re giving a young person, probably in their 20s, the chance of a lifetime,” he said, “and that’s exciting.”

Another opportunity for Sir Winston to light up.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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