“Churchill’s Secret”: Worth a Look

“Churchill’s Secret”: Worth a Look

Churchill’s Secret, co-pro­duced by PBS Mas­ter­piece and ITV (UK). Direct­ed by Charles Stur­ridge, star­ring Michael Gam­bon as Sir Win­ston and Lind­say Dun­can as Lady Churchill. To watch, click here. 

Excerpt­ed from a review for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project.

Churchill's SecretPBS and ITV have suc­ceed­ed where many failed. They offer a Churchill doc­u­men­tary with a min­i­mum of dra­mat­ic license, rea­son­ably faith­ful to his­to­ry (as much as we know of it). Churchill’s Secret limns the pathos, humor, hope and trau­ma of a lit­tle-known episode: Churchill’s stroke on 23 June 1953, and his mirac­u­lous recov­ery. For weeks after­ward, his faith­ful lieu­tenants in secret ran the gov­ern­ment. To para­phrase Dr. John­son, the film is worth see­ing, and worth going to see.

Sad­ness attends our mor­tal­i­ty, death comes to us all. Sir Win­ston teetered in 1953; only his inner cir­cle knew how close he had come. The “secret” has been pub­lic now for fifty years, since pub­li­ca­tion of his doctor’s diaries in 1966. But at the time it was a secret. Not a word leaked, thanks to fam­i­ly, staff, and three press barons—Beaver­brook, Brack­en and Cam­rose. Pri­vate sec­re­tary John Colville wrote: “They achieved the all but incred­i­ble, and in peace-time pos­si­bly unique, suc­cess of gag­ging Fleet Street, some­thing they would have done for nobody but Churchill.”

Secret Pathos

Exact­ly how ill the Prime Min­is­ter real­ly was I leave to experts. At the time, many close to him thought he would die. Colville wrote: “he went down­hill bad­ly, los­ing the use of his left arm and left leg.” In the film Churchill’s doc­tor, Lord Moran (Bill Pater­son), sum­moned to Down­ing Street, finds the PM singing inco­her­ent­ly: “I’m for­ev­er blow­ing bub­bles.” Great heav­ens, I thought, they are going to link this to Marigold….

“Bub­bles” was the favorite song of a 2 1/2-year-old daugh­ter who died in 1921. Rarely men­tioned, Marigold was buried in a cor­ner of their hearts. With poignant flash­backs, the film unfolds their mem­o­ries of the loss they still deeply felt. In a mov­ing scene, Clemen­tine tear­ful­ly recounts Marigold’s sto­ry to her husband’s nurse. As a device for por­tray­ing her and Winston’s human­i­ty, this is a touch of genius.

The nurse, Mil­lie App­le­yard (Romo­la Garai) is the film’s only fic­tion­al char­ac­ter. She is meant to rep­re­sent “the help”—too numer­ous to cat­a­logue in the space of a short film. Mil­lie has a York­shire accent but her father, she tells Churchill, was Welsh: “and no fan of yours.” (WSC once allowed deploy­ment of troops dur­ing the Welsh min­ers strike in 1910.) Devot­ed to his recov­ery, but always her own woman, Mil­lie sees the job through. Con­fronting all chal­lengers, she’s a per­fect foil for Churchill, his wife, and their some­times obstreper­ous family.

Expert Casting

Crit­ics who say PBS dotes on British dra­ma for­get that UK the­atre offers unequalled depths of tal­ent. There are so many excep­tion­al actors that cast­ing looka­likes for a his­tor­i­cal film is a rel­a­tive breeze. In Churchill’s Secret, the cast­ing is superb.

Michael Gam­bon is an excel­lent Churchill: more drawn, less cheru­bic, but per­fect in his man­ner­isms and bear­ing. Lind­say Dun­can as Clemen­tine is almost up to the stan­dard set by Vanes­sa Red­grave, bril­liant along­side Albert Finney’s Churchill in “The Gath­er­ing Storm” (2002)—and far supe­ri­or to Sian Phillips, the great Robert Hardy’s oppo­site num­ber in “The Wilder­ness Years” (1981).

Sup­port­ing actors are out­stand­ing. Colville (Patrick Kennedy) and Christo­pher Soames (Chris­t­ian McK­ay)—who bore the bur­den of state in those anx­ious days—could not be more life­like. R.A. “Rab” But­ler (Chris Larkin)—a Cham­ber­lai­nite who had nev­er liked and hoped to replace Churchill, whom he had hoped would retire since 1945—is the same weak reed he was in life. “I hope you don’t think of me as an ene­my,” says Rab to a rapid­ly recov­er­ing Churchill in August. The Prime Min­is­ter replies: “I don’t think of you at all, Rab.” 

The por­tray­al of the Churchill chil­dren, booz­ing and bick­er­ing (cor­rect­ly except­ing Mary), is over-empha­sized. These scenes are admit­ted­ly fic­tion. No one alive knows what real­ly hap­pened at Chartwell in those secret weeks. The fam­i­ly and staff I talked to nev­er men­tioned rows dur­ing those weeks. The film strives how­ev­er to rep­re­sent how the three elder chil­dren must have felt, and cer­tain­ly act­ed, at one time or anoth­er. They had grown up under a great shad­ow in try­ing times. As Moran (per­haps wise before the fact) is made to remark: “There’s a price to pay for great­ness, but the great sel­dom pay it them­selves.” 

What Good’s a Constitution?

More time could have been spent on how Colville and Soames held the fort while the boss recov­ered.  Churchill once wrote a famous arti­cle, “What Good’s a Con­sti­tu­tion?” In 1953, they must have asked them­selves that question.

Today it would be impos­si­ble to keep a lid on such a secret. What they did might indeed be thought uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. Yet the nation owed a debt to those respon­si­ble lieu­tenants, who act­ed only when they knew the PM would approve. As Colville remembered:

…the admin­is­tra­tion con­tin­ued to func­tion as if he were in full con­trol. We realised that how­ev­er well we knew his pol­i­cy and the way his thoughts were like­ly to move. We had to be care­ful not to allow our own judg­ment to be giv­en Prime Min­is­te­r­i­al effect. To have done so, as we could with­out too great dif­fi­cul­ty, would have been a con­sti­tu­tion­al out­rage. It was an extra­or­di­nary, indeed per­haps an unprece­dent­ed, situation….Before the end of July the Prime Min­is­ter was suf­fi­cient­ly restored to take an intel­li­gent inter­est in affairs of state and express his own deci­sive views. Christo­pher and I then returned to the fringes of pow­er, hav­ing for a time been drawn per­ilous­ly close to the centre.


While the tes­ti­mo­ny of insid­ers cer­tain­ly sug­gests a close call, many were con­fi­dent that Churchill would recov­er. The morn­ing after the stroke, wrote Mary Soames, he “amaz­ing­ly presided at a Cab­i­net meet­ing, where none of his col­leagues thought any­thing was amiss.” She quot­ed Harold Macmil­lan: “I cer­tain­ly noticed noth­ing beyond the fact that he was very white. He spoke lit­tle, but quite dis­tinct­ly.” By the time he arrived at Chartwell on the 25th, he was at rock bot­tom. Yet a month lat­er he was well enough to be dri­ven the three-hour jour­ney to Che­quers, the PM’s offi­cial coun­try house, and was resum­ing his lit­er­ary and polit­i­cal work.

Churchill’s Secret is replete with Sir Winston’s famous admo­ni­tion in the face of mis­for­tune, K.B.O. (Keep Bug­ger­ing On.) Amid grow­ing calls for his retire­ment, he was deter­mined to stay—long enough at least for one more try at his final goal: a per­ma­nent peace. The film is not clear about how much time elapsed between the stroke and the “test” Churchill set for him­self. That was the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty Con­fer­ence at Mar­gate. There on Octo­ber 10th he would have to make a major, fifty-minute speech. It was do or die: We are rushed through the weeks to Mar­gate, actu­al­ly almost four months after he was stricken.

Of course he brought the house down. Jock Colville not­ed: “He had been ner­vous of the ordeal: his first pub­lic appear­ance since his stroke and a fifty-minute speech at that; but per­son­al­ly I had no fears as he always ris­es to occa­sions. In the event one could see but lit­tle dif­fer­ence, as far as his ora­to­ry went, since before his illness.”

“See them off, Winston”

Churchill's Secret
“Why don’t you make way for some­one who can make a big­ger impres­sion on the polit­i­cal scene?” Cum­mings in the Dai­ly Express, 29 Jan­u­ary 1954.

Some observers have fault­ed the por­tray­al of Clemen­tine in Churchill’s Secret—not for Lind­say Duncan’s skill­ful act­ing, but for the words the script has her say. To some she seems a whiny, self-cen­tered neu­rot­ic, the very pic­ture giv­en in recent biog­ra­phy.

I hon­est­ly didn’t have that impres­sion. At Mar­gate Clemen­tine tells him firm­ly: “See them off, Win­ston.” Their daugh­ter told me Clemen­tine had thought in June that his life was end­ing. The film sug­gests that Lady Churchill had many regrets; and she did. She gen­uine­ly believed—and had for a long time—that he had stayed too long. “Clemen­tine bore the brunt of all this,” Mary wrote, “and her anx­i­ety con­cern­ing his polit­i­cal inten­tions was great.”

The film estab­lish­es a rea­son­ably accu­rate pic­ture of Lady Churchill. “None of us would be here with­out him,” one of his chil­dren says, “And he wouldn’t be here with­out you.” Win­ston him­self tells her: “I shall face any­thing with you, the Tories, the Russians—even death itself.”

Unlike cer­tain frothy pop­u­lar accounts, Churchill’s Secret makes it clear that come what may, Clemen­tine was the rock on which he depend­ed. As he said of her on many occa­sions: “Here firm, though all be drifting.”

One thought on ““Churchill’s Secret”: Worth a Look

  1. I saw this too 3 1/2 stars. Real­ly movie qual­i­ty. I loved the fact that the exte­ri­ors were shot at Chartwell (I have nev­er been). It told a then vir­tu­al­ly untold sto­ry to a mass audi­ence. And like the “King’s Speech” it was sym­pa­thet­ic to Churchill. Of course, we who have read Moran’s diary have known the secret for years. But I had for­got­ten about Marigold. And this film showed the impor­tance of a strong mar­i­tal com­pan­ion. I myself would not be half the man or half the father I am with­out mine.

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