Winston Churchill in “Peaky Blinders” and On the Art of Sleep

Winston Churchill in “Peaky Blinders” and On the Art of Sleep

Neil Maskell’s WSC in “Peaky Blinders” *

The last two sea­sons of the Net­flix series “Peaky Blind­ers” include con­vinc­ing appear­ances of Win­ston Churchill, played by Neil Maskell. His main appear­ance is in Mr. Jones,” Sea­son 5, Episode 6 (2022), when pro­tag­o­nist Tom­my Shel­by meets Churchill pri­vate­ly over mat­ters of mutu­al interest.

Churchill also appears in ear­li­er episodes, por­trayed by Andy Nyman and Richard McCabe. Nyman has bare­ly a bit role. McCabe offers us a Churchill engaged in sketch­ing naked women, plan­ning to use Shel­by in an assas­si­na­tion plot, and then doing away with him. Cast­ing Churchill as a vil­lain is all too easy these days. (We get still get mes­sages about the deaths he caused in the Ben­gal Famine, which he actu­al­ly tried to alleviate.)

But Maskell por­trays a cred­i­ble Churchill. The make­up helps, giv­en that Shel­by is 45 and Churchill sup­posed to be 60. The crease in WSC’s fore­head (from his 1931 traf­fic acci­dent), those quizzi­cal long stares, are exact­ly right. Maskell’s man­ner­isms are excel­lent. The close-ups are bet­ter than the full fig­ure shots: the top hat is out of place and worn too high. Unfor­tu­nate­ly the script man­ages to dis­tort Churchill’s persona.

Mischaracterizations

The pri­ma­ry gaffe relates to Churchill’s char­ac­ter. He wouldn’t have lord­ed over anoth­er man for being less­er born than he. That sim­ply was not his style. Nor did WSC view the British fas­cist Oswald Mosley as a seri­ous threat to peace. To Churchill, the big threat was Adolf Hitler. On the oth­er hand, “Peaky Blind­ers” gets Churchill’s col­le­gial­i­ty toward oppo­nents exact­ly right. Tom­my Shel­by is a Labour MP who has infil­trat­ed Mosley’s Union of Fas­cists to spy on them. Churchill con­grat­u­lates him, prais­ing his courage, and also admires his ora­to­ry in Parliament.

Minor errors are what “Peaky Blind­ers” implies about Churchill’s drink­ing and sleep­ing habits. In the clip, Tom­my pours WSC a gen­er­ous tot of neat whisky. Churchill sniffs that it’s Irish, not Scotch, which he might well have done. But he would nev­er drink that much neat whisky, what­ev­er its ori­gin. He is said to have warned against drink­ing undi­lut­ed spir­its. That was not, in his view, the key to a long life.

Churchill’s ordi­nary tip­ple was invari­ably a tum­bler full of water with a drib­ble of Scotch. As a young offi­cer in India and Africa, he’d learned to add whisky to detox taint­ed water. “By dili­gent effort,” he wrote, “I learned to like it.” A pri­vate sec­re­tary referred to this dis­mal con­coc­tion as “Scotch-flavoured mouth­wash.” The gullible thought WSC nursed a full-strength high­ball all day. (And it amused him when peo­ple believed that.)

One more triv­ial detail Churchillians will catch: he nev­er lit cig­ars with a cig­a­rette lighter. He pre­ferred a can­dle, or at least a long wood­en match.

Churchill on sleep

“Peaky Blind­ers” has Churchill declar­ing he had trou­ble sleep­ing. That is incor­rect, as he wrote in his own words. From Churchill by Him­selfpages 530-31:

In a long life I have had many ups and downs. Dur­ing all the war soon to come and in its dark­est times I nev­er had any trou­ble in sleep­ing.… I could always flop into bed and go to sleep after the day’s work was done.… I slept sound and awoke refreshed, and had no feel­ings except appetite to grap­ple with what­ev­er the morning’s box­es might bring. (WSC, The Gath­er­ing Storm, Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1948, 201.)

An excep­tion, Churchill con­tin­ued, was when Antho­ny Eden resigned from the Cham­ber­lain gov­ern­ment on  20 Feb­ru­ary 1938. That one night, he admit­ted, sleep elud­ed him:

[Eden] seemed to me at this moment to embody the life-hope of the British nation, the grand old British race that had done so much for men, and had yet some more to give. Now he was gone. I watched the day­light slow­ly creep in through the win­dows, and saw before me in men­tal gaze the vision of Death. (Gath­er­ing Storm, 201.)

How to get the most from a day

To Wal­ter Graeb­n­er, his Life mag­a­zine edi­tor, Churchill explained how he extract­ed so much from every 24 hours. This required get­ting to sleep for an hour in the afternoon:

You must sleep some time between lunch and din­ner, and no half-way mea­sures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That’s what I always do. Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep dur­ing the day. That’s a fool­ish notion held by peo­ple who have no imag­i­na­tion. You will be able to accom­plish more. You get two days in one—well, at least one and a half, I’m sure. (Ca. 1946 in Graeb­n­er in My Dear Mr. Churchill, page 55.)

In Cuba in 1895, WSC picked up the habit of sies­ta. I have actu­al­ly tried his rou­tine and can advise that with a valet, cook, gar­den­ers, but­ler, maids and sec­re­taries, it is quite eas­i­ly accom­plished. (Mrs. Lang­worth, asked to serve in all those capac­i­ties, demurred. I sim­ply can’t imag­ine why.) See “Churchill’s Dai­ly Rou­tine,” 2020.

Red Herrings: “Damn everybody”

With embar­rass­ment, because I’ve quot­ed it myself, I can find no reli­able attri­bu­tion to one Churchill crack about how he got to sleep: “I just get into bed, say ‘damn every­body,’ and then I go right off.” If he said this to Wal­ter Graeb­n­er (as I thought), it was not record­ed. I would be grate­ful if any read­er can find doc­u­men­ta­tion. For now it remains a line Churchill nev­er said.

* Churchill appearances in “Peaky Blinders”

From IMDB’s list of “Peaky Blind­ers” episodes:

Andy Nyman appears in Sea­son 1, Episodes 1, 2 and 6 (2013).

Richard McCabe appears in Sea­son 2, Episodes 1 and 2 (2014).

Neil Maskell appears in Sea­son 5, Episodes 4 and 6 (2019); and in Sea­son 6, Episode 2 (2022).

Further reading

“Churchill’s Dai­ly Rou­tine,” 2020

“All the Quotes Win­ston Churchill Nev­er Said,” Part 1, 2018

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