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.
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 Himself, pages 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).
“Churchill’s Daily Routine,” 2020
“All the Quotes Winston Churchill Never Said,” Part 1, 2018