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New drama Churchill’s Secret details one of Britain’s biggest cover-ups

Heartbreaking and completely unexpected, the television film about Winston Churchill’s battle with illness and the cover-up it sparked shows growing old is not for cowards.
Lindsay Duncan as Clementine Churchill and Michael Gambon as the British prime minister in Churchill’s Secret. Courtesy ITV Choice
Lindsay Duncan as Clementine Churchill and Michael Gambon as the British prime minister in Churchill’s Secret. Courtesy ITV Choice

What is left to say about Winston Churchill?

Larger than life when he walked the Earth, Britain’s cigar-loving wartime leader has – with each biography, movie, novel and play since his passing in 1965 at the age of 90 – been built up into a near-mythical titan of the 20th century. You might think that every aspect of his life has been raked over countless times.

But there is one part of his life that remains relatively unknown. Heartbreaking and completely unexpected, it is laid bare in Churchill’s Secret, a television film that debuts tonight on ITV Choice.

In the summer of 1953, Churchill – British prime minister for the second time and in his late 70s – suffered a severe stroke that left him paralysed. In a move that would be impossible in modern-day politics, his condition was kept secret from the British people, world leaders and even members of the British parliament.

It triggered political and family crises. With the Cold War escalating, Britain could ill afford to show even a moment of weakness to the world.

On a more personal level, Churchill’s long-suffering wife, Clementine, desperately hoped the illness would force her beloved bulldog, should he recover, to retire, so they could at last spend time together.

With his Conservative government in a tailspin, political friends and foes plotted behind his back to replace him.

“Winston, the great warrior, believes he has one final political mission to achieve – to find a way out of the Cold War and the threat of mutually assured destruction and deliver world peace,” says executive producer Hal Vogel. “He believes only he can broker a detente with the Russians.

“Winston’s political allies are faced with a dilemma: tell the public and risk ending any hope of Winston returning to office and achieving his last great political ambition, or say nothing and risk huge political embarrassment should Winston die.

“So what did they do? What politicians do best. They covered it up [with] the help of the press barons.”

What elevates Churchill’s Secret from a run-of-the-mill docudrama to a poignant real-life human drama is a great ensemble cast and the way the story is told. It is seen through the eyes of an outsider to the political establishment – his young, down-to-earth nurse Millie Appleyard. She is a fictional character created by novelist Jonathan Smith, whose book The Churchill Secret: KBO was adapted for the film. (KBO stands for Churchill’s old motto: Keep Buggering On.)

Millie, played by Romola Garai, gives us a first-hand look at Churchill’s battle to recover, as well as the escalating tensions at home.

Stepping into Churchill’s shoes is no small challenge, and here it falls to Michael Gambon, one of Britain’s most celebrated stars of stage and screen.

His career spans more than 50 years, including acclaimed TV work in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (1986) and Stephen Poliakoff’s The Lost Prince (2003), and in films such as Gosford Park (2001) and as Albus Dumbledore (taking over the role from the late Richard Harris) in the Harry Potter series.

“So here I am – terrified,” says the 75-year-old. “It’s very frightening, acting. The older you get, the better you get but the more frightened you become. I do, anyway. It’s frightening playing someone as famous as Churchill.

“You can play King Lear – no one knows anything about him. I’ve played all those parts. Shakespeare, Stratford, all that. Playing those roles doesn’t seem to matter as much as Winston Churchill, who we all know immediately, don’t we? But you’ve got to do your own thing, really. Do what you think.”

Olivier and Tony Award-­winning Scottish actress Lindsay Duncan (Rome, Birdman), who plays Clementine Churchill, adds: “It’s clear that at this point Clemmie would cheerfully duck out of public life and, equally, would like that for Winston. I think she felt, politically and in terms of his reputation, he had done very well and maybe it was time to bow out.”

Churchill lived another decade, which fascinates Garai.

“That was so unexpected ... a medical anomaly,” she says. “Even by today’s standards it’s remarkable, and there’s been a lot of interest from medical academics into how he managed to get better. The only thing I think people can really put it down to is his will, his force of character.”

• Churchill’s Secret is at 5.30pm on Monday, February 29, on ITV Choice, which is exclusively available on OSN


Updated: February 28, 2016 04:00 AM