Churchill’s Secret, from MASTERPIECE, brings us back to the summer of 1953, when Winston Churchill suffered a stroke so serious that his aides kept it a complete secret from the public. Michael Gambon stars as Churchill, and a bunch of Drama Club favorites also make appearances, including Sherlock’s Lindsay Duncan, Howards End’s Matthew Macfadyen, Downton Abbey’s Daisy Lewis and Silk’s Alex Jennings.
Because Churchill spends much of the film in his sick bed, the characters around him are given more time to shine than any other movie about Churchill that I’ve seen, which usually focus on his political achievements. This film is a behind-the-scenes look at the personal side of a monumental historic figure. Here are 10 things I learned while watching the film.
1. 1953 was a pivotal time in British history and its foreign relations.
When his stroke strikes, Churchill is guiding Britain through a recovery from two world wars. And amid a developing Cold War with the Soviet Union, relations between the United State and the UK were never more important. The young Queen Elizabeth II had just been crowned, presenting the UK an opportunity to shape a new image on the world stage.
2. Many Britons thought it was time for Churchill to step down.
Even before his illness, Churchill faced calls to step aside and allow new leaders to take the reigns. He was serving in his second term as Prime Minister and was 78 years old. Many government leaders expected Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden to be Churchill’s successor.
3. Everyone around Churchill kept his illness hidden.
Only a small circle of people knew about his dire condition — family, a doctor, nurse, some close colleagues — but it was a nearly complete secret to everyone else. The public, press, Cabinet and Parliament members were all kept in the dark. Some aides worried they were “trampling all over the Constitution.” At a pivotal time in history, they admitted that the country would be better off to avoid a brewing political debate about succession.
4. Throughout his life, Churchill alienated his family through his work ethic, but they stood by his side throughout his illness.
During his recovery, Churchill’s wife Clementine, daughters and son debate with his government colleagues about whether he should go back to politics if he gets better. His aides want him to continue working toward world peace, but his wife, Clementine, wants Churchill to finally retire and spend more time with his family. “My husband’s ambition runs people over, and it comes at a cost, often to those closest to him,” she says about Churchill’s long career in the public eye.
5. Churchill had a romantic side.
Churchill’s relationship with Clementine is often tested, especially as he struggles to recover from his stroke. Nevertheless, their marriage is the emotional foundation for the film. “I can face everything with you. Russians, Tories, even death itself,” Churchill says to Clementine in his signature dramatic flair.
6. Churchill’s children struggled mightily with having a famous father.
As they spend time together at the family home, Churchill’s children fight about the effects of their father’s fame on their lives, like who they would marry or their reckless behavior appearing in the press. Churchill’s son Randolph struggles the most as he reckons with his complicated feelings about their relationship.
7. The death of a young daughter haunted Churchill.
On the day of his stroke, Churchill’s doctor notices that he is singing a child’s lullaby. Later in the film, Churchill’s wife reveals that it was a song he sang to Marigold, his fourth child, who died at two years old of septicemia. Clementine is wracked by guilt that she wasn’t there when she got sick.
8. He beat the medical odds.
Soon after his stroke left him incapacitated, Churchill and his wife Clementine re-locate to their country home in Kent. His doctor tells the family that Churchill “may not last the weekend,” and at the very least would suffer paralysis and permanent brain damage. It wasn’t his first stroke, and it wouldn’t be his last, but Churchill made a miraculous recovery.
9. Stopping the development of nuclear weapons was key to world peace, in Churchill’s view.
As Britain faced a Cold War and growing nuclear tensions across the world, Churchill didn’t want to give up on his mission, despite sickness and old age. “What scares me is getting to the end before I finish,” Winston says as he slowly begins to recover. “I can try to make those terrible bombs obsolete before I die. Can’t my last victory be one of peace?”
10. Although he was powerful, he wasn’t driven by power.
Churchill eventually recovers and makes it back to office, where he stays for another two years. The film portrays him as being driven by his mission of peace, not personal gain: “If I stay on for the time being, it’s not because of love of power or office,” he says in a speech. “I’ve had an ample share of both. If I stay, it is because I have a feeling that I may have an influence on what I care about above all else — the building of a sure and lasting peace.”
Watch Churchill's Secret Tuesday, July 28 at 9:00pm on WGBX 44 and stream it on PBS Passport.