Quick thoughts on PBS’s Churchill’s Secret:
It’s June 23, 1953 and 78-year-old British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was entertaining Italian guests at Downing Street at an event for Italy’s Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi when he had a stroke. After passing out, Churchill’s son-in-law, Christopher Soames, the MP for Bedford finds that the left side of the PM’s mouth was left drooping. They made excuses and rushed the Italians out of the residence.
Eventually, his condition worsened and he lost sensation on one half of his body and his speech was nearly unintelligible. His successor-in-waiting, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, was also in grave health. He was in the United States, having surgery to correct a botched operation — his bile duct damaged during a gall-stone operation. Churchill was preparing to go to Bermuda to meet President Dwight Eisenhower for a summit before he was hit by this tragedy. Churchill’s Secret is the story about his remarkable fight to recover, but also how his inner circle colluded with the government and some of the press (the Telegraph, the Express and the Financial Times) to keep the state of his health secret.
Hiding a leader’s health ailments has been a major part of other leaders’ stories as well. The closest American approximation to Churchill’s situation occurred in 1919 when an overworked President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke. Wilson’s wife, Edith, took the ruse much further, secretly acting as president in his stead. (And to a lesser degree, Americans didn’t know the extent of FDR’s paralysis and JFK’s Addison’s disease.)
Actor Michael Gambon is great as the irascible literature-quoting, cigar-smoking, whiskey-loving man struggling to bring his speech back and trying, with the help of a (fictional) maid (Romola Garai), to bring enough strength back to his left arm and leg so he could walk again. In one poignant scene, Churchill tells his nurse, “Growing old isn’t for cowards.” I’ll forever think of Gambon as LBJ in HBO’s marvelous Path to War (2002), but he’s in his finest hour here as well, in this adaptation of Jonathan Smith’s novel called “The Churchill Secret KBO” (Keep Buggering On), that imagines what went on during this clandestine crisis. Churchill’s wife, Clementine, is played exceptionally by Lindsay Duncan. But it might be Matthew Macfadyen that steals the show as the drunken, overwhelmed son Randolph, just one of the familial causalities of living with a larger-than-life father. His mean acerbic wit, to quote Shakespeare’s ‘Henry the Fifth’, mocks castle’s down — and families. The scene of Randolph arriving at Chartwell (where Churchill was being treated) shouldn’t be missed. He descends upon the house like a tornado, exposing all the long-held family fault-lines, leaving the entire household rocked to the core.
Note: The program airs in the U.S. on Masterpiece on PBS on Sunday, Sept. 11 at 8/7c. — David D. Robbins Jr.