Michael Gambon is magnetic as Winston Churchill in this tale of how the great leader’s second term as Prime Minister was almost derailed by a serious illness kept hidden from public view.

It’s June 1953 and as Western Europe continues piecing itself back together after the devastation of World War II, Soviet Russia has just displayed its military might by successfully testing its first H-bomb.

In mid-flow in an after-dinner speech at Downing Street to a delegation led by his Italian counterpart Alcide de Gasperi, Prime Minister Churchill uncharacteristically trips over his lines and slumps back into his chair. As the guests are ushered into a drawing room, Churchill’s close aides realise the PM has suffered a mild stroke.

At the insistence of his wife Clemmie (Lindsay Duncan), Winston is whisked away to the family home at Chartwell in Kent where, after a second, life-threatening episode, he’ll spend the summer recess attempting to recuperate.

Although Cabinet is informed about Churchill’s condition—and plots are swiftly hatched to install Anthony Eden as his successor—Winston’s press-baron cronies agree to keep the story out of the papers.

Even the rest of parliament is kept in the dark as Winston faces the sternest test in his determined fight to leave a legacy as a key player in establishing a peaceful new world order.

 

“Such is the human scale of this wistful family drama about ageing, illness and bloody-mindedly carrying on.”

 

At his side throughout the summer is the capable and plain-spoken Yorkshire nurse Millie Appleyard (Romola Garai).

There’s dramatic licence here, as records now show that in reality Churchill was attended by a whole team of carers, but Garai brings a steely sweetness to the role.

We witness a believable dynamic between the cantankerous patient and no-nonsense nurse as they develop a mutual fondness and devise a path to a remarkable recovery.

In a side plot, Millie faces a choice between emigrating to Australia to join her fiancé as a housebound wife or staying put to carve out her own career in the still-emerging NHS. It’s fair to assume that some of Winnie’s resolve – combined with a certain amount of retroactive social conditioning—rubs off.

 

Michael Gambon and Lindsay Duncan
Michael Gambon and Lindsay Duncan as the Churchills

 

Millie is imported from the Jonathan Smith novel on which this ITV drama is based, and she certainly throws a more contemporary light on the surface proceedings that were essentially an old boys’ network stitch-up.

Lindsay Duncan’s weary, dignified and fiercely loyal Clemmie is also touchingly portrayed, especially when Winston is at his most feeble.

Matthew Macfadyen’s Randolph (Churchill’s son), and sisters Diana, Sarah and Mary (Tara Fitzgerald, Rachael Stirling and Daisy Lewis) demonstrate the impossibility of living up to the Churchill name with some memorable drink-fuelled squabbling and moments of scathing cruelty among themselves and to outsiders.

The confrontation with death and mortality stirs flashbacks to the tragic death of the Churchills’ fourth child Marigold, who succumbed to a blood infection before her third birthday. Winston is haunted by their lost daughter’s favourite song, but still neither parent can yet give voice to their unceasing sorrow.

Looking inward and reflecting on finding himself suddenly old, Winston comments, “it’s such a strange thing to happen to a little boy.” Such is the human scale of this wistful family drama about ageing, illness and bloody-mindedly carrying on.

 

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