Michael Gambon as Winston Churchill
When Charles Sturridge heard about Churchill’s Secret , his interest was not piqued.
“My first reaction was, ‘Do we really need another Churchill film?’” the director admits. But then he read the script. Having stumbled onto an “unexpected” and “intensely personal” piece of history, he realized his answer had to be a resounding “Yes!”
While most Churchill biopics focus on “the war-mongering” prime minister, Churchill’s Secret (premiering September 11 on PBS’s Masterpiece) recounts his 1953 stroke and recovery, which were hidden from the world. The Daybreak Pictures–Masterpiece coproduction for ITV sees the elderly statesman through a challenging summer in the house and gardens of his principal home, Chartwell.
“What I learned from this project was the virtue of a wholly untethered, original mind,” says Sturridge (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Shackleton). “Churchill’s obsessed with what he sees as a collision between Russia and America. And with the death of Stalin, he sees himself as the only grown-up left in the world — he has to fix it!
That’s what made Churchill remarkable. His interest was in the curve of the universe, not in balancing the budget or having a lovely afternoon.”
That may have done well for history, but the personal cost is clear as Churchill’s dysfunctional family descends on Chartwell for what could be a final goodbye.
“One thing that drew me to this story was seeing the Churchill family interact in such a deeply personal way,” Sturridge says. “We look at the devastation caused by having a superhero for Dad — someone who’s saving the world but isn’t always there for you. It gives you human insight into Churchill, as opposed to historical.”
With Churchill facing his family, political foes and mortality, Sturridge sought an actor who could embody the character, not merely imitate the icon. “I told Michael Gambon I wanted more than just a funny voice,” he recalls. “And the character he created consistently blew me away.”
Based on Jonathan Smith’s novel The Churchill Secret: KBO (with a screenplay by Stewart Harcourt), the story “is historically accurate… but it’s not a piece of pure history,” Sturridge explains.
One major fabrication: instead of a string of nameless nurses, one nurse cares for Churchill and becomes integral to the tale.
“Millie [Romola Garai] is our entry to the film,” he says. “She brings this charm and extraordinary sexiness to a girl who is not necessarily sympathetic to Churchill. But she’s slowly drawn into him as a person — as was I.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2016