September 11, 2016
Watching CHURCHILL'S SECRET
A PBS Docudrama Reconnects Us To Churchill's Stroke Year
This Sunday, September 11, PBS will broadcast Churchill’s Secret, an extremely well-produced Masterpiece docudrama that captures quite electrifyingly the stroke that felled Churchill in June 1953 and almost killed him. Michael Gambon, the great British thespian, inhabits Churchill honorably, and Lindsay Duncan conjures a luminous Clementine. Many of the exteriors were filmed at Chartwell itself.
We highly recommend that you tune in.
The stroke struck Churchill on the evening of June 23, 1953 during a dinner party at Downing Street. Within days, the Prime Minister was partly paralyzed. His physician, Lord Moran, held out scant hope for Churchill’s surviving the weekend. His condition was kept a secret from all but Queen Elizabeth and a few political intimates.
Somehow Churchill lived. As the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook, later remarked, “He refused to accept defeat: as he had done for the nation in 1940, so he did for his own life in 1953. He was determined to recover.” “Of course I know that I’m nearly eighty and that I may get another stroke any day,” Churchill told Lord Moran. “. . . But my health is no excuse for evading all these great issues, just because one doesn’t know the answers . . . It would be cowardice to run away at such a time.”
What did Churchill publish during this infamous, stroke-blasted year?
Clearly, the most prominent volume was his fourth post-war speech compendium, Stemming The Tide, which collected speeches from 7 February 1951 through 11 December 1952, a period that encompassed Churchill’s return as Prime Minister, battling with Labour over its socialist agenda, as well as debates on Red China and the Korean War. Eerily enough, Stemming The Tide was published just two days after the stroke, on June 25.
Churchill also contributed an Introduction and a Preface, respectively, to two intriguingly titled books authored by others that year:
Science and Fruit was a Jubilee anniversary volume commemorating 50 years of the Long Ashton Research Station at the University of Bristol, where Churchill was then Chancellor.
An Idea Conquers the World was a memoir by one Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, a diplomat whom Churchill championed in his preface as the single figure most identified with the rescucitation of “the Pan-European idea,” or, as Churchill liked to call it, “a United States of Europe.”
We all know what union that ultimately led to.
Just days ago, a signed First English Edition set of Churchill’s Second World War memoirs arrived at the store with a signature that seems retrospectively to reflect on the pace of Churchill's post-stroke recovery.
Signed “Winston S. Churchill” on the title page of Volume I, the set includes a presentation note on 10, Downing Street, Whitehall notepaper, dated “6th January 1954,” from Winston Churchill’s Personal Private Secretary Elizabeth Gilliatt to the American philosopher Norman Malcolm:
Dear Mr. Malcolm,
I now return your copy of THE GATHERING STORM, which the Prime Minister was very glad to inscribe for you. He is sorry to have kept it so long.
Churchill was, of course, still less than a year removed from his stroke when he signed this book. His signature betrays not a tremor, and is too distinctive to be secretarial, with the wide sweeping “C” supplanting the middle “S” initial in a particularly effusive signing style that Churchill rarely employed after the 1930s.
In a sense, its deployment here represents a revisiting of his past, if not a return to his prime. It is all the more remarkable simply because it is there.