Churchill’s Secret Uncovered

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Actors Sir Michael Gambon and Romola Garai—who play Winston Churchill and Millie Appleyard in the film Churchill’s Secret—have a relationship as lighthearted on-screen as they do off.

Here, the two come together in this exclusive interview to talk about the film, Albus Dumbledore, and the necessity of secret keeping. Also hear from the film’s director, Charles Sturridge, on bringing this remarkable and true story to life.

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Jace Lacob (Jace): MASTERPIECE Studio is brought to you by Audible. For a free trial, go to

Jace: I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

Though it reads more like the plot of an episode of The West Wing, the true story of Churchill’s 1953 stroke is the subject of the biopic “Churchill’s Secret.”

The film explores Churchill’s relationships to his work and ambition, to his family, and to his fictional nurse, Millie Appleyard.

Millie: If you rely on your right side to walk and to pick things up, then your left side will never recover. You’ll walk like a listing ship.
Churchill: A lisping s**t?
Millie: A listing ship. Wash your ears out and your mouth too.

Jace: While Millie is a fictional character, actor Romola Garai, who plays Mille Appleyard, and Sir Michael Gambon, who plays Winston Churchill, share a relationship as lighthearted on-screen as it is off.

Michael: She talks more than I do. She talks a lot.
Romola: Yeah, near constant.
Michael: Yeah, constantly talking. I just say very little.
Romola: Yeah.
Michael: But I’ll say a lot today I think.

Jace: Today, Sir Michael Gambon and Romola Garai take us behind the scenes of Churchill’s Secret.

And later, we’ll hear from the film’s director, Charles Sturridge, on bringing this incredible story to the screen.

Jace: This week we are joined by Romola Garai and Sir Michael Gambon, welcome.

Michael Gambon (Michael): Pleasure.

Romola Garai (Romola): Hi, nice to meet you.

Jace: This isn’t the first time that you two have appeared onscreen together. MASTERPIECE fans will recall that you played Emma and Mr. Woodhouse in Emma a few years back. What is it like working together again?

Michael: It’s very nice.

Romola: It was awful.

Michael: It’s not awful. It’s very nice. It’s very nice.

Jace: There’s a sense by some in the household that feel that Millie is in love with Winston Churchill, but their dynamic is not that simplistic. How would you describe the relationship between Millie Appleyard and Winston Churchill?

Romola: Well it changes a lot over the course of the film. I think she comes into meeting this monolithic character with the appropriate level of awe that I think an audience member can really connect to. But I think as she begins to nurse him, she’s able to relate to him much more as a patient, and I think she connects to him on a more human level through nursing him.

Jace: Now Churchill’s 1953 stroke remained a secret for a very long time. And this film offers a look at how a plain-spoken nurse could push this great leader back to health. What initially attracted both of you to the film?

Michael: Well I was terrified at the beginning when I read it, and I met the director because, it’s a, you know, it’s a famous role, isn’t it? But I just jumped in the water and relied on the director to tell me what to do, and felt the man and try to imagine what it was like — his shape, his body, the way he spoke, his accent slightly.

And it was like that. It was just an enjoyable period for me.

Jace: Does playing a role like Winston Churchill which has been– it’s a sort of a hugely iconic role. Is it more or less scary than playing a fictional beloved character like Dumbledore?

Michael: It’s much more worrying. He’s not well because he’s had a stroke. I don’t really know. I can’t really explain. It’s all sort of in the body, isn’t it? My memory of it. But I think I did…

Romola: He was such…His physicality is so distinctive: his voice and physicality.

Michael: Yeah. For the first while, I didn’t have much to do. I’m lying in bed with a terrible stroke. I was unable to…

Romola: But that’s really hard. You always say like, “You know, I was just lying down.” But we all know that like doing anything where you’re having to kind of restrict your facial muscles is really difficult.

Michael: Yes. That’s right. He speaks a lot. He can’t pronounce the words properly. That goes on a lot.

I was obsessed all the time in making this film by his accent because it’s a famous voice, isn’t it?

Romola: Yeah.

Michael: I kept trying to get it. In the end you realize it doesn’t really matter. I don’t think anyway. I might be wrong in saying that. The director wasn’t angry. He seemed to be quite happy with it.

Romola: They did a very… I wasn’t in on the first day of shooting. They did the scene where Michael gives the speech to the Conservative party for the– for Margate at the end on the first day of shooting. And, I came in on day two and I said, “How’d it go yesterday? How was it?” And he, the director, Charles, just had a look in his eye of like, “This is going to be good.” Like he’d seen I think a really iconic scene in film already, and he was really happy with it.

Michael: Yeah. He’d seen a click off, doesn’t he?

Romola: Yeah.

Jace: Romola for you, what initially attracted you to the role of Millie?

Romola: Well I’m just very interested in any character that I play having a job. So when you’re character has a job in something that really defines them, it’s just immediately more interesting. It gives you more to play.

And I really loved what Steve, the writer, had done, which is quite a bold thing really, where he took, you know– The main thrust of the plot is that this iconic man who gave so much to his country… And then you see the enormous sacrifices that the family of great people make.

Sam: It was simpler when we were children, but the minute we had our own ideas, our own lives, and we stopped worshiping him, everything changed.
Clemmie: He loves you. He loves all of you.
Sam: No. He loves you because he needs you. I don’t know how much he needs the rest of us.

Romola: And he drew a sort of very delicate parallel with this girl, and the choice that she was making between her vocation and her possible fiancé. And I just wanted that…

Michael: Does she want to go to Australia?

Romola: Yeah, she wants to because I think she’s in love. But I thought it was– It’s not something you see very often to see a female character go, “Well, no. This is my… My career is my main love.”

Jace: Well, I think she looks at Clementine Churchill as a sort of cautionary tale.

Romola: Yeah.

Jace: Like “This is what happens when you sacrifice your own ambition, your own vocation for the man that you love.”

I mean is that– Do you see that as being the case here?

Romola: Yeah. I think as portrayed so amazingly by Lindsay Duncan, she sees a woman who feels, now that she’s at the end of her life, that she was always second best to the man that she loved, which is actually why I think it’s a much better portrait of Churchill than other pieces that have been more adoring and less sort of engaged with the complexity of men like that.

Michael: Yes. That was the bit I liked…He ceased to be Churchill — didn’t he? — When he collapsed and struggled his way… So I quite like that because it wasn’t the one you think of, was it, the character.

Jace: Churchill suffered a massive stroke while the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was undergoing surgery in Boston at that time, leaving the future of the government in jeopardy.

How critical of a time was this in Britain and did that necessitate the level of secrecy that’s involved here in conspiring to keep this a secret?

Romola: Well, they would’ve lost the election. There’s no question there. For the Conservatives, it would have been a complete disaster.

Michael: A heavy secret, wasn’t it?

Romola: Yeah, and essentially a time where, you know, the nuclear capacity– You know, it was the beginning of the Cold War. To say we don’t have a Head of State or a Deputy, that was actually dangerous, which is why what they did is kind of morally questionable.

Michael: A bit risky isn’t it?

Romola: But you can understand why they needed to. Yeah.

Jace: You touched on this very briefly before, but what were the physical and emotional challenges of playing a man that had just had a major stroke?

Michael: Well I– You’re done when that happens, aren’t you? He’s lying in bed, and he can’t speak. And then, I’m quite a long time in bed not doing anything.

Romola: You were doing a lot, Michael.

Michael: Was I? You know, you’re lying… When you’re doing something like this it goes into your brain and stays there, doesn’t it? So everything you do with your hands and your body, or your head, or your… all just automatically comes if you’re used to doing this sort of thing.

Jace: Well even your mouth: obviously you can’t speak out of half of your mouth.

Michael: No.

Jace: He’s slurs for that sort of big chunk of the movie.

Michael: Yeah.

Jace: I mean, I would think to be engaged in that level of commitment would be very exhausting even if you are just lying in bed as you say.

Michael: Yeah. It’s not so exhausting. It’s terrifying. (Laughs)

You think, “What people think of this?” But you just keep plotting on. And the director never says “That was wrong.” If the director’s on your side, you can see him, and that’s so helpful if you’re acting a part like that.

Romola: He was very supportive.

Michael: Deeply supportive.

Jace: Now, part of this was filmed on the grounds at Chartwell house itself. What is it like being in a film about the life of Winston Churchill and Clementine Churchill, and actually walking in the same place that they would have walked?

Michael: Not as impressive as I’d thought they’d be.

Romola: No, it’s a lovely view though.

Michael: It’s just a great view and it’s ordinary, isn’t it?

Romola: Yeah. Well yeah, that’s the thing, isn’t it. That was the house that he loved so much.

Michael: Yes.

Romola: And being there gives you a huge insight into the fact that he was not really interested in being viewed as wealthy, so much as powerful. Do you know what I mean? The house is actually quite a modern– I mean it’s obviously a huge house, but it’s not– As far as English country houses go, he could have… I mean he was born in…

Jace: Blenheim Palace.

Romola: …Blenheim Palace. Wasn’t he? I mean like he had been brought up in a much bigger house than Chartwell.

Jace: He’s one of the Marlboroughs.

Michael: He built all the brick walls in that house.

Romola: It’s quite modest really in that sense.

Jace: I mean he was a roll-up-your-sleeves sort of guy.

Romola: Yeah.

Michael: Yes. Absolutely.

Jace: Now, the film centers largely on Winston, Millie, and Clementine, played by Lindsay Duncan. We’ve touched on her before. How did the three of you work together here and what can you say about Lindsay’s performance as well?

Michael: We were just old friends, and we worked very well, didn’t we?

Romola: Yeah.

Michael: It just… It falls quite easily.

Romola: It’s hard sometimes when you work… because I’m a great admirer of Lindsay Duncan. I think she’s probably one of my favorite actresses. I’m sure I’ve said that in interviews before. Hard sometimes, working with people like that. You become very self-aware and…

Michael: There’s no need to be self-aware with her. She’s so…

Romola: No! She’s like obviously the most unassuming person in the world.

Michael: She’s deeply approachable.

Romola: Yeah. But she’s such an amazing actress that it can be quite distracting because, you know, it’s very hard to be anything other than an audi– You know, you’re watching her work thinking like, “How does she do it?”

Jace: Now, I want to talk sort of specifically about the plot.

Winston and Millie’s dynamic is much more than nurse and patient. You know, what are they to each other ultimately at the end?

Romola: I think they’ve become fond of each other.

Michael: Yes, very fond.

Jace: I mean I love the scene where Winston walks up to the attic even though he definitely should not be going up those stairs to give her the inscribed book.

Michael: Yes.

Churchill: I’ve written it in: “I thank whatever Gods may be for your unconquerable soul.”
Millie: Thank you. I will treasure it.

Jace: What was it like filming that scene and seeing how their rapport had really come to a place of real beauty and understanding?

Michael: I think Winston was deeply moved by her presence, when he comes round at the end; impressed by it and he is very fond of her.

He’s not used to this sort of thing.

Romola: Yeah. There’s a, as you said, a no nonsense element to Churchill. This is why he’s such an effective military leader. You know, he just sort of did what needed to be done, which is kind of what nurses are a lot at the time. You know, pragmatists.

Michael: He’s not used to moments like this, is he?

Romola: No. I don’t think either of them are like very emotional people in that way. Yeah.

Jace: I mean one of the things I loved was that it sort of was a collision of unstoppable force and immovable object between the two of you. That you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see, at this time, a nurse be able to stand up to Sir Winston Churchill. And she does magnificently, and that’s the thing that actually allows him to heal.

Churchill: I can’t squeeze it. I can’t. Why can’t I use my right hand?
Millie: Don’t shout at me.
Churchill: I’ll shout if I bloody well want to.

Jace: Now one of my favorite scenes is the scene at the pond between the two of you where you’re on the other side of the pond and you keep forcing him to shout louder and louder.

Michael: Funny that.

Jace: Which I love that scene. I love the croquet scene, and the walking scene where Clementine comes in and you’re helping Winston to walk and she takes over.

Michael: And I fall over.

Jace: What is– Do you have a favorite scene from Churchill’s Secret?

Romola: I love the scene with the children around the dinner table.

Clemmie: That’s enough drink, Randolph.
Randolph: I’d really like to see you try and stop me.
Clemmie: I know you would.
Randolph: You never stopped him drinking, did you? No you’d just sit by. You sit by. That’s what you do. And you watch the disasters unfold like the lives of these two intellectuals.
Mary: Don’t be so foul to mama.
Randolph: Shut up, Mrs. Simms. And then you have the audacity to say…

Romola: I think that’s amazing. You know, I wasn’t involved in that scene in a very kind of immediate way, so I was able to really watch those actors working.

I mean I found it incredibly moving to hear people talking about what it was like to grow up with him as their father, and to see this great man looked at from this sort of different perspective. I really– I enjoyed not being in that scene so I could watch them do it.

Michael: Yeah. Great.

Jace: There’s a beautiful scene between Millie and Clementine in which Millie says of her fiance…

Millie: I’m sorry it’s… It’s hard to explain, but the closer it gets to going, the more I think, “I don’t know why I’m putting his dreams before mine.”

Jace: You’ve been very outspoken about sexism and misogyny in the film and television industry. How often do characters come along that are just strong and not, I’m using air quotes here, “strong female characters?”

Romola: Um if you do period drama, you’re in a really good position, and that has been a lot of my work, because a lot of it is female-led and driven, and a big female audience and… So I’m quite lucky in that sense. The main problem is just representation. It’s just there’s not enough of them.

So you know, you can have a great character in a show, but you’ll still find almost across the board in every genre that it’s about a 70-30 split male to female. I think that’s just– that is the main problem. It’s not that they’re not there. There’s just not enough of them.

Jace: Okay. The final scene between Winston and Clementine in Winston’s dressing room.

Clemmie: Face them down, Winston.
Churchill: I can face anything with you. The Tories, Russians, even death itself.

Jace: He finally is able to say to her what he actually feels about her.

Michael: He loves her.

Jace: That he loves her. What was it like playing that moment with Lindsay?

Michael: Beautiful, wonderful moment. It didn’t take more than 15 minutes to shoot. Just her, me, sitting there. We naturally– Both of us cried a little bit.

Romola: You can really tell you guys have worked together a lot.

Michael: Yeah. I know her well. I know what a brilliant actress she is. There’s no real problem for me to look in her face and act.

Jace: Now, Millie’s listening to the speech obviously at Chartwell house. There’s a moment where Winston sort of almost verbally stumbles, and Millie stands there, and she listens, and she waits. When he does recover, that’s sort of the moment where she puts that card on the mantelpiece and decides, “I’m not going to Australia.” What is it about that moment that her decision is sort of hinging upon?

Romola: I mean what he did is still… What Churchill achieved overcoming that stroke, is still kind of a medical miracle. He probably had several strokes, and to recover from a series of massive strokes which severely affected his ability to speak and walk in five months without the benefit of medical and modern medicine is still really not understood, but what we do know is that he willed it so, you know. He made it into being with his will. I think that she recognizes that in that moment.

Jace: Yeah, no. I love that moment because she realizes inherently that each of us does have a choice. Winston has a choice. Clementine has a choice. And the choices they’re making sort of do decide the trajectory of their lives. In that moment, she realizes that she too has free will to act.

Romola: Yeah.

Jace: I love that.

Michael: Fantastic.

Jace: Are there any surprising or humorous behind-the-scene stories about the making of Churchill’s Secret that you could share?

Michael: I can’t think of any.

Romola: It was quite funny because Chartwell was not closed to the public when we were shooting there. Totally understandably. They, you know…

Michael: That’s was all right, wasn’t it?

Romola: But it was… It felt like being in a really expensive reenactment, you know, like… Because of course people were coming and paying the normal price of admission to the grounds, and then walking round to the back of the house to the croquet lawn, and Michael Gambon…

Michael: Watching us.

Romola: … is dressed as Churchill, and Lindsay Duncan, like two of the most famous actors in England, are dressed as Clem– And they’re acting out their life together.

And you could see people who, you know, may have been a bit disappointed to see that they were filming there, that there were going to be parts of the house that they couldn’t get to, suddenly go like, “This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening.”

Jace: What’s next for both of you? What are you working on next?

Michael: I’m supposed to be doing a film but I can’t remember what it’s called. And I’m not sure when it is.

Romola: You are so valuable for press.

Michael: Yeah. What about you? You’re…

Romola: I’m not doing anything. No. I just did a play, so I’m tired.

Jace: So you’re taking a break?

Romola: Yeah.

Jace: Well deserved.

Romola: Thank you.

Jace: Thank you both so much.

Romola: Thank you very much.

Michael: No, thank you.

Jace: Even a seasoned actor like Sir Michael Gambon admits that playing certain characters — like Winston Churchill — can be tricky.

But it always helps to have a supportive director by your side.

Charles Sturridge, the director of Churchill’s Secret, talks with us about offering that support and what it took to bring the high-profile project to life.

Jace: Welcome.

Charles Sturridge (Charles): Hi.

Jace: So MASTERPIECE began it’s run in 1971 with the first Churchills, which offered a portrait of Winston Churchill’s ancestors, the Marlboroughs. Is it fitting in its 45th year, that MASTERPIECE should offer a portrait of Churchill himself?

Charles: Let’s hope so. The… I mean Churchill is a much mined topic basically, I mean cinema and television… And truthfully, when the project came to me, and it came to me as a script, I kind of thought, “Do I need to see another Churchill film?”

And I was sucked into the story and I hope, in the end, that it is fitting that PBS shows another film about Churchill after all this time. There’s nothing else in between, so if this is only our second Churchill film, you’re behind the curve, I think.

Jace: Now, how important was it that we see how living with a larger than life figure, such as Churchill, might affect the people around him?

Charles: That was certainly one of the things that drew me to the telling of the story, and it kind of, in a way, looks at what happens if you have a superhero as a dad. I mean that you’re part of the familial group where the father is effectively off saving the world and not in some instances saving you. And the film crystallizes some of that pain.

Jace: Part of this was filmed on the grounds of Chartwell house itself in Kent. I mean what are the challenges and advantages of shooting around both a National Trust Place, and the place where Winston and Clementine lived?

Charles: The challenges are significant because Chartwell– there are tourists going through that house literally every day of the week, there’s no day off, so that as the whole film is set in Chartwell, we didn’t use it for every scene in the film; effectively the real Chartwell is mostly the exterior.

But there was something more extraordinary there, which is that at almost every moment, when, for example, Michael as Churchill is being dragged from the car after he’s had his second stroke and his foot is trailing along the ground, we were all very conscience that he was trailing along exactly the same piece of gravel that the actual foot trailed along, and that you were literally walking through the exact same spots, which was very emotionally connecting to the story.

Jace: Now, the character of Millie Appleyard is a fictional one…

Charles: Yeah.

Jace: …drawn from Jonathan Smith’s book, on which this is based. What should the audience make of Millie, who seems to be all that is standing between Churchill and maybe death?

Charles: Well Millie is crucial to the telling of the story to have, in this rather extraordinary family, to have somebody who was, in a sense, ordinary, who viewed the family with the same kind of wonder as we do.

I kind of felt she was a bit like me coming into script, that she should come in suspicious of the family, not really wanting to like anybody, and then she should discover the virtues, and the vices, at the same time we did, which I love, and I am in awe of it as a performance.

And then, Lindsay Duncan is Clemmie, who I knew but had never worked with. And Clemmie very much is the emotional center of the film, but she doesn’t, she’s not very demonstrative in a sense, in some of the key scenes, she almost says nothing, basically, and that’s part of what she gets attacked for, and yet, Lindsay produces this thrillingly powerful performance, which manages to be both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

Clemmie: I begged you to retire after the war. You only stopped because they voted you out.
Churchill: The people didn’t understand.
Clemmie: The people were exhausted. So was I. And I am now.
Churchill: Clemmie…

Charles: You know in the kind of central emotional argument of the film, which is about, “What’s more important, who you love or what you do?” She and Romola have this, not exactly rivalry, but they both recognize in each other in each other the struggle that they have had, as to whether to assert their own independence or, on some level, not to give in to, but to be subsumed into their partners ambition.

Jace: You mentioned how Lindsay doesn’t necessarily say a lot during these scenes, I want to talk about the dining room scene where Clementine is sort of surrounded by the adult Churchill children. Can you talk about that scene and what it was like actually filming it?

Charles: It took a day and half to shoot, but in that period… It’s difficult to explain this, and I’m not sure I’m going to explain it exactly right: I felt ill basically shooting it, because I was being emotionally moved by people I didn’t like very much, and was very exhausting…

Jace: I mean even for Randolph, we see him a few minutes earlier being so awful to Jacques, but then you do feel deeply, deeply for this man knowing what he must have suffered having Winston as his father.

Randolph: Everything we do reflects on him. Everything he does reflects on us. We are… We are moons to the big planet. We’re one being. And now with him sick in there, sick and dying. With him near the end– With him near the e– With him near the– (Cries)

Charles: Randolph was, I think, a nightmare to meet. I talked to a lot of people who’d met him. I talked to his children and grandchildren. He was a frightening man, particularly to a child.

People always say, particularly broadcasters at the beginning when you’re doing a new project, “What’s the relevance of this story to us today? Why are we telling this story?” And you’ve got to like think of some daft reason why it’s relevant. The reason it’s relevant is because it’s about human beings, and we’re human beings and we learn about ourselves by seeing how human beings operate.

There’s a moment at the end of the scene where he’s crying because he can’t talk, basically; he doesn’t have language to explain his problem, but you, as the audience, can kind of communicate.

Jace: Ultimately, what is the message or lesson that you hope viewers take away from Churchill’s Secret?

Charles: I think that you see an unexpected, original, and visionary mind that you don’t normally see. And then the familial side of it, which is the damage caused to those close to you if you effectively are obsessed with something that is outside your group, which in some level we all are. That struggle, the internal struggle, is also very important.

Jace: Only two more weeks until Poldark returns to MASTERPIECE with brand new episodes.

Subscribe to the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast on iTunes or Stitcher for FREE and receive early access to our tell-all interviews with the cast of the show.

You’ll get the lowdown from Eleanor Tomlinson who plays the fiery Demelza Poldark:

Eleanor Tomlinson: Period drama is all about, you know, etiquette, and how you should behave at the time and she doesn’t conform to any of that.

Jace: And you’ll hear from the scything super-star himself, Aidan Turner:

Aidan Turner: And it was my idea. I mean, we were in field shooting this scene and we were rehearsing, and I had the shirt on (laughs) and I just said, “This is ridiculous. I mean, why would it… Why ruin a good shirt?”

Jace: So get out your phone or computer, open up your favorite podcast-listening app, type in “MASTERPIECE Studio,” and hit subscribe to follow along with us — and with the Poldark cast — as we watch all of the Season 2 drama unfold.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Rachel Aronoff.  Kathy Tu is our editor. Special thanks to Barrett Brountas and Nathan Tobey. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.

MASTERPIECE Studio is brought to you by Audible.

Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking River Cruises, Audible, and The MASTERPIECE Trust.



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