Churchill’s Secret

A Medical Analysis of the New Drama from ITV,
By JOHN H. MATHER, MD

Gambon Churchill

First broadcast in Britain on 29 February of this year, Churchill’s Secret is a dramatization of Jonathan Smith’s 2015 novel The Churchill Secret, KBO (reviewed in Finest Hour 168) and starring Sir Michael Gambon as Sir Winston Churchill. It tells the story of Churchill’s 1953 stroke and subsequent recovery. A review of the film as drama will appear in the spring issue of Finest Hour, but The Churchill Centre also invited Dr. John H. Mather (a physician who has made specialized studies of Churchill’s medical history) to provide a professional medical analysis of the film.

While the stroke Churchill suffered in June 1953 was kept a well-organized secret at the time, it has not been a secret since 1966 when Lord Moran published his account of the twenty-five years he served as Churchill’s primary physician. The first glaring error in this drama, however, is the complete omission of the improbably named Lord Brain, Churchill’s neurologist since 1949, when Churchill suffered his first stroke. Lord Brain also saw the patient in the interim for episodes of Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIAs) or brief interruptions of the blood circulation to the brain. These transient episodes were also kept hidden from the public at the time.

The portrayal in the film of the 1953 stroke (including the dragging of Churchill’s left foot as he is carted into Chartwell) far exceeds the severity supported by the medical files of Lords Brain and Moran. The medical record shows that Churchill had a steady and relatively quick recovery and was never in a prolonged state of a left hemiparesis (loss of power and sensation of the left arm and leg.) Certainly he never suffered total paralysis as implied by this production. And the notion that Churchill’s brain was so befuddled that he then did a lot of humming of nursery rhymes during his convalescence is completely contradicted by the medical evidence recorded by both his physicians.

Although Churchill’s speech articulation was impaired for several days, his powers of oratory recovered in time for him to deliver a triumphal speech to the annual Conservative Party Conference the following October, as can still be seen in the newsreel made at the time. In the film Churchill is shown to have accomplished this by his indomitable will and sheer determination. Fine, but Lord Moran had previously tested him with a dose of amphetamines to see if it had any adverse effects. It did not. So, Churchill was buoyed by another administration on the day of his speech, commenting to Moran afterwards: “It was a great success. It cleared my head and gave me great confidence.”

Perhaps the most objectionable feature of this dramatization, though, is the introduction of a fictitious character, Ms. Appleyard, as a nurse who is brought in from St. Mary’s Hospital (Lord Moran had been Dean of the medical school there until 1935) to attend the stricken prime minister. Her performance is high drama, but in fact a series of nurses had been continually attending Churchill since his first stroke in 1949. Following the 1953 episode, a larger number were brought in to take care of his basic medical needs and activities of daily living. A single nurse would not have been adequate, and the drama obfuscates the work of a dedicated group of medical professionals.

So what might we conclude? Watch the film and enjoy it as entertainment—and maybe have some fun finding other gaffs—but do not get overly wrought up about its inadequacies. It is media hype, maybe not at its worst, but close.

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