Finest Hour 180, Spring 2018
By Piers Brendon
The recent Channel 4 documentary “Churchill’s Secret Mistress” asserted, but did not establish, that the great man had an affair with Doris, the wife of Viscount Castlerosse during the mid-1930s. The evidence that two well-qualified historians, Warren Dockter and Richard Toye, produced to make the case for this adultery is flimsy and circumstantial, whereas Churchill gave a lifelong demonstration of his faithful devotion to his wife Clementine.
Having been Keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge and written much about Churchill and the inter-war period, I was interviewed for the documentary myself. During filming, I explained my reasons for disbelieving in the alleged liaison.
I noted that the allegation rests on two pieces of testimony. The first is a 1985 tape-recording in which Sir John Colville, one of Churchill’s wartime private secretaries, asserted that Churchill “certainly had an affair.” The second is a family tradition expounded by Lady Castlerosse’s niece, based on confidences shared with her relations at the time, that Doris did indeed become Churchill’s mistress.
All this is second-hand and threadbare. Colville did not come to know Churchill until 1940 and by 1985, two years before his death, was notoriously vague. If Colville’s words had been broadcast in full, they would have shown that he could not remember Doris Castlerosse’s name, got muddled about other details, and told a most implausible story about how Clementine supposedly found out about her husband’s “little fling.”
Colville was not above repeating gossip, and he may have simply confused Winston with Randolph Churchill, one of many who did have an affair with Doris. Colville may even have been transposing Churchill’s outrageous latter-day flirtation with Colville’s own wife Meg, about which Clementine wrote with some amusement. No mention was made in the documentary that Doris was a wholly unreliable witness, who by her own confession was given to making “absurd misstatements.” She relied on attracting wealthy lovers to fund her extravagance, and she may well have tried adding to her allure as a femme fatale by whispering that the famously monogamous Churchill was one of her conquests.
The experienced producer Richard Sanders pronounced my interview great. Dockter reckoned that it gave the programme essential balance. One of the cameramen even remarked that I had converted him. But Channel 4 maintained that the case for Churchill’s infidelity was so compelling that there was no room for dissent. So my interview was cut, to the embarrassment of Sanders and the chagrin of Dockter, who both contacted me to apologise. Channel 4 committed the professional communicator’s cardinal sin of not allowing inconvenient facts and arguments to get in the way of a good story. Readers of Finest Hour know better and will find a full version of this article on the website of the Churchill Archives Centre.