No sooner had I admired the fair, balanced and accurate PBS docudrama Churchill’s Secret (on the Prime Minister’s June 1953 stroke) than I was grumbling through Netflix’s The Crown, which is, sadly, as often misleading as Churchill’s Secret was honest.
The production, said to be Netflix’s most costly to date, starts off well enough. Jared Harris is a convincing King George VI, capturing his established mannerisms and attitudes, his desperate illness. Alex Jennings is painfully accurate as his spoiled brother, the Duke of Windsor: petty, selfish, convinced he was victim of a family plot.
Claire Foy is an honest Elizabeth II, inherently intelligent but abysmally schooled, except in the Constitution—as indeed her biographers suggest. (Like the young Churchill, she engaged in a determined self-education.) Matt Smith is a less accurate Prince Philip, given to acting the foolish playboy, lamenting his emasculation as Queen Consort and making racist jibes at native warriors in Kenya. Vanessa Kirby is a believable Princess Margaret, though hardly, per the Radio Times, “The Princess Diana of her day.” Dame Harriet Walter is a graceful Clementine Churchill, though she gives the impression at times of a household staffer.
John Lithgow is a passable Churchill. He is good on the voice and mannerisms, minimizing his 6’4” stature with a body suit that gives him a stoop, but by sitting most of the time. Unfortunately, the words put in his mouth by the screenplay contribute to a cartoonish image far from reality.
We were soon simmering over Churchill’s fictitious jibes at Prime Minister Attlee—the old “empty taxi” and “sheep in sheep’s clothing” canards—and the implication that Churchill was drunk at the Coronation. Lithgow’s Churchill is invariably a wheezing old gaffer, clinging stubbornly to power, which may have been true at times after his 1953 stroke, but not earlier.
About that stroke: A whole episode is devoted to the Queen’s shock, after the fact, at learning that Churchill and his deputy, Anthony Eden, were simultaneously out of commission, and the country leaderless, in late June 1953. She summons Lord Salisbury (Clive Francis) and the Prime Minister himself, and gives them a dressing-down. After all, an adviser tells her, they are upper-class British schoolboys, used to a right good hiding by their nanny.
Except it never happened.
Three days after Churchill’s stroke, the Queen wrote from Edinburgh: “I am so sorry to hear from [private secretary] Tommy Lascelles that you have not been feeling too well these last few days. I do hope it is not serious and that you will be quite recovered in a very short time.” (Martin Gilbert, Never Despair 1946-1965, 852.)
Thrilled by her letter, Churchill replied the same day, June 26th. It seemed to his doctor, Lord Moran, “a remarkable document with its poise, proportion and sense of detachment….he recalled the circumstances in which he had been stricken down; he spoke of his plight as he lay in bed as if it had happened to someone else; he told Her Majesty that he was not without hope that he might soon be about and able to discharge his duties until the Autumn when he thought that Anthony would be able to take over.”
(Lord Moran, Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 440-41.)
Churchill’s private secretary Jock Colville adds that on August 2nd, “I went with W. to Royal Lodge where he had an audience of the Queen. He said that he had told her his decision whether or not to retire would be made in a month when he saw clearly whether he was fit to face Parliament and to make a major speech to the Conservative Annual Conference in October.” (John Colville, Fringes of Power, Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955, 673)
Episode 9, on the infamous Graham Sutherland 80th birthday painting (which the credits dub “a lost masterpiece”) goes off the rails again. The inaccuracies would be boring to catalogue. Churchill’s sittings with the artist include fictitious conversations that may or may not be accurate—one recognizes the need for dialogue. But we are left with weird impressions. Churchill is said to have painted his Chartwell fishpond “again and again.” Apparently this symbolizes his severe despondency and depression. If he painted the fishpond more than once or twice, we have yet to see the evidence.
Is it really so big a deal? Not in itself. But as a result of it, we will soon be reading all over the Internet how Churchill’s stroke was kept from the Queen, and how he painted a scene repeatedly in his Black Dog of despair.
Why do producers alter the truth and expect people to believe it? Because most will? Perhaps the screenwriter will give a lecture at a Churchill event, where he will be praised for his achievement in selling a million copies.
Uneducated cheers are already starting. The Crown, writes Vanity Fair, features “the slow burn of that two-hander sequence between Lithgow’s enfeebled Churchill and [Stephen] Dillane’s probing Sutherland. That riveting scene—which starts with a simple goldfish pond and ends in manly, restrained tears—is exactly the kind of thing that makes The Crown such refreshingly restrained-yet-irresistible television.”
The older I get, the more I realize that truth and accuracy matter less and less. Style and perception are everything, and reality bends to fit the creator’s mindset.
The Crown, 2016, is produced for Netflix by Left Bank Pictures and created and written by Peter Morgan. Ten episodes were released 4 November 2016. A second season is commissioned.
Richard M. Langworth is Senior Fellow for the Churchill Project at Hillsdale College. Learn more at https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/.