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Michael Gambon plays Winston Churchill with aplomb in Masterpiece Classic’s new period drama, Churchill’s Secret.
Michael Gambon plays Winston Churchill with aplomb in Masterpiece Classic’s new period drama, Churchill’s Secret.

John Doyle: Churchill’s Secret shines light on the loveliness of British TV Add to ...

There is a lot to be said for the calming experience of watching exquisitely made British TV, especially if it’s a period-piece drama. The costumes and the green countryside are fetishized. Actors who savour the dialogue and savour the act of playing important figures in British history are featured. It is all gratifyingly familiar.

In the hurly-burly of the contemporary news cycle and the bewildering number of new shows being unleashed by networks and cable, the stately pace of a British costume drama or historical epic is soothing and a tonic.

Churchill’s Secret (Sunday, PBS, 8 p.m. on Masterpiece Classic) is no epic. Nor is it a classic. But it is very good in the way that certain English productions are good in that they might well have been made by Britain’s National Trust, an outfit tasked with protecting “Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty.” In the case of this one-off drama, it could be classified as protecting a person of historic interest.

The person is, of course, Winston Churchill, played here with enormous aplomb by Michael Gambon. The drama is based on a novel by Jonathan Smith and made by ITV. It is mostly anchored in history with some fictional things thrown in.

It is 1953, Churchill is 78 years old and he is prime minister. In the opening, he suffers his second stroke. The seriousness of his health crisis is, briefly, kept secret. But he doesn’t seem to be recovering and in fact his health seems to suddenly decline. His mind wanders and he begins singing to himself.

The context is important. His only likely replacement, Anthony Eden, is also ill. The gist is that it’s vital that that old man recover and reassure the public and the Conservative Party that he can continue to govern.

This is all true, essentially. As we see in the lavishly made program, he is removed from Downing Street to Chartwell, his home in Kent. His devoted wife, Clemmie (Lindsay Duncan, who is imperious in the role), believed he might recover if he has rest and is surrounded by caring people. A whip-smart young nurse named Millie Appleyard (Romola Garai) is hired to take loving, sensible care of the old man and, maybe, just maybe, bring back his physical and mental stamina.

This part is fiction but it is the core relationship in the program. Millie is far from being a Conservative supporter and not in awe of the Churchill family at all. She nudges, coaxes and provokes Churchill into health, sometimes by arguing fiercely with him about trade unions, the need for a national health-care system and other issues that matter to the working class she has emerged from.

Meanwhile, the Churchill family gather at Chartwell. This is the drama’s other substantial factor. While the old man and Clemmie are devoted to each other, the family, is, essentially, disastrously dysfunctional. Matthew Macfadyen is marvellous as Randolph, who is portrayed here as a drunk and jackass. His rudeness to everyone is startling and he succumbs to violent, drunken sulks when his siblings challenge him about his lack of success. Not that any of them have done anything substantial in their lives. An early scene of the family having dinner is a remarkable mini-drama of rage, envy, self-loathing and fury.

Thus, we get two stories here. First, Churchill’s decline and recovery under Millie. Second, a portrait of the family of a great man who will be forever in his shadow. One is uplifting, the other is downright despairing. These two factors add gravity to the drama. After all, there isn’t much of a surprise twist – he did recover enough to give an address at the Tory party conference that year, and he continued as prime minister until 1955.

There are intriguing side stories, too. The old man’s illness was kept secret and what are called “the lords of the press” don’t actually poke too much into the situation, so as not to alarm the public. That seems such an odd circumstance now. And there are small but significant nods to the gulf between England in 1953 and now. A cabinet meeting Churchill holds at the beginning has on the agenda the arrival of commercial television.

What resonates, though, is the care and attention given to detail and setting. While Churchill’s Secret is rather small scale in scope, we get gorgeous scenes of steam trains moving through the green countryside and beautifully lit interior scenes that highlight the costumes, the set decoration and the details of the clothing styles of the very rich in England in the mid-1950s. It is restorative to see such beauty unfold.

Also airing this weekend

9/11: Fifteen Years Later (CNN, Sunday, 8 p.m.) is a new and updated version of the Peabody- and Emmy-winning documentary 9/11, made by Jules and Thomas Gédéon Naudet, the French-born filmmakers. They were making a documentary about New York firefighters on Sept. 11 and as a result managed to gain the most extraordinary footage of that day. Denis Leary will introduce the new edition, which will be shown with very limited commercial interruption.

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