03/11/2015 05:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Churchill's Smile


Just now, on two different stages roughly five blocks apart, on and off-Broadway, two different actors are playing Winston Churchill more or less wreathed in smiles. I sympathize with the impulse. Actors smile onstage all the time, for many reasons, but often complicitly - inviting their audiences, with a smile, to like them. I've always had a tough time with this. For me, daring an audience not to like you is the pathway to transcendence for an actor. Unlikeable acting, at its greatest, offers an audience space to come to a character uncoerced. I imagine it is very hard to do. I am not an actor.

Ronald Keaton in Churchill, his one-man show at New World Stages, and Dakin Matthews in The Audience at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, opposite Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, have both clearly done their homework and are gifted mimics, to a point. The essentially smiling nature of their respective Churchills set me to wondering, though. How much did Winston Churchill smile?

The late Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill's official biographer, believed that his esteemed subject smiled a great deal. "In the 1920s Churchill was known among journalists as the 'smiling' Chancellor, and photographs bore this out," Sir Martin wrote in his memoir, In Search of Churchill, about the process of researching and writing the official biography. "Yet Churchill's puckish grin gradually disappeared from the characterization of him by historians."

True. A puckish grin is not a smile, however. Churchill's legendary wit, which certainly was puckish (when it wasn't lacerating), often was accompanied -- according to his contemporaries -- by a small, childlike, self-satisfied grin.

This is closer to the characterization offered by Dakin Matthews in The Audience, playing Churchill at eighty, attending upon the young queen he has known since she was a baby; the queen he affectionately calls 'Lilibet' in a fleeting lapse of protocol. "I can't say I did a vast amount of preparation," Mr. Matthews -- a Shakespearean veteran, as well as a widely respected television character actor -- told me. "My scene is so small and self-contained, and those aren't Churchill's words, after all. I watched his speeches on YouTube, which was somewhat helpful. Then someone put me on to a few of his outtakes on YouTube from one particular speech, which was far more helpful. They gave me a better sense of how he spoke in private conversation.

"I also researched his accent," added Mr. Matthews, "which I still don't think I've gotten, quite; it was such an interesting accent, as was the pitch of his voice. It's quite lighter than people think; not Shakespearean at all. I've never heard anyone else speak that way. There was a brightness about it, even when he was delivering a rather serious speech. It's very hard to get, though, without parodying it."

I decided to have a look at the YouTube outtakes Dakin Matthews had viewed. Shot by British Pathé in January 1950, they derive from a newsreel of Churchill posed in an armchair delivering a Conservative Party stump speech for the impending General Election. These outtakes are, indeed, delightfully revealing glimpses of Churchill impromptu. In each clip, even while reciting a sardonic poetical fragment as a joke, Churchill smiles almost entirely with his eyes. He does not grin. He glints.

I am not a fan, I'm afraid, of the Winston Churchill that Ronald Keating has created in Churchill. Virtually every Churchillian flourish, every anecdote, every imposing Churchillian pronouncement, is followed by a broad smile from Mr. Keating -- an approachable smile that encourages an audience to like Winston Churchill. Please.

Not me. I am quite content to take Churchill as more than occasionally unlikeable. His complexity fascinates me. I would love to see that complexity explored on a stage sometime. Certainly, it cannot be summed up with a smile.

In June 1940, just one month after taking over as Prime Minister, and days after the surrender of France, Churchill received the following letter from his wife, Clementine, sent by her after much hesitation:

"My Darling, I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that I feel you ought to know. One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me & told me there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues & subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner...My Darling Winston -- I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be...You won't get the best results by irascibility & rudeness. They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality."

Did Churchill smile when he read this? I wouldn't be surprised.

According to Sir Martin, Clementine Churchill detested Karsh's famous photograph of her husband. Taken December 30, 1941, in an ante-room at the Ottawa House of Commons following Churchill's celebrated speech to the Canadian Parliament, the photograph displeased Clementine because it was "not real." Her husband, Clementine pointed out, was in a very happy mood at that moment, having just delivered a very well-received talk. He entered the ante-room smiling. As Yousuf Karsh later recalled to Sir Martin, this expression was not the look Karsh had come to shoot. He wanted Churchill, "The Angry Lion." Finally, in exasperation, Karsh snatched the cigar out of Churchill's mouth and snapped his shutter. The result was a very unsmiling Winston Churchill for the ages.

Churchill's anger quickly evaporated -- most characteristically. "You may take another one," he informed Karsh, after a moment. And Karsh did. The result: A smiling "Lion," less infamous, but closer to the Churchill that his family and staff knew.

Thinking of Churchill's staff, I realized there was a person who could tell me more about Churchill's smile than virtually anyone alive. Cecily "Chips" Gemmell is one of only two surviving Personal Secretaries to Winston Churchill. (The other, Jane Portal lives in England. "Chips" lives right here in New York City.)

"He generally did have a rather puckish look," acknowledged Chips, who worked for Churchill from 1947 to 1952. "There was often a touch of humor in his expression, as if he'd just said something funny -- which he frequently did. We were very intent on work, so I didn't exactly study his face a great deal. I certainly would say that he smiled quite a bit. But," Chips concluded, "I never saw his teeth."