On the night of June 23 1953, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was on sparkling form as he wined and dined an Italian delegation at a Downing Street dinner.
But within minutes of finishing a typically entertaining and pithy speech, Britain’s heroic wartime leader, now aged 78, slumped sideways in his chair, felled by a devastating and potentially fatal stroke.
It couldn’t have come at worse time for the country… the Cold War had begun, a major peace summit in Bermuda to barter peace with Russia was just weeks away and Churchill’s right-hand man, Anthony Eden, was undergoing major, life-threatening abdominal surgery in the United States.
With the nation virtually rudderless, it was imperative that the gravity of the premier’s illness was kept secret… would the press barons agree to stay quiet, and would Churchill survive?
As ITV currently works on a major drama adaptation of Jonathan Smith’s novel featuring a little-known chapter in the life of Churchill, here’s the chance to first read and enjoy this warm, funny and enchanting cameo story.
Using as a reference point the diaries of Churchill’s doctor, his private secretary and those of Eden’s private secretary, Smith brilliantly recreates the astonishing sequence of events over the summer of 1953 whilst shedding new light on the wit, bravery and determination of an incorrigible man who lived by his own legendary motto, KBO (Keep B*****ing On).
The drama that takes place behind the closed doors of Number Ten on that night in June is quickly hushed up but the months of recuperation at Churchill’s country home, Chartwell House in Kent, are going to need much clandestine manoeuvring.
As Churchill’s perspicacious wife Clementine remarks, ‘We’ve no Winston and Anthony’s at death’s door. What a pickle we’re in.’
So while the ‘Old Boy’ fights for his life under the eagle eye of his wife and the ministrations of his bluff Skipton-born doctor Lord Moran, Churchill’s smooth-talking Old Harrovian personal secretary Sir John ‘Jock’ Colville convinces the newspaper owners to hold fire on the story.
Smith imagines, with both humour and pathos, the battle for life played out in the sickroom as a cantankerous and wilful Churchill slowly but surely regains his health and his indomitable spirit with the help of devoted Clementine and a caring young nurse, shipped in from a London hospital.
Meanwhile, his staff and inner circle worry about the potential impact of his health on public life and hope upon hope that he will have recovered sufficiently to attend the autumn party conference.
The final outcome of the book will come as no surprise but along the way, enjoy Churchill’s illuminating and entertaining relationship with his plain-speaking, book-loving nurse Millie Appleyard, and the battles and flirtations with long-suffering Clementine.
An extraordinary story of an extraordinary man…
(Abacus, paperback, £8.99)