Churchill actor Brian Cox: 'Winston would be pretty horrified at what’s going on at the moment'

Alongside Miranda Richardson, the actor spoke about how the wartime leader would feel about the state of the world today, and what he would make of their new film ‘Churchill’

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Britain faces leaving the European Union with a minority government. The United States of America currently has an ex-Apprentice host for President. There’s civil unrest in the Middle East

No wonder people are looking to great leaders from throughout history for guidance, including the remarkable Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who helped lead allied forces to victory through the Second World War.

Two films about him are currently gearing up for release, including Churchill, starring Brian Cox as the titular character.

The Independent sat down with the actor – best known for roles in The Bourne Identity, X2, and Troy – along with Miranda Richardson, who play's Churchill's wife Clementine, to discuss the upcoming film, along with what the wartime leader would have thought about the world today. 

Above is a snippet of our interview, the full transcription from which can be read below. 

Churchill Clip - I Would Have Us Do More!

When you were researching the roles, what most surprised you about the Churchills.

Miranda Richardson: It was how they would have these blazing rows. They were hammer and tongs, and then it would be over. 

Were there any mannerisms you found difficult to master for the film?

Brian Cox: The thing is to avoid the mannerisms, or really put them in their place. The cigar, that image of him, it’s such a strong image. Mind you, everyone thinks Churchill is a dog these days. It’s amazing, young people don’t really know about Churchill as much as I do. Churchill was a very prevalent person, especially in my teens. Now, he’s much more mysterious. In a way, he’s more open to interpretation. Like the history plays of Shakespeare, when you look at them now – even at the time they were written – they were about the characters behind the history. The history was something, and the characters were something else. Now, we’re getting to that stage with Churchill, where we can begin to see who he was, and Clemmie [Clementine], who she was. Instead of what the accepted view was. 

MR: Well, there wasn’t really an accepted view of Clemmie. In some ways she’s mysterious. Within reason, I felt I had carte blanche. I call it breaking new ground, which is a lovely thing to do. Reading the biographies, looking at photograph, reading the script, what’s not said along with what is said. It’s all grist.

It’s interesting there’s another Churchill film coming right now. I was wondering, why do you think his story is resonant right now?

BC: I think, for the obvious. It’s to do with principle and leadership. Principle and leadership are severely lacking at the moment, on both sides of the Atlantic. Churchill was the first man to postulate the idea – right back in 1940, when there was the problem with France – his great plan was to give citizens of France a British citizenship, and citizens of the UK a French citizenship. He was the first person to come up with the notion of the United States of Europe. I think he’d be pretty horrified at what’s going on at the moment, quite honestly. The characters that are involved, I don’t think any of them come up to who he was, in terms of his own principle. the same goes for the other side of the Atlantic.

I was going to ask you about today, because, especially in politics, we’re lacking that character. 

BC: You’re absolutely right. Interestingly enough, from the American opening [of the film], they’ve picked up on that. What they love about the film is here is someone that represents something that isn’t existing anymore. Everyone is so vainglorious now, in a way that he wasn’t. He was ambitious, of course, as a young man. but as an old man, his ambition was for his country, and truly for his country, not just some kind of sound bites. Like you get from across the border. 

In this film, he’s portrayed as a fallen warrior, not necessarily the most powerful person in the room. Was that quite challenging to play?

MR: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because it’s not the norm. It’s accepting that these people are human, and have flaws. 

BC: Historically, at the time, so much was out of his hands. When you have got that formidable group, Montgomery, Brooke and Eisenhower, so much was taken away from him. In a good way, in the right way. In many ways, he let that go, he was not a bad delegator in that sense, running the country with [Clement] Attlee [Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party]. I mean, Attlee ran the country while was at the war. He was not well, quite ill towards the end of ’43. That’s where his relationship with Clemmie faltered, which was always so strong, and the friendship. Fundamentally it was a great friendship, and she knew him. She knew who he was. She could anticipate when he would go off the rails. He consumed a fair amount of alcohol. He didn’t sleep. Three hours a night. his serotonin levels must have been ridiculous. He suffered from depression, got over a bought of pneumonia, he was not a well fella. 

MR: They were both under a great deal of strain, mostly because of how he was. she had to keep up appearances. There are lovely photographs of them giggling together, and quite a lot of her laughing. You always wonder, behind that, what’s really going on? Is it genuine? It’s a little bit of a mask. You’ve talked about part of Churchill’s character being a construct. That was kind of what the times demanded. Clemmie also had a mask, but she was actually hiding behind closed doors more. Mainly because her main concern was the great man, let him do what he has to do and advise him how to do it. She was a very smart cookie, because she was wonderful help to the generals. 

Churchill reaches UK cinemas 16 June

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