In 2002, the BBC held a poll to determine whom the people of England considered the “Greatest Briton” of all time. Winston Churchill was named No. 1, earning nearly two-thirds of the total votes and besting figures like William Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth and Charles Darwin.
The former prime minister, who died in 1965, continues to loom large in the public eye of both the U.K. and the world, and is frequently invoked by politicians and business leaders. He’s been portrayed dozens of time on TV and film, most recently in the best picture nominee “Darkest Hour,” which portrays Churchill’s ascension to prime minister at a key moment in World War II.
The film has revitalized a long-held interest here in the man, played by Gary Oldman in what’s favored to be an Oscar-winning performance, reminding viewers of what true leadership in the face of terrible odds should look like.
“Winston Churchill is a revered figure because he saved liberty,” says Andrew Roberts, author of the forthcoming book “Churchill: Walking With Destiny.” “Several people in the British government wanted to make peace with Hitler, which eventually would have led to us being destroyed. The fact that Winston Churchill held out against that even though rationally he couldn’t see a way to win the war makes him the greatest man in history.”
Which isn’t to say that he’s revered by everyone.
“He’s much more controversial in Britain than he is in America,” notes Roberts. “Anti-imperialists dislike him of course — he was a very committed, lifelong imperialist. He imprisoned Gandhi. He hated communism and denounced it very vigorously and he also disliked socialism at home. People in South Wales blamed him, quite wrongly in fact, for the putting down of several violent strikes in 1910 and 1911. Germans don’t much like him for the bombing of their cities during the Second World War. You’re absolutely inundated with people for whom he was on the wrong side.”
“Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright, dramatizes Churchill’s push to stand up against Germany in 1940, an act that inevitably swayed history. However, the politician’s legacy is far grander. He is one of the longest-serving politicians in Britain, and contributed to some of the legislation that still stands today.
“He’s an incredibly iconic figure and represents a lot of what we here in Britain hold dear as national traits – courage and determination,” said Katherine Carter, project curator and collections manager at Chartwell, Churchill’s family home. “His entire breadth of career contributed to British history and British politics.”
Much of Churchill’s status as Britain’s favorite leader is owed to his specific iconography, from the ever-present cigar to his memorable hat. Since the end of the war, Churchill has in fact been recognizable just by his silhouette. He’s attributed to numerous quotes about the human condition, and Churchilliana — Churchill memorabilia — remains highly sought after.
“Anything to do with Churchill is eminently collectible,” says James Taylor, curator at London’s Churchill War Rooms. “Things that came from his own hand, like speeches, go for huge sums of money. But there are also more humble, mass-produced items like jugs and little statuettes. I’ve even got one.”
But Taylor notes that through his long lifetime the British people had mixed views of the prime minister. For example, a year after the victory over Germany in WWII, he was voted out of office.
“Frankly, he became a bore to people,” Taylor says. “His support for King Edward VIII and the 1936 abdication crisis, again, a lot of people thought he’d made the wrong choice both in the political establishment and beyond that. So while he was one who was very much in the public eye, some of his decisions were deeply unpopular. But the thing he was right about, which was the key thing, was the threat from Hitler.”
Churchill may have held many old-school views, but he had a postmodernist attitude about his own image.
“He was acutely aware of how he could put himself forth to be more memorable,” Carter adds. “There’s that line from him, which I think is a misquote but is very much true, that he said ‘History will be kind to me because I intend to write it.’ And I think he was very much aware as he was going through his political career that he was creating history and as such could decide how he would be remembered for generations to come.”
Today there seems to a particular resonance with Churchill as a character.
“In many ways, he is a more complex and more controversial character on this side of the Atlantic in the U.K. than he is in the United States,” notes Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre at Churchill College in Cambridge, who describes Churchill’s public career as a “real roller-coaster ride.”
“He’s a legendary figure because the most overused word in the English language is leadership,” says Conservative MP Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson. “Everyone in politics and industry and business obsesses about leadership, but most of them wouldn’t know it if it bit them on the lower leg. But of course Churchill absolutely deployed leadership and his leadership skills in such a brilliant way to lead Britain at a very bad time. We all look back on Churchill as a heroic figure. And I think he is a heroic figure, although like humans he had failings.”
The fictional depictions of Churchill may lack some historical accuracies, but these pop culture appearances do encourage audiences to seek out more about him. Taylor says the Churchill War Rooms have seen a spike in visitors since the release of “Darkest Hour” and Carter notes that “whenever there is a major feature on Winston Churchill we certainly find a great deal of interest in people, particularly wanting to know more about him as an individual.”
“[Fiction] manages to do what drama does, which is make it up a little bit as it goes along and take a little bit of license but at the same time keeping — reasonably accurately — the known facts,” says Michael Dobbs, author of four Winston Churchill novels and a Conservative politician in the House of Lords. “So it encourages people to find out a little bit more about him and what he did and what he achieved. And also where he got it wrong.
“I think Winston Churchill and what he stands for is the sort of person who there will always be an audience for. I think that he was the greatest man, the greatest Britain, we’ve ever had.”