INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP NUGUS, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER OF CHURCHILL'S BODYGUARD
Winston Churchill has gone down in history as arguably the greatest Prime Minister this country has ever had. His life and career has been documented in numerous books and films throughout the years, each one claiming to give a revelatory insight into the man who led Britain to victory during World War Two.
However, one man knew him better than anyone else. That man was his personal bodyguard Walter Thompson. A former Scotland Yard detective, Thompson accompanied Winston Churchill everywhere during 18 years service. Together they rode with Lawrence of Arabia, dodged German assassins, were nearly shot down by enemy aircraft, lone gunmen, U-boats and IRA hitmen. They travelled thousands of miles on precarious journeys to meet Stalin, Roosevelt and other world leaders.
Until now his critical role in saving Churchill's life has remained untold. Launched on UKTV History in November is Churchill's Bodyguard, a brand new series exposing the secrets in Thompson's memoirs. So compelling was the tale that executive producer Philip Nugus actually decided to direct the series as well. A veteran of publishing and historical documentary-making, Nugus has produced some 800 historical documentaries over the last 15 years. For Nugus however, this one is special.
The story began for Nugus when he was approached by Thompson's grandniece Linda Stoker who had found a collection of unpublished manuscripts and photographs in a suitcase in the loft of a Somerset farmhouse just eight years ago. Having obtained legal title to the unpublished works, she contacted Nugus about the possibility of a TV programme. At first he was sceptical, but when Nugus agreed to meet up with her to have a look at the contents of the suitcase everything changed.
"JUST AN AMAZING STORY!"
"I've got a lot of my fathers papers from the 40s at home and when she opened the case I could just tell by the smell that this was wartime paper. I started to read it and read references to Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia and assassins waiting for Churchill in Hyde Park and I just couldn't believe it! I knew some of the details of these stories and by reading this it all started to mesh together, so I got on to our lawyer and said we want to take out an option on this material straight away!"
Talking exclusively to UKTV History from his historic office in the heart of the West End, Nugus joyfully revealed that within Thompson's work lay the makings of a truly epic tale: "I sat for a whole weekend and read everything from beginning to end. There's about 360,000 words here and it's Thompson's life story up until the First World War, but then it's his story with Churchill until he retires in the 1930s; then it's his story as he comes out of retirement to serve Churchill at the start of the Second World War and it goes up to the death of Hitler, followed by the pair's relationship after the War, then Churchill's death and funeral - it's just an amazing story."
Once all the legal rights were cleared the ball started rolling on this Herculean task of turning Thompsons' memoirs into a thoroughly researched television series. If the manuscripts and images weren't enough, Nugus took the time to back up Thompson's story with information drawn from the Imperial War Museum, BBC and ITN Archives, Reuters and Visnews and the National Archives in Washington and Ottawa.
AN ORDINARY MAN FROM BRIXTON
All this research was done in a very covert fashion to keep the story under wraps. "We had two years of secret research where we had sworn the great libraries who agreed to participate in this to great secrecy. They signed a confidentiality agreement. They were very helpful and wanted to cooperate in this, so we got on with the job very quietly."
As the making of this series developed Nugus saw different portraits of two startlingly different men that were thrown together by life's circumstances. Although Churchill was undeniably a man of great privilege, Thompson's background couldn't be more different.
"This is an ordinary man from Brixton," comments Nugus. "He was brought up in a strict Victorian household. He was one of thirteen children, brought up in a very proud but poor family. He left school when he was fourteen and was offered a place to play for Arsenal but his mother stopped him from doing it because she didn't think it was a respectable job!"
Nugus goes on to explain that had it not been for one day in the East End Thompson would not have wound up in such a unique position as the Prime Minister's closest aid. "When he saw a policeman being set upon he waded in and saved his life. He was then asked to go into the police station the next day where the recruiting sergeant asked him whether he had ever thought about joining the police and so he passed the exam, specialising in first aid and resuscitation and became a beat PC in Bayswater"
From there Thompson moved into the plainclothes division where he had to trail German spies and his commanding officers were so pleased with his progress that they put him in the diplomatic protection squad. After a while he was assigned to be one of Lloyd George's bodyguards, whom he didn't like and he requested a transfer. The rest, as is revealed in the series, is history.
In his memoirs, Thompson reveals himself to be a very straight, moral man, devoted to protecting Churchill. Sometimes he was the only security Churchill took with him on his many trips, much to the astonishment of the Americans in particular, who always had at least twenty minders round President Roosevelt at any one time!
Nugus notes that he was also fiercely loyal to keeping quiet about the vast amount of top-secret information he would have been witness to, just because of the nature of his job. "The one thing about Thompson" says Nugus, "is that he doesn't give secrets away. If Churchill had sworn him to secrecy on something there is no way he would have confided that information to anyone, including his family."
Indeed, so devoted was Thompson to protecting Churchill that the long, antisocial hours led to the collapse of his own marriage, not to mention the irritation of Churchill's wife. "Mrs Churchill was a bit jealous of Walter, but Walter never ever lost respect for her at any point."
"By the nature of the job Walter spent more time with Churchill during World War Two than any other human being, but it had to be done; when the Churchills were abroad he had to sleep in the room between them, with one eye open and a gun beneath the pillow "
So aside from the detailed accounts of how he closely guarded Churchill's movements, what particular insights into Churchill's personality does the series reveal? For Nugus, it is his humanity and kindness that stand out. One particular incident involves Churchill, who at the time was virtually penniless, paying to have his Harley Street doctor operate on one of Thompson's sick children and in doing so saving her hearing. Aside from the compassion, Nugus is quick to point out that this series is unique in that it reveals Churchill's moments of self doubt and frank honesty in times of trouble:
"You see the honesty when he and Walter are leaving the Palace after the King has asked him to form a government in preparation for war. Churchill turns to Walter and says 'it's an enormous task we have before us and let's hope I'm up to the job and that we're not too late' Here is the great man revealing candidly to his bodyguard what his insecurities and doubts are".
This kind of emotive response by Churchill may have contributed to the reason for Thompson's memoirs being censored for many years. He had intended to publish his complete writings back in 1945 after the Second World War was over, but he was forced to bring out a watered-down version called I Was Churchill's Shadow in the early fifties, which is according to Nugus, really nothing more than a travel journal. Is it possible that showing the fallible, and sometimes insecure side to Churchill's personality straight after the War would have undermined the man's reputation as an iron-willed leader?
Nugus sees it differently. "I think it would have caused a lot of people to ask questions about how Churchill knew the things he did during wartime that would have ultimately given away the truth about the Allies deciphering the Enigma Code."
"If that book had been published in 1945 it could have severely compromised certain knowledge that the authorities wanted to keep secret." It seems then that no matter how trustworthy Churchill thought Walter Thompson was, the establishment didn't want Walter or other public servants to speak out prematurely about what they had seen.
CHURCHILL THE TASKMASTER
However, sixty years later the confidentiality laws have now expired and now the full details of Thompson's memoirs can be revealed in all their finest detail. Are they worth the wait?
For Nugus, Thompson's memoirs confirm Churchill's place as a truly great man, both professionally and personally. "He was a tough taskmaster, absolutely punctilious when it came to accuracy and hard work and I think that his command of detail, plus his sheer force of personality won the Second World War from an inspirational leader's perspective."
"Underneath that however, he had an impish sense of humour and a childlike curiosity about things and he thrived on putting himself in dangerous situations. Walter was there really to try and restrain him and take the first bullet!"
No doubt the series will raise eyebrows in it's revelations about Churchill and when asked about the historical reliability of what is essentially a series of one man's anecdotal observations, Nugus remains very philosophical, citing Thompson's profession and reputation as being solid enough to support the claims in his memoirs.
"He was one of Scotland Yard's finest, otherwise he wouldn't have been put in charge of not one, but two British Prime Ministers, so the chances of him being unreliable, inaccurate or a fantasist are very slim. Indeed Churchill, who did not suffer fools, personally requested him as his personal bodyguard for eighteen years. Plus Winston and Walter remained good friends in later life."
Aside from Nugus' convictions, these memoirs have since been supported by leading biographers of Churchill and although Nugus and his team have had to correct one or two dates, he is enthusiastic to stress that what Churchill's Bodyguard reveals is a truly unique tale of an irrefutable bond between two men from vastly differing social backgrounds in epic and sometimes dangerous surroundings.
Churchill's Bodyguard starts on UKTV History on Monday 21st November at 9pm