Looking back at the many faces of Winston Churchill in cinema and on television

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) currently lists 208 movies or TV shows in which an actor has portrayed Winston Churchill.

Brian Cox is the latest in a line of actors – and the list includes greats such as Orson Welles and Richard Burton– who have been seduced by the challenge of ­playing Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) currently lists 208 movies or TV shows in which an actor has portrayed Churchill. So while the new film, ­Churchill, promises to show something new about the former British leader, it's reasonable to ask, what more can we possibly learn about him?

The physical aspect of ­Churchill has almost become standard: the siren suit, the ­lopsided forehead and furrowed brow, the potbelly, and the bald pate. Then of course there is the cigar, homburg and tumbler.

His growling voice is also ­unmistakable. Although there’s some controversy and myth surrounding radio actor ­Norman Shelley’s claims that he re-­recorded some of Churchill’s most famous parliamentary speeches for broadcast on BBC Radio during the war. Was an actor playing Churchill during the war? The BBC claim not.

It's a voice that Peter Sellers was happy to ape when he voiced Churchill in the 1955 wartime drama The Man Who Never Was. And let's not forget that Marge Simpson listened to Churchill speeches while pregnant on The Simpsons.

The cultural effect that ­Churchill has had on-screen has seen him move from historical figure to make-belief icon. So much so that the 2004 parody movie Churchill: The Hollywood Years, a satire on Hollywood's often inaccurate relaying of ­history, recast Churchill as an actionhero who woos ­Princess Elizabeth. It saw True Romance star Christian Slater as the ­unlikely, dashing Churchill.

Playing Churchill for actors has become as prestigious as playing Shakespeare’s King Lear. For Churchill, despite the rousing speeches and the fabled interpretation of him as a great leader in films about the Second World War, was a complicated man, full of foibles, and that’s what makes him such an intriguing character.

Robert Hardy played ­Churchill seven times in his long ­career, most notably in Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years (1981), a TV serial that detailed Churchill in the decade before the war, when he lost his cabinet position and was financially insecure. Many consider this interpretation of Churchill his best, showing a determined, self-assured man, not willing to compromise on his beliefs, yet this was often a weakness as much as a strength.

The portrayals of Churchill have run the gamut from the triumphant war hero to troublesome husband. Albert Finney won the best actor Bafta award and an Emmy for his portrayal of the leader in The Gathering Storm (2002), also in the years before the Second World War, which concentrates more on his strained marriage to Clementine (Vanessa Redgrave) as it does with his imperialist policies. The line about him wanting to save India from Gandhi gives a hint of his policies that saw ­Churchill cast as villain in Gurinder Chadha's recent film about partition, Viceroy's House.

In Into the Storm, Brendan Gleeson played wartime Churchill as a reactionary drunk willing to bomb innocents for tactical ­advantage.

Also, depictions of Churchill post-war have moved away from casting him as war hero. In the hit Netflix series The Crown, John Lithgow portrays Churchill as a counsellor to the queen, but also a man of physical and emotional frailty. He even says of himself: "You have to be a monster to ­defeat Hitler."

Lithgow played President Roosevelt in the 1994 TV ­movie When Lions Roared, in which Bob Hoskins essayed Churchill and Michael Caine played Stalin during the Tehran Conference, although it's fair to say that this wasn't Hoskins' finest hour.

In The King's Speech, Timothy Spall was marvellously over the top as Churchill, and it's true to say he's a character that brings out grandiose performances. He repeated the performance at the London Olympic Games ­opening ceremony.

Churchill's not going out of fashion soon. Cox's shouting Churchill will soon be followed by Gary Oldman's effort as the statesman in Joe Wright's ­upcoming film The Darkest Hour, and it would be odd if ­Christopher Nolan's summer blockbuster Dunkirk makes no mention of him.

The many faces of ­Churchill will continue to appear at a cinema near you.

• Churchill opens on June 8

artslife@thenational.ae