The Serpent: Jenna Coleman stars in BBC series trailer
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Now Jenna Coleman is poised to bring to the screen another dramatic true life tale, playing Joan Bright – the woman who ran Winston Churchill’s secret wartime cabinet bunker beneath Whitehall. A silent witness to history, she kept the nation’s most clandestine secrets under wraps, travelled the world with Churchill, and was one of the inspirations behind 007’s seductive aide Miss Moneypenny. “Joan Bright was never going to live a conventional life – a young woman who lived her war days under the Official Secrets Act, undercover and underground in the war rooms,” says Coleman, who calls Bright’s story “so compelling”.
The actress is co-producing The War Rooms series for TV, “to shine a light on the remarkable and unheralded women who helped win a world war and contributed to shaping our modern society,” she says.
“Your imagination runs wild because these things really happened, and it really existed.”
In preparation for filming Victoria, Coleman visited Kensington Palace, and for The Serpent met with the investigators in Bangkok who helped track down the real life killers.
“There’s something so thrilling about that, and also recreating something that has happened,” she says. “I love it because I love research.”
For her latest role, Coleman is planning visits into the bowels of the Cabinet Rooms, exploring the desk where Bright sat, the files she guarded, and her domain.
Like Queen Victoria and The Serpent’s convicted killer Marie-Andrée Leclerc, Joan Bright took many of her secrets to the grave, yet she also shared some insights into the sometimes flawed humanity behind Churchill’s grandeur.
She taught other women working in the war rooms how to deal with the temper of “The Master” – Churchill – who often drank, worked late into the night, and could explode with rage or equally be reduced to tears.
Anthony Eden had arranged elaborate codewords to avoid mentioning on the phone that he was in Turkey for secret wartime talks. But when he called Churchill and said: “I went to the ironmongers and there I bought…”, the Prime Minister roared: “What are you talking about? I thought you had been to see the Turks!”
Bright sailed to America with Churchill aboard the Queen Mary for a vital summit – meeting in 1942, under such tight security that even cigarettes were banned at night to avoid detection by U-boats.
But Churchill, fearful of spies, had Cabinet staff burn top secret papers in the ship’s furnaces, sending black smoke billowing back in their wake and advertising their position.
“Bells rang and the further burning of secrets was hastily stopped,” she recalled.
Departing from the 1944 Moscow summit, Churchill’s party was given 200 bottles of Crimean champagne and six tins of caviar, quickly consumed by the PM’s staff, which put Bright in an embarrassing position the following week when a Russian military attache asked where they could pick up the food and drink the British were bringing for their Red Army Day party.
The daughter of an English accountant and Scottish governess, Bright first worked as a secretary for the British mission in Mexico, but returned to London before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Her recruitment into the war rooms could have been lifted straight from an espionage novel: a friend suggested that she might find employment if she appeared at St James’s Park underground station on a certain day wearing a pink carnation.
Doing so, she was taken to meet a colonel in Whitehall, where she signed the Official Secrets Act, joined military intelligence and was warned to leave the building without being seen.
She later went to work in the subterranean citadel – now the Churchill War Rooms, and preserved as a museum – that served as the centre for the British Cabinet and became the heart of war planning, with a map room operating 24 hours a day to chart the conflict’s progress.
But Bright was far more than a secretary. She ran the Special Information Centre, controlling all the top secret documents within Churchill’s bunker and what she called its “quiet dungeon galleries”.
Whenever admirals, field marshals or generals visited the Cabinet, Bright ensured that they had the most up-to-the-minute information on the progress of battles and troop placement.
She briefed the military’s top brass, who often could only peruse top secret documents at her desk, forbidden from removing them from her office.
She spent so much time in Churchill’s bunker that Bright claimed she knew every detail of British troop movements and war plans, but had no idea what the weather was like above her head unless she checked a noticeboard, which showed if it was “fine”, “wet”, or “windy” outside.
Red and green lights indicated whether an air raid was underway.
The Prime Minister’s defence chief General Hastings “Pug” Ismay trusted her to hire the first dozen agents for the newly formed Special Operations Executive – the precursor of MI6 – charged with sabotage in enemy territory.
She also served as an air raid warden and fire watcher, and enjoyed a romance with British Naval Intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who went on to write the James Bond novels.
It was “no torrid love affair,” she insisted, though admitting: “I thought he was awfully attractive and fun, but elusive. I think he was a ruthless man – he would drop somebody if he didn’t want them anymore… that would be it.”
Fleming later modelled 007’s coolly seductive but fiercely efficient Miss Moneypenny on Bright.
Churchill often put his life in her hands, from 1943 charging her with organising his summits with Allied leaders Stalin and Roosevelt at six top secret wartime conferences including in Tehran in 1943 and Yalta, Crimea, in 1945. She travelled with Churchill to each history-making conclave.
After the war in Europe ended in 1945, Bright accompanied Churchill to the final Allied conference in Potsdam, Germany, and toured the ruins of Hitler’s chancellery in Berlin.
“In one passage there were hundreds of new Iron Cross medals strewn across the floor,” she recalled.
“It was a grim and macabre place, its evil spirit hanging over the grim city it had destroyed.” Berlin had “the smell of decayed death”.
The Imperial War Museum, which runs Churchill’s Cabinet Rooms, is serving as a consultant to Coleman’s series. Joan Bright received the OBE in 1946 for services to the war effort, and in 1949 married retired Army officer Philip Astley, who died on Christmas Eve 1958, leaving his widow and one son.
She never remarried, and lived to be 98 years old, dying 50 years to the day after her husband, in 2008.
Staying true to her oath of secrecy, she did not speak publicly of her exploits until more than 25 years after the events themselves, penning her memoir, The Inner Circle.
Her legacy may have been best summed up by Churchill’s defence chief General Ismay, who wrote a moving dedication in the copy of his own memoirs he gave her.
“For Joan,” wrote Ismay, “who was loved by admirals and liftmen alike, and who fought like a tigress for the comfort of the underdog at the conferences described in these pages… and who made a far bigger contribution to the successful working of the defence machinery than has ever been recognised.”
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