Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits

During WWII, Allied secret agents were tested to their limits. The best way to foster empathy for the hardships they faced is to undergo them yourself – just ask the contestants on Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits.

By Serena Ypelaar

The only people who know what World War II was really like are the ones who lived through it. Army, navy, air force, nurses, medical corps, civilians … and spies. Everyone living between 1939 and 1945 had a diverse experience of one of the largest global conflicts in history, and for someone like myself, that experience is nearly unfathomable.

Nearly.

We have historical records and witness testimony to illustrate the war to those of us who hadn’t yet been born or were too young to remember anything. The mass genocide of Jewish people and the horrors suffered at the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis have left lasting scars. But the Allies defeated the Axis powers in 1945, restoring peace.

A few of the contestants on Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits. From left: instructor Nicky Moffat, Samy Ali, Debbey Clitheroe, Alastair Stanley, and Magda Thomas. Photo: Polygon

At the heart of the war effort was Britain, who dispatched secret agents from Allied countries throughout occupied Europe to bring down enemy forces and top-ranking Nazi officials. In 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton created the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an espionage organization. SOE agents faced countless tests and challenges both in training and in the field, challenges we can scarce imagine – until last year, when the Netflix/BBC miniseries Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits premiered.

A unique reality show, Churchill’s Secret Agents focuses not on interpersonal drama, backstabbing, or creative skill, but rather, on suitability to become an SOE operative as per the 1940s standards. Supervised by Nicky Moffat, the British army’s highest ranking woman before her resignation in 2012, Lt. Col. Adrian Weale, commanding officer, and Mike Rennie, military psychologist, the show is essentially a training simulation for the 14 recruits hoping to be selected as SOE agents. As an exercise in empathy, it’s incredibly effective – it offers not only the recruits, but the audience, with fascinating (and sometimes shocking) insights into the life of an SOE spy. I’ve watched the five-episode series three times already; I loved seeing how each recruit navigates each test, and who excels at what.

SOE Historian Rod Bailey consults on the show.
Photo: Popsugar

The show is diversely cast, which in this case is historically authentic. The SOE recruited both men and women from various walks of life to blend in behind enemy lines. Their main concerns were talent and aptitude. On the show, the new recruits include Rohini Bajaj, a doctor; 21-year-old maths graduate Alastair Stanley; Polish-born translator Madga Thomas; ex-military Rob Copsey, who lost his leg serving in Rwanda, grandmother and drama teacher Debbey Clitheroe; paralegal Will Beresford-Davies, and research scientist Lizzie Jeffreys, among others of varying professions, cultural backgrounds, and ages.

Recruits Rohini Bajaj, Rob Copsey, Lizzie Jeffreys, and Will Beresford-Davies. Photo: The Guardian

The series seems to offer the best of both worlds, too – each training exercise is contextualized with documentary-style footage including narration about the SOE’s impact on the war effort, specific missions that succeeded and failed, and prominent agents who were later recognized for their service.

Reality shows can be an invaluable method of historical interpretation; what better way to understand history than to see it recreated, and even more importantly, to interact with it? As a spectator, I fortunately don’t have to scale a mountainside in the pouring rain, but I can still appreciate the emotional and physical strength needed as I watch the recruits attempt it. For the contestants themselves, their understanding is even more immersive, as they literally have to participate in the testing process and challenges.

Recruits receive training (and are later tested) on hand to hand combat, firearms and explosives, stealth, disguise, interrogation, lockpicking, physical tasks such as scaling walls/cliffs and crawling under barbed wire, and Morse code/transmission.

The first of five episodes is shown here. You can stream the show on Netflix or watch the entire series on YouTube.

It’s hard to pin down the best part of the show, as I’ve already outlined its benefits for historical appreciation. However, I think Churchill’s Secret Agents‘ biggest strength lies in its emotional impact. If you’ve read The Mindful Rambler enough, you’ll know that I’m a big crier, but suffice it to say that this overview of the Resistance and the efforts of those who fought against injustice had me welling up. Not only that, but the fact that these modern-day people of varying backgrounds could complete the rigorous training pretty much floored me. It made me realize that we can exceed our limits if we resolve to, and we can do what’s necessary to fight for good, even if it’s difficult.

I don’t know if I could really navigate such difficult training on such a short timeline – but I like to think that if it was needed, I would try my hardest.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

Though Shakespeare has been dead for over 400 years, modern renditions of his plays are still alive and well. BBC’s The Hollow Crown adapts Shakespeare’s history plays, which prompt us to examine the Bard as not only playwright, but historical interpreter.

By Serena Ypelaar

As we approach William Shakespeare’s 455th birthday – thought to be April 23, the same day as his death – one can’t deny his unparalleled legacy. Shakespeare is still studied in schools worldwide. His words and idioms still pervade the English language. And people are still adapting his works on stage and screen.

As a self-professed Shakespeare devotee, I’ve seen several productions, personal highlights being Hamlet at the Globe Theatre in London; Colm Feore in Macbeth at the Stratford Festival in Ontario; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare in High Park. I have yet to see King Lear and Richard III (my favourites) on stage, but thanks to Shakespeare’s robust canon, we’re also blessed with film and television adaptations – like The Hollow Crown.

Tom Hiddleston as Henry V in The Hollow Crown. Photo: BBC

Most of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays are his comedies and tragedies. When I first heard about The Hollow Crown, which adapts Shakespeare’s tetralogies, I knew I had to see it. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irons, Tom Sturridge, Sophie Okonedo, and Dame Judi Dench, The Hollow Crown covers Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V in the first cycle; and Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, and Richard III in the second cycle.

Shakespeare’s history plays don’t receive as much appreciation, but they’re fascinating because they demonstrate the playwright in action as a historical interpreter. Taking historical events and condensing them into dramatic plays is a sensitive act of storytelling, albeit heavily influenced by reigning powers at the time. Shakespeare composed his plays during the Tudor and Stuart eras, and his work thus appealed to Tudor and then Stuart sensibilities. Under Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare furthered the Tudor Myth, which essentially comprises propaganda that glorified the Tudors and sought to legitimize their claim to the throne – which meant historical figures like Richard III, the Plantagenet king slain by Henry Tudor (Henry VII) were heavily vilified. Shakespeare’s contribution is Richard III, a play depicting Richard as deformed and mercilessly evil.* 

The Bishop of Winchester (Samuel West), Henry VI (Tom Sturridge), Queen Margaret (Sophie Okonedo), and the Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) in The Hollow Crown’s adaptation of Henry VI. Photo: Robert Viglasky

Since Shakespeare’s history plays were political tools used to flatter and curry favour with kings and queens, their content is open to discussion. However, to those unfamiliar with early English monarchs, the plays can also familiarize audiences with important histories. I admittedly never could get Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI straight (so many Henrys!), but after watching The Hollow Crown, I’ve grasped enough of an overview to launch further research (of the Wikipedia variety for casual learning). Much of my medieval history knowledge has therefore been shaped by Shakespeare, for better or for worse.

Like any historical adaptation, it’s important to understand the changes Shakespeare made for the sake of drama (and political appeasement). A completely accurate account may not make for the best entertainment, especially on an Elizabethan or Jacobean stage. All the same, I admire how Shakespeare’s tetralogies are all interwoven. In The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, for instance, we see the future King Richard III witnessing his father Richard of York’s death at the hands of the Lancastrians; revenge is a major theme in the plays, which The Hollow Crown illustrates well. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.
Photo: Robert Viglasky

As a screen adaptation, the delivery differs from stage productions, but the performances are so excellent that the production is still effective. Most notably, Benedict Cumberbatch’s monologues as the dastardly Richard III gave me chills. In typical Shakespearean asides which break the fourth wall, Richard’s eye contact with the viewer fosters an unsettling connection, even through a television screen. Likewise, Tom Sturridge’s depiction of both compassion and weakness as Henry VI demonstrated complexity in a sympathetic way, and so I felt – from the comfort of my sofa – swept up into the dramatic interpretation of dynastic conflicts from centuries past.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s plays transcend entertainment because they are prominent accounts of history. Like any historian’s account of events, the Bard’s plays continue to inform our remembrance of English political history. The Hollow Crown is a reminder of this phenomenon and the weight that the legendary playwright’s voice carries. That leaves Shakespeare as not only a dramatist, but a historical interpreter shaping contemporary perceptions of history – both in the late 16th and early 17th century, but also as long as his plays continue to be performed and read.

*During the Book History and Print Culture part of my master’s degree I specialized in Richard III and how Shakespeare’s portrayal influences public memory of the Yorkist king, and I’ll be writing about him in detail in the future.