Their finest hour: Which actor portrayed the most convincing Churchill?

Gary Oldman attends the 'Darkest Hour' UK premiere at Odeon Leicester Square in London, England.
Gary Oldman attends the 'Darkest Hour' UK premiere | Shutterstock - Cubankite

Statesman, war hero, historian, painter, Nobel Prize-winning author, Home Secretary, Britain's most famous Prime Minister, icon.

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was many things in his lifetime. He was beloved by almost all in Britain, but is still a controversial political figure to some. He lived the lives of a hundred men. So it's little wonder that so many screenwriters have seen fit to bring the recognisable and irrepressible figure of Churchill to both the small and big screens over the decades.

Which, from the many fine thespians that have played the man, really captured his immense presence? And who just donned a fat suit, sparked up a Cuban, and flicked the famous 'Victory' sign?

Join us as we take a trip down entertainment’s memory lane to work out which, of all the many actors to play Churchill, was the most convincing.

Gary Oldman - The Darkest Hour (2017)

Perhaps the most memorable modern portrayal of ‘The British Bulldog’ came from a grandstanding Gary Oldman in Joe Wright’s critically-acclaimed film about the early days of World War Two.

Some accused Oldman of gunning specifically for the Best Actor Oscar with his impersonation. Whether those people were right or not, we’ll likely never know. What we do know is that, as it happens, Oldman would go on to win the top gong for his performance.

Lookalike factor: 7/10

Soundalike factor: 9/10

Overall believability: 8/10

Albert Finney - The Gathering Storm (2002)

Given an opportunity to portray Churchill as more of a family man, the legendary actor Albert Finney was as excellent as you would imagine him to be in the role. Those in charge of the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Emmys certainly rated the performance, bestowing their lead actor prizes onto the Miller’s Crossing and Skyfall star.

Lookalike factor: 7/10

Soundalike factor: 8/10

Overall believability: 8/10

Sir Simon Russell Beale - Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Cinema’s latest incarnation of the man comes in the rounded shape of renowned stage actor Sir Simon Russell Beale CBE. Beale’s a fine actor but doesn’t overly convince in this film about the Allies’ clever attempt to keep their invasion of Sicily a secret from Adolf Hitler. He adopts the mannerisms with some style, but you never quite buy that it’s Winnie sitting there smoking and opining simultaneously.

Lookalike factor: 5/10

Soundalike factor: 5/10

Overall believability: 5/10

John Lithgow - The Crown (2016)

Netflix’s royal extravaganza is a feast for both history and monarchy buffs. American actor John Lithgow gives Churchill a jolly good go in the show’s opening series but fails somewhat to truly capture the man.

The costumes and make-up are as excellent as usual from the series, but Lithgow never really loses his New York accent or, indeed, his distinctive Lithgowian voice. That said, he captured the kinesics and gait of his subject perfectly.

Lookalike factor: 5/10

Soundalike factor: 5/10

Overall believability: 5/10

Sir Michael Gambon - Churchill’s Secret (2016)

Iconic actor Sir Michael Gambon played a very specific Churchill in this one-off ITV drama, the Churchill that secretly recovered from a stroke in 1953. In truth, the Singing Detective star wasn’t massively convincing in the role. At least not superficially. That said, his performance was captivating. He just didn’t ever really appear very Churchill-like.

Lookalike factor: 5/10

Soundalike factor: 5/10

Overall believability: 5/10

Timothy Spall - The King’s Speech (2011)

It can be difficult for actors with unique faces to fully persuade their audiences that they’re someone else, especially when the role is as iconic as Churchill. Timothy Spall does his level best to become Winnie here and is largely successful. Particular kudos must be awarded for the vocal impression. It’s almost perfect.

Lookalike factor: 7/10

Soundalike factor: 9/10

Overall believability: 8/10

Brendan Gleeson - Into the Storm (2009)

The much-loved Brendan Gleeson ditched his Irish twang for the clipped tones of Churchill in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s 2009 HBO TV movie, Into the Storm. It was a sequel to the aforementioned 2002 outing, The Gathering Storm, set against the backdrop of World War Two.

For his part, Gleeson won an Emmy, just as Albert Finney had done. They were big shoes to fill, but Gleeson’s performance was arguably even more rousing and impressive. At times it really is like watching Sir Winston Churchill, only with Gleeson’s instantly recognisable face.

Lookalike factor: 8/10

Soundalike factor: 9/10

Overall believability: 9/10

Robert Hardy - Multiple productions (1981-2015)

Younger film fans may know the late Robert Hardy best for his role as Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter series. While older viewers probably better remember the man for his work on All Creatures Great and Small. Some of his most acclaimed work, however, came playing Sir Winston.

Hardy first played Churchill in 1981, on television, in Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years. Seven years later, he'd don the hat and pick up the cigar again in the miniseries War and Remembrance. Then later pop up in an episode of Agatha Christie's Marple, as well as in the television programme Churchill: 100 Days That Saved Britain, in 2015. Talk about typecasting!

Lookalike factor: 7/10

Soundalike factor: 8/10

Overall believability: 7/10

Rod Taylor - Inglorious Bastards (2009)

Rod Taylor is most famous for playing the lead in The Birds, the classic horror-thriller from Alfred Hitchcock (something of a Churchill lookalike himself). The Australian actor briefly came out of retirement to play this small but noteworthy role in Quentin Tarantino’s excellent re-imagining of the events of World War Two. It’s a fun but brief cameo in which Taylor nails the mannerisms of the man.

Lookalike factor: 7/10

Soundalike factor: 8/10

Overall believability: 7/10

Ian McNeice - Doctor Who (2010-2011)

Ordinarily, an actor taking on Churchill has to pad up a little to match the man’s iconic frame. Not so with Ian McNeice when he took on the role in Doctor Who back in 2010 and 2011. The Edge of Darkness actor may well be the only actor on this list who weighed in at more than the portly politician used to.

McNeice featured in four episodes, having already played the man on stage before. He would do so again with a West End production of The King’s Speech shortly after wrapping on Doctor Who.

Lookalike factor: 5/10

Soundalike factor: 7/10

Overall believability: 6/10

Mel Smith - Allegiance (2005)

That’s right - the late, great comedian Mel Smith of Alas Smith & Jones fame also took on the role, albeit only on stage. The production told the story of how Churchill and the Irish Republican Michael Collins put aside their differences to ease tensions between Britain and Ireland. Smith captured Churchill enough to impress theatre critics, with his “jowly” performance earning praise from The Guardian. They described him as resembling "a very clever baby". We’re not so sure if that’s complimentary or not.

Lookalike factor: 8/10

Soundalike factor: 7/10

Overall believability: 8/10

Brian Cox - Churchill (2017)

The film Churchill (mostly surrounding the events of Operation Overlord) itself was historically inaccurate in patches, while Scotsman Brian Cox (Logan Roy in Succession) hammed it up in the central role. But Churchill was watchable enough and Cox clearly had fun playing the wartime PM.

Lookalike factor: 7/10

Soundalike factor: 6/10

Overall believability: 6/10

Christian Slater - Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004)

This bizarre - and frankly pretty rubbish - comedy reimagined Churchill as an American GI, for some unknown reason. In the lead, the slim, handsome, and not balding Christian Slater. Still, at least he smoked cigars.

Lookalike factor: 0/10

Soundalike factor: 0/10

Overall believability: 0/10

And the winner is…

Well, there we are. It seems as if we’ve reached a conclusion. Based on our, ahem, forensic and in-depth analysis, we’re awarding Brendan Gleeson with our 'Most Convincing Winston Churchill' prize. His most prestigious award to date!