My history hero: Jason Atkins chooses Harold Wilson (1916–95)

Jason Watkins, actor, chooses prime minister Harold Wilson as his history hero

Harold Wilson in 1971, after his first period as prime minister. He would take power again in 1974. (Photo by Getty Images)

In profile: Harold Wilson (1916–95)

Harold Wilson was a Labour party leader who served as prime minister from 1964–70 and 1974–76. Born in Huddersfield, he studied at Oxford and became a Labour MP in 1945. He was made Labour leader in 1963 and went on to win four of the five general elections he fought. His first government, in particular, is remembered for its legislation advancing social justice. He resigned as premier in 1976 and his later years were blighted by Alzheimer’s. His wife Mary only died in 2018, aged 102.

Advertisement

When did you first hear about Harold Wilson?

I remember seeing him on our telly when I was a child. My mother was a Labour supporter and would have voted for him, but even as a boy I was aware that he divided opinion. Playing him in The Crown, and getting to revisit that era, was pretty fascinating.

“He increased spending on education and passed a raft of laws that made Britain a fairer place, including two race relations acts”

What kind of person was he?

He was very different to the previous two prime ministers, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home, who were almost figures from the 19th century. He was a working-class, grammar school-educated boy who cut a much more modern figure; he had a quick wit, courted the Beatles and was a good media performer. He also had a warmth which made him the housewives’ choice. But there was a degree of apprehension about him among ‘old money’. I did a lot of research into Wilson before playing him and really felt I got to know the man under the skin. Interestingly, he was slightly sceptical about Europe…

What made Wilson a hero?

I admire the fact that he started with nothing and made it to 10 Downing Street – no mean feat. I think he tried to do his best as prime minister at a difficult time for the country economically. As premier from 1964–70, he increased spending on education (he was acutely aware of its importance to social mobility), created the Open University and passed two landmark race relations acts, among other things. His government actively supported a bill decriminalising homosexuality. There is much to admire about his first six years as PM, and I think history has been unduly harsh on him.

What was Wilson’s finest hour?

First, taking hold of the Labour party and leading it to victory after 13 years of Conservative government. Second, being a moderniser, and realising the country couldn’t be stuck in the past: his 1964–70 government passed a raft of laws that made Britain a fairer place. Third, keeping Britain out of the Vietnam War, despite the pressure put on him by the Americans. It’s a shame a later Labour prime minister didn’t follow his example.

Can you see any parallels between Wilson’s life and your own?

I see more parallels with my father, who also had a humble start in life (he was adopted as a boy), but got to Cambridge and became a scientist. I had my father very much in mind when I played Wilson.

If you could meet Wilson, what would you ask him?

I’d love to know what he would make of today’s political landscape, and today’s Labour party. I think Labour would benefit from a leader like Wilson, who had both charisma and a very sharp mind.

Jason Watkins was talking to York Membery

Jason Watkins is a Bafta-winning actor. He’s starred in Line of Duty, Hold the Sunset and The Crown

Advertisement

This article was first published in the May 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine