Coup 53: “All this skill in service of a lie” by Mick Gold

A Personal View

6 December 2020

Coup 53 was worse than I expected. The scene where Amirani talks to Alison Rooper in his office is creepy because it feels like a set-up. Alison however, conducted herself with admirable coolness. I was impressed by the way she remembered immediately that Darbyshire wasn’t filmed. I directed Rhodesia, the final film in the End of Empire series, and if someone tried to question me about interviews we researched for that programme in 1984, I wouldn’t have a clue.

Alison Rooper in Coup 53

As for Humphrey Trevelyan! I’m afraid I cringed when Amirani offered his poisoned chalice, telling Trevelyan: “The one person whose memory will not be hazy – because he’s the cameraman looking through the viewfinder – is Humphry.” Most cameramen I work with couldn’t tell you who they filmed last week – let alone 35 years ago. They can remember the location – the Savoy – and how they shot it. I understand that Humphry is now filled with remorse. With puppyish enthusiasm he jumps at every leading question Amirani asks him.

Humphrey Trevelyan in Coup 53

Amirani’s agenda becomes clearer as he only labels clips as “End of Empire” when he can add the words “unseen outtake”. I understand that there are clips from 12 of the End of Empire: Iran interviews in Coup 53 but their source is not identified, whereas NBC is. For those who haven’t seen End of Empire, it gives the impression that the film’s main agenda was to suppress any idea of British authorship of the coup against Mossadegh.

I feel for the End of Empire: Iran filmmakers being traduced in this way. I feel especially for Brian Lapping because End of Empire was a bold documentary series in its time. Brian’s decision to include Iran – to show how MI6 and the CIA destroyed Mossadegh – was an eye-opening way to show the scope of Britain’s “informal” empire. Working with Brian and Norma, their painstaking research, their commitment to getting the truth on the screen and the way they argued late into the night about the best possible commentary and the clearest way to tell the story were lessons I have remembered for the rest of my film-making life.

Granada was a company we could be proud of for standing up to political pressure. When a judge ordered World in Action to reveal the source for one of their programmes (I think about British Steel) I believe Granada chairman Sir Denis Forman simply said the government could lock him up if it liked but Granada would not reveal its source. To portray Granada, Brian Lapping, Norma Percy and the End of Empire team as people who would roll over and censor their film at the government’s request is grotesquely untrue.

To portray Granada, Brian Lapping, Norma Percy and the End of Empire team as people who would roll over and censor their film at the government’s request is grotesquely untrue.

People of my generation who were crazy about films were deeply impressed by Walter Murch’s work. His editing and sound design on The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The English Patient were great achievements. Coup 53 is brilliantly edited and the integration of animation with the narrative to tell the story of Mossadegh’s downfall is impressive. It saddens me to contemplate all this skill in the service of a lie.

Amirani and Murch had the bright idea of casting Ralph Fiennes as Darbyshire and he conveys convincingly the imperial condescension and insouciance of MI6. But when talking to Humphry Trevelyan, Fiennes says about the interview with Alison: “Have you seen the footage of the script supervisor?… She’s a producer and they suddenly go weird and they don’t remember him and they all go vague.” Obviously Fiennes is parroting what Amirani has told him, but it’s a cheap shot from a great actor.

Coup 53’s narrative of “fake news” is having its insidious effect. Look up End of Empire on IMDb and there’s now a review from an IMDb user which states: “In the episode about Iran, Norman Darbyshire was interviewed in depth for some key information. But (allegedly) the CIA (and possibly others) demanded he be removed entirely, which he was… In short, the series was for sure censored for one reason or another, but still is a fantastic introduction for the masses on the current state of world affairs, and why things are the way they are.”

This is how the ordinary film fan will learn about End of Empire. A series which was memorable for the forensic way it exposed British diplomatic duplicity is described as a government poodle. For all their skill, I hope Amirani and Murch will dispense with their fake narrative about End of Empire: Iran. Their film would be much better for it.

Footnote – 7 January 2021

I just watched Coup 53 again to check that my quotes were accurate and I discovered that Amirani and Murch have revised their film. There are now two end cards which acknowledge that the producers of End of Empire: Iran deny categorically that Darbyshire was filmed and they assert categorically that they did not collude with the British government in any act of censorship.

The card says cameraman Humphry Trevelyan has since stated that… he has reached the conclusion that his memory of filming Darbyshire was erroneous. Coup 53 thanks the producers of End of Empire: Iran who disclosed in considerable detail the shameful role of the  British government in carrying out the coup of 1953.

Coup 53 thanks Alison for her “invaluable support” during the making of Coup 53.

These end cards are welcome. Unfortunately I doubt whether they will dispel all the misinformation spread by Coup 53 since its initial release.

Mick Gold is a TV producer/director. His credits include: End of Empire: Rhodesia, Victorian Values [Granada TV];  Watergate, Endgame in Ireland, Death of Apartheid, Inside Obama’s White House, Cuba: Castro vs the World [Brook Lapping/BBC2]; Four films for Dispatches [Brook Lapping/C4]; Six films for Private Life of a Masterpiece [Fulmar TV/BBC2]; Blues America [BBC Four].

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