Dear Taghi Amirani and Walter Murch,
I shared the small End of Empire: Iran office with Alison Rooper and Mark Anderson, working on the parallel Egypt programme. Had you asked me, I would have told you of the thrill of excitement when Alison secured and then recorded on audio cassette the research interview with MI6 agent, Norman Darbyshire, as he described in detail the British role in the 1953 Iran coup. There followed weeks if not months of their frustration trying to persuade Darbyshire to appear on film, and then the careful planning of their approaches to other witnesses to get corroboration on film of the priceless testimony Darbyshire would only give off the record.
As a documentary director of long experience ,* I do not wish to be associated with COUP 53. I request that you remove my name immediately from your credits on the following grounds:
COUP 53 is an important film – a gripping and well told account, from the director’s original perspective, of the 1953 Iran coup. But it is tragically scarred by its pursuit in the first half of a highly misleading ‘investigative’ narrative, which perpetrates wholly false claims that an alleged filmed interview with an MI6 agent existed but was excised from the final film by the producers under government pressure.
Sadly, this ‘investigation’ is more like fiction masquerading as fact; as a documentary it reveals a disquieting lack of respect for truth. As it pursues the chimera of ‘lost footage’, the film fails to fact-check the obvious – that an MI6 agent, Norman Darbyshire, interviewed off -the -record in 1983 refused to be filmed to protect his anonymity. It ignores witness testimony (Alison Rooper) and contemporary reports (Observer May 1985) that challenge your narrative. Not once is the secret agent’s refusal to be filmed even suggested. Nor is the transcript’s provenance as notes of a research interview interrogated. Hardly a rigorous professional examination of the available historical facts. Moreover the cameraman who testified to filming Darbyshire has, after examining the records of 35 years ago, retracted his evidence in writing.
The film then unmistakably implies the false, and potentially defamatory claim that the End of Empire; Iran team colluded in an act of government censorship to excise the agent from the film **- a damaging slur on the professional integrity of the team. Audiences up to September this year would have heard that the filmmakers ‘hit a brick wall……a wall of silence and denial about Norman Darbyshire’. Although after legal consultation you are now offering to remove that line, the sly insinuation of a cover up remains in Fiennes’ comment: ‘ they went all weird’.
It is saddening that these insinuations are made about the End of Empire team, who willingly helped you, especially in crucial access to archives, because they believed in your project. The key Darbyshire transcript, far from being ‘discovered’ after exhaustive research, was given to you by Alison Rooper in 2014: it was the fruit of her skillful investigative probing, rather than the mere harvest of low hanging fruit of witnesses re-telling an already public story.
Astonishingly, your film then includes twelve (not one or two, but twelve) End of Empire: Iran archive witnesses, amounting to 14 crucial minutes of COUP 53. Yet not one is accurately and properly credited to its source. A mean, unworthy act, I suggest, when material is used on such a scale.
Nor is it only about fact-checking. ITV Archive, the copyright holders, refused COUP 53 an upgraded archive license in September on the grounds that it brought Granada TV and its production team ‘into disrepute’. You yourselves withdrew the film. This had nothing to do with the End of Empire team, who had no contact at all with ITV Archive. Yet you took to social and mainstream media to accuse the End of Empire team of ‘blocking’ your film. This falsehood has since been rectified with a correction by the Observer/Guardian Online.
It may be that you believe that, in your ‘investigation’ narrative in the first part of COUP 53 you have created a ‘fiction’ where the truth is negotiable and fluid, indeed malleable to the dictates of a dramatic narrative. However this is not documentary filmmaking as I understand it.
I emphasise that this is my personal view and my personal request. However I am not alone among fellow professionals and BAFTA members, and indeed both Iranian and British historians, in taking this view – as I am sure you know. I understand that after legal consultation some amendments are under consideration to mitigate these gross falsehoods, but it remains regrettable that such an important film about an event of crucial historical significance should be so tragically tainted.
Please confirm that my name will be removed from COUP 53’s credits.
* Among them: Secret War [BBC]; The First Casualty [Thames TV]; End of Empire: Egypt [Granada TV]; Secret History: Death of a Democrat [Channel4] ; Munich : The Peace of Paper [ThamesTV]; The Churchills [Brook Productions/C4/WGBH]; Nazi Women [Flashback/C4]; Married to the Prime Minister[Flashback/C4]; Cold War [Jeremy Isaacs Productions/ CNN/BBC]
** Almost all the film’s reviews cite the ‘lost footage’, film ‘mysteriously made to disappear’; cut at MI6’s insistence‘; ‘mysteriously excised from the 1985 film’; ‘key interview ‘excised’; ’mysteriously missing piece of film’… etc.