A major British television series in 1985 exposed the extent of UK involvement in the Iran coup of 1953. Now a new film has implied that the ‘End of Empire’ film-makers were compelled to cut out the most important evidence. But wait. The End of Empire strikes back.18 August 2020
“It’s a mystery within an enigma,” declares Taghi Amirani, an Iranian who has lived in Britain since he was 15, as he reflects to correspondent.world on a key thesis in his own film, Coup53.
Released worldwide (albeit digitally) on August 19 2020, key elements in his film are now under fire, from two veteran film-makers who created much of the material he subsequently used.
Privately funded, costing around two million pounds and taking over a decade of on-off work, Coup 53 is based on retelling and amplifying an old story: of how Britain and the USA, via a coup in 1953, colluded in toppling Mohammad Mossadegh, who was the prime minister of Iran.
In his two-hour feature doc, Amirani declares and displays his deep admiration of (some might say devotion to) a leader he describes as “the closest thing Iran has produced to Mahatma Gandhi”, and his fury at the British and the Americans for their roles in getting rid of him.
“It’s a deeply personal quest,” says Amirani, who within his film tells an audience that most of his teachers at school in Teheran had been subjected to arrest at the hands of the Shah’s regime that had replaced Mossadegh.
His film, Coup 53, is not presented as an objective history. Rather, it’s a personalised detective story with Amirani making a series of supposedly revolutionary discoveries.
“We have evidence that has the potential to turn a dark chapter in history inside out,” is how he describes his film in its trailer.
Amirani states in his film that he has had to battle against “a wall of silence and denial” about an “explosive” interview he is seeking to uncover. Others who are intimately involved in how the film was compiled suggest the film-maker himself is in denial – of the facts.
Amirani believes his biggest personal coup was to find what he says was a long-lost transcript of “our star witness in this film”. It’s a word-for-word account that an MI6 (British Secret Intelligence Service) officer had given to “End of Empire”, a highly-regarded series made by Granada and broadcast on Channel 4 in 1985.
In the transcript the British MI6 agent, Norman Darbyshire, reveals details of how he had run a coup that was finally carried out by the American CIA against the Iranian regime. It successfully installed the young Shah Reza Pahlavi as the country’s increasingly dictatorial ruler.
The transcript he finds has pages are marked “Tape 1”, “Tape 2” and so on. The British Film Institute, which has supposedly kept all the film shot for End of Empire in silver tins. Yet Amirani discovers that no reel of film of this interview exists there.
In fact, Da
Darbyshire was not shown at all in the broadcast version of the End of Empire television programme. ‘Why not?’ is Amirani’s key question.
he finds Darbyshire’s absence highly suspicious. The clear implication that Amirani leads his viewers to accept, step by step, is that a filmed interview of Darbyshire was made, then suppressed at the insistence of the British spy agency MI6.
The transcript of Darbyshire’s comments, supposedly unearthed by Coup53, had not actually been missing. Two versions of it were among papers that End of Empire had left in the hands of the Paris-based grandson of the Iranian prime minister Mossadegh who was overthrown in the 1953 coup. He in turn handed them to Amirani.
The main researcher on the End of Empire’s Iran film, Alison Rooper, was asked in June 2018 to visit Amirani’s editing room in London. They had worked for the same film company when Amirani started his career, and she had for years strongly supported his efforts to revisit the subject she and her team had tackled in 1985.
The camera was rolling as she comes in.
After she watches an excerpt from the planned film she is asked, on camera, why the interview with Darbyshire had not been used in her programme. “Not filmed. That’s the whole point. He never agreed to be filmed,” she says.
This answer does not satisfy Amirani, however.
There have been several cuts and overlays in the bits used from what she says was a 40-minute conversation. It appears she’s told about a transcript and appears to be at least considering the possibility that someone else had filmed Darbyshire (for a different project).
As she is about to take her leave, Rooper again says no filming of Darbyshre was done, to which Amirani says: “We live in hope of finding something – you never know,” without it being clear what ‘something’ refers to.
Amirani is still convinced the End of Empire film-makers did indeed film Darbyshire. He hopes to find a smoking gun when he interviewsthe deposed prime minister’s grandson, Hedayat Matin Daftari, in his Paris apartment.
The grandson recalls a conversation he had with Rooper and the End of Empire film’s director, Mark Anderson. He thinks they told him about an incident at a preview in central London of their soon-to-be-broadcast Iran film.
Daftari says the producers informed him that one of the guests, an MI6 agent, had said he wanted his interview to be totally removed from the film “because the British government had not allowed him to do it”.
This second-hand account seems to be the only ‘evidence’ of suppression or government interference that Amirani can muster.
When correspondent.world spoke by Whatsapp video to Daftari this week, he sounded very unsure whether or not he had been to any preview, or indeed whether he had been told anything about the preview by the End of Empire producers.
He said: “I think there were two previews. I went to one. But I may be mistaken. I don’t know. I can’t remember. I can’t put them correctly together. It was a long time ago.”
Neither Rooper nor the director remembers any MI6 agent being at the preview, let alone being requested to remove any such footage from their film.
In fact they are adamant that MI6 gave them no orders and no requests. Nor were they served with any D-notice. “We had no dealings with MI6, apart from having talked to Norman Darbyshire, who had retired,” says Rooper.
“We had no pressure whatsoever,” Anderson concurs. “No D-notice. And Granada ran a very careful check on the programme before it was broadcast. There was no question of anything being ‘censored’.”
If Rooper and Anderson were blocked from using the Darbyshire film, it’s hard to conjecture why they would still want to conceal this fact 35 years later. Being served a D-notice or being forced to withdraw a piece of film by or because of an intelligence agency would be something most of us film-makers and journalists would be very pleased to publicise.
The “mystery” and the alleged censorship or suppression are very simply explained, say the End-of-Empire film-makers. The transcript was of an off-the-record unattributable interview, for background purposes only, and was recorded on audio tape, not on film. They say the audio was never intended for broadcast – which Darbyshire had made clear beforehand.
Amirani nevertheless continues to try to show that a filmed interview took place and was suppressed. In Coup53, he triumphantly holds up transcripts which have had holes cut in them to remove some of the text.
He says he believes the words cut out were supposed to appear in the End of Empire film, but never did. He also finds the absence of Darbyshire’s name on one version of the transcript to be significant.
The truth is far more prosaic, the producers tell correspondent.world. The cut-out lines were pasted not into a final transcript of the actual end-product programme, but only into some shooting notes.
“The shooting notes Amirani must have found will have been our wish list for the programme structure based on research interviews – compiled before we abandoned efforts to persuade Darbyshire to appear,” the End of Empire producers explain.
“When we could not convince Darbyshire to do a TV interview we simply used some of the things he had said, to put to other interviewees we filmed. That helped us get the best possible answers. It was a common technique in these sorts of investigative films,” says Rooper.
Interviewed by correspondent.world, she also pointed to another piece of evidence indicating there was no filmed interview. Transcripts of actual filmed interviews were typed up double-spaced. Simple audio recordings were typed single spaced. Darbyshire’s transcript, seen in Coup53, was single-spaced.
All this information would have been, she says, available to Amirani, had he chosen to call her to ask for it.
In Coup 53 Amirani is seen getting excited when he discovers an 1985 article in The Observer, entitled “How MI6 and CIA joined forces to plot Iran coup”, in which an unnamed MI6 agent is quoted. It’s clearly Darbyshire.
So he thinks it’s highly suspicious that the Observer had obtained and printed a detailed account from a man who does not then appear a day later in End of Empire’s broadcast film. It’s more suspicious still, he breathlessly exclaims in his film, that from then on no-one else quotes this same unnamed person.
And he elaborates on his conspiracy allegations in this week’s Guardian.
“We only know that any record of the interview with Darbyshire quickly disappeared and no one followed up the story. It smacks of a complete cover-up of British involvement to this day.”
He adds: “We still do not know who leaked this to the Observer originally, or why.”
The producers yesterday told correspondent.world why the quotes are published in that article. They themselves had given the Darbyshire text (minus his name) to the Observer.
As the paper was running a news story, not a film review, it needed some news-worthy revelations from an MI6 agent to elicit a good headline and a good showing – which would in turn also help the End of Empire Iran film to get pre-publicity for its broadcast the next day.
It also seems Amirani ignored or did not believe what the article clearly states: that the MI6 agent was ‘never filmed’.
Amirani is not going to give up his central thesis easily. He persists, during the rest of his film, in efforts to show that there had indeed been a filmed End of Empire interview with Darbyshire which had “mysteriously” disappeared and had been suppressed.
He postulates that there must have been an original version of the End of Empire Iran film with the Darbyshire interview shown in it (and seen by the Observer writer). This, he speculates, must have been cut out when the programme was broadcast. He suggests that, when MI6 or the government saw the Observer article and the unnamed spy’s quotes in it, they must have ordered the supposed filmed comments to be removed from the film.
The producers say that would have been an impossible job to do in so short an amount of time. “How could the programme have been re-edited on film and had a new negative cut and the print made in 24 hours?” Rooper asks, rhetorically.
Having failed to get the researcher and the director to ‘confess’, Amirani approaches the End of Empire cameraman.
Contacted by phone more than three decades after he filmed several interviews — all in one location, one after the other, in a room at London’s Savoy Hotel – cameraman Humphry Trevelyan at first seems to struggle to remember details.
According to industry insiders, documentary television camera operators are notorious for focusing single-mindedly on their job and paying little or no attention to the names of the people being interviewed, let alone to what these interviewees say.
However, Amirani suggests the exact opposite to the cameraman. On first phoning him, he mentions the ‘missing’ footage of Darbyshire and continues:
“We figured that the one person whose memory of the interview would not be hazy because he’s a cameraman looking through the viewfinder is – [you,] Humphry.”
Deliberately or not, this statement may have contributed to Trevelyan’s feeling that he must have filmed Darbyshire.
To stimulate his memory further, Amirani brings the cameraman back to the Savoy, where he can see an actor playing the part of Darbyshire. It’s no less a megastar in fact than Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient, etc.).
Sporting a beard because he is playing an ancient Roman at a nearby theatre performance of Anthony and Cleopatra, the actor has given Coup53 three hours of his time for an undisclosed fee. Ironically Fiennes has been playing the role of MI6 spy chief M in a new James Bond movie.
The great actor tells Trevelyan he’s seen Coup53 rushes showing Rooper and Anderson sounding evasive when asked where the ‘missing’ interview film of Darbyshire was.
“They suddenly go weird and they don’t remember him and they all go vague,” Fiennes informs Trevelyan, laughing. “Yet it was so incendiary what he [Darbyshire] was saying”.
The End of Empire cameraman concurs and, apparently emboldened, now starts remembering his impressions of the interview. Without mentioning the name of the interviewee, he avers that he too was surprised at how direct and open the man was.
Trevelyan’s memory may indeed have been (understandably, given the time lapse) erroneous.
According to Rooper and Anderson, the name of the person the cameraman apparently recalls filming at the Savoy was not Darbyshire. It was, they say, Sir Sam Falle, a British embassy official who had worked with Darbyshire in Teheran.
“The mystery Taghi [Amirani] seems to be concocting is that the government censored Granada and Channel 4 in 1985. This is simply not true,” says Rooper.
“It’s admirable that Taghi has made a new version of the story with more time and money and documents than we had. But he needs to get his facts right and not invent fictional stories.”
For his part, Anderson is angry that Coup53 implies he and Rooper were failing to tell the truth about why the non-existent film apparently went missing. “We feel we may have been traduced,” says Anderson.
Coup53 is aware, it seems, that the End of Empire producers would challenge the accuracy of the film if they were to see an advance copy of it.
A link to the whole two-hour film was sent this week to correspondent.world within minutes of our request. Similarly to other media. But, despite their requests, the End of Empire team say they were not sent any advance link, nor invited to an advance viewing.
Despite their protests, and an amendment to the new Observer article setting out the End of Empire’s view, Amirani did not remove any of the conspiracy theory angles when he finally had Coup53’s premiere placed digitally online for paid viewing.
“All this is giving documentary-making a bad name,” says Anderson, the End of Empire director. “Also, the media coverage of Coup53 has been lazy and the writers who gave it pre-publicity rather gullible.”
Correspondent.world spoke to Amirani this week. He was happy to provide lots of colour about how he made the film and the amazing twists of fortune and misfortune along the way.
But when he was asked why he had persisted with the so-called mystery of the missing Darbyshire film, he became vague and ambiguous. “You should dig into that,” he advised.
Unfortunately for him, we have.
‘Lazy and gullible’ newspaper and print reportage of the Coup53 film has led to a series of retractions, clarifications and two letters of correction.
The Observer and the Guardian online had to amend an article published on August 2 because it had said the role of the British agent who led the coup in Iran was being revealed for the first time.
It was obliged to ‘clarify’ that “while the 1985 story did not identify Norman Darbyshire, he was named in a New York Times piece in 2000. In Stephen Dorril’s book, ‘MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations’, published the same year, Darbyshire was quoted (albeit without being named) detailing his role in the coup .
“The article was also amended,” explains The Observer, “because the original stated Coup 53’s conclusion that the government stepped in to prevent inclusion of the agent’s testimony in End of Empire as fact referring to the Granada material as “censored”. This claim is rejected by makers of End of Empire.”
Ironically, the person who wrote this month’s Observer article had failed to read the 1985 article in her own newspaper – which stated that Darbyshire had not been filmed. “The MI6 man will not be seen as he declined to be filmed to protect his anonymity,” the Observer had written.
The Times has also been under fire for its report, a couple of days before coup53 was due to go digital on general release (for £9.99 per viewing).
Besides not querying Amirani’s line about the supposed mysterious missing film, it makes an error of identity. The Times article describes Taghi Amirani as veteran “Arab” film-maker. He is from Iran and is from the same ethnic and religious group as the huge majority of Iranians: a Shia Muslim Persian.
PAUL MARTIN, himself a veteran film-maker of documentaries, watched Coup53 and adds:
It is a great pity there are so many holes in Coup53’s key Darbyshire thesis . Shorn of these, there are some fascinating nuggets in the film, and it’s a story very much worth telling and retelling, especially as more and more documents become declassified.
But really most of the British role has been known as far back as the 1990s. The Independent newspaper, for instance, interviewed the other main British MI6 agent, Colonel Monty Woodhouse, in 1997. He was 79, “but with a mind as alert as that of a man half his age,” notes the Indy interviewer Robert Fisk.
Other troubling aspects of Coup53.
Coup53 has used extensive extracts from the End of Empire Iran programme, showing no fewer than nine of its interviews. So why has Amirani chosen to cast unsustained aspersions on the researcher and director from whose work he extensively draws?
Perhaps film-makers sometimes focus not on the story but on burnishing their image and on displaying their supposed investigative talents. Hubris is as good an explanation for this as any.
Perhaps there is a lesson to all of us: not to become too obsessed with a line of inquiry that is leading down a blind alley.
We can only speculate on just why Darbyshire would have given an interview in 1985, albeit strictly off-record. It may well be that he wanted the End of Empire film to give due ‘credit’ to the British role in the coup. Until that film the prevailing view was that the United States CIA had carried it out with minimal British help. Spies like Darbyshire are proud of their work.
This theory is adduced by Amirani as he interviews former British foreign secretary David Owen. So far so good.
But Amirani suggests Lord Owen has specific knowledge of what motivated the spy. However, though he does understand that a former agent might wish to talk about his role to gain credit for his ‘achievements’, Lord Owen indicates he has never met or had any knowledge of Darbyshire: “I don’t think I know the man,” he says.
Yet, on BBC Radio’s “The World Tonight” programme this Wednesday (18th August), Amirani continued to suggest, incorrectly, that Owen knew the spy and what motivated him. “Lord Owen says he (Darbyshire) is doing that because he wanted to get some credit back,” stated Amirani.
In the final version of Coup53 there are other telltale signs of self-aggrandisement that are worrying. Bizarrely given it’s a feature documentary, Amirani uses extracts of himself delivering what he calls a TED talk. In actual fact it is a TedX and carries very little prestige (there are 3,500 localised talks of this nature per year worldwide rather than the one big one annually in the USA).
There are other questions about jumping too easily to conclusions.
Amirani finds a question in the transcript of the interview with Darbyshire: were you involved in the assassination of an Iranian police chief prior to the coup?
Amirani triumphantly shows the Darbyshire tape transcript. The camera displays one word writ large: “Yes.” Only many minutes later, do we hear the next sentence. Darbyshire states that the kidnapping of the police chief was supposed to be no more than just that.
An argument ensued between the captive and a captor over respect for the Shah, says Darbyshire. And, contrary to instructions, a captor had shot the police chief in a fit of anger. In other words, Darbyshire, who was not in Iran at the time, claims there was never any intent by him or MI6 to have the police chief killed.
Yet Amirani convincingly shows, from a newspaper photograph at the time, that the police chief was heavily tortured, not “just” shot.
So a troubling question arises. If Darbyshire is lying here, should it not occur to Amirani that much of the rest of the spy’s other ‘evidence’ is suspect?
Also we cannot be sure if the kidnap was authorised by MI6 itself or was a rogue mission.
Yet Amirani says on film to his film-editor: “How did [the British] get to having to kill the chief of police in Teheran in order to get the coup going?”
That, you may say, is literally jumping the gun.
Another serious drawback to Coup53 is that the wider storyline of the film is almost entirely one-sided. It does not deal with claims that the actions of Mossadegh showed he was by no means a totally committed democrat – having declared a state of emergency months before, having locked up dozens of political opponents, and having staged a referendum where those voting no to his proposals had to cast their ballots in a different part of Teheran.
Nor does Coup53 give any exposure to the prevailing British Foreign Office view that Mossadegh’s alliance with the Communist Party Tudeh could have been used by the Soviet Union to stir trouble, advance separatist splits in multi-ethnic Iran, or even to arrange a coup of its own there.
One point of view not given any credence in Amirani’s film was expressed by Col. Woodhouse in The Independent’s 1997 interview [see above]. “I’ve sometimes been told that I was responsible for opening the door to the Ayatollahs,” he says. “But we delayed Khomeini’s return to Tehran by a quarter of a century.”
Coup53 leaves unchallenged, or even supports, a contentious argument: that if Britain and the USA had not toppled Mossadegh, the troubles and wars in the Middle East right to this day would not have occurred.
“The coup in Iran is shaping politics to this day. The United States does not want democracy,” says a voice with an American accent, during the widely-circulated two-minute Coup53 trailer.
It juxtaposes a video grab of President Donald Trump in Saudi Arabia over this statement. That’s a very dubious but increasingly-common guilt-by-association technique.
Openly presenting a personal point of view is a legitimate way of making a documentary. But bias and inaccuracy are not.
Subsequent to correspondent.world publishing this story, and the next, shorter one, the End of Empire: Iran film-makers issued a swingeing statement:
Press Release – August 20th 2020
- Coup 53, which was digitally screened yesterday, is a good watch, a well made and gripping film with an important story to tell. The film makes the most of the scholarship that has taken place over the 35 years and the documentary evidence that is now in the public domain.
- At the heart of Coup 53 is an episode on Iran of the 1985 Granada series End of Empire. The programme revealed that the 1953 coup in Iran was engineered by MI6 and carried out with the help of the CIA. The programme interviewed embassy officials Sam Falle and charge d’affaires George Middleton and others involved at the time who clearly told the story. The way worked was to conduct sound only research interviews on a totally off the record basis. These were used to compile the scenario we wanted to film. We then went back to our contributors to persuade them to say the important bits on camera. 95 per cent agreed. One of them, MI6 agent Norman Darbyshire, refused, wanting to preserve his identity. This was a pity but not a complete loss. We used the information he told us to inform our questions to Tehran embassy official Sam Falle and others. The crucial story that MI6 masterminded the coup was clearly stated in our progamme.
- Coup 53 retells this story in much details but their story is wrapped round a completely false narrative – that End of Empire filmed Norman Darbyshire and that the interview was cut out of an early version of the film at MI6’s or the British Government’s request. It also contains a clear inference that even today neither of the programme’s film makers will admit to this. We categorically refute this.
- This is achieved by some clever editing. Alison Rooper was invited to the editing suite and shown some of her research documents she’d last seen 35 years ago. Her conversation with Taghi Amirani, director of Coup 53 ,filmed in 2018 is grossly unfair. She clearly states that End of Empire didn’t film an interview with Norman Darbyshire. She is then asked the question “Was there ever a version of the film with Norman Darbyshire in it?” She answers “I don’t remember that” (meaning she didn’t remember that there ever was ) and, as is reasonable for something that happened 35 years ago “we have to check”. The impact of this editing leaves the viewer with the sense that she is being evasive or hiding something.
- As “evidence” that she is not telling the truth, Coup 53 came up with an ingenious device. They invite the cameraman to the Savoy hotel where several British officials were filmed, to view a re-enactment of what they told him was based on a transcript a filmed interview with Darbyshire. In fact this was a transcript of the only interview with Darbyshire which ever took place, the off the record one. The cameraman, not surprisingly after an interval of 35 years, was confused. He was in fact remembering the interview with Foreign Office official Sam Falle.
- The film then interviews an End of Empire consultant (Mossadegh’s grandson) to say that he was told by us that an MI6 agent came to a screening, was unhappy with his contribution and wanted it removed from the film at the request of The British Government. He has misremembered this.
- The film states that our filmed interview with CIA agent Stephen Meade was “also cut” from the End of Empire programme. We in fact used only 16 of 22 filmed interviews in the programme. Stephen Meade was one of six interviews not used.
- By way of further “evidence” Coup53 also explores an Observer article, published the day before End of Empire:Iran’s transmission on 27th May 1985. It fails to point out that the article made clear that the MI6 man would not be named or appear in the film because he wanted his identity protected. Amirani calls the Observer reporter Nigel Hawkes on camera to remind him of the piece he wrote 35 years ago and informs him that the agent didn’t in fact appear in the film. The reporter had no memory of writing the article and couldn’t confirm any details. He comments “That’s very odd” .
- At the end of Coup 53 viewers are left thinking there is a still a mystery about “who leaked” the words of the MI6 agent to the Observer preview of 1985 and where, or if, Darbyshire was filmed. Two final captions state: “the film makers still do not know who leaked the Darbyshire transcript to the Observer newspaper” and “the location or existence of the film of the original Darbyshire interview is also unknown at this time”.
- In conclusion the viewer is left with the strong feeling that we, the makers of End of Empire: Iran are trying to hide the existence of a filmed Darbyshire interview – the inference being we’re covering up government censorship of Granada.
- Coup 53’s filmmakers have failed to show us a cut of the film since it was completed in 2019, despite several requests. If they had done so we could have easily provided them with the evidence that Darbyshire never agreed to be filmed; that the cameraman is misremembering the identity of the official who spoke very openly; that Mossadegh’s grandson is muddling Darbyshire with Sam Falle; and that Granada itself shared the Darbyshire interview with the Observer as pre publicity for our programme.
- Coup 53 contains clips from at least 9 of the 22 interviews Mark Anderson and I conducted and filmed for End of Empire:Iran but gives no onscreen credit to any of them. They form a large part of the witness evidence in Coup53. We note that Coup 53 uses very little of our End of Empire interview with Sam Falle who was very open about the British involvement in the coup.
- Consequently the impression is given that none of what we were told in our off-the-record interview with Norman Darbyshire was included in our programme and that therefore Coup53 is the first to reveal the story. Our interviews were hugely informed by what he told us and our programme made it crystal clear that MI6 had masterminded the coup against Mossadegh and roped in the CIA to help – though, full credit to Coup 53, it is certainly the first film to identify the agent Norman Darbyshire and to quote directly from his words.
Alison Rooper – researcher of End of Empire: Iran
Mark Anderson – producer director of End of Empire: Iran
Norma Percy – producer on End of Empire