A coup against a coup? Top film gurus argue over allegations of the suppression of a film about MI6’s role in the overthrow of an Iranian leader.

8 November 2020 By Paul Martin

Lord Puttnam has stepped into a row to back an independent film-maker who has accused Brian Lapping and Norma Percy, two top names in British investigative filmed journalism, of “blocking” his documentary —  about Britain’s role in a coup that overthrew the leader of Iran in 1953. 

Lapping and Percy vehemently deny the allegation and have warned of possible legal action against the independent film-maker to protect their reputations. 

“I find it heartbreaking that a generation of film-makers that I revere should feel it necessary to block a wholly admirable new documentary [Coup 53] made by a world-class team,” Lord Puttnam is quoted as saying.  

His comment is published in an article by the Observer’s media correspondent.  Entitled “Angry TV film-makers stop release of lauded Iranian documentary”, it was also carried by guardian.co.uk on November 1. When emailed by the Press Gazette and Correspondent.World, Lord Puttnam declined to comment further.

As Britain’s most revered fiction movie producer, Lord [David] Puttnam had promoted the early career of Coup 53’s maker, British-based Iranian-born film-maker Taghi Amirani.  

Soon after its digital launch, Coup 53 was withdrawn from circulation by its producers in a terse notice on its website on September 16. It cited licensing problems.  That development came weeks after the controversy was reported in August by the Press Gazette and by Correspondent.world.

The producers of End of Empire, an authoritative historical investigative television series made by Granada and broadcast on Channel 4 and ITV in 1985, reject the remarks of Lord Puttnam, and say the article in The Observer contains several other inaccuracies.

“We did not pressure anyone to stop any licence or to withdraw Coup 53,” said a statement by Lapping and Percy that was also signed by the Iran episode’s producer Mark Anderson and researcher Alison Rooper.

The End of Empire producers are furious that Coup 53 make it look as though they collaborated with the British government in cutting out a key interview with Norman Darbyshire, a former British MI6 agent posing as a diplomat.  The End of Empire film-makers say they had only recorded Darbyshire on a cassette tape in a briefing as part of its research, and Darbyshire had refused to be interviewed on film. 

However Amirani had spent a considerable part of Coup 53 and several media interviews trying to show there had been some sort of cover-up involving the End of Empire producers and the government or MI6, in which the supposed Darbyshire film had been removed.  “It’s a mystery within an enigma,” was all Amirani would say to the Press Gazette and Correspondent.World on the subject.

The Coup 53 film, though, went considerably further, to the chagrin of the End of Empire producers.  Lapping is quoted by The Observer as saying:  “Coup 53 clearly implies that our team was leaned on by government to remove an alleged filmed interview; that End of Empire was complicit in censorship. We are consulting solicitors. We would much prefer not to go to the law. We will only do so if we do not get a positive response to our requests.”  

He and the other End of Empire film-makers this week issued a follow-up statement. 

“Coup 53’s claim that the government censored our programme is totally untrue, without any foundation and impugns the integrity of the team and its researcher who willingly supplied Coup 53’s film makers with the agent’s audio transcript and extensive further support,” the statement said, adding: “We have asked them to remove these false claims, have proposed mediation and we are actively pursuing  resolution of  these differences”.

The government would have been able to issue D-Notices to prevent media release of secret information.  However Donald Trelford, the then editor of The Observer, is quoted on November 1 this year by the newspaper he formerly edited as saying no such D-Notice was issued to remove any part of the End of Empire’s episodes, nor to muzzle his newspaper from reporting what Darbyshire had said. 

Trelford should know. He says he was a member of the D-Notice committee at the time, representing the press.   

The End of Empire producers say they would have had no reason whatever to keep silent (then or now) about saying that such a D-Notice had been issued. In any case Darbyshire, in his off-record interview, had revealed very little, they say, that was not also being said by other British diplomats and used in End of Empire.  

Quotes from End of Empire’s transcript of the audio off-record interview with Darbyshire, who was not named, were carried by The Observer just before the End of Empire episode was broadcast in 1985 and later also published in a book about the history of MI6.

There has now been another setback for Amirani’s claims. The cameraman for some of the End of Empire’s interviews, Humphry Trevelyan, has told the Press Gazette and Correspondent.World by phone and in an email that – despite what he appears to say when filmed in Coup 53 — he did not film an interview with Darbyshire. 

Prompted by the Coup 53 producers in 2018 to recall a name he had not encountered for thirty-five years, Trevelyan says he had misremembered, and now believes the person he filmed for End of Empire at London’s Savoy Hotel was a different British diplomat.

Coup 53 said ITV Archives had sold it the right to use extracts from the End of Empire series and its raw material. Late last week, Coup53’s lawyers told the End of Empire producers that ITV had withdrawn the licence, but did not explain why.  [The Press Gazette and Correspondent.World have emailed ITV archives but has had no reply.]

The End of Empire producers say that any such licence withdrawal, of which they had been unaware, had not been initiated by them, and they had never contacted ITV about the matter.

Amirani made Coup 53 by raising funds for it over a decade. He says it cost two million pounds to film, edit and buy archive rights.

In the latest escalation of the row, Amirani has sent out tweets suggesting that the problems his film has encountered are themselves part of a new plot.

“Don’t let them kill the truth,” declares an Amirani tweet, without specifying who ‘them’ refers to. “We are launching a campaign to save the film and re-release it.”

The campaign, asking for support and money, is up and running on social media, and the headline on its website proclaims: ‘Coup 53 battles for re-release’. The End of Empire producers have also taken to social media to counteract Amirani’s claims against them.  

They are aiming to get Coup 53 to slice out between five and six minutes of its marathon two-hour film, to remove claims of any suppression or cover-up — and avoid possible legal action.

Watch this space.

Taghi Amirani leaning against a wall looking at the camera
Amirani as pictured on Coup 53’s website.