The Making of ...
Background articles by contributors to Walker George Films productions:
Operation Mincemeat: Q&A with Ben Macintyre
Q: What inspired you to write about this little-known story from World War II?
A: I first came across the story while researching my last book, Agent Zigzag, about the British criminal and double agent Eddie Chapman. One of his case officers, Ewen Montagu, was the mastermind behind Operation Mincemeat. The more I dug, the more information emerged about this true story, for so long shrouded in myth and mystery.
Q: Was it difficult to make contact with Ewen Montagu's family, and were they helpful in your research?
A: The members of the Montagu family were easy to find and hugely helpful; indeed, this book could not have been written without them. After the war, Ewen Montagu retained most of the official papers relating to Operation Mincemeat. After he died, they were put in a wooden trunk, and almost forgotten. In 2007, the family gave me full access to the papers, including the official records, but also memos, letters, photographs, and a 200-page memoir written by Montagu himself.
Q: What was the most interesting/surprising detail that you uncovered as you were gathering information for Operation Mincemeat?
A: The most extraordinary aspect of Operation Mincemeat, to my mind, is the way that the organizers approached this elaborate, many-layered deception operation as if they were writing a novel, imagining a version of reality and then luring the truth towards it. Indeed, the talents required for espionage and fiction-writing are not so very different. At the center of the plot was the fictional figure of William Martin: he was equipped with not only false papers but an entirely false personality and past, including a fiancée, complete with love letters.
Q: There are a number of fascinating figures in Operation Mincemeat. Which person were you most intrigued by, and why?
A: I was particularly fascinated by Charles Cholmondeley, the RAF officer seconded to MI5 who first dreamed up the plan to use a dead body to plant false information on the Germans. Cholmondeley had a long, waxed, air-force mustache, a shy personality, and a very strange mind, but he was a genius at deception work, and the unsung hero of Operation Mincemeat. Unlike other participants, he was modest about the achievement, never told anyone what he had done during the war, and ended up selling lawn mowers in a small town in rural England.
Q: Where did you conduct most of your research, and did you encounter any difficulties or roadblocks along the way?
A: This book took me to Spain, France, and the U.S., but most of the research was conducted in British archives and interviewing survivors from that time. Despite Britain's draconian Official Secrecy Act, rather than hindering or obstructing my research, MI5 and MI6 (the security service and secret intelligence service) were extraordinarily helpful. Perhaps the main impediment was time: the events described in the book are now on the furthest tip of living memory, most of the participants are now dead, and in some ways the research was a race to capture the memories of the living before they, too, are gone.
Q: In the book, you hint that Ewen Montagu (playing Bill) and Jean Leslie (playing Pam) may have taken their roles as "lovers" too seriously. What is your belief about their relationship?
A: Whether the imagined courtship between "Bill" and "Pam" was ever more than merely flirtatious banter is unknown, and likely to remain that way. Certainly Ewen was "smitten" with Jean (her word), and they both played along with their allotted roles. Wartime Britain was filled with fear and danger, but for those in the spying game, it was also a time of great excitement and romance. If the imagined love affair overlapped with reality, that would fit with the story, in which the framers invented a deception so real they began to believe it themselves.
Q: Did you have the opportunity to visit the gravestone of Glyndwr Michael/Major William Martin in Huelva? How do you think his family would have felt if they had known the unexpected and important role their son played in the outcome of World War II?
A: I did visit the grave in Huelva: it is a most atmospheric and tranquil place, looking down over the port and the shoreline where the body of "William Martin" was found in 1943. Glyndwr Michael's family was a troubled one, crushed by poverty and with a history of mental illness. I think they would have been astonished and delighted in equal measure that Glyndwr played such a crucial role in history, albeit posthumously, and through no choice of his own.
Mincemeat: Putting on a Show
Director Russell England discusses the making of Operation Mincemeat
The Black Art of Espionage
Early in May 2010 with the General Election at its height, writer and presenter Ben Macintyre, producer Stephen Walker, assistant producer Tom Pullen and I huddled together in a small, windowless room in Riverside Studios – the production base of Walker George Films. In front of us lay a remarkable collection of photographs. There in black and white were the faces of Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu and the officers, men and women of Room 13, a small basement room at the War Office, where Operation Mincemeat was painstakingly planned over the winter and spring of 1943. You could almost smell the tobacco smoke rising from the pipes clamped firmly in the mouths of those staring out from the photos. The pictures oozed the black arts of espionage; double-cross, intrigue and deception. The eyes of these inhabitants of Room 13 twinkled darkly.
The Witness from Room 13
One pair of eyes belonged to a strikingly attractive section assistant, Patricia Trehearne. Now in her late eighties, Patricia had been interviewed by Ben for his book and she would be our principal interviewee for the film.
She remembered a time of high excitement and intrigue, where no detail was left out and where everyone had a hand in creating a fantastical plot. She also told us that they all were made fully aware of the risks of failure – the lives of thousands of allied troops were at stake – including that of Patricia's future husband, Paddy.
The Mincemeat File
We also had copies of the official documents taken from the 'Mincemeat' file in the National Archives, including photographs of the corpse dressed as 'Major Martin', copies of theatre tickets and bus tickets, copies of a receipt for a diamond engagement ring, cigarettes, and a series of love letters along with a photo of a fiancée called 'Pam'. Everything had been comprehensively copied at the time and then buried away in a file stamped 'Most Secret' and marked with a bold red cross. I peered more closely at one of the photos – it was possible to make out a file with a red cross in the hands of one of the section assistants. I wondered whether this was the actual 'Mincemeat' file.
The Identity of ‘Pam’
Here before us in television terms was an embarrassment of riches – a covert wartime operations room had been improbably photographed by one of its occupants, there was a pile of documented evidence from a once-secret file, and there were two surviving members of wartime British Intelligence involved in the operation - for Ben had also managed to discover the true identity of 'Pam' in Major Martin's wallet – her name was Jean Leslie and she was very much alive and well and waiting to tell us a story almost as intriguing as the Operation itself.
We also had a major location for filming. Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes was the centre of code-breaking operations during the war and had played a key role in Mincemeat, intercepting signals from German High Command. Thanks to Bletchley, Montagu and his team knew whether their deception plan was working. The atmospheric abandoned huts and gloomy derelict corridors would be the perfect backdrop for this part of the story.
However, there was one aspect of Operation Mincemeat that was proving far harder to get to grips with, the fact that a significant part of the operation was a work of fiction.
Baiting the Hook
Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu and Flt. Lt. Charles Cholmondeley knew that simply planting secret documents on a dead body and floating the body somewhere for the Germans to find it would be insufficient for their plan to work. Spies by nature are a mistrustful lot and so they would need to go to elaborate lengths to make sure their German counterparts swallowed the bait.
The Body in the Sea
Montagu and Cholmondeley contrived an ingenious plot to create a cast of characters for a story that would be played-out in the waterlogged letters, photographs and personal effects of a corpse found floating in the sea off the coast of Spain. The body had once been a poor Welsh tramp who had killed himself with rat poison - and was then left on ice for two months at Hackney Morgue whilst the officers cooked-up their scheme. Once extracted from the refrigerator, he would be transformed into Major William Martin of the Royal Marines – in effect brought back to life – or certainly a new past life was created for him, before he was 'killed-off' again. It all felt very theatrical – and it gave me the necessary inspiration for telling this part of the story.
The Beauty Parade
It was quite early on a Monday morning at the end of June when Ben arrived at the New Players Theatre under Charing Cross station, dressed in a dinner suit. We would be filming Ben as the audience (of one) for a show that would see Major William Martin of the Royal Marines come to life on stage. Bill Martin's girlfriend 'Pam' would also be performing, along with a bevy of beauties that represented the MI5 typing pool – from whom Montagu and Cholmondeley had chosen the original photo that went into the wallet of the dead man.
A Night on the Town
We were looking for this to be more than simple dramatic reconstruction. Our intention was to recreate a stylised wartime theatrical revue or Music Hall show, popular at the time. In fact, the idea came to me from Major Martin's own wallet. In it were two tickets for the hit West End show 'Strike A New Note', supposedly his last night out with 'Pam' before he boarded the fateful flight to Spain. Montagu had purchased the tickets himself and didn't want them to go to waste. Instead he adopted the personae of his alter ego 'Bill Martin' and took Jean Leslie – as 'Pam' - to see the show and then on to dinner at his favourite club - The Gargoyle Club.
Bill and Pam’s Love Affair
We dramatised Bill and Pam's love affair by getting the two actors to read their letters on stage to one another, with Ben interjecting with pieces-to-camera from the stalls. Also appearing on stage was the general manager from Lloyds Bank who had colluded in the plot by writing a bogus letter demanding repayment of an outstanding overdraft – thereby showing Martin to be somewhat feckless with money, as he'd also recently bought a diamond engagement ring for Pam. Such was Montagu's attention to detail here that he wrote his own love letters to 'Pam' (writing as 'Bill') although these weren't destined for the body. Whether to add further authenticity or not, this strange relationship progressed to the point where Montagu's wife (who had been evacuated to the United States at the beginning of the war) felt compelled to return to England and get 'Pam' out of the way. Jean Leslie giggles when she tells this part of the story.
Operation Mincemeat's carefully prepared and rehearsed deception had it all – a doomed hero, romance, drama and death; in fact a thrilling melodrama of epic proportions that finally fooled Adolf Hitler himself. The truth did indeed become stranger than the fiction Montagu and Cholmondeley had created.
Russell England (Director)
Making Double Cross
Making a film with Ben Macintrye has been one of the greatest pleasures of my career. I love Ben's lightness of touch when tackling what can often be very dark subject matter. The espionage war was a serious game: every spy knew the price they would pay if caught by the enemy - but with his book, 'Double Cross,' Ben found a way to tell the story of the D-Day Spies with both compassion and great humour. The challenge in translating his story to the screen was a question of how to keep the 'seriously funny' tone that is his trademark as an author.
We agonised over the idea of full-blown drama reconstruction for weeks and looked at every possible angle for the film... But in the end the answer came not from any television conventions but from Ben's wonderful talent as a performer. Ben has a unique ability to 'become' his story. Somehow, without any daft play-acting (and maybe just the gentlest directorial touch!) Ben miraculously captured the spirit of all those people who put their lives on the line in 1944. In the film, Ben delivers a story that is both highly entertaining and deeply moving - and I'm sure the D-Day Spies would salute him for that.
Matthew Whiteman (Director)