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Putting on a show

Director Russell England discusses the making of Operation Mincemeat

The Occupants of Room 13

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.

Patricia_Trehearne_in_Room_13Patricia_TrehearneThe 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.

Top Secret File

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.

Bletchley Park

Abandoned Bletchley

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

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.

Pam on stage

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)

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