Saturday, 28 April 2012

Rab Wood - A Farewell

THE FUNERAL of Rab Wood took place on April 5th at Woking Crematorium attended by hundreds of family, friends and colleagues.
Many mourners travelled from various parts of the globe to say a final farewell to this unique man.
Although Rab was just 54 when he died, he had lived a life of many men.
And the respect and affection he commanded and earned was, in our experience, without parallel.
Rab entered the chapel, his coffin draped with the cross of St Andrew, to the strains of a lone piper playing Flower of Scotland.
For a man deemed indestructible, it was a poignant moment, especially for his devoted wife Sue, his two teenage sons and his two brothers.
The mourners included many of his colleagues from the security services and the military, including Simon Mann.
Rab had been a good friend of the forces charity Talking2Minds over the past few years.
Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.
It is impossible to write an obituary for Rab Wood without incurring a D Notice from the MoD.
And to write a censored version would do him no credit.
So I will leave you with a story about our beloved friend Rab, which I think sums him up perfectly.
Many years ago – I would have been in my early 20s and Rab a little older - he was instructing me how to use a Browning 9mm pistol.
Guns have never interested me and I was more curious to find out if he could, unarmed, disarm a person with a gun.
Usual Rab nonchalance and non-committal noises ensued.
Foolishly, I persisted.
Eventually he relented.
“OK, here’s the gun. It’s not loaded but I want you to listen very carefully.
“Press the gun into the small of my back, shout, ‘hands up!’ and pull the trigger and I’ll show you.”
At this point I have to confess I was more than a little nervous. If truth be told, I started back-peddling on the whole idea. “No, no….just talk me through it man!” that sort of thing.
Rab was having none of it. I’d nagged him into it, he was going to show me and there was no going back.
I took the Browning, placed it in the small of his back, shouted, ‘hands up!’ and pulled, or at least tried to pull the trigger.
In an instant, I was stunned and face first on the floor with my gun hand behind my back as Rab wrenched it from my grasp.
Seeing me sprawled on the floor, half concussed, he gently helped me back to my feet, gave me a big hug, kissed me on the cheek, threw his head back and roared with laughter.
After making sure I was OK he took me through the whole procedure – which had lasted barely two seconds - in slow motion.
I had approached him from behind, pressed the Browning into the small of his back, shouted, ‘hands up!’ and attempted to pull the trigger.
At that point Rab had forced his body onto the muzzle of the pistol, causing the ‘barrel to slide’ mechanism to jam. So when I pulled the trigger, it jammed too.
This is when Rab swung his left arm behind him and landed a very, very strong blow to the left side of my jaw with his elbow.
I was stunned to the point of starting to fall to the floor. Rab spun round, grabbed my pistol hand and pushed me to the floor face down with my pistol hand behind my back before disarming me.
I was confounded. Rab was concerned to make sure he hadn’t broken my jaw, moving it from side to side and asking, “can you feel anything grinding?”
After declaring me fit, I casually mentioned it had been a very good job indeed that that gun wasn't loaded.
Rab looked at me, grinned that famous slightly jagged grin of his, pointed the gun into the air and pulled the trigger.
It was.
Rest in peace, our courageous, outrageous, daring, bold, kind, affectionate, loving, loyal chum. We will all miss you terribly.

Happy days. From left: Rab's wonderfully vivacious wife Sue, Rab, me and my daughter "Bee" on holiday in Cyprus, May 1999

Bloomberg TV Interview

HERE is the link to the Bloomberg TV interview I did on April 26 concerning News International, Rupert Murdoch and the BSkyB bid.

Rupert Murdoch at Leveson

Here is my take on Rupert Murdoch at the Leveson Inquiry which appeared on the Exaro News website yesterday at

Murdoch at the Leveson Inquiry

RUPERT Murdoch doesn’t do “subtle” he told us at Wednesday’s hearing of the Leveson Inquiry.
That’s probably the only untruth I could spot during his marathon sitting.
He might talk tough. But his methods are subtle.
Gently, layer upon layer, pause by pause, he let us know precisely who was chasing who in the Prime Minister/newspaper proprietor courting ritual.
“I may have been to dinner with him”, “I can’t remember meeting him”, “He may have come to my yacht but I can’t recall. My wife says he did apparently.”
These weren’t the words of a forgetful octogenarian. Nor were they the words of a slick PR machine. You can’t teach that sort of sophisticated approach.
Murdoch is no Maxwell, who had photographs of meetings with every leader forced on the front page of the Daily Mirror.
And if he was still alive this week, he would have been boasting about them from his Leveson pulpit.
But with the casual nonchalance of the well-connected media mogul, he reversed the News International ship that was sailing in a completely different direction on Tuesday.
On that momentous day, News International was firmly positioned as the one who courted the government.
His son James had done that through his incendiary revelations that News International had been using a backdoor channel to the government to push the BSkyB bid through.
Just 24-hours later, Rupert was telling us: “Not so. I was the powerful media mogul who was being courted by the country’s most powerful men.”
Except of course, he didn’t say that at all. But we got the message. And more importantly, we believed it.
When Rupert Murdoch says, “I’ve never asked a Prime Minister for anything”, you can bet he’s right.
But what he won’t tell you is, he didn’t need to. They knew already what his goals and ambitions were - his dislike of over-regulation, trade unions and the single currency and all his other hobby-horses from better army equipment for soldiers to personal ambitions for his companies.
And to get his crucial endorsement come election time, every party leader had to try to meet those demands without compromising their manifesto or their standing in the party. Or at least avoid treading on his ambitions.
It’s what Robert Jay QC meant by suggesting Murdoch and party leaders would engage in an elaborate “pirouette” together.
I expect this to happen. It’s happened since the days of Beaverbrook and before.
Charities do it, pressure groups do it. And we accept this as part of the lobbying process of interest groups.
So why, when it comes to corporations with big bank accounts, should this suddenly become wrong?
It’s only wrong when governments compromise themselves and reward business leaders with favours. That’s when the corruption starts.
And it is up to governments and its ministers to exercise the brake.
Rupert Murdoch’s approach to politics is identical to his approach to managing his newspapers.
He doesn’t ring up his editors and micro-manage operations – again, as Maxwell used to do.
He’s what’s termed a ‘charismatic leader’.
At the Leveson Inquiry, this was taken to mean a leader who had a kind of film star ‘aura’ about them.
It in fact means a leader who has such a dominant stamp on his business, his generals are in no doubt about what he wants – even when he is absent. Which of course Rupert was most of the time.
In all of Rupert Murdoch’s publications, when editors were making tough calls on which stories/investigations/campaigns to run, their thoughts always turn to the question: “What would Rupert expect?”
And the answer was always clear to them – set the agenda alight, get the paper talked about, give your readers what they want. Don’t screw up.”
Whether you are a prime minister or an editor, you know what Rupert wants. And if you want power or to keep your job, you make sure he gets it.
Sensing their political influence has vanished over the past nine months, both the Murdochs used the Leveson Inquiry to burn the rest of their political bridges.
Given that Rupert’s main love for his newspapers was the political power they wielded  and his son’s disdain for them, I believe this marks the beginning of the end of the Murdoch association with News International.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Rupert Murdoch at Leveson for Exaro News

RUPERT Murdoch does not do “subtle”. He told us so at this week’s hearing of the Leveson inquiry into media ethics. It is probably the only untruth that I could spot during his marathon sitting over the past two days.

For the full version of my view of Rupert Murdoch's performance at Leveson and what he was seeking to achieve, go to the Exaro news website where it is the lead article.

BBC 5 Live Breakfast Interview with Nicky Cambell

FOR THOSE of you who follow these things, here is my Radio 5 Live interview with Nicky Campbell this morning.

In it, I address Rupert Murdoch's assertion yesterday at the Leveson Inquiry that there had been a "cover-up" at the News of the World over phone hacking.

Move the cursor along to 1hr 9mins.

Dear Diary - Crazy Days at the Hovel on the Hill

Dear diary,
Another boring day.
Got up at 4.50am, shower, shave, tea, cereal and into car to BBC at 6am.
Cup of tea at studio then live on BBC Radio 5 Live at 7am. Odd panic attack. Always convinced mid interview I will choke on sip of water of have uncontrollable sneezing fit.
Tell same to seasoned broadcasting type who confesses he has same about breaking wind.
Leave at 7.20am for breakfast at Reform Club. Catch up on all papers. Times carries piece on my CMS Committee letter and grumpy, scowly picture of me snatched outside the hovel last year. Have snooze in library.
Walk for an hour to police station to find if I am going to be charged with the extremely serious offence of intimidating a witness.
Take calls from three newspapers and TV station on the way telling me they have it on best possible authority that I am.
Late mother-in-law’s expression of shock and surprise oddly flashes through mind – “I nearly dropped my cork leg!”. Realise I still don’t know what it means. But my cork leg is most certainly dropped.
Carry on walking. The lovely Sharon Patrick from ITN texts me. “Which police station is it?”
Several more requests.
Arrive, no reporters.
Meet my excellent, wise, sage-like lawyer Henri Brandman. His usual, benign greeting, “Good morning Mr Neville”.
Two affable cops welcome me beaming and with hands outstretched. Nice chaps from that Weeting brigade.
Mr Weeting Junior calls me “Mr Neville” too for some odd reason.
Henri and I smile.
Mr Weeting Senior gets it right for the important bit – “no further action Mr Thurlbeck”.
Great. That only leaves matter of being jailed for hacking Gordon Taylor’s phone. Still, early days yet. It’s only been a year.

(Henri the Sage phones upon reading this, "Please point out this is one of your infantile jokes").
Mssrs Weeting, The Sage and I, shake hands and depart.
Switch phone back on. Pings like ping-ball machine. Lots of emails and texts from well wishers. Several hundred. Many I don’t know. Very grateful and bit humbled.
Dozens of interview requests. Turn all down on basis it would turn into Monty Python sketch. Issue statement to press spokeswoman Hayley Barlow instead. Works a treat.
Back home. Finish review of Tom Watson’s book for a heavyweight, national publication. Send over. They are pleased.
Reply to as many emails as possible. Realise many are from well-wishers at News Int. Several from other titles. V kind. Thank you.
More emails. More interview requests.
Collate list of interviewees from Talking2Minds and send to TV company making doc on PTSD victims.
Next – run with dog Sir Ralphie ‘Poocher’ Magrew. Shower, change then to review the brilliant Alison Steadman in press night of Frayn’s ‘Here’ followed by din.
Look out of window. Raining again.
When, oh when will something happen in my life?

      My grateful thanks for all your warm wishes today. From friends and strangers. Thank you so much.
I would like to thank my family, friends and colleagues in the industry for their unswerving loyalty, support and continued belief in me.

And my lawyer Henri Brandman for his wise counsel. I am fortunate to retain the services of one of London's finest lawyers.
He can be contacted on

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Rupert Murdoch and Tom Crone

IN FAIRNESS to Tom Crone, a gifted lawyer and respected colleague of 20 years, with whom I find myself rarely divided, I would like to make one clarification.

Today Rupert Murdoch made the following statement at the Leveson Inquiry: "The person I am thinking of was a friend of the journalists, drinking pal, and was a clever lawyer and forbade them to go and see the evidence, or there have been statements reporting that this person forbade people to go and report to Mrs Brooks or James (Murdoch)."

For the record, Tom has never forbidden me from speaking to anyone at News International. Nor has he, to my knowledge, forbidden anyone from doing so either.

I think Mr Murdoch has accidentally conflated the events in my statement to the CMS committee and the person who actually prevented access to Rebekah Brooks was not Tom but another individual who I name in the statement.

Rupert Murdoch at Leveson - The News of the World Cover-up

Rupert Murdoch at the Leveson Inquiry

RUPERT Murdoch has told the Leveson Inquiry today that News International bosses fell victim to a "cover-up" over the hacking scandal.

Mr Murdoch is referring directly to my statement to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. * See link below.

Murdoch claimed senior executives were not informed, or misinformed, and "shielded" from what was going on.

He said: "I blame one or two people for that, who perhaps I shouldn't name because for all I know they may be arrested yet."

"But there is no question in my mind that maybe even the editor, but certainly behind that, someone took charge of a cover-up which we were victim to and I regret."

Asked by counsel to the inquiry Robert Jay QC where the "cover-up" emanated from, the tycoon replied: "I think from within the News of the World. There were one or two very strong characters there who I think had been there many, many years and were friends of the journalists.

"The person I am thinking of was a friend of the journalists, drinking pal, and was a clever lawyer and forbade them to go and see the evidence, or there have been statements reporting that this person forbade people to go and report to Mrs Brooks or James (Murdoch).

"That is not to excuse it on our behalf at all, I take it extremely seriously that that situation had arisen."

Mr Murdoch does not make mention that one of the people who shielded Rebekah Brooks from my evidence which would have cleared me, is still serving at News International and is named in my CMS Committee statement.
I’m grateful my message has eventually reached the man that matters most at News Corporation. I tried and failed to get it across while at the News of the World. It has finally got there after shouting it from the wilderness.
Whilst not sharing the politics of Enoch Powell, I’m inclined to share with you my favourite quote of his, which he gave after being kicked into the political wilderness by Ted Heath in 1968.
Wildernesses are good places I notice, for voices, they tend to get to a reverberation which is often lost in the more crowded places.

* The cover-up at the News of the World led directly to my dismissal because the paper's executives failed to pass my information onto News International. In the absence of the material which would have exonerated me on the Gordon Taylor phone hacking, News International terminated my employment.

Rupert Murdoch's admission that this cover-up took place takes us a step closer to resolution.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Speaking at the Cambridge Union Society

I'VE BEEN invited to speak to the Cambridge Union on May 9th.
Below is the press release sent out today which outlines the topics I will cover.

NEVILLE Thurlbeck, the former news editor and chief reporter at the News of the World, is to address the Cambridge Union on corporate espionage and phone hacking at News International.
Thurlbeck, who worked for News International for 23 years, will speak on May 9 prior to taking the talk on a nationwide tour of universities and colleges.
He will also tackle:
·         His role as an agent for the National Criminal Intelligence Service.
·         His role in breaking award winning scoops which jailed Jeffrey Archer and exposed David Beckham’s extra marital affairs.
·         His role in the controversial expose of Max Mosley.
·         Tabloid journalism in crisis and the urgent need for reform.
·         The vital role of tabloid newspapers.
·         The Leveson Inquiry and consequences.
·         The need for trade union recognition at News International.
·         A route map for gaining entry into journalism.

Thurlbeck, a newspaper veteran and winner of numerous industry awards, will also lace his talk with anecdotes of life on the road as a tabloid journalist and his 20 year working relationship with Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks.
His press spokeswoman Hayley Barlow said: “Neville is known to be a frank and straight talking journalist and his university and college lectures have been very well received in the past.
“However, I expect this one to be of major interest, coming as it does hot on the heels of MP Tom Watson’s book in which he reveals how Neville gave him a confidential briefing on News International’s plot to put MPs under 24 hour surveillance.
“He will take the opportunity to set the record straight on this incendiary matter.”
Guests only speak at the Cambridge Union Society by invitation.
Founded in 1815, the Cambridge Union Society is the oldest debating society of its kind.
Other speakers this term include Sir Michael Parkinson, Sir Trevor McDonald and Albanian President Bamir Topi.

In the past two years, it has hosted Dame Judi Dench, Miss World 2010, Sir Ian McKellen, former BP chief executive Tony Hayward, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, former head of the IMF Dominic Strauss Khan, Sir Roger Moore, Jerry Springer, Richard Dawkins, John Major, Dara Ó Briain, Lord Coe and David Miliband.

Prominent past speakers include US Presidents Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt, British Prime Ministers Sir Winston Churchill, the Right Hon Earl Clement Attlee and Sir John Major.

Thurlbeck, 50, who is now public relations director for the forces charity Talking2Minds, said: “The Cambridge Union is one of the most fertile debating fields in the world and the best institution to launch a debate on the future of tabloid journalism in Britain.”
Press enquiries to Hayley Barlow on
To book this talk for your university or school, email Neville Thurlbeck on

The debating chamber at the Cambridge Union

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Tom Watson - The Confidential Meetings

THE BLOG post of April 21 has now been followed up by the Independent on Sunday.

It can be read here:

Saturday, 21 April 2012

100,000 Hits Ahoy! And We're Ditching the Cabbage Wine!

WE’RE ditching the cabbage wine and cracking open a vintage bottle of burgundy tonight at the ‘umble ‘ovel on the ‘ill as this blog prepares to surge through the 100,000 hits barrier.
Since February 9, my ramblings have been read in 1536 cities in 115 countries.
There are 207 sovereign states so this means we have now managed to beam our way into 55 per cent of the countries of the world.
Today was quite frantic with 4,461 hits by 6.55pm due to interest in the Tom Watson piece.
Just picked up his book as I’ve been commissioned to review it for a major national publication. So I won’t be reviewing it on here until then.
But I did notice two glaring factual errors in the first two minutes.
Firstly, he claims I was recorded by a Dorset couple engaging in frolicsome activities with them. I wasn’t. If I was, I would have been out on my ear! The Press Complaints Commission reviewed all the evidence (Yes, I know, including the picture of me sans trousers, sans all!) and cleared me.
Secondly and this is a matter of far greater gravity. I do NOT inhabit a semi-detached house!
This hovel stands squarely on its own plot, quite apart from the neighbours, which must be a blessed relief to them. It has done since 1932 and remains so today.
My lawyer Henri Brandman says accusing me of, "living in a semi-detached house", is highly actionable so much of Mr Watson’s book profits will be paying for installing running water and an inside lavatory at me ‘ovel. Happy days!
My chums trip to Barcelona was great fun. The highpoint was when Pimmy, giddy on three bottles of cava, fell facedown into the gutter. Splat. Like a pancake.
Decided I didn’t like Gaudi. Does anyone? Emperor’s new clothes. Rubbish.
The bottle of burgundy by the way, is one of several vintage bottles of wine I have discovered in the hovel cellars and forgotten about.
It’s a 1997 Grands Vins de Bourgogne Beaune 1er Cru “En Genet” produced by Arnoux Pere et Fils.
Are there any wine buffs/smart Alecs out there who could advise me how much I would pay for this today?
I plan to drink it with some homemade meatballs, which many might consider a little philistine I think. But that’s the sort of shocking behaviour I get up to these days.
Thanks for tuning in.

Tom Watson - The Confidential Meetings

MUCH has been made of Tom Watson repeating our private conversation in his new book 'Dial M for Murdoch'.
I can't say I'm anything more than surprised and disappointed. No real depth of feeling about the matter, although others may have a different reaction.
Here's what took place.
The information I relayed to Tom Watson was done so in the run up to submitting my written report to the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport last year.
One would normally assume as I was using his offices to do this, I would automatically be accorded a degree of confidentiality.
We agreed verbally that this was the case in October, when he came to my home.

And we agreed it before we met in his Commons office some weeks later.
Mr Watson was extremely keen to talk about how he had been placed under surveillance and asked whether I knew anything about it.
I told him I didn’t but mentioned, en passant, there had been a plan to put the whole committee under surveillance but it had been aborted in 2009.
On February 10, I received an email from Mr Watson, in which he said:
This reminds me: on the matter of the surveillance of committee members. Are you in a position to provide a written submission? I recall you telling me that the editor authorised the operation. As we begin to draft our conclusions it would be helpful to have this information confirmed.”
I was reluctant to do this and in fact never did so.
My reply the same day is tellingly marked, “covert surveillance - private and confidential” in the subject bar to reinforce my position on this matter.
My answer was: “Hi Tom,
“I'll see what I can do.
“When do you need it by and what exactly do you require? And by what means do you want it transmitted to you/the committee?



Three days later, to reinforce the confidentiality of the matter, I sent him a further email, again marked, covert surveillance - private and confidential”.

The contents further reinforced our confidential position, for in it I say:
 “Get back to me (on) this when you can please.

“All in confidence.


On February 23, I close the matter with the observation that I believe I have covered all I need to in my submission to the committee.

On April 7, I received an email from Mr Watson asking seven questions about my role with the National Criminal Intelligence Service and probing deeper into my past affiliations.

My reply the same day indicates I was beginning to suspect Mr Watson was using his parliamentary role as a subterfuge for gleaning information for his book. I said:

“Morning Tom,
“Thanks for your inquiry. Please let me know where the answers are going to and I'll get back to you.


“Nev T”

His reply, the same day, made me suspect his agenda had less to do with committee business and more to do with beefing up his book.

Hi Neville,

“The honest answer is, I don't know but certainly not for the committee
report (unless you would like that). I guess I'm just curious about
you - you're such an enigmatic figure.

“I happen to think that serving your country in this way is a good

He then imparts some information on a confidential basis – and which will remain so.

I’m not remotely angry with Tom Watson, I simply want to set the record straight. If anything, I’m just irritated that he can’t seem to hold a confidence when he is meant to be probing serious wrong doing.

And very much for the record, I would like to re-state that I had been told that the decision to carry out the covert surveillance on MPs was taken above the head of Colin Myler, the editor.

It was News International, not the News of the World, which ordered us to dig into the private lives of the MPs on the committee which was investigating us. Many News International executives were in the loop, in 'Deepcarpetland' as the News International zone where these things emanated from was euphemistically called.

Although I am not naming those individuals, I will however reveal that Rebekah Brooks’ name never came into the frame. She is on bail and deserves to be eliminated from this messy chapter and I’m happy to be able to do so.

Also for the record, every one of my colleagues had grave reservations about carrying out the surveillance.

What if we were caught? And caught en masse? How could we explain that? What was the purpose? Why were we doing it? What was the justification?

It wasn’t journalism. It was corporate espionage.

But this was typical of the outside edicts which came into us from News International executives when the News of the World was under fire or batting on a sticky wicket. There is a book on this alone.

I personally put the brakes on this one. I kept kicking it into the long grass, in the infuriating way that reporters do when they think they know better than their superiors.

I'm not against watching people. That's what all journalists do.

But this was ridiculed by all involved in the newsroom.

Others followed. Nothing was done.

Then suddenly, the order came in a rushed, panicky statement. “Has anyone done anything on this yet? No? Good, don’t. We’ll let you know if the picture changes.”

We heard nothing more. Someone very senior in Deepcarpetland had evidently got wind of the plan and blown a fuse.

Hayley Barlow, my press spokeswoman, put out my statement on Thursday.

It said: “I am surprised and disappointed that Mr Watson has chosen to make public one of our private conversations which took place in the run up to me providing the CMS Committee with my statement. At no time did he inform me of his intention to do so.

“For clarification, I made it clear to him that I had no evidence to support the belief that the request originated from the editor’s office.

“In fact, it was implied that the surveillance plan originated from outside of the newspaper and elsewhere in News International.

“I have no desire or intention of revealing the identity of any of the personnel instructing or being instructed to carry out the surveillance.

“All the staff were extremely reluctant to carry out the surveillance. Though from a point of view of logistics and ethics, they unanimously introduced a large degree of procrastination until executives suddenly called a halt to the plan about ten days later."

As I write this, I am still finding it hard to be cross with Tom Watson.

That's because we both had agendas the day we met.

I have to be frank and admit the reason why I met up with him was to show him evidence that the Gordon Taylor hacking matter - upon which he had been fierce in condemning me and for which I had lost my job - was not my work at all.

He was generous enough to offer several very sincere apologies before he left my home and has since moved his guns away from me.

I offered my hand and my understanding that he had reached those conclusions in the absence of any public defence from my employers, who chose to cover up instead.

Tom Watson had two agendas that day. For Parliament and for his book.

And he chose to break the code of confidentiality that exists between journalist and politician. His book and the committee's report next month will be a testament as to whether this was justified.

I hope it's a good and accurate read.

It covers the most momentous and cataclysmic events in the history of British journalism and it’s important that it gets it right.

In the coming days, I will be picking it apart and dissecting it for a national publication.

I’ll let you know if it does.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Blog Holiday

 I’M taking a short break from blogging and tending the cabbage patch at me ‘umble ‘ovel on the ‘ill.
From Monday April 16 to Friday April 20, I will be roistering with me chums Kirky and Pimmy in Barcelona.
I’ve known both lads since 1966, when we were five years old and starting school together.
Kirky looks and sounds like Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army. He even has flat feet like him too.
Pimmy immerses himself nightly in a bath of red wine, only emerging when it’s empty.
One is a brilliant lawyer, the other an inspirational economics teacher. But I have considerably more hair than both.

La Grande Illusion at the British Film Institute

JEAN Renoir’s seminal anti-war masterpiece La Grande Illusion is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a pristine, newly restored digital print.
Following a group of French prisoners of war in World War I, Renoir shows us the route to peace through human solidarity across state and class boundaries.
French and German aristocrats unite over memories of dining at Maxim’s.
The working classes bond over a shared and growing feeling that the war is doomed to drag on and they may not survive it.
But it is also one of the most accomplished pieces of ensemble acting ever seen on film.
The result of course, is one of the finest films ever made.
Jean Gabin, in the lead role of Lieutenant Maréchal, gives one of his finest performances as the working class officer who falls for a young German widow while on the run.
Gabin, an understated naturalist actor, has a style which shuns the staginess and histrionics of the immediate, post silent cinema of the 1930s.
Still regarded as one of the best actors to come out of France since the invention of motion pictures, his reputation as a national icon was cemented in World War II when he won the Médaille militaire and a Croix de guerre fighting in North Africa.
One of the film’s most astonishing performances comes from the silent actor and director Erich von Stroheim as the aristocratic German captain von Rauffenstein.
Rauffenstein, as the captor of the equally aristocratic French captain de Boeldieu, played by Pierre Fresnay, shows us the human tenderness which can exist between enemies. It is a graceful and touching performance.
Fresnay, who was Sir Alec Guinness’s favourite actor by the way, sacrifices himself to help his commoner officers – “A nice present from the French Revolution”, von Rauffenstein pointedly remarks.
Julien Carette provides comic relief as a rumbustious, music hall actor Cartier – a kind of French Arthur Askey.
A notable actor with an equally notable death – he fell asleep smoking a cigarette in 1966, set his nylon shirt on fire and burned to death.
Jean Gabin in La Grande Illusion

Dita Parlo, as the widow Elsa, is one of the few non combatants. But it is she who suffers most. As in all wars, it is those who are left behind with their grief who bear the most pain.
Her brief moment of intense happiness when she falls in love with Maréchal is cruelly snatched away from her as he must head for Switzerland and safety. Her sadness and stoical acceptance are moving. His promise to return after the war, blows idly along with the wind which will surely sweep him back to his regiment and his inevitable death.
Jean Gabin as POW prisoner on the run in La Grande Illusion

Although Renoir was heavily linked to the Popular Front’s left-leaning politics, this film is not about class struggle but about the shared hopes, fears and desires of all classes.
Its message has not dated. The acting is as good as anything you will see today. And the brand new print makes it as fresh as the first day it was screened in 1937.
In French with English subtitles.

La Grande Illusion is showing at the BFI Southbank until April 19. Then during the Jean Gabin season on May 7, 11 and 19.
To book, go here.

Erich von Stroheim as the aristocratic Prussian captain von Rauffenstein

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