Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime

 

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The story of the fight to obtain some justice for victims of Thalidomide is told by the man who led it, Sir Harold Evans.

 

The 2012 release McCullin stands as testimony to the skills of documentarian filmmakers Jacqui and David Morris. This sibling team now follow it up with an immensely powerful piece dealing with the tragic story of mothers giving birth to deformed children as a consequence of taking the supposedly safe sedative drug Thalidomide. In this country the long fight for compensation was spear-headed by Harold Evans who became editor of The Sunday Times in 1967 and went on to publish relevant articles at great personal risk. The danger arose from the fact that parents of victims had started to sue the company involved, Distillers, and as the law then stood any press comment could be challenged as being in contempt of court proceedings.

This is the story of an unscrupulous company hoping that the difficulty of proving actual negligence would encourage acceptance of the very limited sums offered to settle but, as resistance grows, it becomes an inspiring example of the power of the press when in the hands of a investigative journalist like Evans who believes that campaigning for justice is a crucial role and, indeed, a duty.
 

Attacking the Devil

Fleet Street justice: Harold Evans

 

The film has an off-screen narrator in Michael Sheen, but Sir Harold (as he now is) tells his own story most effectively while other journalists offer comments, as do a number of the victims and their parents. In addition older material, both newsreel and personal, is included. This results in a moving testimony from those involved, so much so that it seems dreadfully insensitive to be critical. However, it does need to be said that this is the kind of film that would be entirely at home on a television screen and, being a critic, I have to say also that the structuring of the piece could easily be improved.

What I mean by that is that biographical elements about Evans, interesting as they are, fit a little uneasily into a film which announces itself as being about the Thalidomide scandal. We hear of earlier campaigns – one to gain cancer tests for women and another seeking justice for the innocent Timothy Evans hanged for a murder at 10 Rillington Place – and there is also footage devoted to Kim Philby, but these needed to be presented as distinct introductory material about Evans before starting to develop the main material which as it is feels interrupted. Similarly it is not ideal that the film should reach a climax before adding a substantial coda explaining why the Thalidomide tragedy had its roots in the Nazi concentration camps. If the narration had alerted us to this as something coming up later, any sense of anticlimax could have been avoided. But when the work is otherwise so impressive, so important a piece of history leading naturally to a plea for press freedom, these are mere quibbles. This film deserves to be seen.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON


Featuring Harold Evans, Martin Johnson, David Mason, Alan Rusbridger, Tom Yendell, Louise Medus-Mansell, Geoffrey Robertson and with narration by Michael Sheen.

 

Dir and Written by Jacqui Morris and David Morris, Pro Jacqui Morris, Ph Clive Booth, Ed David Fairhead, Music Alex Baranowski.
 
British Film Company/a Frith Street Films production/The Bertha Foundation-Dartmouth Films.
99 mins. UK. 2015. Rel: 22 January 2016. Cert. 15.