Coup 53




Ten years in the making, Taghi Amirani’s film exposes some uncomfortable truths about Britain’s role in destabilizing the Middle East. 

Coup 53


The real coup of Taghi Amirani’s eye-popping documentary is the discovery of a man called Norman Darbyshire. An MI6 operative, Darbyshire went on record in 1985 to admit that he personally gave the go-ahead to assassinate Mahmoud Afshartous, chief of police for Mohammed Mossadegh, the first democratically elected prime minister of Iran. The interview in which this astonishing revelation was exploded was for End of Empire, a 14-part series produced by Granada Television. But the disclosure never made the final cut and the whereabouts of the recording remains unknown. To this day, Darbyshire’s report is, under the British Official Secrets Act, classified information and although it was leaked to The Observer newspaper, nobody knows who was responsible for the breach.


Coup 53 is a stirring history lesson of Iran, but it is the film’s first quarter that really captures the imagination as a documentary on the making of the documentary. While America boasted about its role in the famous coup of 1953, Britain’s participation was clouded in secrecy. America’s involvement in ushering in the tyrannical rule of the Shah led to the subsequent coup d'état of 1954 that removed Jacobo Árbenz from power as president of Guatemala and, thus emboldened, the US moved in on Ho Chi Minh, to complete what the French couldn’t finish in Vietnam. In short, one damned thing led to another in a chain of devastating miscalculation.


Our hero is Taghi Amirani, an Iranian-born filmmaker who spent ten years bringing this exposé to light. With the fortitude of a private investigator he delved into files, reports, transcripts and interview notes hidden in filing cabinets in Washington DC, London, Manchester, Paris and Tehran. And with the willing cooperation of eye witnesses, historians, politicians, researchers, journalists, aides, secret agents and relatives of the dramatis personae, he teases out his appalling story. The first real shock is that Granada’s epic chronicle of the autumnal years of the British Empire includes an episode on Iran – which, strictly speaking, was not a British territory. When in 1908 oil was discovered in the country, Winston Churchill described it as “a prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams.” So when Mossadegh – anointed Man of the Year of 1952 by Time magazine – announced that he was going to nationalise the oil industry, the US and the UK joined forces to implement what eventually led to the Iranian Revolution.


A born storyteller, Amirani has corralled the collaboration of the legendary editor and writer Walter Murch along with a roster of impressive interviewees, from former colleagues and erstwhile British Foreign Secretary David Owen to established authorities on the Persian state. With the absence of Darbyshire himself, Amirani has re-enacted the agent’s revelatory words in a faux interview acted out by Ralph Fiennes, complete with the original background of the Thames in London. It’s a shameful episode in Britain’s meddling in foreign powers, glossed over in jingoistic newsreel footage that dismisses the Empire’s crime as “the oil crisis.” It’s a crisis of moral integrity and Coup 53 should give many Establishment figures some sleepless nights.


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Featuring  Taghi Amirani, Ralph Fiennes, Walter Murch, Stephen Meade, Alison Rooper, Farhad Diba, Julian Amery, Nigel Hawkes, David Owen, Kermit Roosevelt


Dir Taghi Amirani, Pro Taghi Amirani and Paul Zaentz, Co-Pro Amir Amirani and Ahmad Kiarostami, Screenplay Taghi Amirani and Walter Murch, Ph Taghi Amirani, Simon Fanthorpe and Chris Morphet, Ed Walter Murch, Music Robert Miller, Sound Jim Goddard, Rotoscope Animation Ali Charmi.


Amirani Media-Coup 53 Ltd

120 mins. UK/Iran. 2019. Rel: 21 August 2020. Cert. 15.