Legal lancers ride into battle over epic film

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The Independent Online
Colourful echoes of the Johnson Matthey Bankers scandal and big names from the movie world will reverberate around a South Wales magistrate's court this week.

Newport magistrates will commence committal proceedings on a private prosecution for perjury brought by Stephen Weeks, a film director, against James Swann, a film financier; Raymond Dutfield, head of Technicolor, now part of the Carlton group; and Peter Bath, a former production executive.

In 1984, Mahmoud Sipra, the Pakistani shipping magnate, moved into films. He decided to back The Bengal Lancers, an epic set on the North-West Frontier in 1897, during the British Raj.

Starring Michael York and Trevor Howard, it was the brainchild of Mr Weeks. The cameraman was Oscar-winning Walter Lassally. Mr Swann, who likes to call himself 'Sir' James, was to be the completion guarantor - the person who insures against the film going over budget.

Filming started in Jodphur, India, with rushes being processed at the Technicolor laboratory in London. The early rushes, Mr Weeks maintains, were fine, 'as one would expect from Walter Lassally'. Then disaster struck. Mr Weeks received news from the lab that in fact, the rushes were 'all out of focus and unusable'. Mr Bath, the film's contact man in London, confirmed the news.

Filming was suspended as new cameras were sent out from Britain. Then Mr Swann flew out and fired Mr Weeks. As completion guarantor, he had that right. As he languished in Delhi, Mr Weeks claims to have discovered that a duplicate crew was being assembled for a second film, called The Khyber Horse.

To be made by Mr Swann and starring Mr Sipra himself, it was, he claims, 'a complete rip- off of my Bengal Lancers'. Mr Weeks returned to London and together with Mr Lassally went to view the 'flawed' rushes. They were shown them out of focus, Mr Weeks said. Then, on changing projectors, 'the rushes were clear and sharp and beautiful. I didn't know what to think'.

The film's demise was followed by the submergence of Mr Sipra under loans of pounds 60m from JMB, the enforced winding-up of his shipping empire by the Bank of England and his flight to Pakistan. It was also followed by a dollars 2m ( pounds 1.3m) insurance claim from Mr Swann, purportedly on behalf of Mr Weeks' film company. Not to be outdone, Mr Weeks, who owns Penhow Castle in South Wales, started his own legal action for breach of contract.

This ended when Technicolor demanded security for costs from his company, which it could not meet. Undeterred, he is now bringing a private prosecution, alleging the defendants conspired and lied in his civil action against them.

(Photograph omitted)

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