Our Man In Paris: English spy drama is a French fantasy

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The Independent Online

A passionate argument is raging in France about the murder of a British family in north Provence 51 years ago. The dispute, pursued on television and the internet and in the press, concerns the guilt (or innocence) of an old peasant farmer, Gaston Dominici. He was convicted in 1953 of killing a British couple, Sir Jack and Lady Ann Drummond, and their 10-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, but was later pardoned by the president Charles de Gaulle.

Was the old man - 77 at the time of the murders - guilty? Or was the real killer one of his shifty sons? Or were other mysterious forces involved?

Sir Jack, 65, a distinguished nutritionist, had been involved, marginally, in secret government work during the war. He was also the man who prescribed daily doses of cod-liver oil for British children.

Why were he and his family attacked at their campsite beside a country road near the village of Lurs in the Alpine foothills in November 1952?

The latest flurry of interest in the Drummond-Dominici case arises from a two-part television movie, L'Affaire Dominici, shown on the most popular French TV channel, TF1, in October. The film was the most watched TV show in France this year, attracting 12 million viewers on both nights - one in five of all French people.

The movie was brilliantly acted and, by the low standards of French TV, it had high production values. The story line was absurdly far-fetched, based on a book by a French journalist and conspiracy buff, William Reymond, and by Alain Dominici, one of the old man's grandsons.

Briefly, their thesis is that Sir Jack undertook some kind of secret government mission, disguised as a camping holiday. The Drummonds were slaughtered by a gang of German criminals, hired by the KGB.

Never mind the fact that Dominici confessed, twice, before retracting his confession. Never mind the fact that two of his own sons accused him of the murder. Never mind the fact that the murder weapon used on the older Drummonds was a gun belonging to the Dominici family. (The little girl, Elizabeth, tried to run away and was bludgeoned to death.) Never mind the fact that, in the six years before his murder, Sir Jack had been working on non-governmental, publicly acknowledged projects as director of research for Boots.

If the film had been marketed as a ripping, fictionalised yarn, it might have been acceptable. TF1, however, presented it as a serious contribution to the debate on Dominici's guilt. A popular actor from the film - yes, an actor - was interviewed on the main TF1 news bulletin and declared that Dominici's innocence was now evident. Leading executives of TF1 called on the public to support a petition calling for the case to be reopened.

TF1 also commissioned a documentary to go with the prime-time movie. The film-makers concluded that the KGB theory was manifest rubbish. TFI refused to show their excellent film in prime-time. It appeared a few days ago, snuck out on a little-watched cable-channel that belongs to TF1.

Partly, this is a story about the low ethical standards of the most watched French TV channel. Much of the audience who watched the two-parter in October was not alive in 1952. Their only knowledge of the affair will come from the dishonest, lurid TF1 version.

The real victims - the Drummond family - have been largely forgotten. But not completely forgotten. Since I first wrote about the TF1 film in October, I have been contacted by Inette Austin-Smith and Silvia Tharp, both 79. They are, respectively, the widow and sister of Sir Jack's godson, Mike Austin-Smith. Elizabeth Drummond, an extremely intelligent child and the apple of her father's eye, was bridesmaid at Mrs Tharp's wedding.

Both women said that they were incensed that such a bizarre account of the Drummond murders should have appeared on mainstream French TV. "I knew Sir Jack well. He was a charming, friendly man. The idea that he would have been involved in some kind of secret mission and taken his wife and 10-year-old daughter along is ludicrous," Mrs Austin-Smith said.

Mrs Tharp added: "Sir Jack adored France. That is why the family decided that they should be buried there. It is very distressing that, after 50 years, fables of this kind should appear on French television."

Hugh Grantÿs politically subversive side

The slight and sweet Richard Curtis movie Love Actually, starring Hugh Grant, has opened in France to rave reviews, including one in Le Monde that insists the film is a searing political document of our times.

Grant, who plays the bachelor Prime Minister in the film, admitted to one French interviewer that he had fallen asleep while preparing for his role. He was trying to read a book on British politics at the time.

Nevertheless, the reviewer for Le Monde, excellent daily bible of the French intellectual classes, praised Mr Grant, and the director Mr Curtis, for making a politically subversive movie, which "marks a turning point in the recent history of British cinema".

The Le Monde reviewer Samuel Blumenfeld's conclusion is based on a short scene in which Grant's Tony Blair-like PM attacks the ignorant bossiness of the United States, while sitting next to a dotty American president. Most British reviewers took this as an ephemeral, topical joke at Blair's expense.

Le Monde, however, says that it is part of an "ideological undercurrent" in the film that expresses "the rejection of Tony Blair's foreign policy by a British population that wishes to express its cultural difference from the United States".

Canine canard

Here is another example of cross-Channel cultural misunderstanding. The world's most famous butler, Paul Burrell, was interviewed on the M6 television channel. One of his remarks was translated into French as: "I love my dog, my wife and the princess in several different ways".

The satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné commented: "English morals, I ask you."

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