Mike Beckham describes his proudest WIAs

It’s extraordinary being in Vietnam because as I say, you’ve been in the Stables, and then a week later you’re in a helicopter in a battle zone. You had total access. The Americans allowed crews to go anywhere they wanted to, all you had to do was go to Tan Son Nhut and say, is there a helicopter going to so-and-so and you’d be there.

I made a film called the ‘Siege of Kontum’ early on. Kontum was a town near the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was surrounded and we were helicoptered into it. It was surrounded by the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. And we watched that town defend itself, which was pretty exciting.

I late made another siege film at Phnom Penh with George Turner and Alan Bale. It was the last town left in Cambodia before it collapsed, and it was surrounded by the murderous Khmer Rouge. We didn’t know how bad they were. We knew a lot of journalists had disappeared and never came back, which certainly didn’t happen in Vietnam. If you were captured, you were taken to Hanoi, but the Khmer Rouge just killed journalists. And this was very exciting because we filmed a convoy coming over from Saigon to supply the town. This was the last month, and we got out, thank goodness.

Five years later I went back with George and Alan to look at the shambles which was left after… this was year zero, and we were the second unit in, and it was just extraordinary. Phnom Penh was a deserted town, and people were coming in, everybody had an extraordinary story to tell about the Khmer Rouge. Amazing stories. The Khmer Rogue had this mad idea to set up a new race. They wanted to reduce all the middle class and kill them. So what they did was, when the emptied the town in ’75, just after we left, first of all they killed all the members of the army. Then they killed all the doctors, and all the university professors. Then they killed anyone wearing glasses. And then they would leave prescriptions for drugs laying around, and if you picked them up, they would kill you. And so what was left was some middle class who managed to hide and pretend to be something else, but mainly a peasant race. And coming back into Phnom Penh was extraordinary, because in 1980, they decided to get rid of all cars, so there was this huge dump of cars. Get rid of all fridges. They wanted to start from zero, that’s why it was called year zero. That was quite moving and quite extraordinary.

I did a three-part series called ‘The Rise and Fall of the CIA’ with Geoff Moore in Washington. We were there for five weeks, and we charted how the CIA had changed from a benign anti-communist operation to an operation that supported corrupt generals in Latin America and Africa, and suddenly it was no longer a force for good. We caused a bit of a stir in Washington because it became known that there was a British film unit which had the temerity to question the CIA, and at one stage a former director of the CIA, James Angleton, came to our hotel, to find out what we were doing, which was flattery, if you like.

I did a film called ‘The Hunt for Doctor Mengele’. Mengele was the doctor at Auschwitz, and this was about 1980. He was one of the most wanted men in the world. We heard he was in Paraguay. We got close to him. We were using a hidden camera. We went to a German community there. We didn’t get him but we talked to people who’d played cards with him the night before. We made an hour-long film. I was unfortunately arrested and thrown out, threatened with being beaten up and tortured, and thrown out, but we made a strong film, which CBS 60 Minutes bought.

I just have to ask you – beaten up and tortured?

I was threatened. I was stood against a wall all night and a 16-year old – this was in Paraguay – kept banging me in the back with his rifle butt until I fell over. And then the next day I managed to talk my way out a difficult situation, and the American ambassador got me out of it. We had happened to interview him a week before and he’d heard about this and he was very anti the regime there and he got me out.

Gosh. You must have been in dangerous situations many times. Did you never think to yourself, this isn’t the life for me?

We were stupid and young. We were doing things that I would never do now. We were in battle areas, particularly in South East Asia, and we wanted to get the best film there was. You know, I had very good crew and usually George, now and then, Bale, and they were the most wonderful people because we were all equal on that. If there was a dangerous situation, if somebody didn’t want to go forward to a trench where there was some fighting, or a wood where there was some fighting, they could say no and none of us went forward. The three of us had to agree to do it. And I said, look, we’re going to go to a besieged town, do you want to do it, and they always said yes. We were probably slightly naïve but we got away with it. There are things I did then I certainly wouldn’t do now.

What else am I proud of? ‘Tiny Revolutions’, this drama documentary about this professor about of jokes in Czechoslovakia. I saw a five-line Reuters piece saying a man called Jan Kalina had been arrested for telling political jokes. I thought that looked interesting, so I went to Czechoslovakia, which was a Soviet satellite, and talked to his wife. He’d been arrested, but he’d run an underground cabaret of political jokes – anti-communist jokes, anti-Brezhnev jokes, anti-Stalinist jokes. For example, “what’s two hundred yards long and eats cabbage? A meat queue in Czechslovakia”. “Why do Czech secret policemen walk around in threes? One does the reading, one does the writing, and the third one keeps an eye on the other two intellectuals.” It was a wonderful story. Jan Kalina was interrogated by Czech secret police for three months and he told jokes for three months. I got a lot of this stuff from his wife. He was then tried and spent four years in prison, but here was a perfect shape for a drama – the cabaret scripts, a man being arrested, telling jokes to his interrogators, making fun of the them and, the communist party, and then the trial. So it was one of the best scripts and ideas I’ve ever come across. It worked pretty well actually. Liverpool Playhouse said let’s make this into a play, so I rewrote it as a play, which wasn’t quite as successful, but it had all the cabaret stuff in, the drama, the songs, that sort of stuff.

What else am I proud of? ‘The Birmingham Six’, 1975. Six men had been arrested in 1975 for blowing up two pubs in Birmingham, killing a lot of people, and they’d been in prison for sixteen years. World In Action did several very good shows, Ian McBride, showing how dubious the Crown evidence was. But it was still getting nowhere. I went over to Ireland and talked to some of the senior IRA members in Belfast, who said, “look, these men are innocent. I’m fed up of their relatives saying, when are we going to get the Birmingham Six out?” And I said, OK, what’s the story? And they said there was a split in the IRA. The people who did the bombing were from Dublin, and “us northerners”, Belfast people, didn’t approve of this. So I was given various pointers, and we actually managed to get to some of the people who had actually done it, and we named them, which caused a huge row. But it was a two-hour film and I think it helped. It really got the six out of prison. That was good.

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