African Infantryman of the Year

This is incorrect. 30 Degrees South do NOT own the copyright to Frontline Rhodesia. The sole copyright has from the outset belonged to Nick Downie, and it still does, because he was the man who photographed, recorded, directed, wrote and narrated it, and one cannot claim personal copyright in a work that is physically recorded and produced after one has died, despite efforts by Richard Cecil's family - in particular, by Richard's elder brother, the present Marquess of Salisbury - to suggest otherwise.

There are many misconceptions and rumours about the making of this documentary, of which perhaps the most bizarre is that Nick murdered Richard during a firefight because he was having an affair with Nick's wife. So, herewith the definitive account of what actually happened all those 39 years ago:

Lord Richard Cecil and Nick Downie were entirely equal partners in the jointly-financed private venture. Richard had the social status and the high-level contacts to get them into the front line of the war; Nick was the film-maker, and also the one with by far the greater combat experience - at this point, as a soldier he'd served and fought in three armies, in five campaigns, and as a journalist this project was his third war documentary. Richard had served one tour in N.Ireland, and had briefly used a small clockwork camera for ITN in 1977.

They started filming at the end of March 1978. In mid-April, they joined an RAR company which was on Fireforce duty. For their first contact, they jumped from a Dakota, with Nick being first in the stick because the homemade container with his camera and sound gear had only a couple of inches clearance either side to get through the door, so the despatcher held him and his kit half out the door on the run-in at 400 feet, throwing him out when the light turned green. Thereafter, the company commander (Andre Dennison) allowed them to go in by helicopter - a concession which was to play a part in Richard's death, less than a week later.

They filmed the first contact together, and another the following day. Both wore Rhodesian camo, which was considered almost immoral by journalists at the time. However, so-called war correspondents (then as now) rarely venture into the true front line, whereas Nick's trademark was that he always filmed shoulder to shoulder with the combatants. In this case, in the very thick bush at the end of the rainy season, the contacts were taking place at ranges of two to five yards, and to have worn ordinary civilian clothing would have been both suicidal and a danger to the troops they were with.

Also at the insistence of the Rhodesians, both of them were armed, Nick with a 9mm Browning, and Richard with an FN. Again, this was an absolute journalistic no-no, but Nick was given the pistol because he was first out the aircraft door, and sometimes drops were cancelled in mid-stick or sooner if a mistake had been made, potentially leaving Nick alone on the ground in hostile territory. As for Richard, his job was to watch Nick's back, bearing in mind that Nick was 'advancing to contact' with headphones on and one eye glued to the viewfinder, so his normal battlefield senses were dangerously compromised (with professional sound gear, one heard everything twice; first the actual sound then, a split second later, the recording of that sound as the tape passed over the playback head - a tad confusing under fire).

On the third day, Richard had to go back to Salisbury (Harare) for something, leaving Nick to film alone for the next three days and the next three contacts. The day after Richard returned, there was a call-out in the late afternoon, which was commanded not by Andre Dennison of the RAR but by an air force officer. He made the mistake of dropping off the heli-borne troops all round the target instead of in one long sweep line, the result being that Nick and Richard found themselves on the ground with just an officer and a machine-gunner for company. So, Richard was asked to take the left flank of the sweep, Nick next to him, as usual hanging back two yards - for safety, and because the camera's minimum focus distance was three feet - then the machine-gunner, and finally the officer on the right flank. In this formation, they started to sweep towards the objective, with the light fading fast. (It was by now so late that the operation should have been called off, but unfortunately the officer in charge was a pilot, and pilots know eff-all about infantry work.)

Here, Richard's relative lack of combat experience played a part because he kept drifting off to the left, out of visual contact, despite repeated requests from the RAR lieutenant to stay closed up. The result was that when there was a sudden close-quarter burst of AK gunfire, it was impossible to return fire because none of the other three knew exactly where Richard was, or even if he'd been hit, although he didn't answer to his name being called.

The officer therefore decided to sweep round, in front of where they assumed Richard to be, and between him and the guerrillas (number unknown) who had opened fire. Nick was asked to cover the rear, so he transferred his camera to his left shoulder and drew his pistol - a fairly futile gesture under the circumstances. As they swung round, Nick found himself walking backwards, which is when he heard the guerrillas whispering to each other. He couldn't see them, but he had to assume they could see him; they were lying down; he was standing up; they were armed with AK-47s; he had a 9mm Browning; and finally, it wasn't his war. So he didn't fire. Then, a second or two later, the officer called out that he'd found Richard, and all thought of the enemy was forgotten, even though they were only a mere five yards away.

Richard was badly wounded, and unconscious: the first bullet had shattered his left femur, which meant he'd twisted as he fell forward, so that the second bullet entered his chest on the left side, passed through both lungs, and exited on the right side. He died as Nick and the lieutenant were making hopeless efforts to resuscitate him. It was too late to bring in a chopper, so they slept nearby, and Nick flew out in the morning, with Richard's corpse lying at his feet.

Richard was killed on the 20th April, but Nick carried on filming alone for over four months, until the end of August/beginning of September, after which he returned to London and sold the rights for the first UK transmission to Thames TV (then the biggest company in the ITV network) for £8,000. He worked with a Thames film editor to produce a 25-minute version of the film (he subsequently made another, 50-minute version which no one in the UK has ever seen). Jonathan Dimbleby wrote and recorded an intro to the programme, before leaving on an overseas assignment.

At this point, Richard's family stepped into the frame. They had no right whatever to interfere in the editorial line of the film, but as a courtesy they were shown a rough-cut and were given the script of Dimbleby's intro - they turned up for the viewing accompanied by lawyers. They'd been unhappy about Dimbleby's involvement from the start, because in those days he was regarded as very left wing, and now they claimed that his intro didn't give sufficient credit to Richard for the part he'd played in the making the film. Thames didn't like being told what to do by a bunch of aristos, so it ended up in court, where the Cecils briefly got an injunction. This also gave them the opportunity to talk to the press, to whom they tried to minimise as much as possible the part that Nick had played in the film's production.

The upshot was that Dimbleby's intro was scrapped, which infuriated Nick because he knew the film would be politically controversial, and Dimbleby's intro would have blunted some of the inevitable criticism. Another Thames journalist was given the intro to do, and Nick was effectively blackmailed by the Cecils into signing an agreement which gave them a limited say in the foreign sales and, via lawyers, a block on the distribution of revenue, which they exploited to the full by refusing to agree the accounts, even though Nick provided invoices for every penny, while they didn't produce any evidence whatsoever for a single item of Richard's claimed expenditure. This stand-off lasted for months, putting Nick under enormous financial pressure, until his father broke the impasse by writing a personal letter to Richard's father, the then marquess, who was actually a rather nice but somewhat vague old boy. At the end of it all, Nick managed to recoup his expenses, just, but his profit for nearly a year's work was precisely zero.

As an aside, the night that Richard returned to the fireforce base from Salisbury, he and Nick had a blazing row which was overheard by the people in the next room. Richard accused Nick of "hanging back" which he was - two yards - and Nick told Richard that he was behaving in such a way that he was going to get himself killed, which two days later is what happened, although to be fair, in the event it was just hellish bad luck. If the line of the advance had been three yards to the left it would have been Nick who was shot dead. Richard also said that he had run out of money, and could no longer contribute to the costs of the production. However, when Nick was subsequently packing up Richard's belongings, among his papers he found a list of Richard's personal shareholdings. They amounted to more than £100,00, or about half-a-million quid in today's money.

Nick has never spoken about any of this, even to close friends - partly because for several years just the barest mention of the incident seemed to bring bad luck - and he probably never will again, although it still rankles. Mention the British aristocracy to him, or even the monarchical system, and he becomes extremely tight-lipped.

So finally, the business with 30 Degrees South. When he found out that they were distributing rather poor-quality copies of the Thames version of the film, he sent them a formal 'Notice of Copyright Infringement'. What he didn't know was that Chris Cocks, author of the excellent book Fireforce, was the owner of the company, and also that the very morning Chris received Nick's email, he was due to be released from four years of personal bankruptcy caused by a previous case of copyright infringement (which incidentally wasn't his fault). They met for lunch in Johannesburg, took an instant liking to one another, and Nick gave him the rights to distribute the film with the one book, free of charge. It turned out that Chris had been given permission to use the film by none other than Richard's brother, the current Marquess of Salisbury, even though the latter had no right to do anything of the sort. Chris also gave Nick a copy of an email from the Marquess's private office which stated that Richard was the one who had actually filmed the documentary, and that they would like this fact reflected in the credits. Chris was very unsure about this claim, and so didn't comply. He gave the email to Nick with a smile, saying: "This might annoy you." Nick was aware that the Marquess had been saying something of the sort for years, but it was the first time he'd seen actual proof. It probably amounts to defamation, but hey, life is far too short for crap like that.

And just in case some of the other rumours about the film surface: Richard and Nick's then wife were not having an affair; he didn't shoot Richard in the back; he didn't suppress film of the RAR setting fire to people's houses, nor of them torturing prisoners; none of the claims by many walts that they were present when Richard was killed, not one of whom Nick ever met or has even heard of, are true; and although the Rhodesians censored his film by cutting numerous chunks out of the rough footage, they cut only the print but not the negative, so all that material was simply reprinted in the UK and appeared in the broadcast version. (Nor, in Eritrea, his first documentary, did he hand his camera to a passing Eritrean guerrilla to film the combat sequences. Quite how that rumour came about is a complete mystery.) Lastly, there is a very funny book called Banana Sunday by the late Telegraph correspondent in Rhodesia, Chris Munnion, about the eccentric exploits of the post-war generation of war correspondents in Africa. In it, he devotes several pages to the circumstances of Richard's death. Every single fact in his account, apart from Richard's and Nick's names, is wildly incorrect.

So, should anyone want to see excerpts from Nick's three award-winning documentaries - of the Western Sahara, of Rhodesia, and of Afghanistan (the first one, before the Russians invaded) - last year someone, without his knowledge or permission, put them up on YouTube. Googling 'Nick Downie YouTube' gives the link.

Sorry for the length of this, but he wanted finally to set the record straight, and where better to do it than on ARRSE.
Preferably to be 'heard' in the voice of Orson Wells : "probably the best post on Arrse I've ever read"


And, the cunt, he isd actually Turkish and probably Jewish too...not that that particularly bothers me but pretending to be British, come on you foreign freeloading cunt...

New Posts