How a Leading Thriller Writer Helped Uncover Emmy Winner’s Plagiarism | Emmys

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It was only a few seconds of striking images: joyful scenes of American troops on tanks and jeeps descending the Champs-Elysees lined with jubilant Parisian crowds. But the rare color sequence, shot by one of Hollywood’s greats, director George Stevens, sparked a chain of events that ended in scandal and embarrassment for Stevens’ son and for having won the Emmy Awards on American television.

For the first time, former BBC producer Paul Woolwich and his collaborator famed novelist Robert Harris have revealed the full story of an unprecedented decision to quietly withdraw three of the top prizes from two great American filmmakers after taking realized that their work on a 1994 documentary had come from a BBC Newsnight film already released in Great Britain in 1985.

“I think it’s pretty sad,” Harris said over the weekend. “We worked in good faith on the original film and I had no idea our work was reused in this way until Paul told me.”

Woolwich, an acclaimed news producer who left the BBC in 2008, said over the weekend that a wrong that had lasted a quarter of a century had finally been righted. “I felt that a grave injustice had been inflicted on those who created the original documentary and whose work had been claimed by others. And I wasn’t going to leave that, despite the passage of time, ”he said.

In 1994, in front of 21 million viewers, George Stevens Jr and his editor Catherine Shields received three coveted statuettes for their film. George Stevens: D-Day in Berlin to 46e Primetime Emmy Awards, held in California.

Famous British author Robert Harris wrote the screenplay for the 1985 BBC documentary, much of which was used unnoticed by George Stevens Jr in his Emmy-winning feature film in 1994. Photograph: Andy Hall / The Observer

But unbeknownst to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the organization behind the Emmys, Stevens Jr. had submitted a shorter version of the Newsnight film, made with his father’s war footage almost a decade earlier, and had entered it as his and Shields’ work, without proper recognition.

“The level of plagiarism was astounding, so I contacted academy president Maury McIntyre in the fall of 2019 and asked for an investigation,” Woolwich said.

Perhaps the hardest thing for Woolwich to believe, even now, he adds, is the fact that Stevens Jr – a full-fledged “big fish”, and already several times Emmy winner, as well as a recipient 2012 Oscar Honorary and Eight Writers Guild Award Winner – Received one of his Emmys for “screenplay” on the documentary. In fact, he had used large sections of a commentary written for the BBC by Harris, now a famous author.

The story began in 1985 when an influential British TV journalist in Washington watched a long Hollywood biopic, George Stevens: A The filmmaker’s journey, at the end of a dinner. This journalist was Margaret Jay, now Baroness Jay, daughter of former Prime Minister James Callaghan, then wife of former British Ambassador to the United States, Peter Jay.

Stevens Jr had made the film in homage to his father, the director of the same name who is most famous for making the western. Shane, as well as Cary Grant’s first adventure film Gunga Noise, the Texan epic Giant, with James Dean, and A Place in the sun, with Elizabeth Taylor.

Halfway to the tribute film, an astonishing silent documentary sequence, shot in color towards the end of the Second World War and recording the liberation of Paris. Margaret Jay was stunned, Woolwich recalls: “The color had torn off the monochrome veil, and everything felt more contemporary, immediate and natural. It was the war seen precisely as those who were there saw it ”.

George Stevens Jr at the 1994 Primetime Emmy Awards
George Stevens Jr at the 1994 Primetime Emmys, where his documentary won three awards, but was stripped of its awards last year. Photograph: Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty Images

Stevens Sr had been sent by the US military to film the end of the war in the Signal Corps’ special film coverage unit (Specou), along with a team of filmmakers. Although he shot in black and white for movie news, he also released a batch of groundbreaking color film for his own personal best. Due to the horror of the experiences, especially the liberation of the Dachau camp, the director had hidden 14 boxes of films in his Californian attic for 40 years.

With a looming war anniversary looming, Jay realized the importance of films and contacted Michael Grade, then BBC One’s controller. A deal was made with Stevens Jr, who also asked the BBC to pass on his longer tribute to his father.

Harris, who at the time called Stevens Sr.’s color images “one of the most evocative family films in history,” recalled that the Newsnight team worked hard on the rushes in the short time available. “There were some incredible scenes, including the one from the V2 rocket slave factory in Nordhausen, oddly enough, since that’s the subject of my last book. We also found some surviving members of the film unit, and then we put it all together, ”he said over the weekend. Woolwich recalls scouring the audio archives of the Imperial War Museum for authentic sound effects and finding popular songs from the exact period.

“Everything has been designed to breathe life, emotion and drama into the silent images and the historical milestones they represent. We worked 18 hours a day to meet the anniversary deadline, with editor-in-chief Peter Minns sometimes sleeping on the floor under his editing table, ”he said.

The result was D-Day in Berlin: Newsnight Special, broadcast in May 1985 on BBC One to an audience of 10 million. Woolwich discovered the existence of the edited 46-minute version of Stevens Jr when the BBC rebroadcast his Newsnight documentary to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019. According to Woolwich, aside from an introduction and epilogue by Stevens Jr, the film was “virtually identical”, using the Daddy’s army-type graphics created by Howard Moses and original music composed by Peter Howell from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

After seeing visual evidence, McIntyre and the American Television Academy asked a committee to review the two films. Eight months later, and after further reviews, the decision to disqualify the 1994 entry was made last year, though the board chose not to comment.

Woolwich is grateful, he said, as the academy needs to know “how sensitive and embarrassing that would be, given the influential figures in the industry involved.” Of Stevens Jr, now 89, he said: “I can only assume that as he believed the original raw and silent rushes were his own, so was everything created from them. “

Despite all the prizes and accolades initially awarded, this is a story in which, as Harris pointed out, “at the end of the day, no one really wins.”

Stevens Jr was not available for comment this weekend.

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