sun 21/07/2024

Storyville: Hitler, Stalin, and Mr Jones, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Storyville: Hitler, Stalin, and Mr Jones, BBC Four

Storyville: Hitler, Stalin, and Mr Jones, BBC Four

The tale of a maverick Welsh journalist, who saw Soviet and Nazi realities before his 1935 murder

Among friends? Gareth Jones (centre) before his 1935 murder in Inner MongoliaBBC 4

The Storyville documentary strand must rank as one of the special glories of British television. As its opening titles unfold in different languages, we can only celebrate programmes that still give time to international stories, told in their own time, and allowing an eclectic, sometimes oblique view on their subjects. Hitler, Stalin and Mr Jones, a film by George Carey (pictured below), serves as a rallying cry to endorse exactly that.

The “Mr Jones” of the title was a Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, whose career in the 1930s and before took him to both Hitlerite Germany and Soviet Russia, to observe, at very close quarters, the realities of those countries. Supported by the patronage of another eminent Welshman, David Lloyd George, his access to the inner circles of both countries was privileged: he flew once on Hitler’s private plane, describing that leader later as looking like a “middle-class grocer”. Goebbels, in turn, received the resemblence moniker of a South Wales miner.

One of Jones’s major stories, as a foreign journalist in the Soviet Union, was the revealing of the extent of the Ukrainian holodomor, the famine of the early 1930s that came with Stalin’s elimination of private farming (the Jones family had had a remarkable position in Tsarist Ukraine, for their involvement in a steel mill, which brought a whole division over there from South Wales). A country that had been a bread-basket for its neighbours turned into a hunger state.

Reporting that crisis by the Western press accredited in Russia – with all its difficulties and limitations, then as now - was sporadic indeed: the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty (notes from the diary of Jones on meeting Duranty, below left - "I don't trust Duranty - he still believes in collectivizaiton" fell for the official line, and his Pulitzer prize was very nearly withdrawn recently for those mistakes. His disputes with Jones leave little to Duranty's credit. Malcolm Muggeridge, writing for the Manchester Guardian, got more of it right, not least on the back of his correspondence and meetings with Jones, who was writing for The Times, though Muggeridge's support for the Welshman when needed, was not exactly forthcoming.  

Gareth Jones comes across here as something of a glorious chancer – one who, albeit, wrote home religiously every Sunday to his parents - whose luck ended in 1935 in Inner Mongolia, where he was kidnapped and executed by Chinese bandits. Was it ultimate revenge from the Soviets for his disclosures of the Ukraine famine? Almost certainly he was on the edge of the diplomatic espionage world, the “great game” that was continuing under his eyes. As with his contemporary Peter Fleming, such journalistic assignments were almost invariably accompanied by requests from Britain's Secret Intelligence Service to keep an eye open, and report back on anything seen.

If Carey’s film leaves one issue open, it’s the personal side of Jones’s life (though we see plentiful, and moving interviews from his surviving relatives, as well as full and impressive documents, including his notebooks and diaries. Other Joneses, relatives not by blood, but through archives, are also in evidence). The director’s narration is distinctly low-key, unlike some more evocative approaches by some of his BBC Four colleagues. If we follow the espionage line, perhaps Jones was indeed something of a “cipher”, whose identity finally escapes definition.

Carey was the founding editor of Newsnight, and a balance of news and documentary has been crucial in his career – including the gap between the “big” projects, like Jonathan Dimbleby’s five-parter on his journey through Russia, that Carey produced, and smaller films. As a director, he’s made three recent documentary films that caught Russian society today from “below the surface”. It’s a hand-held, minimal-crew style, that brings the rewards of authenticity, in the best Storyville tradition. Mr. Jones trumps even those earlier works, and surely has BAFTA written all over it.

Such journalistic expeditions were invariably accompanied by requests from the Secret Intelligence Service to keep an eye open and report back

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Jones reported on the 1932 Holodomor in the papers. He was the first to expose the Communist atrocities such as the Gulag camp system. The Gulag camp system existed during Mr. Jones' reporting in the Soviet Union. Clearly he was silenced. The truth he uncovered and reported on is now just coming out, decades after the Soviet Communist collapse.

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