“The new film Mr Jones aims to tell the story of my great uncle, the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. It is based on his 1933 world exclusive exposing the great famine then raging across much of the USSR, particularly in Kazakhstan and Ukraine; a famine which Moscow was desperate to conceal. His scoop upset two governments and instead of being feted for his honest reporting he found himself denigrated by the pool of Moscow foreign correspondents, blacklisted by the Soviet Union and blackballed by the British establishment. Some say the story eventually resulted in his murder. The film’s poster claims it is ‘The most important true story you will ever watch’. But in reality the film distorts the truth.
As his great nephew I know that the true story of Gareth Jones is far more amazing than the sensationalised one shown by the film. And if there is a story behind this film it is that of one woman’s long struggle to rescue her beloved uncle’s memory from obscurity. That woman was my late mother Dr Margaret Siriol Colley, Gareth’s biographer, without whom there would simply be no film. The actual story of Gareth Jones is to be found in her book More Than a Grain of Truth, the source for the film and from which all that is true about Gareth is gleaned.
Standing on the stairs of her London home Mum was just 10 years old when she received the news from her father that her beloved Uncle Gareth had been killed by Chinese bandits. The family was never to be the same again. My mother had worshipped her uncle and he, without children of his own, doted on her and would regularly send her postcards from his travels to the far-flung places of the world. He had had a glittering career ahead of him, with some even saying he was destined for great office. But now instead he lay dead on the arid plains of Inner Mongolia, shot three times after falling off his horse, on the eve of his 30th birthday, exhausted after two terrible weeks alone in bandit captivity. Six months later his remains came back from China on the SS Rawalpindi and my mother would speak of the harrowing train journey as she and her father sat with Gareth’s ashes in a casket on the seat opposite them, on their way to their final resting place in Barry, Wales.
The world soon forgot about Gareth Jones. But my mother did not. Nor did Gareth’s sisters Eirian and Gwyneth whose stories about their brother’s illustrious life regularly left me in childhood awe. They spoke of his academic excellence at Cambridge, his work as private secretary for an initially adoring Lloyd George, his encounters with many of the world’s great statesmen, not least Adolf Hitler. They seemed to gain some solace from their belief that he was the first European victim of the Second World War. It all sounded a very remote and exotic thing to have happened to someone in my family, someone who it pained me to know I would never have the chance to meet. After his death his mother Annie-Gwen Jones, the grief too much to bear, dressed in black for the rest of her life and the family home, Eryl, once a hub of social and political life in South Wales, fell silent. Gareth’s room, full of mementoes from his travels was to lie untouched for over half a century.
But there was mystery to the story. What had really happened? My mother waited patiently and in 1985, fifty years after his death, when the government records were released she was there at the Public Records Office ready to receive them. She devoted the rest of her life to researching the story. She wasn’t a trained historian but she had academic rigour and, with her determination and remarkable single-mindedness, she was able to uncover a story more fascinating than any she had ever imagined.
Gareth had an uncanny ability of being in the right place at the right time. As Lloyd George put it, he had the ‘almost unfailing knack of getting at things that mattered’. After graduating from Cambridge, on the back of his language skills and extensive travels in Russia and Germany, he was employed as a secretary advising Lloyd George. This led to introductions which proved invaluable as his career drifted towards journalism. His first major scoop was to become effectively the first foreign journalist to travel with Adolf Hitler on a flight to Frankfurt in 1933. Sitting just a few feet away from the Fuhrer he began his article with the prophetic line: ‘If this aeroplane should crash, the whole history of Europe would be changed’. Also on the plane was Joseph Goebbels who wrote in his diaries of the ‘intelligent young man’ he had had dinner with that same evening in Frankfurt. Gareth wanted to understand the troubled world in which he lived. In the grip of the Great Depression his was a world looking for solutions and Fascism and Communism were jockeying to provide them. With his charm and his fluency in English, Welsh, French, German and Russian, he was uniquely placed to find out how those ideologies worked on the ground.
It was Gareth’s third trip to the Soviet Union that lead to his second major scoop – exposure of the famine caused by the USSR’s Georgian leader Stalin’s policy of rapid collectivisation. At a time when foreign correspondents were forbidden from leaving Moscow, Gareth managed to secure a train ticket to visit the then Ukrainian capital of Kharkiv. But, rather than travel there directly, he disembarked just south of the Russian town of Belogrod and continued clandestinely on foot for forty miles ‘tramping’ through Russia and on into Ukraine.
Sometime after crossing into Ukraine he was picked up by Soviet police and escorted by train to Kharkiv. What he had witnessed, on both sides of the border, was hungry children, some with distended stomachs, and adults crying out for bread. The stories he heard from peasants he met along the way implied that conditions further south in Ukraine were even more catastrophic. It is this section of his story in particular which the film has distorted, not least the way it implies that what he witnessed was solely in Ukraine. It wasn’t. In his articles he talks of seeing famine conditions in ‘the Moscow region, the Central Black Earth district, and North Ukraine’.
Gareth was a meticulous note-taker and he recorded everything he saw and all the conversations he had. His diaries were the basis for his articles and, such was the success of Soviet concealment, those from his journey to Moscow and on to Ukraine in 1933 are considered the only reliable eye-witness accounts of a famine that killed millions. Historians disagree on whether this was genocide, but for many Ukrainians it was a deliberate attack on the Ukrainian people. This man-made famine has become known as the Holodomor. Thanks to Gareth and his diaries it is a famine that cannot be denied.
But it is only by chance that those diaries survived. In 1999, on the death of Gwyneth Jones– Gareth’s sister – my mother was clearing out Eryl, when beneath the stairs she found a suitcase in which they had lain gathering dust for decades. Gareth’s mother, inconsolable, had kept all of Gareth’s possessions – every book, every letter, every diary. My mother wrote her first book The Manchukuo Incident in 2001. This looked into the mysterious circumstances surrounding Gareth’s murder in Inner Mongolia in 1935. She had several theories about why he might have been killed; first believing it was the Japanese, whose troop movements Gareth had stumbled upon; she also had an interesting theory that Zhang Xue Liang, the Young Marshal, could have been behind it. Later on, very compelling evidence unearthed by my late brother Nigel Linsan Colley, seemed to implicate the Soviets in his murder as an act of revenge for exposing the famine. For my mother though, the greater geo-political situation always made that unlikely and to her the mystery always remained.
At this time Nigel started taking a greater interest and put the information that Mum was collecting onto a website, www.garethjones.org, the definitive archive for all things related to Gareth Jones. It changed their lives completely. Mum’s gentle retirement project soon took on international significance as members of Ukraine’s exile community became aware of Gareth’s story. With many Ukrainians seeing their country’s relationship with Russia as being defined by the Holodomor, Gareth’s role as its only reliable foreign witness meant my mother and brother suddenly attracted much interest. Encouraged, and helped by Nigel, my mother began work on a biography of Gareth, More Than a Grain of Truth (2005).
This attracted the attention of aspiring screenwriter, Andrea Chalupa, a Californian of Ukrainian descent. I don’t think my mother thought anything would come of the film she proposed. She was just happy to talk about Gareth and was flattered all the interest in her uncle. Naively, no contracts were made. There was so much going on as Gareth started to become known. In 2008 he was declared “Hero of Ukraine” and awarded the Ukrainian Order of Merit, a plaque was unveiled at his old university of Aberystwyth and an exhibition of his diaries held in Cambridge. They were exciting but also unhappy times. Conflict arose between my mother and brother over academic differences. Mum felt that some of those Ukrainians who were trying to promote Gareth’s story were politicizing it and bending the truth in pursuit of their anti-Soviet, often anti-Russian agenda.
In 2011, Mum, Nigel and fI took part in a BBC Storyville documentary made about Gareth called Hitler, Stalin and Mr Jones, helping to locate the site of his kidnapping in Inner Mongolia. My mother, by then very ill with cancer, was to die shortly after I returned, happy in the knowledge that she had succeeded in restoring Gareth’s place in history. Then the film started to gather momentum. At first there was significant contact between Andrea and Nigel, who was heavily involved in discussing ideas for the film and correcting scripts. Andrea led him to believe this would be a joint effort but Nigel didn’t sign any contracts, and by the time his ideas and information were all safely in the screenwriters’ hands, Nigel was abandoned. He felt exploited and increasingly concerned that the film was becoming sensationalist and losing touch with the truth. In retrospect, he went into it naively, just wanting to help them out. But as time passed, he became concerned that really, he had no control or right to script approval. Then, just as director Agnieszka Holland and actor James Norton came onboard, my brother fell ill with cancer. By the time of his untimely death in 2018 he had effectively fallen out with Andrea and the film makers. He felt very badly treated and was to die unhappy about the way the whole thing had progressed.
With NIgel and Mum gone there was a vacuum into which I reluctantly stepped. I felt obliged, on behalf of the family, to take up the mantle and discover how the film makers were handling the story. Keen for the contact, they invited me on set in Edinburgh and even consented to me reading a working version of the script. But I can’t say I was happy about it – there were so many inaccuracies and straightforward untruths, I was shocked. A private screening confirmed my worst fears. Gareth was the only reliable named journalist to witness the Soviet famine of 1933, but what he witnessed and what the film claims he witnessed are completely different.
The film leads the viewer to believe only Ukraine was affected, but, as my uncle reported, millions were dying across the Soviet Union. In his famous Berlin press conference, on 29 March 1933 on leaving Russia, he reports: ‘Everywhere was the cry, ‘’There is no bread. We are dying.” This cry came from every part of Russia, from the Volga, Siberia, the North Caucasus, Central Asia.’ Gareth was not just a ‘Hero of the Ukraine’, he was also a hero for people suffering across the Soviet Union; he was a hero for truth. So, when used as the central character in a film by Agnieszka Hollande, billed as “the most important true story you will ever watch”, and when much of what is presented in that film is not true, it needs to be pointed out. Is it really acceptable to promote a film prominently as a ‘true story’ and then in small print at the end of a long list of credits hide behind a standard disclaimer stating there are fictional elements?
Andrea was handed an incredible story on a plate. It could have been told honestly as many great, genuinely ‘true’ historical films are, like Downfall. Instead she has invented multiple fictions. Gareth was a witness to the famine; not, as the film implies, a victim. In truth there was no love interest. He didn’t witness any dead bodies or any cannibalism, let alone take part in any; he never saw any grain requisition, forced labour or body-carts; he was never chased, never ran, never hid or disguised himself on his hike along the railway line. He was never imprisoned. Far from the claims of the film I don’t think he ever felt himself to be in any great danger, protected by his fluency in Russian, his charm and a useful VIP gratis visa. Furthermore, the narrative frame of the film, that Gareth met George Orwell, is simply not true, despite James Norton and the filmmakers attempts to spin otherwise. Similarly, for the claim that Gareth inspired Animal Farm there is no firm evidence.
Does this matter? Is this all excused by ‘artistic license’ and trumped by the general ‘good’ of shining a light on an important, unrecognized part of history? Maybe. Maybe not. When a film creates a fake public perception of history, surely this cannot be a good thing. The classic example of film fiction becoming accepted as historic fact is Eisenstein’s staged storming of the Winter Palace in his 1927 film October. It never actually happened as portrayed. But thanks to the film, in public perception, it did. As historian Anthony Beevor has pointed out, “In a post-literate society, the moving image is king, and most people’s knowledge of history is regrettably based more on cinematic fiction than archival fact”. A certain amount of dramatic interpretation is expected but is it acceptable to change the facts? The appetite for ‘true stories’ on screen has resulted in many such controversies like that over the Oscar-winning Green Book, The Imitation Game and even the Netflix hit series The Crown.
Already the internet is littered with untruths as a result of this film: that Gareth was “a Welsh diplomat who worked for Chamberlain and once interviewed Hitler” (he was not and did not); that he met George Orwell (he did not); that he went to Russia to interview Stalin (he did not); that he WAS murdered by the Soviets (there is no conclusive evidence for that). The filmmakers have admitted that Gareth did not witness all the events depicted in their film but told me they feel justified in using him to portray their version of what happened in the Holodomor. But I feel, by not telling the truth, they have muddied the historical waters. With so many falsehoods in the film how can any of it be relied upon? Gareth is used as a vehicle, presenting him as a witness to things he never actually saw, things which, though they may have happened, are not verified by his records. But the way the film presents the information implies that they were witnessed by this man who always tells the truth – therefore, they must be true.
It seems to me that in the pursuit of their own agendas the makers of ‘Mr Jones’ have dealt with the suppression of truth by the perpetuation of further untruths, and produced a propaganda film. And, sadly, they have written my mother’s part in resurrecting a great Welsh hero out of the story altogether. If people are interested in reading the real story about Gareth Jones, the definitive place to find it is in her book More than a Grain of Truth (or at www.garethjones.org ). I hesitate to say it is the most important story you will ever read, but it is certainly an interesting one, that stands tall without the need for ‘Hollywood’ fabrication. It is the story of a brilliant young journalist, full of energy and zest for life, who risked everything to report the truth. That his life was extinguished so young remains a deep and enduring tragedy to my family.
As for the Holodomor, I applaud the filmmakers for shining a light on this woefully underreported part of history. So, do go and see the film if you can. Despite its inaccuracies it is an important story and a good film, and yes, of course it has helped raise the profile of a man I’m immensely proud to be associated with. A man whose character, incidentally, lead actor James Norton captures brilliantly. But it would be a mistake to take what you are watching at face value. I wonder what my mother and brother would have thought. They were both given significant credits in the film, which is some acknowledgment of the fact that between them they brought back from obscurity a great, hitherto forgotten, Welsh hero and I am proud of them both for doing so. As her life drew to a close, my mother was concerned that her role in this would be forgotten and that she too would be “air-brushed like Gareth”. I hope not. I hope that with my mother’s book being reprinted, her place in this story will be assured and she will gain the recognition for her work that she so rightly deserves.”
Written by Gareth Jones’ great nephew,