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Why are film-makers obsessed with the story of doomed British sailor Donald Crowhurst?

Two new films explore the mystery of the businessman and sailor who disappeared during the 1969 Golden Globe race. But is his story essentially unfilmable?

When the yachtsman Donald Crowhurst set out from Teignmouth, Devon, on 31 October 1968, as the last of nine competitors to enter the Sunday Times Golden Globe race for solo, non-stop circumnavigation, he might have had many possible goals in mind. There was the financial security that the £5,000 prize would bring to him and his family; the glory of going down in history – along with the newly knighted Francis Chichester – as one of Britain’s most heroic seafarers; the publicity and commercial success that would accrue to his invention, the Navicator (forerunner of today’s GPS in some ways). But there was something else that he could not possibly have foreseen: that his voyage – conceived in hubris and optimism, ending in tragedy – would turn out to be the inspiration for quite so many books, plays, TV programmes, artworks, musical works and, in particular, films over the next 50 years.

This year two new retellings of the tale reach cinema screens: The Mercy, James Marsh’s big-budget offering starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, and the smaller, leaner Crowhurst, made by the maverick British horror director Simon Rumley, with Justin Salinger in the lead role. By viewing them side by side, and looking back at earlier adaptations, we can perhaps start to understand the enduring appeal of this story for film-makers: although there remain doubts, in my mind, as to whether you can really capture the essence of Crowhurst’s downfall on screen.

Here are the brief facts, for those who still don’t know them. Incredibly, Donald Crowhurst was not the most inexperienced competitor to enter the Golden Globe race (that accolade must go to Chay Blyth, who’d never handled a yacht before and had to be towed out of the harbour because he hadn’t worked out how to steer). But he was still very much a weekend sailor, more used to pottering along the Devon coastline than rounding the Horn. He set sail on the very last day permitted by the rules of the race. His self-designed trimaran the Teignmouth Electron was hopelessly ill-prepared: the pioneering computerised steering system wasn’t ready, and the hull was far too vulnerable to leaks. Crowhurst had also fallen into the clutches of a ruthless publicity agent who was hyping up his story beyond all realistic expectations, and had placed himself at the mercy of an unscrupulous sponsor, signing a monstrous deal that stated that if he did not complete the nine-month race he would have to give all the money back and face certain financial ruin.

He had only been at sea a few weeks, and was inching his way down the West African coast, when he had to face up to the fact that his vessel was not seaworthy and he would die if he tried to take it into the roaring forties that winter. He decided instead to fake his log books, lie dormant in mid-ocean for a few months, then tuck in behind the other racers as they headed north back home through the Atlantic. He would be seen to have won an honourable third or fourth place, dignity would be saved, and he would be able to keep the sponsorship money.

Disastrously, all but one of the other racers dropped out and Crowhurst became a cert to win the prize for fastest sailor. He knew that under the close scrutiny that would result, his logbooks would be exposed for the forgeries they were. Weighed down by this dilemma, and suffering from months of intense confinement and solitude, he underwent a mental disintegration and finally – we must assume – stepped off the edge of his boat. The Teignmouth Electron was found drifting, unmanned, a few weeks later; he was never seen again.

Crowhurst’s logbooks passed into the hands of two Sunday Times writers, Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, who quickly produced their masterly account of the tragedy, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, which appeared in 1970. It’s a book that has a profound impact on everyone who reads it, not least because of the unsparing way it records Crowhurst’s mental unravelling. He seems to have spent his last few weeks poring over Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (the subject of one of the few books he took with him for companionship), which in his final, feverish days he elaborated and twisted into a bizarre 25,000-word essay on his own dominion over space and time. Almost the last words he wrote were the ones that have become his famous, despairing epitaph: “It is finished – It is finished – IT IS THE MERCY.”

It’s no surprise that rights to the book should first have attracted the attention of Nicolas Roeg, whose own fractured narratives of people lost in the wilderness (Walkabout) or falling apart (Bad Timing) chime perfectly with the Crowhurst story. But Roeg never managed to crack the problems of adapting the book – perhaps there is a lesson there for other film-makers – and so the first version to reach the screen, unexpectedly, turns out to be a 1976 Canadian TV movie called Horse Latitudes. Viewable on YouTube today, it canters through the story in a brisk 41 minutes, but its star, Gordon Pinsent, can do little with a screenplay that casts the protagonist, most inaccurately, as a boorish con man, and some lurid cartoon sequences towards the end do little to capture the hallucinatory horror of Crowhurst’s final imaginings. The film was produced by an outfit called Rosebud Films, but Citizen Kane it isn’t.

Meanwhile a French translation of Hall and Tomalin’s book had caught the imagination of the actor and producer Jacques Perrin (best known, perhaps, as the sailor-suited, peroxide-haired romantic in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort). The result, eventually, was Christian de Chalonge’s film Les Quarantièmes rugissants, which updates the story to 1982, starring Perrin as “Julien Dantec” and Julie Christie (speaking creditable French) as his wife Catherine.

The presence of Christie puts a solid focus on the relationship between the absent mariner and his abandoned partner, with bewildered children often to be glimpsed in the background (Crowhurst, only in his mid-thirties when he attempted the voyage, already had four children). This aspect of the story is handled well: a powerful scene towards the end of the film conveys Catherine’s rage when a long-awaited personal call from her missing husband is turned by the villainous press agent into a huge gathering of journalists and onlookers: private grief and anxiety cruelly made public. Perrin, too, makes a convincing if implausibly handsome Crowhurst figure, and has some nice dialogues with a wounded seabird he invites on board his ship, a device that reminds us of one of the central cinematic problems with this story – that the hero has nobody to talk to for most of the running time. This is the same problem Billy Wilder faced when making The Spirit of St Louis, his film of Lindberg’s solo transatlantic flight, and which he solved – after a fashion – by having Jimmy Stewart chatting to a fly that finds its way into the cockpit.

The fact that Les Quarantièmes rugissants is still somewhat underwhelming makes us realise something important about the Crowhurst story: anyone who wants to adapt it must have a clear idea of what it’s about – or rather, what they want to make it about, because one of the explanations for its resonance and longevity must be that it can be interpreted in so many different ways. Tacita Dean made a book of photographs of the wrecked and abandoned Teignmouth Electron, now rotting on the Caribbean island of Cayman Brac, and for her Crowhurst’s story is about “human failing” and “what can happen at the very extremes of the human personality”. In my own novel The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (and in Michel Leclerc’s fine 2015 screen adaptation, La vie très privée de M Sim) the story is retold as a parable of loneliness, exploring how post-1968 advances in technology might only have increased our sense of isolation.

Certainly the makers of the next film version on our list, Race of the Century (1986), have decided what the Crowhurst story is all about. This is a solid Soviet adaptation of the material, and although the copy I viewed online has no subtitles, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. This version unequivocally casts Crowhurst as victim: victim of the Western media’s insatiable thirst for stories, victim of his commercial sponsor’s greed, victim of a father’s duty to be a hero to his children. A victim of Western capitalism, in other words. Actually it’s as good an interpretation as any – and not dissimilar to the line put forward by Paul Foot in his dour, scathing 1970 BBC documentary, Donald Crowhurst – Sponsored for Heroism. Stylistically, however, the Russian film is heavy and depressing.

In 2006 the excellent documentary Deep Water was released. The directors, Jerry Rothwell and Louise Osmond, had crucial access to the film footage and sound recordings made by Crowhurst himself on the voyage for later broadcast by the BBC: this is the best place to start for anyone who wants to get quickly up to speed on the events. Of the two retellings reaching our screens this year, interestingly, Rumley’s film Crowhurst is executive-produced by Nicolas Roeg, while The Mercy is co-produced by Jacques Perrin, suggesting the latter will follow the emphasis placed by Les Quarantièmes rugissants on marital fall-out, while the former will focus on mental breakdown. And so it proves.

Remembering that the now celebrated circumnavigator Robin Knox-Johnston was the comfortable winner of the original Golden Globe race, one might also characterise this as a stand-off between two films, with The Mercy as the Knox-Johnston of the contest – gliding serenely onwards, full of modest self-assurance – and Crowhurst as Crowhurst himself: the plucky, unlikely challenger up against daunting odds.

Marsh’s film seems to share with its French predecessor a curious softening of the source material, a reluctance to make this story anything more disturbing than the study of a loving couple torn apart by circumstance. That makes for a touching drama, but there is surely more to the Crowhurst myth than that. In this respect Rumley’s film, despite its visibly lower budget, is the more ambitious of the two. He has a clear take on Crowhurst, and it’s a good one: he sees this as a story about delusions of grandeur on a national scale. Rumley’s Crowhurst wants to hark back to an ancient tradition of heroic British mariners, but now it’s all based on lies. In a bold stylistic move, the narrative proper is intercut with sequences of the background players – the press agent, the sponsor, the wife – singing patriotic anthems, and at the moment of his final collapse, Crowhurst himself (a most affecting portrayal by Justin Salinger) sings “God Save The Queen” in an unbearably fragile, cracked, unconfident voice – on and on, he goes, verse after unfamiliar verse. As a metaphor for collective nervous breakdown, and the national mythologies underpinning Brexit, it’s not exactly subtle, but perhaps subtlety is not what we need from our artists at the moment. This sequence certainly offers a welcome, complicating antidote to the nostalgic tub-thumping of recent Churchill drama Darkest Hour.

Elsewhere, using Roegian techniques, Rumley also has a good stab at conveying Crowhurst’s mental disintegration – but you would still get a clearer, starker sense of that from reading the logbooks. Perhaps the only conclusion we can really draw from these versions is that the Crowhurst story, despite its obvious allure, is essentially unfilmable. “Film,” as BS Johnson once pointed out, “is an excellent medium for showing things, but it is very poor at taking an audience inside characters’ heads, at telling it what people are thinking.”

Inside Crowhurst’s head is precisely where the real drama was always taking place, and the only way we can really get there is by reading his own unvarnished thoughts, as transcribed by Hall and Tomalin. As so often, the old saying holds true: if in doubt, buy the book. 

“The Mercy” is in cinemas from 9 February; “Crowhurst” will be released later this year 

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist