Gibraltarians should have a close look at any old videos stored away. If they happen to have a copy of the movie Operation Snatch they could be on to a good little earner…
Operation Snatch was filmed on the Rock in 1962 and starred Terry-Thomas, George Sanders, and Jocelyn ‘Jackie’ Lane. The black and white film was released in 1962 and I watched it at the Oak Bay Theatre in Victoria, British Columbia. I was lucky to be born and grow up in the Canadian seaside city which is popular with Americans because of its Britishness. Often described in tourist brochures as ‘a little bit of old England’, Union flags abound among hanging flower baskets, red-double decker buses and the prestigious Empress Hotel, which opened in 1908 and is named in honour of Queen Victoria, and where a specialty is afternoon tea. Oak Bay situated behind the mythical ‘Tweed Curtain’, is the most British of the four Victoria municipalities so naturally the Oak Bay Theatre specialized in British films and I grew up on a cinematic diet of Ealing comedies, the Carry-On gang, and just about everything produced by Pinewood Studios.
The plot for Operation Snatch revolves around the legend that if the Barbary Apes (macaque monkeys) disappeared from the Rock the British would lose Gibraltar. Terry-Thomas plays Lt. ‘Piggy’ Wigg who during the World War II is responsible for the care and well-being of the Apes. When the last male monkey dies and Lt. Wigg realises that the females are pining away, he hatches a plan to lift the spirits of the monkeys and the morale of the troops by going behind German lines to kidnap a replacement male. With the assistance of a character named Evans, played by Lionel Jeffries, Lt. Wigg manages to kidnap a monkey from a German circus performing in Zurich, Switzerland. As a result, Lt. Wigg is given a promotion, and he and Evans are put in charge of watching over the Ravens at the Tower of London.
The movie is a humorous take on reality. In 1942 when the Barbary Ape population on Gibraltar dropped to a mere seven, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that additional apes be imported to prevent the Germans using the diminishing of the pack for propaganda purposes. But there was nothing so dramatic as an excursion behind enemy lines. Sensibly, the new apes were simply brought over from Algeria and Morocco which by then were under Allied occupation.
Despite the established quality of the actors and the usual high standard of the lead writer, Alan Hackney (I’m All Right Jack, Privates’ Progress), the movie was not well received by reviewers. One critic described it as “A slight wartime comedy” and Bosley Crowther, esteemed movie and theatre critic of the New York Times, wrote: “Even the comical Terry-Thomas like Homer, may occasionally nod especially when asked to do a man’s work with a script barely written for a boy. Such a script with which he wrestles in Operation Snatch a weak British stab at slapstick humor.”
Despite Operation Snatch being filmed on the Rock and at Elstree Studios in London, the stars had little to say about their experiences in Gibraltar. I did hear a story some years back that Terry-Thomas would take a taxi back to his hotel and then tip the driver by squeezing what felt like bills into one hand and saying, “Have a drink on me”. The ‘bills’ would inevitably turn out to be tea bags. This may be an apocryphal story because I have heard it said about other actors but then maybe it was common practice in the fraternity of comedians.
The only mention of Gibraltar in Sanders’ memoirs came in a letter written by his wife Benita to fellow actor and friend Brian Aherne: “We can’t come back yet, but I figure the end of March will do it and then it would be lovely if you could come down to Gibraltar and do a little mousing with us.”
The one actor with something to say in his autobiography was Ronnie Corbett, co-star with Ronnie Barker of the Two Ronnies. He was walking down a London street when Terry-Thomas hailed him from a cab and told him he had some work for him in a movie being made in Gibraltar. Corbett was looking forward to a substantial part but was disappointed to learn that he had been chosen for his small stature (5’1”, 155cm) and would be dressing up as a monkey. He remembered having to wear the itchy outfit in oppressive heat, and himself and others playing tennis while still wearing their costumes.
In the credits for the film Corbett is listed simply as “A soldier”. I could find no mention of Jocelyn Lane in Gibraltar but Terry-Thomas, Sanders, and Lane all ended up living in Spain. Terry-Thomas and his second wife, South African born actress Ida Patlanski, designed and built their dream home in Ibiza. Sanders and the aforementioned Benita owned a home in Majorca while Lane ended up with a grand view of the Rock from her home on the Costa del Sol.
After filming Operation Snatch, Lane travelled to America and co-starred with Elvis in a typical Presley musical vehicle titled Tickle Me. The beautiful dancer, actress and model – born Jocelyn Lane Bolton on May 16th, 1937 in Austria to British parents – later married Spanish-born Prinz Alfonso von Und Hohenlohen Langenborg. He was a major developer on the Costa and the newlyweds moved into a house in Marbella. It was an unhappy marriage but lasted 12 years until their divorce in 1985. Alfonso died, aged 79, at Marbella in 2003 and as far as I could discern at press time Jocelyn is living on the French Riviera.
The Russian-born Sanders was 65 when he committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills in a Barcelona Hotel on April 25th, 1972. He left a note saying he was bored with life, but he was also depressed due to substantial financial losses through bad investments. Sanders had never fully recovered from the loss of his beloved Benita who succumbed to cancer on November 1st, 1967 aged just 61.
Terry-Thomas, the quintessential upper-class Brit in the eyes of Americans, starred in dozens of movies as cads and bounders and was best known for his gap-toothed grin and catchphrase “You are an absolute shower”. He was born Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens at Finchley, London on July 14, 1911 and died on January 8, 1990 aged 78. Terry-Thomas was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1971 and spent his final years in a nursing home in Godalming, Surrey.
As a 14-year-old I remember enjoying the film but then I liked anything Terry-Thomas did and have always felt that British character actors, even when playing minor roles, are the best in the world. For decades I have been trying to get my hands on a copy of Operation Snatch but have not been able to find one. There is a brief clip on YouTube, but it only shows a promo picture of Terry-Thomas with an Ape on his shoulder. There are posters for sale on Amazon and eBay, but no videos or DVDs, and it is not available on Netflix. I did find a book titled Operation Snatch and because it was published in 1958, four years before the release of the film, I ordered it in the hope that the movie was based on the story within. Fortunately, I only invested a little over five pounds because the book, written by John Marsh*, has nothing to do with the movie or Gibraltar.
Operation Snatch was produced by Keep Films, a company co-owned by American movie cameraman Jules Buck, who famously worked with director John Huston, and Irish actor Peter O’Toole. One contributor on the internet claims that O’Toole owns the rights and refuses to release the film. But Buck died in 2001 and O’Toole resigned from Keep Films shortly before his death in December 2013. The company has not been active since November 2014. So, if anyone has a video of Operation Snatch they could probably make a few pounds transferring it to DVD and selling copies via the internet. I will be first in line, popcorn to hand.
*Note: John Marsh was the pseudonym for authors Florence Shepherd and Herrington Hastings who co-wrote a series of detective novels between 1939 and 1962 featuring fictional characters Ray Felton and Simon Luck.
BY REG REYNOLDS