Thalidomide scandal: Documentary exposes last Nazi war crime which left children deformed

Sir Harold Evans. Picture: Clive Booth

Sir Harold Evans. Picture: Clive Booth - Credit: Archant

Nearly 50 years ago, Highgate journalist Marjorie Wallace and an investigative team at The Sunday Times set out to expose a scandal.

Marjorie Wallace interviewed victims and their families of the Thalidomide scandal

Marjorie Wallace interviewed victims and their families of the Thalidomide scandal - Credit: Archant

Tens of thousands of babies worldwide were born physically deformed, while thousands others died, as a result of Thalidomide – the drug marketed as a “safe” sleeping pill and cure for morning sickness for pregnant woman.

The subject was one of one of the storylines in the final series of BBC’s Call the Midwife, and this dark chapter of pharmaceutical history has been described as the biggest 20th-century man-made disaster excepting war.

The tragedy was compounded by the pitiful amount of compensation handed out in the years that followed.

“Absolutely nothing could prepare you for the devastation of the damage to the victims, and the loneliness of the families,” says Wallace, who interviewed 140 of the 470 British Thalidomide victims.

The fight for adequate compensation for the UK’s victims was taken up by The Sunday Times in 1972 – and its tale of how it fought the law and won has now been told in documentary, Attacking the Devil: Harry Evans and The Last Nazi War Crime, to be screened at the ArtHouse cinema in Crouch End on Tuesday.

David Morris, who co-directed the film with sister and producer Jacqui Morris, says: “It’s a triumph of good over evil, really a very simple story.

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“There’s a very strong sense of injustice. The victims were pitted against a multinational company, Distillers, which didn’t want to or didn’t have to pay compensation. They were trying to shut them up.”

The film draws on relatively new research which shows that Thalidomide was developed by a Nazi scientist as an antidote to the effects of nerve gas.

It was then manufactured by German firm, Chemie Grunenthal, in the early 1950s, before it was shipped out worldwide.

When the devastating link to physical deformities was discovered, the drug was banned in 1962.

Six years later, UK sufferers and their families won a legal battle for compensation, winning a small payment from Distillers, the pharmaceutical company which manufactured and distributed the drug in Great Britain,

But it wasn’t enough, prompting The Sunday Times editor Sir Harold Evans to launch a campaign for justice for the Thalidomide victims.

Wallace was asked to join the team by Sir Harold on a tennis court in Haverstock Hill in 1972.

“In order to write the stories, I had to understand what it was like to have Thalidomide children,” says Wallace, who lives in Bisham Gardens.

“So I spent days and nights, sleeping on floors, helping to turn the children in the night because they couldn’t turn themselves as they were armless or legless.”

The worst-affected victims were those who had brain damage, she says.

“There was a girl in Scotland, she just rocked back and forward, and just screamed and screamed,” the former Countess Skarbek remembers.

Though their stories could be told, the newspaper was initially legally gagged from reporting why and how the victims were left disabled.

But in 1973, the newspaper took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, allowing them to report the story in its entirety, eventually helping to secure the victims a £20million government payout.

“They had been unable to speak out,” Wallace remembers. “The doctors and social workers didn’t help, they were too afraid of being sued. The families had no-one to turn to.”

Now, the victims are able to tell their own story of what happened to them and how it affected their loved ones through video testimony in Attacking the Devil.

The film shows that nearly 50 years on, the majority of the surviving Thalidomide victims are living full, normal lives.

“It has been a most extraordinary journey,” Wallace says. “I call them the acrobats of society because they found ways around the disabilities. It is breathtaking.”

But at the documentary’s heart is Sir Harold, and his account of that time.

“There’s nobody better to tell the story than Harold Evans,” explains Morris. “He is very articulate and I wouldn’t want anyone else doing it.”

Wallace adds: “When the film was screened in Soho, Harry was over here and there was a Q&A and he had tears in his eyes about the suffering of these children.

“He’s still fighting for the others around the world who have not had the same compensation as those in the UK,” she says.

“I think it’s very important that the children are not forgotten. It’s a homage to Harold Evans, but it also remembers.”

The rights to the documentary have now been bought by the Weinstein brothers, and it is due to be made into a Hollywood movie.

Carey Mulligan is tipped to play Wallace – though she admits she would prefer Keira Knightley in the role. “It’s extremely exciting because it’s a drama and the story will go down in history now,” says Ms Wallace.

Morris adds: “It’s a very Erin Brockovich story.”

Attacking the Devil: Harry Evans and The Last Nazi War Crime, by Dartmouth Films, will be screened at ArtHouse Crouch End on Tuesday at 8.45pm.