How former Wolverhampton schoolboy is realising his movie-making dream

Mark Griffin's story could probably form the plot of a movie in its own right. As a child he would visit the church where Lawrence of Arabia was buried, and became fascinated by conspiracy theories about his death.

Filming Lawrence After Arabia
Filming Lawrence After Arabia

As he reached adulthood, he wanted to go to drama school, but his parents thought a career in computers was more sensible. Then, after 40 years working for other people he decided it was time to fulfil his dream – and ploughed his savings into making a film about Lawrence which will be released in the cinemas in November.

Lawrence After Arabia goes on general release on November 12, but people in and around Mark's home town of Wolverhampton will get a chance to see it beforehand with a special screening at the Lighthouse cinema on November 1.

Despite having a budget of just £120,000, the film – which looks at the death of Col T E Lawrence following a motorcycle crash in 1935 – has already attracted considerable interest. On Internet Movie Database it is the fourth most popular film at the time of writing, just behind new James Bond film No Time To Die, which has a budget of £182 million.

"We're the most popular low-budget movie, and we've won 31 awards at 19 festivals," says Mark, who grew up in Penn and was a pupil at Highfields School.

Local interest is also likely to be heightened by the fact that nine months before his death, Lawrence had worked and stayed in Wolverhampton using the pseudonym R E Shaw, although sadly this period did not make it into the film.

A poster for the new film by former Wolverhampton schoolboy Mark Griffin

For a first-time, low-budget movie, the cast list is quite impressive. Hugh Fraser, best known at Captain Hastings in Poirot, plays Lawrence's commander Lord Allenby, and there is also a role for Michael Maloney, who played former prime minister Ted Heath in The Crown. Lawrence himself is played by Tom Barber-Duffy who has appeared in Downton Abbey, his mother is played by German actress Nicole Ansari Cox, and character actor Brian Cox – who appeared in the films Rob Roy and Braveheart – is Lawrence's father who serves as the film's narrator.

Mark, 64, remembers growing up near to Slade star Dave Hill in Wells Road, Penn.

"He went to Highfields too, but he was quite a lot older than me," he says. "I used to see his yellow Rolls-Royce with the YOB 1 number plate all the time."

He says it was a chance encounter with a man tending a memorial to Lawrence when he was about six or seven years old that first sparked his interest in the story.

"I came from a big family, and when we went on holiday I couldn't fit in the car, so I got shunted off to my grandmother's in Dorset," he recalls.

"I remember seeing Lawrence's effigy in the local church, and there was this guy polishing the effigy who told me all about Lawrence, and I got very interested.

"He told me how he died in a motorcycle crash, and I asked him if if was an accident. He said 'not all accidents are accidents', and that got me thinking about the whole thing."

Former Wolverhampton schoolboy Mark Griffin has funded, produced, written and directed the new film

In the 1930s, Col Thomas Edward Lawrence was still regarded as something of a national hero. His success in rallying the Arabs to rise up against the Ottoman Empire had been crucial in the First World War, and his swarthy good looks and passion for fast motorbikes and speedboats made him the poster boy for the British military.

But Mark says there were also plenty of plenty of people in the British establishment who viewed him as a dangerous loose cannon, even if they were not able to say so publicly.

Lawrence had friends in high places, was popular with the public, and was on good terms with Winston Churchill who was also considered something of a maverick at that time. More than that, says Mark, his experiences in the Middle East had left him implacably opposed to armed conflict, to the point where he saw Sir Oswald Mosley as possible go-between in preventing war with Nazi Germany.

"By this time Lawrence had turned to pacifism, he suffered from PTSD, he had lost two brothers," says Mark.

"He wanted to do anything to avoid a second world war.

"In the 1930s Oswald Mosley's blackshirts started. In the beginning the blackshirts were pacifist, they wanted to shake hands with Hitler. They saw Hitler as an Anglophile, and they wanted to stop a war.

"They thought if they could get Lawrence of Arabia to shake hands with Hitler, that would be incredible. But it would also have been very embarrassing for the Government, remember the embarrassment when Edward VIII met him."

Tom Barber-Duffy plays the title role of T E Lawrence

The film invites the audience to consider the circumstances surrounding Lawrence's death in May, 1935, six days after a crash while riding his Brough Superior near his home. In many regards, the claims surrounding Lawrence's death bear a strikingly similarity to those that followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The official report is that Lawrence lost control of his powerful motorbike, and crashed into two bicycles being driven by butcher's delivery boys. But Mark thinks that evidence given at the inquest casts doubt on whether it was as simple as that.

"At the inquest a witness described seeing a black car just before Lawrence lost control of his bike," he says.

"The more I researched this incident it seemed to me there had been a cover-up, a conspiracy to get rid of Lawrence. "He had been involved in infiltrating Mosley and the blackshirts, was in contact with King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan about an Arab uprising and was possibly being groomed for a job to re-invigorate the Secret Service.

"With powerful friends and dangerous enemies, was it a tragic accident, or was he silenced by the British Secret Service?"

The project originally began as a play he had written for the radio, which then morphed into a screenplay.

"By 2012 I had the first draft but it needed a lot of work to get it to a 'final' version," he says.

"I sent the screenplay to about 60 production companies to see if there was any interest in filming the project. While I had encouraging feedback no one wanted to take it on.

"In 2017 I decided that if no one else wanted to film it then I would.

"I had a little bit of savings, and I thought 'I have been working for 40 years doing stuff for other people, it's time to do something for myself."

A scene from the movie

Making a film from scratch, with no previous experience is no easy feat, although Mark says he had done a bit of theatre directing in the past.

He adds that getting the right people on board was crucial to the film's success.

"It was the technical side of filming I was most worried about, so I began to search for a director of photography to help and guide me," he says.

"I wanted someone who was interested in the subject and the period vision I had."

He says most of the candidates were not really in tune with what he wanted to create, but eventually he found Simon Lawrence who shared his vision.

"Simon had worked mainly in television, and is a very talented still photographer also," says Mark.

"He has been awesome in guiding me through the process."

Filming was mostly done in Dorset, where Lawrence spent the last years of his life, although as mentioned earlier, he did briefly stay and work in Wolverhampton.

In 1934, he went to work at the Henry Meadows engine and gearbox works in Fallings Park, under secondment from the RAF.

"He started working as part of the RAF on power boats to rescue people, basically the sort of power boats that the RLNI use today," says Mark.

"He did a lot of work in Wolverhampton looking at the different type of engines that could be used."

Nicole Ansari-Cox plays Lawrence's mother Sarah

As was often the case, Lawrence worked undercover, using an assumed name, and officially, only six people in Wolverhampton were aware of Lawrence's presence in the town. But he quickly discovered it was impossible to keep anything secret from the Express & Star's legendary reporter Wilfred Byford-Jones.

Byford-Jones, who himself liked to hide behind the non-de-plume Quaestor, said that he learned that Lawrence was in the area by accident.

A check of the visitors' book at the Victoria Hotel revealed that, indeed, an R E Smith had stayed for the night.

Byford-Jones spoke to the manageress Miss Taylor, who said she "did not for a moment suspect that Mr Smith was the romantic personality who once could have become an Eastern monarch."

However, by the time the journalist tracked him down at the Victoria, the desert warrior had gone. It seemed that aware the Press were looking for him, he tried the old trick of hiding right under his adversary's nose.

He booked in to Perry's coffee house, across the road from the Express & Star's office in Queen Street, and still incognito, told owner Harold Perry: "You could bury yourself on the main street of Wolverhampton and no-one would know anything about it."

And it seemed he pulled it off. Byford-Jones later revealed that Lawrence became 'very irate' that his cover had been blown, but decided to carry on with his work. He made two more visits to the town, staying at Perry's each time, and still managing to hide in plain sight.

Byford-Jones wrote: "He always used an alleyway which led from the back of the shop into Berry Street, thus avoiding Queen Street.

"He never wore a hat and was often dressed in a sports jacket, flannel trouser and a pullover, without a collar or tie."

Lawrence shunned Perry's private sitting room, preferring to sit in the main coffee shop where he would chat with other men over breakfast, sometimes about the weather, sometimes about football. It seemed he was very preoccupied with his work at Meadows, leaving his lodgings at 9am each day, and not returning until 8pm. And despite his best efforts, it appears that Byford-Jones never did secure an audience with the great man.

Mark says he is in talks with a number of film distributors with regards to showing the film at multiplex cinemas around the country, and hopes to soon have a deal with Netflix and Amazon.

*Lawrence After Arabia will be running at Wolverhampton's Lighthouse Cinema from November 1 to November 21.

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