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Vera Leigh was born in Leeds on 17th March, 1903. Abandoned as a baby she was adopted by Eugene Leigh, an American married to an English woman. Leigh became a racehorse trainer in France with stables at Maisons Laffitte near Paris.
After leaving college Vera went to work as a dress designer at the fashion house of Caroline Reboux and in 1927 went into partnership with two friends to establish Rose Valois.
In May 1940 France was invaded by the German Army. Vera now joined the French Resistance and became involved in the underground escape lines guiding fugitive Allied servicemen out of the country. In 1942 she took the same route out of France and when she arrived in England she volunteered to join the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), an organization that worked very closely with the Special Operations Executive (SOE). After being interviewed at the War Office she agreed to become a British special agent.
Given the codename "Simone" she was flown to Tours on 13th May 1943. She travelled to Paris where she joined the Inventor Network as a courier. She rented an apartment in Paris but while meeting another agent at a café at the Place des Ternes on on 30th October, 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Fresnes
On 13th May 1944 the Germans transported Vera and seven other SOE agents, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, Madeleine Damerment, Odette Sansom, Diana Rowden, Andrée Borrel and Sonya Olschanezky, to Nazi Germany.
On 6th July 1944, Vera along with Diana Rowden, Andrée Borrel and Sonya Olschanezky, were taken to the Concentration Camp at Natzweiler. Later that day they were injected with phenol and put in the crematorium furnace.
We travelled from Paris to Germany together. We did not know each other before. We all did our training at different times, we all went to France at different times. I had never seen the others at Fresnes, although I heard the voice of one of them once. They were not in a solitary cell like mine and they were able to communicate a little with people outside through the top of their windows. We met for the first time in the Avenue Foch.
It was a lovely hot day, a beautiful day. And the Avenue Foch is beautiful, and the house where we were was a beautiful house. I remember little things. One of the girls had a lipstick and we all used it, passed it around and put it on. It was quite a treat. We were young women, after all. And we talked and talked and talked, of course. We talked about when we were captured, and what this one thought about it, what that other one had to say about it. I remember what one of them said because I had the same feelings. She and I, we had a feeling that something had been wrong. The others thought they had been captured because of the work they were doing or the people they were with. She had the feeling, because she had been arrested as soon as she arrived in France, that there was an informant. And I did too.
We were all young, we were all different, but we all had the feeling in the beginning that we were going to be - helpful. That was why we went into it. And to have impressed the people around them as they did is almost enough. They impressed everyone - the Germans, their guards. They behaved extremely well, those women.
Everybody tried to be a little braver than they felt. All of us had a moment of weakness, we did all cry together at one moment, there were a few tears, but after all it was a lovely spring day in Paris. Riding in the van from the Avenue Foch to the station we could get a glimpse of what was going on in Paris,
people sitting on the terraces of cafes drinking their ersatz coffee or whatever. I was looking forward to the trip. I had spent a year alone in my cell and I thought. Now I am going to be with these other women.
On the train we were handcuffed, each one of us handcuffed to somebody else, so we were not free to move around or anything, but we did not look absolutely miserable. No, we made the best of it. I remember one of them even asked a guard for a cigarette, and he gave her one.
We were frightened deep down, all of us. We were wondering what was the next thing, a normal thing to ask yourself in those circumstances. Were we going straight to our death, were we going to a camp, were we going to a prison, were we going to - what? We couldn't not think of those things. Our only hope was maybe to be together somewhere.
There was one tall girl (Andrée Borel) with very fair heavy hair. I could see that it was not its natural colour as the roots of her hair were dark. She was wearing a black coat, French wooden-soled shoes and was carrying a fur coat on her arm. Another girl (Sonya Olschanezky) had very black oily hair, and wore stockings, aged about twenty to twenty-five years, was short and was wearing a tweed coat and skirt. A third girl (Diana Rowden) was middle height, rather stocky, with shortish fair hair tied with a multi-coloured ribbon, aged about twenty-eight. She was wearing a grey flannel short 'finger tip' length swagger coat with a grey skirt which I remember thinking looked very English. The fourth woman (Vera Leigh) of the party was wearing a brownish tweed coat and skirt. She was more petite than the blonde in grey and older, having shortish brown hair. None of the four women were wearing make-up and all were looking pale and tired.
Peter Straub told me to have the crematorium oven heated to its maximum by nine-thirty and then to disappear. He told me also that the doctor was going to come down and give some injections. I knew what this meant. At nine-thirty that night I was still stoking the fire of the crematorium oven when Peter Straub came in, followed by the SS doctor, who had come with Hartjenstein (the camp commandant) from Auschwitz.
I saw the four women going to the crematorium, one after another. One went, and two or three minutes later another went. The next morning the German prisoner in charge of the crematorium explained to me that each time the door of the oven was opened the flames came out of the chimney and that meant a body had been put in the oven. I saw the flames four times.
They were bringing a woman along the corridor. We heard low voices in the next room and then the noise of a body being dragged along the floor, and he whispered to me that he could see people dragging something on the floor which was below his angle of vision through the fanlight. At the same time that the body was brought past we heard the noise of heavy breathing and low groaning combined. Again and again we heard the same noises and regular groans as the insensible women were dragged away.
The fourth, however, resisted in the corridor. I heard her say Tourquoi?' and I heard a voice which I recognized as that of the doctor who was in civilian clothes say 'Pour typhus.' We then heard the noise of a struggle and the muffled cries of the woman. I assumed that someone held a hand over her mouth. I heard this woman being dragged away too. She was groaning louder than the others.
From the noise of the crematorium oven doors which I heard, I can state definitely that in each case the groaning women were placed immediately in the crematorium oven. When (the officials) had gone, we went to the crematorium oven, opened the door and saw that there were four blackened bodies within. Next morning in the course of my duties I had to clear the ashes out of the crematorium oven. I found a pink woman's stocking garter on the floor near the oven.
He was very drunk on that day, and I put a direct question to him as to what had happened to the women, because on the next morning it was talked about in the camp that they were dead, and Straub told me that he had been for a long time in Auschwitz but had never seen such a thing before; he just said, "I am finished".
The women were told to undress in front of the doctor. They refused. Then it was said that they were going to be inoculated and they asked why, and then it was said it was against typhus, and then they laid bare their arms and were inoculated. They were taken singly into the room where they were inoculated, and they were taken back singly to where they had come from. As the second was taken back to the place, the first one was already in a kind of stupor.
He said they were finished. They were stiff, but the word "dead" was not mentioned. The fourth woman as she was being put into the oven regained consciousness. He showed me a few scratches on his face and said, "There, you can see how she scratched me. Look how she defended herself."
The fearful cremations at Natzweiler had their counterpart a thousand times at Auschwitz. Hoess told us, 'The foul and nauseating stench from the continuous burning of bodies permeated the entire area and all the people living in the surrounding communities knew that exterminations were going on at Auschwitz.'
I do not recall these grim matters of the past for mere morbidity. I mention them as a reminder that the men convicted of the murder of Miss Andree Borrell, F.A.N.Y.; Section Officer Diana Rowden, W.A.A.F.; Miss Vera Leigh, F.A.N.Y., and another gallant woman, were not isolated, exceptional killings. These crimes were not sporadic or isolated, depending on the brutality of some individual sadist. They were a part of that system which arises when the totalitarian state submerges the fundamental right and destroys the dignity of man. Month by month, day after day, killings like these went on by the thousand all over Europe.
But the mind which is lastingly impressed and shocked by a single crime staggers and reels at the contemplation of mass criminality: becomes almost impervious to horror, conditioned against shock. And as events recede into the past, those who did not themselves experience them begin to question whether these things could indeed have happened and wonder whether the stories about them are really more than the propaganda of enemies.
Early life [ edit | edit source ]
Abandoned by her parents soon after birth, she was adopted by H. Eugene Leigh, an American racehorse trainer who raced in the United States, winning the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, and in Europe where he owned stables at Maisons Laffitte near Paris, France. Her plaque of remembrance, re-edited to remove 'was murdered at' and replaced with 'died for her country' is mounted to this day on the wall of the Holy Trinity Church in Maisons Laffitte.
She had an early ambition to become a jockey, but after completing her education she worked as a dress designer. In 1927 she went into partnership with two friends to establish a 'grand maison' (fashion house) known as Rose Valoie in the Place Vendôme, Paris.
Vera Drake, the latest film from Mike Leigh has one crucial problem – poor time management. The film sets out with two key tasks, but in its 125 mins manages to convince only on the first objective.
Where the film succeeds, brilliantly, is in the visual creation of a post war 1950s London. It would be easy to simply recreate the costumes of the 1950s and allow that to set the scene for the viewer, but Leigh chooses instead to methodically recreate the period. For example, one can’t help but be struck by the amount of smoking that goes on in the film, with cigarettes being swapped ritually after dinner in the Drake household. The cars, the clothes, the hair styles all take us back to a decade which to a certain extent has disappeared from history, having neither the blood and guts of the WWII or the sex of the swinging sixties.
It’s vital that Leigh creates this sense of history, and of strangeness, as the core of his plot is about a backstreet abortionist – something seemingly unimaginable in Britain fifty years on (though the film was launched in America in October when there was much talk about countering Roe vs Wade).
Imelda Staunton won the prize for best actress at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and she’s a dominating presence in the film, but unfortunately her character just doesn’t add up. She is a relentlessly good humoured, chattering, tea making, good samaritan who lives for her family and counts her blessings nightly alongside her decent husband. She works as a cleaning lady, and constantly performs little acts of charity (though how charitable it is to invade, as she does, an invalid’s flat forcing him to be cheery and drink endless cups of tea, one wonders?). One of her regular merciful deeds though is &aposhelping girls when they get into trouble’. She, for twenty years we learn, has carried out back street abortions. The drama of the story unfolds when one of the girls she helps almost dies and the police are called in. In interrogation Vera breaks down, and with an impressive show of tears and quivering lip, manages to make everyone from the Police through to the audience feel terrible for her – hence the best actress award and talk of Oscar nominations. What Leigh and Staunton don’t do though, at any stage, is give us any real idea as to why she does this work, and how she feels about it. There is the suggestion that she has had an abortion herself, but if this is the case she’s remarkably flippant about the whole thing – casually taking appointments here and there, telling the girls that they’ll feel a bit of pain “down there”, and that after that everything will be right as rain.
Leigh is well within his rights to portray a sympathetic abortionist, as he pointed out in interview “She is doing something that thousands of people, mostly women, in all societies in all times have done.
There has always been someone to go to in order to solve that problem”. The problem isn’t a moral one for this reviewer, but rather a dramatic one. He has failed to add depth to her character – by making her such a saint, he has reduced the credibitlity of the story, and our interest in the moral questions at the heart of the story.
As if worried by the saintly portrayal of Vera, Leigh introduces the thorougly reprehensible character of Lily, played brilliantly by Ruth Sheen,who arranges the &aposappointments’ for Vera, and takes payment – implausibly none of which makes its way to Vera. With all the emphasis on Leigh’s method, of endless improvisations with the actors, did no-one ever question why Vera takes no payment at any stage, for example for her own costs? The film would have been better served had there been some combination of the characters of Lily and Vera, because in their one dimensional portrayal of good and bad they deny the film dramatic credibility.
Critics will argue, as usual with Leigh, about the class politics in the film. Certainly there is much working class bonhomie in evidence while most of the middle/upper class characters come across as shallow and materialistic. There’s one memorable scene where Vera is preparing a well to do girl for her abortion, and is offered a Martini, which she rightly passes on in favour of a nice cup of tea. At the same time, one of the most moving subplots of the film is that of a rich girl who is callously raped by a family approved suitor, and ends up pregnant. She does serve though as a way of showing the class divide in terms of abortion at the time – she ends up going to a private clinic where she’s taken excellent care of, while the girls Vera deals have their wombs pumped with a soapy solution(Medically inaccurate according to a midwife writing in the Guardian, who claims that the method depicted would have almost invariably have caused death).
The cast all turn in impressive performances, with plenty of interesting subplots. Eddie Marsan is particularly impressive as the shell shocked Reg, who through the matchmaking fussing of Vera is brought into the family to marry the equally shy Ethel. The recreation of a generation that had witnessed unimaginable bloodshed and violence, and yet shyly couldn’t talk about matters of the heart let alone of lust is fascinating.
Like an overeager student rattling off reams on his first question leaving scant time to finish the rest, Leigh has created a beautiful and detailed film but sadly forgotten to include his main character.
Vera Drake, written and directed by Mike Leigh
London 1950 is the setting for Mike Leigh’s remarkable new film, Vera Drake. The Second World War and the London blitz in particular weigh heavily on the collective consciousness of the population. It is a period of rationing and black marketeering—as well as illegal abortions.
Winner of the prestigious Golden Lion prize at the Venice film festival, Leigh’s film is a portrait of the title character, a middle-aged, working class woman who lives in a small flat with her husband and two grown children. Without her family’s knowledge, Vera also performs abortions, an illegal act at that time.
Vera (Imelda Staunton) ministers to the aged and sick in a poor North London neighborhood. Employed as a house cleaner for the well-to-do, she is a being in perpetual motion. At day’s end, she scurries off to make a cup of tea and provide a bit of cheer for a few housebound unfortunates—all the while making the existence of her own family as comfortable as possible.
Postwar hardship for the lower classes dominates. Vera’s son Sid (Daniel Mays), who was stationed in Germany immediately after the war, is now a tailor attempting to participate in the urban life of the young. He remarks at the film’s opening, “They got it worse over there [in Germany].” Sid represents a new generation of energetic workers on the rise, harbingers of a boom still in its embryonic stage.
Daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) is a deeply withdrawn light-bulb factory worker. She eventually pairs off with Reg (Eddie Marsan), an equally withdrawn and awkward neighbor—a lonely stray whom Vera brings home to the family.
Stan (Phil Davis), Vera’s loyal and adoring husband, works for his brother as an auto mechanic. The latter’s social-climbing, self-absorbed wife (becoming pregnant is a card she plays to get a new kitchen appliance) is the antithesis of the good-hearted, selfless Vera.
As Vera’s sister-in-law gloats over her pregnancy, Vera surreptitiously performs abortions set up by her mercenary childhood friend Lily (Ruth Sheen). The implements of Vera’s illegal trade are a syringe, carbolic soap, a cheese grater and some disinfectant. The abortionist and her primitive tools provide the only recourse for poor girls “in trouble.” The girls are clearly lucky to have Vera.
Leigh contrasts Vera’s home abortions with the ability of the wealthy to access medical professionals who oversee the procedure in comfortable, sterilized surroundings for a few hundred pounds.
Vera has apparently performed countless abortions spanning over 20 years. She has escaped scrutiny until one girl develops septicemia, which results in Vera’s arrest. She is taken into custody, blurting out, “You call it abortion, but I help them [the girls] out.” Vera’s family, particularly the upwardly mobile Sid, is shocked and humiliated. Voicing the most sympathetic understanding of Vera’s misdeeds is the repressed Reg. He explains movingly that he grew up one of six in two cramped rooms: “If you can’t feed them, you can’t love them.”
For Vera Drake’s heroine there is no Azdak—the people’s judge in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle—only a court system that coldly enforces anti-abortion strictures.
Available to an international audience in the wake of the Bush reelection, Leigh’s film serves as a powerful counterpunch to the right-wing opponents of abortion rights. The director takes aim at the 1950s. He speaks of “the terrible respectability and the great repressions of the postwar period. A period which I’ve come to realize meant everything to our parents, who were trying to put the world back together.” (Leigh dedicated his movie to his parents, a doctor and a midwife, whose practice largely consisted of working class patients.)
Leigh states: “I deliberately and without any affectation made Vera Drake to pose a moral dilemma that has no slick or easy answers. We live in an overpopulated world. There is no question that to bring and unwanted and unloved child into this chaos is deeply irresponsible. There is no question that you destroy life when you terminate a pregnancy. But there is also no question that choice ought to exist. Those are my personal views. The film can only work if the audience takes the moral and emotional debate away with them.”
Great care is taken in establishing the film’s time frame. The family scenes are meticulously constructed. Leigh’s concern for the fate of his often repressed and damaged characters is genuine and rare. He makes films about human problems and provides a certain social-class context for those problems. Again, this is rare.
The filmmaker says, “Vera is a total, unreconstituted, 100 percent gilt-edged, good person who selflessly helps out women in trouble for no money at all. But in the context of her society she is a criminal and it devastates her family.”
Of course, this only proves the rottenness of the society, which makes it impossible for working class families to support their children and illegalizes the medical procedures to which they resort as a way out of their problems.
Is Vera’s goodness entirely convincing? Although actress Staunton is very affecting, her character occasionally teeters on the edge of caricature and sentimentality (a phenomenon that recurs in Leigh’s films). And because she carries most of the film, a ramping down of her gilt-edged goodness to the range of 70 or 80 percent might have strengthened the film and made it all the more convincing.
Vera’s psychological collapse, resulting from the realization that she has nearly killed someone, as well as her public disgrace, is perhaps surprising given the nature of the known risks, both legal and medical, involved in her efforts. There is never any indication that she has reflected on what might happen if she were to get caught. It may be as well that her unadulterated cheeriness and naiveté are somewhat at odds with the type of will necessary to defy society in such an extreme manner. Even performing the abortion act demands a hardness seemingly absent in Vera.
Granted, Leigh is trying to gather momentum by counterposing a pure, selfless human being against an unjust, elitist social order. But when Vera is caught, she crumbles in a heap—without a fight or even a whimper of protest. Vera the abortionist—in the anti-abortion climate of London of the 1950s—is essentially as unconscious a victim as the poor pregnant women she helps out. This leads to a denouement devoid of contradictions. The film does not so much reach a climax as simply come to a halt.
Leigh is a conscientious and precise social observer in many ways. However, there are aspects of social dynamics that escape him. He tends to organize character and social life into somewhat frozen categories. Certain personality types populate his films: the working class young person stifled almost beyond recognition, the good and endlessly sympathetic caregiver (generally a woman), the social climber, the selfish petty bourgeois, etc. He works seriously enough with his actors that the types usually avoid caricature. But not always. And his upper-class characters are among the most cartoonish.
His films rarely look at the dynamics of development, but provide a snapshot of a particular milieu on a given day and time. For this reason his characters almost never experience a genuine transformation. (Sid in this film is a rare and somewhat refreshing exception.) They develop in quantity, becoming more or less of what they already are, but not in quality.
Clearly, this is bound up with a certain social view. Leigh is capable of great empathy for the suffering of the oppressed, but one knows without pressing the point that he would reject the idea that those for whom he feels compassion are capable of resisting the existing social order, much less overturning it.
Nothing in Vera Drake would suggest that Leigh envisions the fight against a return to the days of back-street abortions as a collective, political effort. And such an approach would not have been unthinkable in Britain in 1950 after all, the Labour Party had swept to power in 1945, and many hoped that a social transformation was in the offing. His notion of the “terrible respectability” of the postwar period may reflect his own situation and that of his family. It ignores, however, the strand of militant, working class socialist opposition to capitalism that also was a significant factor in British life.
Vera Drake goes on for too long and yet feels a bit truncated, arriving at a point when the broader social questions begin to make their presence felt. The viewer is left with images of Vera’s dejected shuffle in prison and the closing shot of her traumatized husband and children. Leigh’s inability to come up with a convincing conclusion hints at some of the underlying problems.
Despite these shortcomings, Vera Drake, like Leigh’s best work, is a deeply committed piece. On the whole, the film attempts a serious exploration, laying bare the inner and outer lives of its characters as it evolves in a class environment. Leigh is a genuine and honest artist who, unlike many contemporary filmmakers, does not utilize the plight of the downtrodden as a device for evoking the sneers and titillation of middle class audiences.
ITV’s Vera 10 years on – where the original cast are now
A green mac, a fishing hat and murders in Northumberland – it could only possibly be Vera.
Remarkably, it’s now been 10 years since the DCI initially came to our screens, with the first episode airing on ITV in May 2011.
A mark of the programme’s success, it regularly draws in upwards of eight million viewers and is set to air its eleventh series later this year.
Telling Ann Cleeves’ intricate Vera Stanhope stories has involved a sizeable cast, but what have the original stars of series one been up to over the past decade?
Brenda Blethyn – DCI Vera Stanhope
Brenda Blethyn made her television debut in Mike Leigh’s Grown Ups in 1980, but it was another Leigh production – Secrets & Lies – that served as her major career breakthrough in 1996.
On the back of her portrayal of Cynthia Purley in the drama, she won Best Actress at the Baftas, the Golden Globes and the Cannes Film Festival.
In 2003, Blethyn was awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours for services to drama.
Her recent career has been defined by her performance as the titular DCI in Vera – a character rarely seen without her trusty mac and hat.
But Blethyn has also been busy on the big screen over the past decade too, appearing in Mary & Martha alongside Hilary Swank, Two Men in Town and as the voice of Ethel in the animated Raymond Briggs biopic Ethel & Ernest.
Most recently, she played the lead in ITV’s Kate & Koji sitcom in 2020 and will soon appear again in the upcoming series of Vera.
Jon Morrison – DC Kenny Lockhart
The only actor other than Brenda Blethyn to appear in all ten series of Vera, Jon Morrison is a very familiar face on the show – and, as DC Kenny Lockhart (below, left), a reliable detective.
He started his career in 1973 as Currie in religious drama series Adam Smith, before going on to appear in television programmes including Van der Valk, Bergerac, A Touch of Frost, Taggart and Rebus.
Morrison even featured on The Bill on four occasions, playing a different character each time.
You might also recognise him in the Ken Loach film Sweet Sixteen, in which he played Douglas alongside Line of Duty star Martin Compston.
In recent years, Morrison has primarily dedicated his career to Vera, although in 2013 he appeared on talk show The Crime Thriller Club with Bradley Walsh.
Paul Ritter – Dr Billy Cartwright
Appearing in only the first three series of Vera as forensic pathologist Dr Billy Cartwright, Paul Ritter had his TV debut two decades earlier in another detective programme, The Bill.
He quickly became a familiar face on both stage and screen, featuring over the years in films including Quantum of Solace, Son of Rambow and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Ritter had the versatility to excel both in dramas – Chernobyl, No Offence, The Last Kingdom and Belgravia, to name a few – and in comedy – such as Cold Feet, Plebs and Top Coppers.
But it was his portrayal of Martin Goodman in Channel 4 sitcom Friday Night Dinner that he was perhaps best known for in recent years. The show ran for six series from 2011 to 2020.
Tragically, Ritter passed away in April aged 54.
He has since been nominated for a posthumous Bafta for Best Male Comedy Performance. A documentary dedicated to Ritter to mark the tenth anniversary of Friday Night Dinner will be aired later this year.
Wunmi Mosaku – DC Holly Lawson
RADA graduate Wunmi Mosaku was only a few years out of drama school before landing the part of DC Holly Lawson in Vera.
And casting directors must have enjoyed her performance as a police officer, because she has since donned the uniform again numerous times, including as DS Halliday in Luther, DC Darego in The End of the F***ing World and DCS Greenwood in Fearless, alongside the late Helen McCrory.
On the big screen, Mosaku has appeared in Philomena, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and, most recently, as Rial in thriller His House – for which she was nominated for a Bafta.
In 2017, she won a separate Best Supporting Actress Bafta for her role as Gloria Taylor in Damilola, Our Loved Boy.
Mosaku will soon appear in the upcoming Disney+ Marvel series Loki as Hunter B-15.
Vera Leigh (born Vera Glass on 17 March 1903 in Leeds, England - died 6 July 1944) was a member of the French Resistance and a British SOE agent during World War II. In 1944 she was captured by the Germans and executed at Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp.
Abandoned by her parents soon after birth, she was adopted by H. Eugene Leigh, an American racehorse trainer who raced in the United States, winning the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, and in Europe where he owned stables at Maisons Laffitte near Paris, France. Her plaque of remembrance, re-edited to remove 'was murdered at' and replaced with 'died for her country' is mounted to this day on the wall of the Holy Trinity Church in Maisons Laffitte.
She had an early ambition to become a jockey, but after completing her education she worked as a dress designer. In 1927 she went into partnership with two friends to establish a 'grand maison' (fashion house) known as Rose Valois in the Place Vendôme, Paris.
After the fall of Paris in the Second World War, Leigh left for Lyon to join her fiancé. She became involved in the French Resistance, helping to run an escape line for Allied servicemen trapped behind enemy lines. In 1942 she used the same escape route to cross the Pyrenees to Spain in the hope of reaching England, but found herself imprisoned for several months at the Miranda de Ebro internment camp near Bilbao. Eventually, with assistance from a British Embassy official, Leigh was released from the camp and completed the journey to England via Gibraltar.
Special Operations Executive
After offering her services for the war effort, Leigh came to the attention of the Special Operations Executive, who recruited her for F Section, and she became an Ensign in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. She excelled in her training and was known to be "the best shot in the party". Leigh was dispatched on her first and only mission and returned to France on 14/15 May 1943. She arrived at a field in the Cher Valley, near Tours, one of four new arrivals that night who were received by F Section's air movements officer, Henri Dericourt. Her companions were Juliane Aisner, Sidney Jones and Marcel Clech. Aisner was to be a courier for Dericourt's Farrier circuit, while Jones (an arms instructor) and Clech (a wireless operator) were to join Leigh in establishing a new sub-circuit known as 'Inventor', which was to work alongside the Prosper network.
After receiving further instructions at a safe house in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Leigh took an apartment in Paris and carried messages from Jones in and out of the city as far as the Ardennes. One day in the Gare Saint-Lazare, she met by chance her sister's husband, who ran a safe house for Allied airmen as part of an escape line. She increased her own risk by becoming involved with this operation, escorting some of the men through the Parisian streets to their next contacts. She also socialized openly with other agents, including Julienne Aisner.
On 30 October, Leigh was arrested at a café near the Place des Ternes and taken to Fresnes prison. The Germans already knew everything about her activities. On 13 May 1944, Leigh was taken from Fresnes prison to 84 Avenue Foch, the Paris headquarters of the Sicherheitsdienst. Others taken there at the same time included Andrພ Borrel, Odette Sansom, Diana Rowden, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, Sonya Olschanezky and Madeleine Damerment.
On 6 July 1944, Leigh, Diana Rowden, Andrພ Borrel, and Sonya Olschanezky were taken to the concentration camp at Natzweiler-Struthof. Later that day they were injected with phenol and placed in the crematorium furnace. One of the women, possibly identified by Vera Atkins as Leigh, may have resisted her murder. The same woman may have revived when placed in the oven, and was able to scratch the face of the executioner, Peter Straub, before dying.
Leigh posthumously received the King's Commendation for Brave Conduct.
She may have been considered for the George Cross, but for reasons unknown, the proposal was not pursued.
Brenda Blethyn's Vera: More than a scruffy mac and hat
Too many platforms offering too much content have us constantly tempted elsewhere.
Still, one show that's defied the odds is ITV's detective drama Vera, which this year reaches its decade-long milestone.
Admittedly, Vera began before the boom in streaming services. But its audience need not have stayed, averaging 7.8 million people per episode. It's also one of the best-selling British dramas internationally.
Our never-ending love affair with crime dramas could explain its longevity. As could the trend for those which are female-led. Yet the TV graveyard is populated with shows that can be similarly categorised.
In truth, the secret to success lies in a fortuitous alchemy of ingredients.
Having Oscar-nominated Little Voice and Secrets and Lies actor Brenda Blethyn playing the eponymous sleuth is a good start.
Each stand-alone case episode is based on or inspired by the bestselling novels by Ann Cleeves, guaranteeing the source material is sound.
Her scruffy mac- and bucket hat-wearing Geordie detective chief inspector Vera Stanhope is a straight-talking, work-obsessed loner - with a compassionate underbelly.
In charge of a team of men (there is one woman), she has no time for the trappings of make-up, fashion, romance or personal angst. Solving a crime and seeing justice done are Vera's sole objectives.
Blethyn acknowledges Vera was initially a hard sell.
"I don't think people liked her very much," she says. "But then they could see she was respected by her team and she would defend them like a mother [dog] her puppies. So people began to warm to her," she says.
"There are lots of good crime stories on telly but she's different. She looks like someone who could live down the street. You don't know much about her personal life, you're not lusting after her, so nothing gets in the way of the drama.
"It's also good to see a woman of her age in a position of authority, telling a load of men what to do. I know lots of women around her age rejoice in that."
In person Blethyn is nothing like Vera. She laughs and cracks jokes and is glamorous in an understated way. You can't help but like her.
But she does share some of her characteristics - some born out of her humble background growing up in Ramsgate, she says.
"I'm a coper and can be pretty independent. And solving puzzles has been my passion from when I was a kid. We didn't have a TV and the radio would get cut off because the bill hadn't been paid. Still now, I challenge my brother every day to do the Times cryptic crossword."
Blethyn has built a strong friendship with Cleeves, has read all her books and feels very protective of the author's character. She will tell the scriptwriters if they've included something Vera just wouldn't say or do.
The show's executive producer Phil Hunter says Blethyn "embodies this character in a way which captivates an audience and really lands an emotional stone in the heart".
He also considers the show a "trailblazer" in female protagonist police shows.
"There's now an appetite for telling stories with really capable women in those positions. The more gender balance we get on screen, the better," he adds.
The new series' first episode sees Vera investigating the death of an entrepreneur whose body is found by bailiffs attempting to repossess his house.
Ultimately, it is a classic "crime of passion" Vera story - one where the tension is ramped up, to be brought down to a cathartic conclusion.
Professor Charlotte Brunsdon from Warwick University's Department of Film and Television Studies says in this sense Vera "belongs more in the British detective fiction tradition, along with the likes of Inspector Morse and Rebus, rather than female-led detective series".
"Classic to that strand of detective fiction is that it sets a mystery that can be solved, shown in a real world, a flawed world. So you get the feeling of closure and satisfaction that Vera has managed to get something right," she says.
"But there's no pretence that she can put right the things that have caused either what's happened or the things she encounters along the way.
"In some ways it's misleading to think of her in relation to female detectives. Some of these shows tend to be more about the drama of being a modern woman.
"You get a lot about their private lives because they have endlessly to circle the question, 'How can a woman be doing this? What's wrong with her?' because it's still difficult plausibly to have female characters who are devoted to their jobs and aren't monsters."
It also means such series have a running narrative focusing on the woman's personal difficulties. Their stories have inevitably to reach a conclusion, meaning the show is more likely to fizzle out.
Among reviewers, the programme has its fans and detractors. The Telegraph's Michael Hogan declared after the first episode of series nine: "Brenda Blethyn deserves better than this slow drama.
"The script plodded from one plot point to the next, like Vera herself through the handsome Northumbrian scenery. This was Death in Paradise without the Caribbean sun or Midsomer Murders without the camp fun."
Meanwhile, Chitra Ramaswamy from The Guardian, praised the show, saying in 2016: "Brenda Blethyn stomps across the moor with a solvable murder on the horizon. What's not to like? Closely followed by Northumberland, Blethyn is the best thing about Vera.
"She has the loveliest voice, at once girlish and gruff. Her face is kind but means business. Not many actors can pull off shambolic but effective but Blethyn can do it with a single, penetrating glance from beneath that hat."
As the critics highlight, the setting of Vera is a key component. It's at once glorious and threatening - a character in its own right.
Vera has boosted tourism to the area, which was marked with a Royal Television Society Award last year. For each series the cast and crew spend six months filming all round Northumberland and specifically Newcastle.
As well as showcasing the beautiful landscapes, Vera delves into the industrial heartland. Kenny Doughty, who plays Vera's main sidekick Detective Sergeant Aiden Healy, loves the region.
"Northumberland and the coastline are breathtaking but people don't really know it's there," he says.
"And Newcastle has its own cultural identity. It's still rooted in its working-class roots and there's a real sense of community even though it's a city. I've never felt unwelcome. Everyone wants to talk to you, and everyone's got a story to tell."
If Ann Cleeves ever hangs up Vera's mac and hat, the TV scriptwriters could feasibly continue creating new stories way into the future. Contemplating getter older and older as Vera, Blethyn gets misty-eyed.
"Oh, imagine. It could be really good," she says. "But they would probably have to wheel me around in a chair.
"Deciding who would do it. well, theyɽ have to draw straws."
The tenth series of Vera begins on ITV1 at 20:00 GMT on Sunday 12 January.
A deadly trade
M ike Leigh's award-winning film Vera Drake, about the almost forgotten trade of an illegal abortionist, is brilliant - well written, directed and acted, evocative of London life in the 1950s. But unfortunately, it is medically inaccurate.
A woman's right to control her own body is taken for granted now, and younger people can scarcely believe that abortion used to be a criminal offence, punishable by a prison sentence for the woman and the abortionist. In 1803, abortions in the UK were criminalised. This was the legal position until the Abortion Act 1967 (and still is, in many parts of the world). No doctor who valued his career would perform an abortion and no hospital could do so.
The law encouraged backstreet abortionists to flourish. There is no record of how many took place, but in 1914 it was estimated that 100,000 women attempted abortion. There have always been women who wanted or needed to end a pregnancy. For rich women this would entail a clandestine visit, at great expense, to a secret address where a discredited doctor would operate illegally, but usually successfully.
For poor women it would be a very different story. Often they had too many children - far more than they could house and feed decently, and for them another baby would be a disaster. Contraception was inadequate. For single women, illegitimate pregnancies meant social and economic catastrophe. Thousands of women tried some sort of medicinal way of evacuating the uterus. Violent purgatives such as a pint of Epsom salts were used: gin and ginger turpentine raw spirit aloes or sloes. None worked. Some less reputable newspapers advertised "cures for menstrual blockage" [pregnancies]. These were poisonous and sometimes fatal. Some even contained mercury, which is highly poisonous. If the woman did survive, she would still be pregnant, as you virtually have to kill the mother before you destroy the foetus.
When all else failed, desperate women were driven to backstreet abortionists such as Vera Drake. This is where the film becomes wildly inaccurate. We see Drake time and time again going to visit women in their homes to perform an abortion. Each time the "operation" lasts just a few minutes and up the woman gets. In one scene Drake goes into a sitting room where a woman is sitting with her husband and their brood of children. Drake - a cuddly, motherly, busybody type whom you can't imagine having the requisite mental stamina to perform such procedures - scuttles off to the bedroom with the pregnant mother, injects soapy water into her womb and then tells her to go back and get the children's tea ready, warning her that the foetus should pop out two days later. The woman would have been dead long before that.
Mike Leigh is a writer and a film-maker, and can be excused for not knowing, but his medical adviser should certainly have known that Vera's method of procuring an abortion - flushing out the uterus with soap and water - was invariably fatal. One of the most severe pains a human being can endure is the sudden distension of a hollow organ. Inflating the uterus with liquid will induce primary obstetric shock, a dramatic fall in blood pressure, and heart failure. Thousands of women have died instantly from this abortion method.
The idea that a woman who has just had half a pint of soapy water put into her uterus could then get back up on her feet and walk around is utterly implausible. And the idea that Drake had used this method successfully for 20 years is sheer fantasy abortionists knew of the danger of the "flushing out" technique, and it was known to have been tried. I was a district midwife in London in the 1950s and I certainly never saw a survivor of that method.
Does it matter if a historic film, authentic to the smallest detail of postwar London family life, is so very inaccurate in this respect? I think it does, and I think it is dangerous. The film promotes the idea that abortion is easy - quick, clean, painless and successful. It is not. The film is dangerous because it will be shown worldwide, in countries where abortion is still illegal. If women in these countries see a film that depicts abortion as no more problematic than syringeing wax out of an ear, they might try it themselves, with fatal results.
Leigh has made a great film, but to have Drake say after each uterine flushing, "You will feel a bit full down below, dear, but in a day or two you will start to bleed, and then it will all come away" is a distortion of facts. Evacuation of the uterus is not easy, and can only be achieved by surgical operation. The horrors of backstreet abortions are beyond imagining and defy description. They were done without anaesthetic, with obsolete or inadequate surgical instruments, with no sterilisation, often with very poor light, on kitchen tables, by medically untrained people with no real knowledge of anatomy. Such abortions were agonising and carried a high risk.
In the 1950s illegal abortions were all around us. In 1957 I met a 14-year-old Irish prostitute, who was fleeing a brothel where a girl had died after a backstreet abortion. Her body vanished. We, as midwives, were never directly involved, but we often had to clear up the mess after a bungled abortion, especially on gynaecology wards. Doctors, midwives and hospitals were required to report to the police if they suspected an abortion. But I never heard of this happening. We all knew what the woman had suffered prosecution would have been too cruel. But by shielding the woman, we were also shielding the abortionist, whom most of us would have wished to see behind bars. It was a dilemma.
I have been asked: what were these women like? It is impossible to say, because they worked outside the law and kept within their own criminal underworld. But I have heard stifled screams as I entered the tenements many times, and seen dubious-looking women, who were not local, leaving the balconies or stairways. It wasn't difficult to spot them. A woman who avoided eye contact, or hid her face if she saw one of the midwives approaching, was in stark contrast to the cheerful housewives who greeted every midwife like a long-lost friend. I have heard two matriarchs conferring about a teenage daughter, who looked visibly pregnant, and muttering about "getting it done" - a conversation that stopped abruptly as I approached. We could never find out exactly what went on, but we knew it was pretty grim.
The film Vera Drake tries to imply that the heroine was acting on principle, and never took payment. But I very much doubt that this was ever the case. From everything we heard, abortionists were in it for the money (the going rate was between one and two guineas [£1.05-£2.10]). I never heard of one who was conducting a philanthropic practice. Ignorance, incompetence and avarice seem to be the folklore memory of abortionists. But I wonder if this is fair. When medical treatment was illegal, they were in demand. They performed a service that was widely used. It was not their fault they were medically untrained the legislation was to blame.
Fatalities among women undergoing an abortion were high, but they was far higher among women who tried to do it themselves, unaided. I give talks to women's clubs about my book Call the Midwife, and at nearly every meeting at least one woman will relate a horrifying story of a distant relative who tried a do-it-yourself abortion. Knitting needles, crochet hooks, scissors, paper knives, pickle forks and other implements have all been pushed into the uterus by desperate women who preferred anything to the continued pregnancy. How a woman can push any instrument through a tightly closed cervix is more than I can imagine. But it has been done and I have heard so many stories in such diverse circumstances, and they are all so dismally similar, that the evidence cannot be doubted.
Chronic ill health frequently followed a backstreet abortion - infections, anaemia, scar tissue or adhesions, continuous pain, cystitis or nephritis, incontinence, a torn cervix or perforated colon. I remember a girl of 19 who developed renal failure due to damage to the bladder. Her kidneys packed up, but amazingly she survived. I recall a tragic woman, with five children, who developed a massive sac of pus in the peritoneum. We tried to drain it, without success, and for many weeks pus oozed from her abdomen. Anyone working on the hospital ward at the time would remember the children being brought in just before their mother died.
In 1967 the Abortion Act was passed, and abortion was no longer illegal. When I was a gynaecology ward sister at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital in London, I was sometimes asked whether or not I approved of it. My reply was that I did not regard it as a moral issue, but as a medical issue. A minority of women will always want an abortion. Therefore, it must be done properly.
M.D. Fulwiler - 2/28/2005
Roderick T. Long - 2/28/2005
L&P tends to screw up links, but this should do it:
M.D. Fulwiler - 2/28/2005
Mark Brady - 2/28/2005
I'm interested to read your comment but I'm also rather surprised since I observed from the credits that a medical history advisor had been consulted in the making of the film--along with a legal history advisor and a police history advisor.
M.D. Fulwiler - 2/28/2005
Good film in many ways, but unfortunately the abortion method used by Vera Drake in the film (squirting soapy water into the uterus) would generally be fatal in real life, so it was rarely tried. Although there currently is a fairly safe drug to induce early term abortion (RU-486), abortion in the 1950's would have required surgery. Regretably, the black market practioners of abortion at this time tended not to be very skilled, so the mortality rate was rather high. The movie does make the point that upper class women could sometimes obtain a legal abortion with the right doctor's notes---for a high price, of course. However, Mike Leigh is irresponsible for planting the dangerous idea of squirting saopy water into the uterus as a safe "do it at home" method for women to induce abortion.