Have you ever seen a film of the 1966 England football team hosting the World Cup at the Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington, on the night of their victory? The answer, I can guarantee, is no. Unbeknownst to all but a few police officers and FA officials, what they held in their hands was just a replica, made a few months earlier after the real Jules Rimet trophy was stolen
But this was just one of the many eye-popping revelations on Monday 1966: Who stole the World Cup? Of course, it is not uncommon for a documentary to claim that the story it tells is hardly credible. It is much rarer that the claim, as here, is true.
The challenges to our credulity began immediately when the program interviewed the man tasked with looking after the trophy when it was ill-fated on display at a stamp show at Methodist Central Hall. John McLarens was not, as he cheerfully admitted, a trained security guard. Instead, he was a struggling actor – whose career peaked as an extra in Monty Python – looking to make some extra money.
So it was that on March 20 John turned up for his Sunday shift to find the cup gone – although the theft was not particularly daring. The chain on the outside of the hall’s main door was fixed with eight ordinary screws. The plinth on which the trophy stood could be accessed through the open back of the glass case.
Not that this represented a sudden easing of security. In the previous weeks, silversmith George Bird had taken the cup from one exhibition site to another in the basket on the front of his bicycle. Yet the theft came as a shock not only to the police and the FA, but also to Harold Wilson’s Labor government, which faced major international embarrassment 11 days before a general election.
Then, on March 23, the FA received a ransom note signed by a man calling himself ‘Jackson’ but who turned out to be Edward Betchley, a petty criminal in south London. Came the arranged ransom that an undercover copper duly appeared with a suitcase full of scrap paper with a par femme on top before arresting him. However, there was still no sign of the WC – so George Bird was tasked with making a copy.
Which finally brought us to the piece that most of us already knew. A week after the theft, dock worker Dave Corbett was walking his mix Pickles when the dog suddenly started scratching at a package under a bush in the front garden…
The prize money (enough to buy a posh house) meant Pickles transformed Dave’s life, as he tearfully testified on Monday. But the program also made a compelling case that Pickles transformed Britain’s political history – because history now became a British triumph over disaster, helping Wilson to his 98-seat majority. Rather anti-climactic, after a short career as a movie star in The spy with the cold nosePickles died in 1967 when he choked on his lead while chasing a cat.
Betchley, meanwhile, was acquitted of theft and found guilty only of acting as an intermediary. And with that, the police apparently considered their work done, and made no further efforts to find the actual thieves. They did, mind you, take the precaution of asking a young constable, who also appeared on Monday, to exchange Bird’s replica for the real trophy before it left Wembley after the final. Given no further instructions, he chose to enter the England dressing room after the match with the fake cunningly stuffed into his tunic.
Only more than 50 years later did one Daily Mirror journalist discovers who had stolen the trophy in the first place: Sid ‘Mr Crafty’ Cugullere, another petty criminal in south London, who sued Methodist Central Hall for possible stamp theft when he watched the World Cup and got it on a whim. . At first he put it on his mantelpiece as a decoration – until his wife realized what it was and insisted he get rid of it, which he did in Dave Corbett’s front garden.
Faced with such material, the program chose to play it mainly for laughs, turning the whole thing into a pastiche of a Guy Ritchie film. Hence the presence of Ritchie alumnus Alan Ford as the narrator, who takes his already impressive nerdiness to wild new heights, with every house a ‘gaff’, every neighborhood a ‘mansion’ and regular interjections of ‘you bleedin’ what?’. In theory, this should have been a bit tiresome. In practice, it sometimes was – but the wilder the story got, the more understandable it felt as a reaction to a riveting set of events that were, among other things, undeniably funny.
The post Riveting: C4’s Who Stole the World Cup reviewed appeared first on The Spectator.