Helen Duncan – the greatest true story never brought to screen?

How many writers can be working on the same story at the same time? About 7,643 it turns out.

Imagine a story that brings together World War II, the supernatural, suspected fifth-columnists, Ian Fleming, Winston Churchill and a government cover-up. It sounds like a genre-mashing fantasy thought up after a dream and hastily scribbled on a pad – only to be deciphered and rejected in the cold light of the morning (as so many of bedside scribblings will testify…).

But it’s a true story – and possibly the most gripping, intriguing one I’ve come across. I won’t regale you with all the amazing ins-and-outs of Helen’s story – and the huge injustice of what happened to this innocent Scottish woman – you can read about her story here, here and here. And in lots of other places as well.

Helen’s story popped into my mind again this week, and caused me to dig out a spec script I wrote (my first) where I adapted the story, obviously without knowing anything of copyright, story rights etc. Instead of bothering with any possible legal issues, I lustily took to typing – pouring out my enthusiasm for the story into a weighty 130-page screenplay.

For reasons I can’t now remember, I ridiculously decided that there wasn’t enough intrigue in Helen’s story, so further mashed it up with another WWII story I was obsessed with at the time – that of the supposed great Gardnerian witchcraft attempt to repel Hitler’s Nazi army from Britain. Anyway, that was a story mash too far, and my poor first script collapsed under the weight of its (by now) 873,587 themes and fell heavily into a drawer to be forgotten.

A ship
If you’re a Helen-o-phile, you’ll know exactly what this is.

But I wasn’t able to completely forget about Helen’s story, so I took to tinkering with it again a year or so later – and by this time, I realised I might have to look into the rights to Helen’s story. I got in touch with her descendants and guardians of her story, and was surprised to learn that Helen’s story has passed through the hands of several writers and producers in recent years – including (apparently) one S. Spielberg. But still Helen’s story hasn’t made it to the big or small screen, other than in documentary form.

Since that time, I’ve come across – or heard about – three other writers who have adapted Helen’s story into screenplays for film or TV, but I still haven’t heard of anything approaching production anytime soon.

My time with Helen’s story is done – amazing though the story is. Perhaps I need to now set up a support group for all of the other writers who’ve become as obsessed with Helen as me. Are you one? Please get in touch, and bring ectoplasm.

“Portrait of Helen Duncan” by andrewtcrummy is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


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