Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Puppetmaster

It seems extraordinary to me that Hollywood is reduced to peddling out superhero films, sequels and remakes when there's so much great raw material in 'real life' on a daily basis. People go missing, get murdered, kidnapped, chopped up; there's domestic killings, natural disasters and wars, bombs and blackmail, sex and scandal, all of which makes for exciting cinema. Gun-crazed runner without legs shoots girlfriend! Ebola outbreak! Sally Jones from Chatham goes from witch worshipper to Muslim extremist (I can already imagine the iconic film poster with Sally in her nun habit and gun and dog)!

A news story from years ago that always stayed with me is the bizarre tale of Robert Hendy-Freegard – barman, used car salesman and conman, who masqueraded as an MI5 agent. His exploits are the polar opposite of the Schwarzenegger film True Lies (though bizarrely similar to the character of Simon in the film, a car salesman who seduces Helen, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, by pretending to be a spy. Who knows, maybe Hendy-Freegard was inspired by True Lies – or vice versa). Nicknamed The Puppetmaster for his 'odyssey of deceit' (The Daily Mail's phrase), he used his devious charm to con scores of women out of £1m.

Hendy-Freegard's first-known exploits were in 1992 when he was a barman in Newport, Shropshire. He persuaded three agriculture students (two women and a man) that he was an undercover agent for MI5, investigating an IRA cell in the college. Over time, he got the students to perform humilating and degrading acts of loyalty, sever contacts with family and friends, give all their money (and their parents money) to Hendy-Freegard and move to Sheffield. One of the students became his lover and gave birth to two of his daughters. He beat her when she confronted him on his other lovers

The charming but barely literate Hendy-Freegard continued in this manner for another decade with various other victims, mainly women: he seduced his newly-married personal assistant and told her he was an MI5 agent. She had to endure sleeping rough on benches and overnight at Heathrow airport, surviving on a slice of Mars bar a day and drinking water from toilets for her loyalty tests. His lies were outrageous, his behaviour monstrous; he thought nothing of humiliating and beating women and extracting as much money as possible from them. Other victims included a lawyer (who awarded him '11 out of 10' for his bedroom skills), psychologist and company director: these were not stupid women; Hendy-Freegard was no great looker either; his powers of persuasion must have been quite something. It's incredible he got away with it for so long.

I've always thought Hendy-Freegard's exploits would make for a fascinating film, intermingling a James Bond-fantasy lifestyle with the reality of being an abusive, lying barman and car salesman, as well as the drudgery of being holed as a prisoner in Sheffield for weeks on end, conducting pointless loyalty tests, believing your every move was being monitored.

Though when he was eventually caught, in a sting operation in 2002, the law regarded his crimes as kidnapping, theft and deception; nowadays, perhaps, in this post-Josef Fritzl world, his victims would be deemed slaves (rather than prisoners). It's interesting this happened in pre-internet days, the 1990s. The internet and smart phones have made scamming, lies and deception far easier to get away with (two men were recently found guilty of duping women looking for love on out of £220,000). That Hendy-Freegard did it in real life for so long to so many intelligent people is just amazing.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Top 5 film concepts
The life and death of Michael X
Found Object

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