Go behind bars with Escape From Pretoria

How a ’70s apartheid-era prison break became “edge of your seat” viewing in 2020

Escape From Pretoria (2020) is British director Francis Annan’s sweaty, heart-racing story of a prison break that took over 400 days of meticulous planning and preparation to execute.

It’s based on a true story. In June 1978, South Africa’s apartheid government sentenced political activists Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friend Stephen Lea (Daniel Webber) to 12-year and 8-year sentences respectively for producing and distributing pamphlets on behalf of the then-banned ANC. By December 1979, they were on the run from Pretoria Prison’s maximum-security section for political prisoners. How did they get out? Well, that’s the key to this whole adventure…

Throw the book at him!

The film is based partly on Tim’s account of the events in his 1987 book Escape From Pretoria. In it he details how his own escape was influenced by a book that Stephen’s father brought them while they were awaiting trial at Pollsmoor Prison: French writer Henri Charrière’s 1969 account of his own prison break, Papillon. “That was a major influence. I’d never heard of this book myself, but we read it and it was such an eye opener, not so much for his actual story – I think a lot of that is fiction – but because it’s really a manual of escape,” says Tim.

“The first thing he taught us is that if you are going to escape, you need to divide your escape into two phases: one is getting out of your prison, and the second is getting away from your prison (and while this is not shown in the film, fellow prisoner and activist Denis Goldberg, portrayed by Ian Hart, played an enormous role in setting up post-escape transport for the escapees via his secret communications with the ANC leadership). When you get out, you don’t just go and visit the girlfriend, or go to the pub, you’ve got to get away as quickly as possible and as far as possible. If someone can’t pick you up outside the prison, you need money. So we managed to smuggle some money into the prison, which was hidden in tubes (concealed inside their bodies – guess where). We carried that around with us for 3 months, right through the trial and everything, until we got to Pretoria. That was absolutely crucial.”

“There were many other things in that book. There’re about 10 lessons there. Another one was that if you are going to try to escape, it can’t just be a part-time thing. You can’t just wait around for a lucky break. You can’t wait for someone to leave the door open or the guard to leave their keys on the tale by mistake. Even if someone does leave the door open, you don’t go because you are going to be walking around in your prison uniform and you won’t have a plan to get out. You have to plan the thing from beginning to end, and you must devote 100% of your time and efforts to it. It’s not a part-time thing like, ‘Oh, I’ll think about some more of it next month when I’m in the mood’. So that's what we did. We devoted every single moment of every day towards the escape and it became an absolute obsession.”


Book to film

Francis’s directing captures the relentless ongoing effort that Tim talks about. It was a major part of what attracted him to the project.

As a film, Escape from Pretoria seems well timed considering 2020’s atmosphere of political upheaval and activists around the globe putting their lives and freedom on the line. But Francis’s journey with the project goes back a bit further. “I’d love to say that there was a god-like specificity towards this, but really the book (Tim’s book) was presented to me in 2012, when I met the two British producers (who had the rights to Tim’s book). I studied political science at one point and loved politics and French cinema. And they said, ‘Well, in that case, let’s talk about this.’ I read it and took my highlighter out and went ‘knuckles’ on it,” Francis laughs. “It was everything. It had the balance of politics, the virtuousness (of the main characters) – they were fighting for something that was righteous and honourable – and I had never seen a prison escape in that particular fashion done in a book or film. It was unique, which is the golden thing that you are looking for as a filmmaker.”

Francis sees the whole of Tim’s book as cinematic. “There were a few films that we looked at – 1960s French films that are all about the detail. Where someone else would show something (condense a sequence of events) in two minutes, they’d spend 15 minutes on that thing. So, you’d really feel this mounting, visceral sense of the ratcheting of tension. And I found images that were akin to those ’60s films would come into my head while I was reading the book.

“When they first go into the prison, they are already scoping it out. The idea that wood could be the best thing (for making the keys and other escape components) – you can chisel it, you can glue it, you can add to it… All those things felt, like, ‘Ah!’ and when the characters are clocking things, so are you (as the viewer). I love that! You are never ahead of them or behind, you are always seeing these things at the exact same time as they are. That was what I remember reading from the book, and I thought it would be great to get that kind of aha! moment onscreen.”

Francis had access not only to Tim’s book for plotting the tale, but to Tim himself. “You’ve got the ‘what’ in the book, and sometimes the how and the why in terms of how did you get there and why did you want to do it that way,” Francis says. “But for example, there’s one scene where the main character has to hide a contraband item in their person – and not in their pockets or anything. We had chatted about how that would be quite gruelling and you can imagine grunting and all sorts of contortions and stuff, but when we spoke to Tim he was like (in an offhanded tone), ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s what you might think, but actually the item moves where it will, much more easily’. And Dan loved that! He was like, ‘Thank you, man, I’m going to use that’. It wasn’t described in the book – the how of that. We got those little idiosyncrasies from Tim. Talking to him allowed me to encourage the cast with those anecdotal things. They were lovely to have.”


A day in the life (sentence)

Daniel’s performance shows the emotional and physical toll that all the plotting and obsession took on Tim particularly. He gives a tense and twitchy performance that’ll have you clenching your body in a full-on workout throughout the film.

Daniel was also able to consult with Tim while preparing for the role. And it wasn’t just the cogs and gears of Tim’s prison escape that fascinated him – because Tim’s mind had to break free first. “Getting the chance to talk to Tim about his past and how he’d grown up, I was fascinated by the idea of someone who’d grown up swimming in the same waters as everyone else (Tim was born in 1948 and grew up entirely under apartheid) somehow managed to gain this perspective that allowed him to see the moral outrage of it, while so many people didn’t,” says Daniel. “We all like to think that if we were cast in another time of history, we would have been on the right side of history, but the reality is that very few of us were or would be,” he laughs ruefully. “I was fascinated by his story of finding Stephen and finding books and reading them and finding these new ideas.”

The prison escape itself was intriguing, too. “I was also just talking to Tim about going into the prison and what the day to day was like. You read the script but it hadn’t occurred to me that they were doing all the work (of putting the pieces of the escape together) at night, so they had barely any time to sleep. And then they had to get up during the day because otherwise it would be very suspicious that they were so tired. They had this sense of exhaustion the whole time. It was intimidating on some level having Tim on set, because you become very aware of the fact that this is a real life that you are trying to portray onscreen, but he was the most incredible resource to have, to have somebody there who had really lived this,” says Daniel.

The fascination was, perhaps mutual. Tim has a cameo role in Escape From Pretoria as a nameless prisoner in the prison waiting room. “It was interesting to sit next to Daniel. He’s playing me and I’m this older guy,” Tim laughs. “He was chatting to this younger visitor who was supposed to be my mother, I think, or an aunt or something. That was strange, but even more strange was just really being on the set. It was a strange experience for me, I’d never been on a film set before. I was just struck by the absolute scale of this operation, and kind of humbled by the fact that all of these people were running around just because of my book. Hundreds of people, big trucks and caterers and all kinds of things and cameras rolling in and out and carpenters making bridges and prisons. I was the cause of all this trouble,” Tim jokes.


The reality of it

Daniel got an uncomfortable taste of Tim’s life as he stood on set having racial slurs yelled in his face by Nathan Page, who plays permanently suspicious prison warder Mongo, and Grant Piro, who plays prison head Captain Schnepel. “It’s always very strange to do those kinds of scenes. I have to say I’ve been on both sides of that scene. I did a film called Imperium (2016) in which I played a guy who was infiltrating a far-right group in America. And during that, at various points I had to scream racial slurs at people. It’s genuinely one of the most uncomfortable things I have ever had to do as an actor. Even though everyone knows you’re acting, I still found myself going up to the other actors and apologising to them between scenes. Grant, who does a lot of the shouting in my face, he did the same thing, coming up to us afterwards and saying, ‘I’m sorry, mate.’ It’s just a horrible reminder that while we are acting, people were genuinely confronted with this language every day of their existence. The taste of that discomfort that you see of that as an actor is just a tiny window into what people actually went through,” says Daniel.

While Daniel has grandparents from South Africa, it hasn’t really been an aspect of his history that he’s looked into too deeply. “I never met my South African grandad and he did not treat my grandmother particularly well,” he explains, “so it’s been a part of my life where I am aware that I have this heritage, but it was never something that I felt particularly within myself. I am pretty sure that my grandad would not have been somebody who was on the right side of history,” Daniel adds firmly.

Escape from… Adelaide?

The question on all our minds might be: this is a South African story; where are the South Africans? Come to that, where is South Africa? Escape From Pretoria wound up being filmed in Adelaide, Australia for a number of interlocking practical reasons that are quite reminiscent of all the plotting the prisoners have to do to escape. One little paperclip out of place, and the whole thing falls to pieces.

According to Francis, it came down to those two great bugbears of film: money and time. “Shooting in South Africa was an option all the way through. We had no intention to shoot anywhere else,” he insists. “But about six months before (we started shooting) it became apparent that it was either (move) or just shelve the film and lose the other pots (money, film grants, access to cast and locations) and still not be shooting in 2025. And that wasn’t good. There are lots of people even in South Africa who’ve not heard this story, and this story needs to be told. There were lots of tears, it was quite sad, but it was between that and no film. So we decided to make the film as best we could,” he says.

Watch Escape from Pretoria on Saturday, 4 July on TNT (DStv 137) at 20:00 

Get it on Google Play

Feel every moment with DStv