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August 07, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | Robert Koehler is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

The final surprise of Richard Nixon's career might well have taken place after his death April 22. Instead of being lambasted with vituperative op-ed memoirs and obits, Nixon was memorialized as a complicated politician with as many gifts as flaws. Several writers even suggested that Nixon's efforts to ratchet down the Cold War pressure and open doors to China would overshadow Watergate.

Watergate --that single, ominous word encompassing a complex web of crimes and misdemeanors woven by Nixon's White House, and the elaborate cover-up Nixon and his men devised to conceal those crimes. The Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign from office in August, 1972. As ex-President, he strove for 20 years to rehabilitate himself. Could it be that Watergate might become a footnote in history?

Not if British TV producers Brian Lapping and Norma Percy have anything to do with it. Just as the posthumous image of Nixon was beginning to soften, along comes the devastating, five-part series "Watergate," by Lapping's U.K.-based production company, Brian Lapping Associates, and co-produced by the British Broadcasting Corp. and the Discovery Channel.

At nearly 230 minutes, "Watergate" is television's first exhaustive documentation--based on former London Times Washington correspondent Fred Emery's new book "Watergate"--of the events that led to the United States' most serious modern constitutional crisis. Just as striking is how the Lapping-Percy team (including producer-director Paul Mitchell) managed to lure on camera virtually every important and secondary participant in the Watergate plot, cover-up and investigation.

Among those who break their decades-long silence is James McCord, who participated in the White House-authorized June 17, 1972, break-in of the Democratic Party National Headquarters at Washington's Watergate Hotel, triggering the White House cover-up of a series of illegal, pre-Watergate wiretaps and break-ins.

Other notorious Watergate figures who speak on camera include Nixon campaign intelligence head G. Gordon Liddy, campaign deputy director Jeb Magruder, and Nixon's key aides H.R. Haldeman (filmed eight months before his death in November, 1993) and John Ehrlichman. Above them all is host-narrator Daniel Schorr, whose Watergate reports for CBS News earned him a position on Nixon's "enemies list."

Given Lapping's previous remarkable documentary, "The Second Russian Revolution," the power of this detailed but lucid new report on a scandal barely known to a generation of TV viewers isn't unexpected. What is, though, is the story of how Lapping and Percy arrived at their report.

As the pair sit at a large glass table in a Los Angeles hotel suite, they occasionally look over at the man who blew the lid on the Watergate cover-up--former Nixon counsel John W. Dean. A few minutes later, Schorr arrives at the suite and sits across the table from Dean--former combatants, now friendly partners in helping promote a series they both insist is the accurate account of the scandal.

Dean's contacts with the British producers, however, were not always so rosy.

"When Brian and Norma first reached me," Dean recalls, "I wanted nothing to do with them. I suggested to them that the story they were trying to tell was phony."

When Lapping learned, in 1991, of Len Colodny's and Robert Gettlin's controversial new Watergate book, "Silent Coup," he thought that here was the stuff for "a provocative, startling look at Watergate with completely new information. It was on this basis that I sold the idea to the BBC and Discovery."

Percy, with Emery and Mitchell, then set out to research the background of "Silent Coup." "We began our work," says Percy, "during the 20th anniversary of the '72 break-in, and now it airs on the 20th anniversary of Nixon's resignation. So the series took nearly as long to make as it took for the Watergate scandal to unfold."

"Silent Coup" made assertions against Dean, and his future wife, Maureen, that Lapping believed could form the basis of their documentary. But after six weeks of investigation--including a long search through Nixon's own files at the Virginia-based Nixon Project, Percy's team concluded that there was no evidence to support "Silent Coup's" thesis.

"Well," Lapping sighs, "after learning that the whole basis for your series is air, where do you go? It actually wasn't as difficult as we had anticipated to go back and tell the known story."

"The real story," says Percy, "is actually the most devastating and dramatic of all, but I was deeply concerned all along that young people would either never understand the true history, or latch onto some revisionist myth. When my two nieces saw the final product on the BBC, though, they were absolutely goggle-eyed. That was very gratifying."

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