Christmas party led to JFK: The Final Visit To Britain

David Grant with John F Kennedy David Grant (middle) with John F Kennedy

Glen Campbell says it's 'good old bootleg journalism' at its best. The investigations correspondent for BBC South East Today got a scoop when he tracked down a Secret Service agent on John F Kennedy's security detail in 1963, who then agreed to go on the record with his story.

Just outside of Washington DC, retired agent David Grant spoke movingly to the BBC about living with the guilt of the president's assassination in Dallas. Campbell says the events of that day are 'still there, 50 years on, and it still haunts him'.

Grant's memories of the former American president in the last few months before his death form the basis of a documentary called JFK: The Final Visit To Britain.

Unbelievably, the documentary had its beginning at a Christmas party in Sussex last year. Campbell, who recently moved to the area from London, had been invited to a gathering of an 'eclectic group of people all drinking sherry'. He spotted an older woman sitting on her own and decided to speak to her about living in Sussex. She told him: 'I remember that lovely man, John F Kennedy, coming to visit East Grinstead.' She also remembered he attended mass at her church.

David Grant with Glen Campbell in the US David Grant with Glen Campbell in the US

'I was amazed that I didn't know JFK came to visit this tiny little Sussex town and that's how it started,' Campbell tells Ariel.

'We only found it was the 50th anniversary by accident,' he adds.

Visit to Sussex

From this ordinary conversation at a holiday party, Campbell tracked down Grant and learned more about Kennedy's final visit to Britain in June 1963, when he met Harold Macmillan for the Sussex Summit. This meeting led to the partial nuclear test-ban treaty at the height of the Cold War.

It was another bit of luck, however, which convinced Grant to speak to the BBC journalist. Grant had only three months previously been approached by Hollywood screenwriter Stephen Gyllenhaal (Jake Gyllenhaal's father) to sell his story for a movie about JFK's Secret Service agents. But he had just turned them down because, says Campbell, he felt the Hollywood lawyers 'were trying to buy his memories'.

Enter the BBC. Campbell says the retired agent loved England above all the many countries he visited with JFK, and he could trace his ancestry back to Scotland. The journalist's Scottish surname probably sealed it.

David Grant with Kennedy in background David Grant on duty, with JFK in the background
Line of duty

Grant protected the president from the day he was elected in 1960 through to his assassination. He was part of the advance detail - a recce normally carried out three weeks before an official visit - to both Britain and Dallas, where Kennedy was killed only four months later on November 22, 1963.

The conversation touched on the 'elephant in the room' - the conspiracy theories surrounding JFK's death. Campbell says the matter was a simple one for Grant. 'While there were people who would believe otherwise, he had strong beliefs that it was the actions of one sole gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. He was the single shooter, who managed to reload the rifleā€¦ it's possible.'

The decision to leave Kennedy exposed, without a bubble top protecting the car, was apparently a last-minute one and taken by the president himself. 'He wanted the Texans to see that it was him and he wasn't scared of coming right into their midst,' explains Campbell, 'because at the time he was loathed and hated by a large part of southern America and in Texas for parts of the civil rights bill he was promoting.' The president also needed Texans to support his re-election campaign.

Personal snapshots

It was a bonus when the retired Secret Service agent brought up an old box of photographs from his basement; among them was a picture of Jacqueline Kennedy in India. There were about 20 previously unseen personal snapshots that make it into the documentary.

Jacqueline Kennedy in India The First Lady in India, from David Grant's personal photographs

The half-hour BBC Two film was originally made for Inside Out, the regional current affairs programme. 'It was made on a shoe-string budget, but we're over the moon that the BBC has literally taken it with very little changes,' says Campbell, who appears extensively in the documentary. 'It's quite incredible to get something like this. We're a very tiny southern outpost.'

Campbell, who was previously a crime reporter with ITV for ten years, says his interest in the former president has shifted since making the programme. 'My interest with Kennedy had nothing to do with politics when I started out. It had all to do with the conspiracy theory and with his connections to the mob.'

And now?

'No matter what a flawed human being JFK was, he was also an incredibly special and intelligent man, who was ahead of his years regarding politics and compassionate politics.

'For me, it has turned it all on its head and I no longer think of JFK and his alleged affairs, his involvement with Marilyn Monroe or the mob, I think more about Kennedy and his speech in Berlin.'

  • JFK: The Final Visit To Britain, BBC Two, November 17

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