Sunday 24 September 2023

A Spy Among Friends

There is yet another dramatization about the real life of Kim Philby, a high level MI6 double agent. This time it is a six part filme noire starring Guy Pierce in the eponymous role, an actor best known for soap operas. A Spy Among Friends is based on the non-fiction book by Ben McIntyre. Kim Philby led one of the most successful penetrations of western intelligence in the history of the Cold War. One of the "Cambridge spies", he rose to the highest ranks of MI6 and was even head of Soviet counterespionage; the irony is overwhelming. It was thanks to his insider knowledge that his fellow Cambridge spies, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, escaped capture and fled the country in May 1951. However this intervention began the process that would lead to his own exposure. In 1956 he moved to Lebanon to work as a freelance journalist. He had lost his security clearance and so could only work for British intelligence as an agent. For a while things settled down, but then in 1961 a top-level KGB officer defected and gave information to the CIA which confirmed Philby as the "third man" (in reality he was actually the fifth, but at that time John Cairncross and Anthony Blunt had not been caught.). MI6 were not sure how to deal with the situation seeing as Philby was no longer one of their officers and didn't live in the UK anymore, so they couldn't just go up and arrest him. On the other hand if they made up some excuse to try and coax Philby into returning to Britain he might smell a rat. In the end they chose an unusual tactic, Philby's best friend and fellow MI6 officer, Nicholas Elliot, went to Lebanon to try and persuade Philby to confess. Elliot turned up at Philby's flat in Beirut and talked to him for a long time while plying him with beverage; which was not difficult because Philby was a functioning alcoholic. There was a hidden microphone in the flat and every word was recorded. The recording and transcript remain classified to this day and there is much speculation about what was actually said; however many researchers believe that Elliot instructed Philby to "do a fade", that is, disappear and seek refuge in the Soviet Union like Burgess and Maclean had done a decade earlier. Why? Because if he had brought the law down on Philby, publicly extradited and prosecuted him, it would have caused enormous embarrassment to the British intelligence community. At that time the service was still reeling from the trial of George Blake, see background links below and: Either way, soon after this meeting Philby vanished and turned up a few months later in Moscow. At the end of the series there is a subtle but powerful hint that Sir Roger Hollis is also a double agent. This accusation was made by Peter Wright in "the book they tried to ban!" thus certifying its popularity, Spy Catcher. Sir Roger in the series is played unusually by an actor most renowned for his comedy, Adrian Edmondson. He was head of MI5 during the heart of the cold war. He has officially been exonerated, but so was Kim Philby once...
This gritty and intense drama would have been very good and could have been very good. All the acting was excellent and the script witty and expressive; but it was, like so many stories these days, ruined by wokery. There is a character in it called Lily Thomas, a plain and everyday woman from the northeast, "Durham not Newcastle" as she keeps reminding everybody. She is a tough and sassy cracker in charge of internal security who is continuously portrayed subjecting upper-class white males to humiliating putdowns and scathing interrogations. As I've said before, like here:, characters like her are not really characters at all, they are just overused concepts. Mrs Thomas is married to a black man because she could never bear to touch filthy white skin and her husband is a doctor, thus reminding the viewer that black people can be clever too; had you forgotten? There are many unnecessary and self-indulgent scenes of domestic bliss between Lily and her husband, including one very unrealistic occasion when she is studying the Philby confession tape from a player on her kitchen table. As if a sensitive piece of MI6 information was something she could just take back to her house for the night to catch up on it. At the end of the series there is a brief pre-credit biography of all the real individuals' continuing stories and at the end the statement: "Lily Thomas never existed." Why put that information into the conclusion of the series? They're obviously trying to make the point that things would have been so much better if she had existed. If only there had been a "Strong!" "Empowered!" "Independent!" "Woman!" involved in the inquiry then the scandal caused by "White!" "Straight!" "Posh!" "Men!" could have been avoided. What insulting nonsense! If you want to see a fictional work based on the Kim Philby story then there are far better ones. I particularly like the film A Different Loyalty staring Rupert Everett as Philby, see: It is based on the autobiography of his wife Eleanor Brewer, played by Sharon Stone. The director is Marek Kanievska who made another brilliant movie, Another Country, about the early life of Guy Burgess, played again by Everett. There is also a documentary with fictionalized scenes by Ben Macintyre based also on his book called Kim Philby- His Most Intimate Betrayal. This refers not just to his wife but to his best friend, Nicholas Elliot.
See here for more background:

1 comment:

Vrill said...

Yeah I think i will give that a miss go woke go broke !