The Elite of One
by Stephanie Bunbury | Sydney Morning Herald | November 30, 2022
For 30 years, Kim Philby worked for the British secret service MI6 while spying for the Soviet Union. He took classified documents home every night from the agency’s archive to be photographed by his handler; he worked diplomatic parties, club smokers and government departments in London and Washington, charming confidences from these intersecting inner circles; he was accused of spying, was investigated, exonerated and then carried on.
“This is the thing that kept striking me,” says Guy Pearce, who plays the debonair Philby in the new series A Spy Among Friends. “Every few days on set I’d think: ‘Thirty years he did this! Thirty years!’ It’s extraordinary.”
Philby was the so-called third man in the Cambridge spy ring: clever young men who became interested in Communist thinking while at university, were recruited by the Soviets and were subsequently able to find positions within the intelligence services – in Philby’s case, under the cover of working as a journalist – that made them very useful to their chosen masters. In 1951, the other two Cambridge spies, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, came under suspicion and fled to Moscow. The finger was then pointed at Philby, but he managed to wriggle away.
Even Philby’s luck, however, couldn’t hold. In 1962, a Soviet defector confirmed that he was a double agent. Philby was then working as both a newspaper correspondent and a British intelligence agent in Beirut. Another very close friend from within MI6, Nicholas Elliott, was dispatched to bring him in. Their interrogation, recorded by listening devices already dotted around Philby’s apartment, lasted four intense days. At the end of which, remarkably, he escaped to Moscow.
A Spy Among Friends is based on the best-seller by Ben Macintyre, a specialist in true-spy stories; it is written by Alexander Cary, who was executive producer and writer on Homeland. Its focus is the relationship between Philby and Elliott, played by Homeland alumnus Damian Lewis. “The beauty of our interpretation is that we look at what it means to betray a friend, not just to betray a country,” says Pearce. “Obviously while creating the backdrop of the spy world, but there is something I think Damian portrays really beautifully, which is just the hurt one feels when one has been betrayed by a friend.”
Cary is an unusual figure in the film world. A Scottish aristocrat – his current title is Master of Falkland – he served as an officer for nine years in the Scots Guards before going to Hollywood, determined to become a screenwriter. Both he and Lewis are fans of Macintyre’s vivid accounts of real-life espionage; Lewis says he jumped at the chance when Cary asked him if he would produce as well as star in a dramatised version of A Spy Among Friends. “It’s incredible what one can explore within the intensified cauldron of a spy thriller construct,” he says. “Friendship, betrayal, love, obsession, all these things – heightened, as they are, in a secret world where people rely on trust but are often betrayed. You can have a go at anything within those parameters.”
Nicholas Elliott interested him as the unknown linchpin in Philby’s story. “It’s a peek behind the curtain of what we nowadays call – I hate the word – a bromance, an examination of an intimate friendship between those two men and that class of men,” he says. “When it seemed possible Philby would be exposed, it was Elliott who stepped forward and said ‘No, how could you think this of Philby?’ There was very much an understanding that if you’re one of us, then it’s not possibly that you would be a traitor, a spy or anything other than an English gentleman.”
Guy Pearce seems born to play that gentleman, self-possessed and glamorous even after a nearby bomb blast leaves him covered in dust among the rubble, still able to find the dazed barman and set him to work mixing drinks for the survivors. What drove him?
“The sense I get is that here were a number of elements at play,” he says. “I do think he was struck by Communism and its philosophy early on. And I do think there was a sense of disdain he had for the British ruling class and the way in which that way of life blindly just carried on, but he also relied on everything that came with that. I also believe there was something exciting and intoxicating for him, being able to play this whole thing out the way he wanted. There was something psychotic about him. Probably, by the end, he was a little unsure himself of his motivations. We do know he drank himself to death for the last 25 years of his life.”
For Cary, the network of loyalties at the heart of A Spy Among Friends – and the class structures that underpinned it – is as alive as ever.
“I think the fall-out from that friendship, or friendships like that, within the British establishment are still kind of reverberating around the world geopolitically,” he says. “For example, our conflict – or whatever you want to call it – with Russia. The Cold War was a seminal moment in how we behave towards Russia and I think it’s coming back full circle.
“And I think that there’s a certain type of Englishman of privilege and education – of whom I am one – that deserves more examination.”
This comes as a surprise, given that class has long been seen as the great British subject. “It has,” agrees Cary. “But I think it probably hasn’t been examined quite carefully enough, otherwise we wouldn’t have had certain people leading our country in the last few years.”
One of the more intriguing dualities in A Spy Among Friends is the distinction between the genteel MI6 and the more plebeian MI5 officers, many of whom came from the police forces, who investigate them. Nicholas Elliott is interrogated after the Beirut escape by a woman with a Geordie accent. Even as a trained deceiver, he can barely contain his contempt for such proceedings. “She represents a new world,” says Pearce. “Trying to break down that boys club that existed, because really it is that boys’ club that is their downfall.“
Guy Pearce is busy. This year, he played a famous writer being stalked by a crazed fan in Andrew Hunt’s The Infernal Machine, currently available on digital; when we speak, he has just returned from shooting The Convert with Lee Tamahori, playing a lay preacher newly arrived in 1830s New Zealand. But it will be hard to shift the image of him as Philby, waving a glass of Scotch as he tells some uproarious tale out of school to his clubbable crowd, able to drink any of them under the table while never letting the mask slip.
Clearly, it is adrenaline that is Philby’s real drug of choice. That was probably true of all of them, but it wasn’t enough for Kim Philby to be merely a spy among other spies, privy to the workings of the deep state; he needed to have secrets nobody else knew about.
In the end, says Damian Lewis, the avowed Communist was the greatest elitist of all.
“There’s that additional thrill, which gives you the sense of superiority,” he says. “He wanted to be in an elite of one.”