A Ruthless MI6 Traitor Ruined the Life of His Closest Colleague
by Ben Macintyre | The Times | December 5, 2022
One winter morning a decade ago, I took a walk on Hampstead Heath with my friend David Cornwell, better known as the novelist John le Carré. I was suffering from what David called “post publicatio tristis”, the strange melancholy that descends after you have published a book and wonder if you will ever write another.
“What is the best unwritten story of the Cold War?” I asked him, blatantly fishing for inspiration.
Without hesitation he replied: “The relationship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott.” I knew of Philby, of course, the notorious KGB spy, but I had never heard of Elliott.<
Philby and Elliott were the best of friends. The products of public school and Cambridge University, they belonged to the same clubs, married women of their own tribe and joined MI6 in the same year, rising steadily through the ranks of British intelligence, and allied by gender, education and class.
Yet Philby was a secret communist, who had been recruited by Soviet intelligence many years earlier. From inside MI6, also known as the Secret Intelligence Service or SIS, he passed reams of top-secret intelligence to Moscow, sending hundreds — perhaps thousands — to their deaths. For nearly three decades he deceived colleagues, family, friends, wives, lovers and his country. Above all, he betrayed Elliott, his closest friend and staunchest defender, without qualms or remorse.
Anna Maxwell Martin as Lily Thomas
That intimate betrayal formed the central theme of my book, A Spy Among Friends (2015), which has now been made into a six-part series on ITVX, starring Guy Pearce as Philby and Damian Lewis as Elliott. Anna Maxwell Martin plays Lily Thomas, an MI5 officer sent in to try to unpick the tangled web of deceit, friendship and treachery.
Written by Alex Cary (Homeland) and directed by Nick Murphy (The Awakening), the show brilliantly captures the clubby, privileged world in which Philby was able to pass undetected and unsuspected for so long.
Intense heterosexual male friendship is a subject seldom explored in modern culture. Philby and Elliott’s closeness was forged in wartime and the bar at White’s Club. Moreover, as MI6 officers, they belonged to another highly exclusive, secret club. Here, it seemed to me, was an opportunity to explore the Philby story through the prism of psychology and personality as much as politics.
The untold story of this friendship emerged from the writings of Philby and Elliott, and those who had known them. I was aided by Elliott’s widow and his son. Many who had worked with them in the secret world agreed to speak to me. Cornwell himself had known Elliott when he worked in MI6. Most of the MI5 files relating to Philby have now been declassified and some Russian authors have been granted access to at least part of the Philby KGB archive in Moscow.
What emerged was a Cold War spy story unlike any other: Philby and Elliott were friends for most of their lives, but also enemies, although only one of them knew it. Most accounts had hitherto depicted Philby as a calculating, ideologically driven traitor, but he was more complicated, and more interesting, than that. He was duplicitous but also generous, funny, intelligent and supremely charming: that peculiar English combination of charisma and manipulation. Philby wielded his charm like a weapon.
But Elliott was also not quite the cheerful sap some took him for. He was one of those Englishmen who puts a great deal of effort into appearing to be a lot more stupid than he really is, concealing his intelligence behind a barrage of dirty jokes and back-slapping bonhomie.
Philby and Elliott met during the Blitz in London. They clicked immediately over whisky and soda, cricket and spying. Elliott had been to Eton, where his father was provost; Philby, who went to Westminster School, had been a foreign correspondent for The Times. Both were already working in the clandestine world of wartime intelligence.
What Elliott did not know, and would not discover for many years, was that Philby was a spy for the Soviet Union. At Cambridge he had embraced communism (while carefully covering his tracks) and, in 1934, he was the first of the notorious “Cambridge Five” to be recruited by Stalin’s NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB. Philby was betraying Elliott from the moment they met.
Their espionage careers developed in tandem: Elliott was deployed to Istanbul, Switzerland and Beirut; Philby ran the Soviet desk of MI6, where he was able to betray operations against the Soviet Union before they happened.
Stephen Kunken as James Jesus Angleton
The third of the friends in the book’s title was James Jesus Angleton — played in the series by Stephen Kunken (Billions) — an anglophile American and a rising star in the CIA. When Philby was deployed to Washington as MI6 head of station, he lunched regularly with Angleton, then head of CIA foreign intelligence operations, and bled him dry of every secret. Countless agents behind the Iron Curtain perished as a consequence of those bibulous lunches, along with their families.
When Philby finally came under suspicion after the defection of fellow KGB spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, it was Elliott who sprang most vigorously to his defence. When Philby was cleared by the government but obliged to leave MI6, Elliott helped him to find work as a journalist in Beirut, reporting for The Economist and The Observer. Philby resumed working for MI6 and for the KGB.
Many in MI5, the security service spearheading the molehunt, believed that Philby was probably guilty. But Philby’s supporters inside MI6, led by Elliott, were equally convinced that he was the innocent, the victim of a witch-hunt.
MI6 tended to attract public school-educated adventurers, people more inclined to bend the rules in the pursuit of intelligence rather than uphold them. MI5, by contrast, was largely staffed by officers of a lower socio-economic status, including many former policemen; they drank beer rather than wine and went to pubs, not gentlemen’s clubs.
Thomas, the MI5 investigator in the series, is an invented character but, as a working-class woman with a regional accent, she accurately reflects the class conflict that lurks beneath the surface of the Philby story. The person Philby most feared inside the intelligence services was a woman, Jane Archer (née Sissmore), whom he described as “perhaps the ablest intelligence officer ever employed by MI5”.
In 1961 Philby was finally exposed after his friend Flora Solomon revealed to MI5 that he had tried to recruit her as a Soviet spy in the 1930s. Elliott was devastated to discover the truth, and furious. He had revered, supported and loved Philby for most of his adult life, only to find out their friendship was a fraud.
Anastasia Hille as Flora Solomon
Elliott demanded to be allowed to fly to Beirut, confront Philby and extract a confession. MI5 reluctantly agreed. Some wondered if he would be able to restrain himself from killing his former friend.
>He arrived in Beirut on January 10, 1963, and bugged an apartment in the Christian Quarter with eavesdropping devices. Philby was summoned but he was not told Elliott would be waiting for him. When his old friend opened the door, Philby remarked: “Ah, I rather thought it would be you.”
To the eavesdroppers, their conversation sounded genteel, polite and boozy; in reality, it was an unsparing, bare-knuckle fight, the death throes of a bloodied friendship. A few days later, having written a partial but also misleading confession, Philby climbed on a Soviet freighter and fled to Moscow.
That is not a plot spoiler, for Philby’s flight, and the confrontation that preceded it, is the fulcrum around which Cary’s script turns, revealed at the start of the first episode: the central event to which everything else leads.
In Putin’s Russia, Philby is considered a national hero, with a square named in his honour and a well-tended grave in Moscow’s military cemetery. His pipe is on display in the Second World War museum in Moscow, in memory of the “legendary agent and anti-fascist, who made a vast contribution” to protecting Russia.
For very different reasons, the Philby case also exerts a continuing grip on the British imagination, in part because the story stirs a primal anxiety in many people: the fear that someone may appear utterly loyal and loving on the outside, and yet be quite different on the inside. Anyone who has ever been betrayed will recognise Lewis’s poignant portrayal of a man discovering that the friend he trusted most had been his adversary all along.
In an interview shortly before her death, Elizabeth Elliott recalled Philby’s charm, his gift for lethal friendship: “Kim was wonderful,” she said, of the man who had ruined her husband’s life. “We loved him.”
But he was also a ruthless dissembler, one of the greatest liars this country has ever produced. He started out as a committed communist but became addicted to the drug of secrecy, the thrill of infidelity, political and personal. The Philbys were hosting a dinner party in Beirut the night he defected. He called to leave a message for his third wife, Eleanor, saying he would be late. He never appeared. Eleanor had no inkling of her adored husband’s double life. Years later she wrote: “No one can ever really know another human being.”
It is a wonderful and strange experience to witness a true story that you have written on paper turned into a different sort of emotional reality on screen. I visited the set during filming and I even appear in the series, for about two seconds, in a church, filmed from the back. I realised mine would not be a big part when the sign on my trailer door read “Man with Hat”. I put everything into that role.
Watching the actors bring these characters to life, I found myself moved, astonished and enraged all over again. Elliott never really spoke of his personal pain. He came from a generation that disguised feelings with alcohol and jokes.
The real Nicholas Elliott in 1943 courtesy of Mark Elliott
After Philby died in Moscow in 1988, Elliott hatched a plan to recommend that he be given a fake medal for services to his country, in order to bamboozle Moscow into believing that, far from being a double agent, Philby had been a triple agent working for Britain all along. He planned to pen an obituary note, to be published in The Times, declaring that Philby was “the bravest man I ever met”.
It would have been a gratifying posthumous revenge but it did not happen. MI6 was still reeling from the scandal and in no mood for jokes. Whether Elliott enabled Philby to flee, or made a terrible mistake in letting him escape, is still hotly debated within the secret services.
Yet in some ways, Philby unintentionally did MI6 a good turn. After the Philby case, the intelligence services would never again recruit its spies solely on the basis of the old-boy network, an old-school tie and an upper-class accent.
First look photos here and official trailer below:
Read the rest of the original article at The Times