A Basis In Reality
by James Hibbs | Radio Times | December 8, 2022
With new streaming service ITVX now having launched, TV fans will likely be diving into the platform’s first brand new dramas, including long-awaited Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce spy series A Spy Among Friends.
The show tells the story of a Soviet defector amongst the British intelligence services during the Cold War, with the widespread betrayal hitting particularly intimately for his friend and colleague.
But fans may be wondering, just how much of this story is true, are the characters in the show real, and has it been based on a particular source material?
Is A Spy Among Friends based on a true story?
A Spy Among Friends is based on a true story about real-life spies Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott.
Philby was a British intelligence officer, who in 1963 was revealed to be a member of the Cambridge Five spy ring, which had divulged British secrets to the Soviet Union for decades. After being uncovered, he flew to the Soviet Union where he remained until his death 25 years later.
Meanwhile, Nicholas Elliott was an MI6 officer who had been good friends with Philby for decades when his betrayal was revealed. Elliott was tasked with attempting to secure Philby’s confession after the intelligence service’s suspicions were raised. You can watch a clip of Elliott interrogating Philby in A Spy Among Friends here.
In the series, Philby is played by Guy Pearce, who admitted in an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com that while he had heard of Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five, he did not know about their history “in any detail”.
He said: “Therefore [I] had a lot of work to do when I started this. I wasn’t really aware of Nicholas Elliott. But I very quickly found myself intrigued.
“I suppose what’s great about our show is that the question of friendship and the betrayal of friends is something we can all perhaps relate to, even if we haven’t been betrayed.
“I think we certainly can imagine what it might feel like if we were betrayed by one of our friends, let alone a friend who we’ve known for 20-odd years, and let alone in such a public way that is also connected to so many bigger important elements within the society and the country that we live in.”
Meanwhile, Damian Lewis told RadioTimes.com that he “didn’t know anything about Nicholas Elliott” until he read the book, but that he found the “awfully tragic arc” compelling as it was such as “intimate betrayal”.
Is A Spy Among Friends based on a book?
It is. A Spy Among Friends is an adaptation of the non-fiction book of the same name, which was written by Ben Macintyre.
Amongst many other non-fiction books he has written, Macintyre also wrote SAS: Rogue Heroes, on which Steven Knight’s BBC war drama was based.
What have the Spy Among Friends cast and crew said about the adaptation?
Alex Cary, the writer behind the series who already knew Lewis from working together on Homeland, told RadioTimes.com in an exclusive interview that he didn’t “know how to adapt” Macintyre’s book at first, because he was “nervous that I would just regurgitate the book, which is brilliant as a book, but structurally it wouldn’t have been as satisfying on the screen”.
Cary then said that his “original way into the story was through the Lily character”, an entirely fictional character played by Anna Maxwell Martin who is seen interviewing Elliott after Philby’s deception has been uncovered.
Cary continued: “Once I understood her part in it and Elliott’s journey with her, because a lot of this is about the ending of one very deep, intimate friendship and the beginning of another one that he wasn’t expecting.
“So then it became sort of a battle of a personal intimate story between Elliot and Philby and Elliot and Lily, and an espionage story, and the structure just sort of evolved as I was sort of digging about it on paper.”
Meanwhile Lewis, a fan of Macintyre’s book, noted that it is “episodic” and “in quite big, long, chunky swathes of episodes” meaning that it had to be broken down in the way Cary did for the scripts.
Read the rest of the original article at Radio Times