by Hugo Rifkind | The Times | December 9, 2022
Posh omerta. Let’s talk about that. It’s at the heart, pretty much, of A Spy Among Friends, a tremendous new espionage thriller on ITVX. And no, I’m not wholly clear what ITVX is either, but let’s move on.
An adaptation — like so many things these days — of a book by my colleague Ben Macintyre, it stars Guy Pearce as the treacherous MI6 spy Kim Philby and Damian Lewis as Nicholas Elliott, a friend and fellow spy who was the first to confront him. We have Anna Maxwell Martin as the fictional MI5 agent Lily Thomas, and Karel Roden as a Soviet handler known only as Sergei. At first, at least, it is basically three circling, interlocking conversations. Elliott questions Philby in Beirut before Thomas questions Elliot in the UK and Sergei debriefs Philby in the USSR.
“A friendship within the British ruling class,” says Adrian Edmondson, as a senior MI5 bod, “is built upon an ingrained belief that victory over one’s enemy is preordained and God-given.” And when you think about it, he adds, “it is remarkable the level of sentimentality and arrogance it must take to be so willfully blind to the possibility that one of your own might see things differently.”
Philby was responsible for the deaths of hundreds if not thousands through his treachery. For Lewis’s Elliott, though, this is his lesser crime, his greater one being the damage he inflicted on the upper-crust code of chums. Yet despite this, even once the truth is out you can feel Elliott’s conflict about where his own loyalty ought to lie. Before Philby’s betrayal, for this tribe patriotism, friendship and class loyalty were the same thing. Now suddenly they all pull in different directions.
Much of this is eked out in his quizzing by Thomas, which is high-wire drama despite Maxwell Martin’s Durham accent occasionally sounding downright panto. The accent is there, obviously, to illustrate the class gulf between them. For Thomas, muscling in from the rival, dowdier domestic intelligence agency, the poshos of MI6 are hardly less alien than the Russians. Even once Philby has defected, indeed, he and Elliott have more in common with each other than either of them do with their respective interrogators. They fence and circle, upper lips forever on the edge of curling.
I’m only two episodes in because that’s as far as my preview goes. What A Spy Among Friends does so well, though, is drag out the club within a club that Britain’s old elite represented, and perhaps still does. If Philby didn’t regard himself as a traitor — and he seems not to have done — that seemed to be because it was largely people outside the club whom he sent to their deaths. For Elliott’s part, I keep thinking of that line by EM Forster, a man of the same mad tribe: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” I’ve always thought it a brave and beautiful sentiment. Is it, though? Or is it anything but?
Read the rest of the original article at The Times