“All the Thrills, Intrigue and Skulduggery of its Source Material”
by Staff | The Economist | December 14, 2022
“If i had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends,” E.M. Forster wrote in 1938, “I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” The English author’s words are used as an epigraph to “A Spy Among Friends”, Ben Macintyre’s bestselling book of 2014 about Harold “Kim” Philby, as well as for a new television adaptation. Yet the British intelligence officer and double-agent made no such choice: he betrayed his country, his friends and his family for decades and without remorse.
Philby’s name is synonymous with treachery on a colossal scale. Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross and Donald Maclean—the other members of the Cambridge Five, a spy ring—committed many duplicitous deeds for their Soviet masters, but none can claim the title of Britain’s most notorious spy. Philby played his high-stakes game of double-cross so ruthlessly, so successfully and for so long that he acquired a different level of infamy after he was unmasked.
During the second world war, Philby worked in Section V of the Secret Intelligence Service, where he analysed intercepted German wireless messages alongside Graham Greene (who was already a celebrated novelist). Rising through the ranks, Philby was posted to Istanbul in 1947 and two years later secured the plum post of mi6 chief in Washington. For the best part of his career, he could do no wrong. Some of his colleagues believed he would come to lead the service. He was admired, respected and, above all, trusted.
The whole time Philby was working for his country, he was also jeopardizing it. He was recruited by the Soviet Union in the early 1930s and remained fully committed to the communist cause for the rest of his life. The extent of his betrayal only became apparent after his defection in 1963. It is estimated that he passed on tens of thousands of classified documents to his Soviet controllers, information which resulted in sabotaged operations, nationwide scandal and the loss of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.
Much has been written about the Cambridge Five in general and Philby in particular. Yet in “A Spy Among Friends” Mr Macintyre found fertile new ground to explore by focusing on the relationship between Philby and Nicholas Elliott, a longtime friend and fellow spy. For years, John le Carré contemplated writing a play about the pair; instead, he suggested that Mr Macintyre, who had published several books about double-agents and criminals, offer an account. The book draws on mi5 files and hitherto unseen papers and shines a valuable light on what Mr Macintyre considers “one of the most important conversations in the history of the cold war”—an exchange in Beirut during which Elliott obtained a confession from his old friend and arch-deceiver.
A six-episode series based on Mr Macintyre’s book has now been released on Britain’s new streaming service, ITVX. Starring Guy Pearce as Philby and Damian Lewis as Elliott, “A Spy Among Friends” has all the thrills, intrigue and skulduggery of its source material. The show reveals key moments in their friendship and turning-points in their careers, culminating in the two spies’ four-day showdown in Beirut. (By that point Philby was working as a journalist in the Middle East—for The Economist, among others.)
Naturally Alex Cary, the screenwriter, has employed artistic license and made changes to the record that thicken his plot and heighten the drama. One is the invention of Lily Thomas (Anna Maxwell Martin), an mi5 operative tasked with investigating Elliott, around whom suspicion swirls. As she tells him: “What happened in Beirut is that the most dangerous Soviet penetration agent this country has ever known legged it. On your watch.”
Lily is a working-class woman, and thus an outsider looking in on a world dominated by affluent, well-connected men. For a while, Philby’s privilege kept the mole-hunters at bay. In his memoir, “My Silent War”, he explained that he was protected by the “genuine mental block which stubbornly resisted the belief that respected members of the Establishment could do such things.”
The privilege afforded to the upper classes is an enduring, and particularly British, theme. But Philby’s treachery continues to appall and enthrall because it taps into a universal anxiety, Mr Macintyre argues: “The fear that someone may appear utterly loyal and loving on the outside, and yet [be] quite different on the inside.” Even as espionage has been transformed in the 21st century and become more dependent on technology, it still relies on individuals’ instinct for detecting or perpetrating duplicity. “Human intelligence is still about looking another person in the eye and trying to work out whether they are lying,” Mr Macintyre says. “That is the essence of the Philby story, as important in Ukraine today as it was in 1930s Britain.”
Read the rest of the original article at The Economist