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by Enid Grace Parker | The Khaleej Times | December 15, 2022
Wondering what to binge-watch this weekend? Why not check out the 6-part series A Spy Among Friends, an intriguing tale of espionage, friendship, and betrayal that dramatizes the true story of Britain’s most notorious double agent and defector, Kim Philby. Philby is played by Australian actor Guy Pearce (Neighbours, Memento) while Homeland star Damian Lewis takes on the role of his lifelong friend, MI6 agent Nicholas Elliott. Based on the New York Times best-selling book by Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends chronicles Philby’s deeply personal betrayal, uncovered at the height of the Cold War, which resulted in the gutting of British and American Intelligence.
Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor Lewis – who received a CBE from Britain’s King Charles on December 14 – told City Times in a recent virtual group interview that roles based on real life are “more challenging” but “always more interesting” to him.
“I chase real-life stories a little bit. But in this case, because so little is known about Nicholas Elliott, and in fact at certain critical points of the story we didn’t have all the audio evidence, because that’s actually still withheld by MI6 and the government, (producer and writer) Alexander Cary was able to be creative and have a little peer into behind the doors of the friendship. We know a lot about Philby, in this country anyway; I was less interested in innately himself… it was this new angle that Ben Macintyre had taken in his book, how this intimate friendship and the betrayal there had wider ramifications politically.”
Also part of the group interview was Alexander Cary, who had earlier worked with Lewis on Homeland, a series that won him an Emmy as executive producer. A Spy Among Friends is the first show the former solider has written and produced in the UK. When asked what drew him to the story, with reference to an interview where writer Ben Macintyre spoke about what motivates most spies – MICE – money, ideology, coercion or ego, Cary joked about money being the main motivator, then remarked, “What drives me to the story is the characters and the ability to see myself in the three or four principal characters. I think because it’s a true story, the humanity is forced into the story. It’s not cardboard cutout spies or people whose characters are convenient to the story. It’s all very, very inconvenient because of human behavior and that’s what attracted me to it. Also, it’s just a really good story.”
To a question regarding how it felt to be working with each other again and whether the fact that Cary was an ex-soldier made the collaboration more fascinating, Lewis deadpanned, “Well, after he lines us all up in the morning and makes us salute him, he calms down a bit,” adding, “No… Alex and I worked on Homeland together, became pals and remained pals. A Spy Among Friends has been a brilliant process, so much fun. We were trying to do something really special where we could just get a good and talented group of friends together here in the UK. Alex asked me to come on as a producer, which I’ve enjoyed enormously. And everyone who’s come on board has been wonderful, talented and likeable! It’s been annoyingly satisfying.”
Both Lewis and Cary are obviously no strangers to a gripping spy story, having both been part of long-running espionage thriller Homeland before A Spy Among Friends. A question popped up on whether they could ever become spies in real life.
Lewis said, “Well, you (Alex) would have been closer to this than me as a one-time serving member of the British Army! I don’t think it’s for me… the levels of betrayal and then also, looking over your shoulder all the time…
Cary added, “I’ve had friends who were approached after, you know, university, and none of them passed the test. They have got to really identify a particular kind of character in you that will endure a life of secrecy, which can be erotic, and thrilling. Something in the research I’ve done is that most spies end up getting caught in the end. They can’t keep their silence forever.”
British author E.M. Forster’s famous words “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country” are used as an epigraph to the series. Do Lewis and Cary agree with him?
“Can we go off the record? I don’t know that I do agree with that and I think that’s what makes it interesting. Actually the quote is there because it’s part of the drama, rather than a piece of editorial cherry-picking. So it’s a really interesting question. Honestly, it’s very difficult but it speaks to the universality of this story which is about betrayal in friendships and how you prioritize that, so I can’t give you a clear-cut answer on that,” said Cary.
Lewis hoped he was “never put in the place to have to make a choice”.
“I don’t know… I suppose in a more frequent domestic setting, what do families do when they realize that their son is a mass murderer or has killed someone? We read those stories all the time. As a parent do you hand them in or do you protect your loved ones? It’s that same dynamic. Very difficult.”
City Times wanted to know what Lewis felt were the five most important qualities a good spy should have.
“Discretion, silence, charisma, a strong liver and a good running speed!”
When we asked Cary if he believed A Spy Among Friends was a story that would resonate globally, he remarked, “Yes. (It’s) a story of friendship and betrayal… some of the storytelling takes you into Russia, and also examines the strange English privilege power base; I think, from my experience, all of that is fascinating to people around the world. But it’s really the subject of friendship, and the psychology and thriller elements around the behavior of friendship that I think is going to make this show appeal around the world, more than just in Britain.”
He was quick to respond to a question about whether he felt the series was more relevant today than it would have been a few years ago, considering the situation with Russia. “I do. I think events in history tend to come around in cycles to a certain extent; stuff that you thought you dealt with thirty, forty, fifty years ago is now coming around to bite you in the a** again.”
A Spy Among Friends is one among many new series that OTT is chock-a-block with. How much harder is it to get the attention of an audience now, considering this?
Lewis said, “I think it works both ways – there’s been so much content since the advent of the streaming platforms and being able to drop 6, 8, 10 hours all at once, but it means that the studios you are working for are having to work harder to promote it. So you win and you lose, I think. There is too much and we all have to sort the wheat from the chaff, don’t we, when we’re choosing what we’re going to watch. But if you are with a good set up like we are, you’ll get good exposure and … the trick is getting people to sit down and watch you and hopefully they will see that it’s great and stay.”
Cary commented on how it was more challenging to make something for television in a world where “people are decreasingly going to movie theaters.”
“The challenge and the thrill of doing television is that it’s becoming more cinematic and the more care you put now into the details of television, the better off your story and your show is going to be which is what I think our director Nick Murphy and the crew and everybody else has really achieved. As well, the performances and writing and all the rest, but I think to stand out you have to promise more and respect the audience more to participate and be part of the storytelling.”
Lewis concluded with, “And they respond to that. The audiences now are very cineliterate and they know when they’re being presented with something told with that detail.”
Read the rest of the original article at The Khaleej Times