Friendship, according to the author Ben Macintyre, is the reason why Harold “Kim” Philby remains “the greatest double agent of all time”. The “third man” of the notorious set of Communist spies who met at Cambridge University in the 1930s exploited his closest friends to gift British and American secrets to Moscow, leading to the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands, over 30 years as a traitor working for the KGB.
One of those friendships, with a man who protected Philby for many years, fellow MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott, is at the heart of a gripping new six-part ITV drama, A Spy Among Friends, based on Macintyre’s book of the same name. Fittingly, it stars Etonian Damian Lewis as Elliott, whose father was a famous headmaster of the school, and Guy Pearce as Philby.
Eton “was a more progressive, sort of democratic place when I was there”, notes Lewis, when I mention that John le Carré, who taught there in the 1950s, described Etonians as “a curse on the earth”. Yet was Elliott responsible in some ways for Philby’s crimes because he vouched for him? Lewis believes he was. “Elliot’s tragic arc is that he loves, adores, admires, and supports a man for his entire life, and defends him at critical points when he might have been exposed.
“And then he is the man that is sent to bring him back in a four-day interview in Beirut” – in 1962, Elliott was dispatched to the Middle East, where Philby was working as a journalist, to secure his confession after the spy had been confirmed as the third man by a Soviet defector. “Elliott is confronted by his greatest friend, his soulmate, his lover to all intents and purposes, platonically, who betrayed him and his country.” He never got over that betrayal.
I’m in a room with some of the heavyweights connected with the drama – Lewis, screenwriter Alexander Cary, director Nick Murphy, and Anna Maxwell Martin who plays a fictional MI5 officer, questioning Elliott on why Philby was allowed to escape from Beirut on a steamer to Moscow.
Earlier, I catch up with Pearce, the former Neighbours star, via video call to Australia. He cheerfully points out, “I am English,” when I compliment him on the way he shapes his antipodean vowels to capture the back-of-the-throat delivery of the class-bound Philby. Pearce was born in Ely, near Cambridge, before moving to Australia as a tot, though even there, he says, he was brought up on 1970s and ’80s British TV drama.
He thinks we’re attracted to characters like Philby who play into our fascination with outlaws. “I think there’s a part of us that is titillated by those who go against the seemingly structured framework we’re supposed to function within, particularly someone like Philby, who for such a long period of time, managed to usurp the British elite establishment – which really needed to work a little bit harder at how it brought in members to their organisation, instead of just saying, well, your father went to that school, so, you’re in.”
Philby was born in India; his father, St John Philby, a noted Arabist scholar, writer and explorer, was in the civil service there, but Kim followed in his footsteps to Westminster School then Trinity College, Cambridge. “I certainly felt a sympathy, I suppose, for him,” Pearce tells me. “On one level, he was brought up through a privileged schooling system. And on another level, he listened to his father, who had experienced the elite British attitude to other cultures, those that suffered at the hands of the narrow British view on the world.
“I experienced a similar kind of thing, certainly not to the extreme where it was a matter of life and death. But on one hand, I went to a private school here in Australia. And on the other hand, I had a sister with an intellectual disability, who was experiencing all sorts of disadvantages that the school that I went to probably didn’t really care about.”
Philby got involved with left-wing radicals at Cambridge, but by the start of the Second World War, he was working for MI6, where he also met the American intelligence agent, and future counter-intelligence chief of the CIA, James Jesus Angleton. Philby would later exploit this friendship to pass whole tranches of American secrets to the Soviets, threatening Anglo-US co-operation almost to breaking point.
We talk about the unwillingness of communist sympathisers of the time to face up to the horrors of Stalinism. I wonder if Pearce thinks Philby was a true believer or if ultimately it was all just a game to him. “I think a bit of both, to be honest. I think if he’d allowed himself to stay sober, he would have had to face the reality of the game that he was playing. I think he drank himself stupid, probably to mask the fact. He had leanings towards communist beliefs – I think he felt the world was unjust, and had a sense of empathy for a more underprivileged class. But the fact that he maintained this game for 30 years tells us that there was something about it that was intoxicating for him.”
Screenwriter Cary points out that judgments about the morality of Philby’s actions became less clear cut to them as they got deeper into the drama. “I personally felt it’s bad but it’s like, he’s made his political choices,” says Cary. “There’s nowhere it says you have to be morally in support of what your government does.”
Murphy agrees: “What Elliot did as an intelligence officer will have led to the deaths of the enemy in some capacity. That’s what espionage is. There are very real consequences, it’s just that Philby was doing it for the other side.”
After the defection of the spies Guy Burgess and the blown Donald Maclean to Moscow in 1951, thanks to a tip-off from Philby, the latter came under intense suspicion and had to resign from MI6. But in the mid-1950s, the establishment closed ranks around Philby.
I wonder if Pearce thinks the establishment would behave the same way today, if for instance MI6 had serious concerns about Boris Johnson’s private meeting with a former KGB agent in 2018 at a party in Italy. “Yeah, I reckon,” he says. “When you look at a sort of protected species, like the upper class, that need to maintain their survival, they will keep pushing their objective for as long as they can. Obviously in a more transparent society, it’s a harder task than perhaps it was for those in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. But the old boy network will do everything it can to breathe forever.”
Maxwell Martin suggests that were an important establishment figure revealed to be a security risk today it would be brushed under the carpet. “It happens all the time,” she says. Lewis agrees. “There’d be a hearing so justice could be seen to be done and then they’d be cleared. It happens time and time again.” Maxwell Martin suggests a Russian connection would have played out differently if it had been Jeremy Corbyn. “I think they’d have thrown him under the bus.”
I ask about the decision to introduce a fictional character, Maxwell Martin’s Lily into what is such a closely observed, historical narrative. It offered the most interesting way to tell the story, Cary explains. “It’s about friendships, about espionage, but it’s also a lot about class and about privilege and power.” Introducing Lily, a woman, for him, was like putting the “broader class of British people” who were subject to that power into the context with him.
Of course, the intricacies of how the search for the third man played out in real life gave rise to a very different school of spy fiction from Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, perhaps best exemplified by le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in which the double agent at the heart of the book bears a clear similarity to Philby. I wonder how Pearce looks at Bond after playing Philby. “I just don’t feel like Bond is particularly real,” he says. “I sort of feel like Bond is a bit of a superhero. I probably view Bond in the same way that I view Iron Man.”
After his escape by sea to Moscow, Philby was given an apartment but distrusted by the Russians and lived for a long time under virtual house arrest. Was his exile a fitting punishment for this cricket-loving, thoroughly English snob? “I think this is what the series shows so brilliantly and heartbreakingly,” says Maxwell Martin. “When you see that unfold, you just think, it’s like some kind of hell.”
A Spy Among Friends begins on ITVX on Dec 8