It’s no surprise that the broader story of the Cambridge Five has attracted sustained cultural attention. A Soviet spy ring, emerging not out of the margins but the heart of the British establishment and operating for some two decades, is obviously the stuff of gripping drama. And there remains content to be mined today, as evidenced by the excellent series A Spy Among Friends, released March 12 on MGM+ (the relaunched and rebranded Epix).
The star-studded series focuses on the most notorious of the bunch, Kim Philby, MI6 officer and long-term Soviet asset, only with a different emphasis from prior treatments, focusing on the last chapter in his espionage career, namely his escape from Beirut in January 1963. This was no normal trip. MI6, having ignored mounting evidence for some time, was at last absolutely certain that Philby was a spy. It sent another officer, Nicholas Elliott, a close friend of Philby’s, to Beirut to extract a confession. Elliott spent four days with Philby and obtained verbal confirmation of his espionage activities. Elliott then left, and Philby promptly exited to Moscow.
The prevailing interpretation of these events has been that MI6 deliberately left the door wide open, so to speak. A public trial would have unquestionably been an embarrassment to the agency. The complementary implication was that the public school-Oxbridge swank set seemed incapable of dealing seriously with a traitor from their social class and let off a villain with blithe ease.
A Spy Among Friends seizes upon another explanation, one that’s been around, articulated reasonably convincingly in Ben MacIntyre’s book of the same title (which serves as the main source for the series). Namely, it suggests that Philby’s path was cleared very deliberately to sow doubt with the Soviets over whether he could be trusted, even that he might be functioning as a triple agent.
The story of the series is told largely in flashback, constructed around a somewhat-fictionalized investigation of just what happened in Beirut. Guy Pearce, never quite making it to fame despite all sorts of talent, plays Philby, a polished shambles of a man, and Damian Lewis plays Elliott. Both performances suggest geological layers of guile beneath buttoned-up exteriors, the latter to grim ends and the former to noble ones. The third character is a fictional amalgam, with Anna Maxwell Martin as an internal investigator charged with figuring out what Elliott and Philby were up to. The last is a fairly venial historical sin, given that we simply don’t know what sort of follow-up happened. She is rendered quite deliberately nonposh, with Elliott rapidly puzzling out her proletarian accent.
The investigation proceeds on the basis of 34 hours of recordings of their conversations in Beirut (never released in full to the public, although portions that were are directly quoted) and imagined interviews with Elliott, with flashbacks skipping back to a variety of locations from Vienna to Berlin to Istanbul and forward to Philby’s new home in Moscow. Appearances are just as one might suspect at first, with Elliott’s interactions with Philby amiable, full of offers of tea and whiskey and talk about old times. Yet the series takes quite another direction.
Prior treatments of these real-life spies in film and television have found them guilty of misguided idealism at worst. The 2003 series Cambridge Spies went out of its way to render the cabal sympathetic, inventing incidents in which they demonstrated opposition to antisemitism and engaged in labor activism. The theme remains tediously familiar: anyone who’s antifascist can’t really be that bad. This was mild compared to earlier efforts, such as Blunt: The Fourth Man in 1987 or 1983’s An Englishman Abroad. The latter was especially egregious, painting fellow spy Guy Burgess as a figure of considerable pathos in Moscow. Author Alan Bennett later wrote, “I find it hard to drum up any patriotic indignation over either Burgess or Blunt, or even Philby. No one has ever shown that Burgess did much harm, except to make fools of people in high places.”
A Spy Among Friends is more clearheaded. In the series, Elliott offers a welcome sense of indignation and anger. “I once looked up to you, Kim. My God, how I despise you now. I hope you’ve enough decency left to understand why. You had to choose between Marxism and your family, and you chose Marxism.”
The series makes expressly clear the human consequences of Philby’s actions. In his investigation, Elliott’s initial gentility gives way to a more sustained sense of outrage. “I can understand people who worked for the Soviet Union, say, before or during the war. But by 1949, a man of your intellect and spirit had to see that all the rumors about Stalin’s monstrous behavior were not rumors, they were the truth.” Elliott asks, “As a matter of interest, have you ever given a moment’s thought to all the people that have been killed because of you?”
It’s good, indeed it is only decent, that they don’t let these traitors off the hook just because they drank stylishly and held the right degrees. Philby was charged with handling a Soviet defector in Istanbul; he informed the Soviets, and they killed him. He tipped the Soviets off about agents infiltrated into Albania and Georgia. They were of course killed. He obtained access to a list of anticommunist anti-Nazi underground figures in Germany during World War II and passed that on to Moscow, which had them murdered after the war.
As TV, the product is engrossing and well-mounted, making use of Bucharest for a variety of settings beyond the United Kingdom. The nonlinear chronology is expertly assembled. And it delves into other nuances of the case, such as MI6’s enduring efforts, even at the end, to misrepresent the span of Philby’s spying vaguely to save face with the United States.
As for its thesis, of an Elliott plot to undermine Philby, believe what you will. MacIntyre calls his actions “either monumentally stupid, or exceptionally clever.” It’s all gripping drama in any case, and a welcome instance in which we are not asked to spend hours commiserating with a Soviet spy. Espionage is obviously not a world for clear shades of white and black. Yet even John le Carré, who painted nearly solely in tones of murky moral grays, didn’t forget which side Philby was on, refusing to meet the traitor in Moscow when offered an invitation. It’s welcome to find a series that does the equivalent.
Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn.