“Spy craft is incredibly low-fi. There are exotic words like ‘dead drop’ and ‘brush pass’ but it literally means you waking into a supermarket with the same Sainsbury’s carrier bag as me and us leaving with each other’s bags – you’ve seen it in a thousand thriller movies.” – Damian Lewis
This post is long due. It has been months since we got word that Damian would set foot on the docu-drama territory with Damian Lewis: Spy Wars, a joint project between A+E Networks and Alaska TV. But then there was not much information except for a few promotion pictures and so it was not easy for me to put together a post to get you all in the mood. But now that the series is premiering on History Channel UK next month, A+E Networks and Royal Television Society (RTS) jointly held a special screening of Spy Wars followed by a Q&A with the brains behind the project and that a great friend attended the screening and recorded a good chunk of the Q & A for us, I am ready!
Damian Lewis is no stranger to the world of espionage. He brought Hector Meredith, an MI6 spy, to life in the movie adaptation of John le Carre’s Our Kind of Traitor, and of course Nicholas Brody in Homeland was a US Marine-turned-Al Queda-turned-CIA spy. Damian even visited Langley, the CIA headquarters in Washington DC, as they were shooting Homeland Season 3. And he made his personal opinion about fictional spies clear in an interview with Sunday Post:
“Fleming’s world of espionage is about fantasy and wish fulfillment, where as le Carré is interested in drawing stories from real time and culture.”
And while he enjoys spy stories which draw from real life, it seems Damian was hesitant when his brother Gareth, one of the executive producers of Spy Wars, asked him whether he would like to front the series. Gareth obviously thought Damian’s history with “covert operations”in Homeland and Our Kind of Traitor would make him a good match for the series 🙂 But Damian had other thoughts that he shares with the audience at the RTS event:
“I hadn’t done factual [before] and I don’t consider myself a presenter… “
Then, he says, he sat on the stories, and as he read the stories and outlined what they could achieve for the History Channel, he was curious enough to come on board.
…I enjoy the [spy] genre and I thought it was an opportunity to look behind these popular stories and see if we could unearth something a bit more intimate, a bit more personal about the people themselves, and the ramifications on global politics of very personal, intimate decisions taken by individuals.”
Oh, and, I really need to jump in here to say something totally unrelated. Those among you that know me well know that I am not the fan girl who swoons at Damian’s pictures. Believe it or not, I do not even look at the pictures… Yeah I know I am the odd one out.. but it is what it is… Now, that said, I just can’t help celebrate THE RETURN OF THE BEARD! Thank you, kind sir!
Now back to Damian Lewis Spy Wars…
The series is not only Damian’s first appearance in factual TV, but also is the first title his recently launched Rookery Productions is producing with London-based Alaska TV. A+E Networks is distributing the series.
Damian talks to The Hollywood Reporter about taking over the role of a producer:
“I always loved being in [a project] from the start. It’s much harder work, which is why you end up acting because acting is the icing on the cake. But I really enjoy the process. It’s an opportunity for me to create some exciting drama and comedy. “It gives me an opportunity to be creating things from inception.”
Spy Wars uses reconstructions, archival footage, and former spies as well as expert witnesses to tell a different spy story in each episode. Damian will be introducing the viewers to these stories which span the period from Cold War through to the post-9/11 “war on terror.” The series was shot the on location in London, Moscow and Israel.
In an earlier interview with Deadline, Damian talks about the challenge with factual programming and his interest in the kind of spy stories he will be presenting.
“Lewis said that the challenge with factual is that there’s no script or template but the fun part is the investigation, particularly in this case as these are live cases rather than cold cases. He revealed an interest in the history of espionage, including the formation of the CIA after World War II, and the competition between different countries, as well as intra-country agencies. “I’ve never done factual before but I have broad taste and I want to dabble in this,” he added.
Richard Tulk-Hart, the managing director of international content sales and co-productions at A+E Networks International, points out that this series is the first factual product of their recent strategy to push co-created shows on A+E and talks about what makes Damian Lewis: Spy Wars unique.
“It’s possible to move away from the stories when you have a big name, but Damian delivers on both sides so well. This is premium global programming delving into the paranoia of the spy world. What makes this unique is we have gained unprecedented access to these public stories that people know through films such as Argo and are able to contextualise them in a different way.”
When asked about the story selection process at the RTS Spy Wars event, Johanna Woolford Gibbon, a producer for the series, says that their has been to show the viewer the point of view of the people who were in the room at the time when decisions were made. So they opted for stories where critical actors involved are still alive to share their very personal stories.
One question that comes to mind here is how much of the real story these people, let them be former spies, directors of security services or expert witnesses, can really share due to national security and confidentiality concerns. But the series producers are confident that they are bringing to life some fascinating never-read-much-about stories with never-seen-before and never-told-before material in Spy Wars.
That said, they also talk about the set backs they experienced during the process. First, it took months for them to build relationships with people they wanted to interview, and with determination, they were ultimately able to gain their trust. But then, for example as they were trying to build a particular story before the Mueller Report was released, there was so much sensitivity (read “classified information”) around the word “Russia” that they had to give up on that story they were working on.
When the moderator ask Damian about his visit to the CIA with the Homeland writers and fellow cast members, Damian he an interesting anecdote: As they are meeting with some field operatives at the CIA, John Brennan, the director of the agency at the time, walks in. Damian says there was no emotion in the room, everyone was completely poker-faced, until that moment. And they feel temperature rising as Brennan starts to talk about Snowden, gets visibly angry and leaves the room. When Damian later asks an assistant of the CIA director about what happened there, he is told that Brennan basically apologizes for being unprofessional. But he believes the damage Snowden caused was too big that he is very angry with him and so he felt he had to leave the room.
Damian talks about the first episode “The Man Who Saved The World” on The Chris Evans Breakfast Show:
“The Man Who Saved The World is a fantastic story about Oleg Gordievsky who was really… he was an out for revenge spy for the damage that Kim Philby did as part of the Cambridge spies. in the ’50s and ’60s who defected to the USSR. Oleg Gordievsky was a man who took up a posting in Denmark and fell in love with the West. He went to Western libraries, started to read Western literature, listened to Western music, had classical music coming out of street doors and first floor windows in Copenhagen, and said ‘what is this life that I know nothing about?’ But he made a decision purely on ideology, nothing to do with money (he refused to be paid) and started trading secrets…
…he was sent back to the USSR. He divorced his wife which means you get immediately demoted in the KGB, they don’t like that, he had an affair with a woman, …. then he was given sort of a low-level job in the KGB, in the mothership, but with access to untold amounts of information and confidential files which he systematically just sent to us passed over to us over a period of years.”
You can find Damian’s full interview at the Chris Evans Breakfast show here.
Damian tells a bit more about Gordievski to The Guardian:
“There’s an acronym – MICE… money, ideology, coercion, ego. Those tend to be the four ways in which you can subvert an agent and run him or her. Within our spy series, only Gordievsky really acts out of a purer ideology.”
While Damian talks about Episode 1: “The Man Who Saved The World” on the radio show and in his interview with The Guardian, the episode screened at the British Museum in the evening is Episode 3: “Spies Next Door.” This story is concerned with a relatively recent event – the biggest spy swap between the US and Russia in 2010. I am thinking they may have picked this episode for the special screening because the spy swap in the episode involved Sergei Skrpal. You may remember Skrpal and his daughter Yulia making headlines as the victims of the deadly nerve agent attack in Salisbury in 2018.
And Damian’s words about “The Man Who Saved The World” on the radio show coupled with every single participant at the RTS event pointing out the human element in the series hint to me that Damian Lewis: Spy Wars may focus on the individual spy in a particular story and the psychology of being a spy: Why do they do what they do? Damian’s words in an interview with The Guardian are compelling:
“I find the different reasons for turning traitor or being a hero, depending on your view, are often quite grubby and banal. I’m interested [in] the motives of these spies. That’s the series we’ve tried to make.”
At the RTS event, Dan Korn, the VP for Programming at A+E Network says that “the small human stories has made this series what it is. It’s about getting to the story behind the story.” And as someone interested in micro-level decision-making, I am quite intrigued. I also wonder whether people that go into the world of espionage have a certain profile.
It seems that an audience member at the RTS event was also curious about the profile of a spy that he asks Damian, who is an Eton product himself, if boys that go to expensive public schools are more likely to be drawn to espionage. Now, there is always one person who needs to bring up the class issue, isn’t it, even when the conversation is about espionage? So that question would probably have turned me off a little, but Damian’s answer is as thoughtful as it could get:
“If you’re sent away from home at the age of eight and are asked to cope emotionally with a new situation, there is a natural and instinctive compartmentalizing of emotional life. I think that is very helpful to a covert life in espionage.”
And interestingly, earlier in the panel discussion, Damian also talks about compartmentalization as a major reason for a spy’s downfall:
…after a sociopathic, compartmentalization of one’s life, often they feel the need to speak. I think it’s their ego in the end that gets the better of them. It’s increasingly loose talk that actually undoes them in the end. So, of course, there’s a need for discretion and the ability to be covert as a spy, otherwise you’d be a crap spy – you’d be James Bond.”
Has Damian just trashed 007 or what? 😀
Well, he adds that what makes Bond brilliant is that he corrects the massive mistake he typically makes early in the movie during the 2 hours we see him on the screen. But in real-life he would be put in jail! And yeah many of us are Bond fans but then again who can contest what Damian has said? And you know a good non-fiction is typically better than the best fiction just because you cannot make it up!
As I have already told you, Damian Lewis Spy Wars is an 8-episode series. But I would love to propose a 9th episode titled Fan Fun Spies At Work! And I am very serious!
Well, Damian called me “a spy” several times, especially when I was able to catch him from time to time on Billions set! But he never knew we were running a “spy network” here! 😀
As all mortals who were not lucky enough to be at the British Museum that evening, I followed the RTS event from social media posts made by Royal Television Society as well as some audience members. Thank you all! But then I woke up the following day to a lovely message from our Fan Fun “spy” in London!
The fans who read this blog regularly may already know Tsvetanka as a wonderful Damian Lewis fan! She is originally from Bulgaria, and I was born and raised in Turkey, so we are two girls from the same part of the world that ultimately made the UK and the US our homes and bonded “online” over the admiration we both have for Damian and much more.
So Tsvetanka was at the British Museum for the RTS event and guess what? She filmed the entire Q & A so she could share it with me and I could, in turn, share it with the fandom! And if this is not true friendship, I do not know what is. And she did not stop there, either. She e-mailed the Royal Television Society to kindly ask whether we can share her recording online. And, lucky us, they were cool about it. Thank you, girl, you are the best!
The original recording is in two parts. And while the second part (the last 10 minutes) is corrupted, we have the first 20 minutes here for you. ENJOY!
The words that have made me think deeper and harder in the Q & A come from Lewis Brothers when asked about whether Spy Wars brings a fresh perspective about security services.
Gareth finds it fascinating that when we look at the headlines today we still see stories very similar to the stuff that happened decades ago. So, how come almost 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the world still remains in this kind of conflict? As someone who does research in international conflict,I am hoping to find at least some partial answer to Gareth’s question in the series.
And Damian’s argument following Gareth’s point is as gripping. He says that only a few spy stories make headlines while most of the covert operations happen quietly as they impact our lives enormously. Do you have an idea why at some point we were told that we could only carry liquids in 100ml or smaller containers with us on the plane? Well, Damian does. I will not give any spoiler here but saying that the answer is in the recording Tsvetanka has made at the RTS event.
Damian Lewis: Spy Wars is premiering on the History Channel UK on October 7, 2019. While they have not announced a premiere date for the US yet, the series is heading to the Smithsonian Channel, a joint venture between CBS and The Smithsonian Institute. Given that CBS also owns Showtime, what can I say other than Showtime loves Damian Lewis? 🙂
Watch this space and damian-lewis.com for updates on Damian Lewis Spy Wars!