New Project Alert: A First Look at Damian Lewis in A Spy Among Friends

Kim Philby is arguably the most famous – or should I say infamous? – secret agent of all times. He may not be as well known as James Bond, but in contrast to 007, Philby was a real-life spy and the most successful member of the Cambridge Five, a group of spies recruited by the Russians to pass information from the UK to the Soviet Union during the Second World War through 1950s. A charming and brilliant Cambridge graduate, he quickly rose to the top of the counterintelligence unit at the MI6. He became the head of the anti-Soviet unit, served as the MI6 chief in Istanbul and ultimately became MI6’s Washington-based liaison with the CIA. Having his confidantes at MI6 and becoming close friends with James Angleton, a rising star at the CIA . While his betrayal got some of his colleagues into big trouble and took several Soviet defectors to their deaths, nobody suspected Philby for years. And when some at the MI5 flagged him, his colleagues at the MI6 and the CIA came to the rescue. When they finally had the evidence to confront him, Philby had already provided secret information to the Soviets for 30 years!

How was Kim Philby able to deceive his colleagues, the people that were closest to him, the people whom he socialized with and, in particular, drank with – Philby was an alcoholic! – for decades? And, more importantly why? What was the main motive behind his decision to become a double agent?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, one may find the answers to these questions in the mini-series that will be adapted from Ben MacIntyre’s book “A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and The Great Betrayal” with Damian Lewis and Dominic Cast in the lead roles.

At this time, we do not really have any details about the production. We do not know about the other cast members or when the production will start filming. Yet we know that it is tentatively scheduled to premiere in the fall of 2021.  Yet, I ordered MacIntyre’s book as soon as we heard about Damian’s new project and I am happy to report that it is a brilliant book. Even if spy books are not your cup of tea, it is very likely you will enjoy this one, a real page turner with its incredible true story, sense of humor and larger-than-life characters.

So, in our first look at A Spy Among Friends today, I would love to share with you the story that the mini-series will tell without giving away too many details as well as discuss why Damian Lewis and Dominic West are perfect for the characters they will bring to life: Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby, respectively.

Who is Nicholas Elliott?

Elliott is Philby’s fellow Cambridge graduate, a longtime colleague and his best friend who believed nobody knew Philby like he did! And MacIntyre chooses to tell the 20th century’s greatest spy story through Kim Philby’s longtime relationship with Nick Elliott.

The book’s first few pages find two middle-aged British gentlemen having tea at an apartment in Beirut in 1963. Nicholas Elliott is here to make Kim Philby, now a lower level agent in the MI-6, with a cover job as journalist in Beirut, confess to his betrayal against the UK.

“To an eavesdropper their conversation appears exquisitely genteel, an ancient English ritual played out in a foreign land; in reality it is an unsparing, bare-knight fight, the death throes of a bloodied friendship.” (A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and The Great Betrayal, p. 2)

I cannot wait to see Damian and Dominic in action in this first scene – sipping tea, fighting softly with words and enticing the viewers from the get go.

Nick Elliott and Kim Philby, who attended Eton College and Westminster House, respectively, and then Cambridge, had an easy time getting jobs at the MI6 thanks to England’s old boys club. The recruitment network was strong enough to make being well-bred and well-heeled with the right social connections the basic criteria for a career in intelligence services.

Nick Elliott on his wedding day, with his bride Elizabeth Holberton, in Istanbul

Nick Elliott was the son of Claude Elliott, the headmaster of Eton College who is described by MacIntyre as a man who “knew everybody that was anybody and nobody who wasn’t somebody.” A high level intelligence officer Claude knew recruited 22 year old Nick at the Ascot Racecourse over a glass of champagne in 1939 – only a few months before the WWII started.

Kim Philby

Kim Philby was the son of St. John Philby, a colonial officer who later became the adviser to the Saudi family and converted to Islam. A high level intelligence officer he worked with during his time in colonial services helped recruit 28 year old Kim who worked as a foreign correspondent in Spanish Civil War. What nobody knew was that young Philby was recruited by the Soviet intelligence back in 1934. And while the MI5 vetted him a bit because of his ties to the Communist groups while at Cambridge, they found nothing in his past, and his father saying “Oh, that was all schoolboy nonsense” was what the MI6 really needed to hear 🙂

As much as their upper class background was a huge advantage, I think their boarding class background also made Elliott and Philby good candidates for a career in intelligence services. In this regard, I agree with what Damian has to say at the Damian Lewis: Spy Wars Special Screening and Q&A when an audience member asked him whether the boys who go to expensive public schools would make better spies:

“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.”

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship (or so thought Nick Elliott) when the two young MI6 agents met in 1940.  They had so much in common: their upper class upbringing, their prestigious education, their complicated relationships with their fathers as well as their attitudes.

Nick Elliott was not classically handsome. He was tall, skinny and had glasses.

“But he had poise a barely conceived air of mischief, and a resolute cheerfulness that women were instantly drawn to.” (A Spy Among Friends, p.7)

He did not believe in God or ideology. He believed in country, class, club, and above all, friendship.

Elliott was always an operational officer – he served as an counterintelligence field officer in Cairo and Istanbul, and as MI6 station chief in Bern, Vienna and Beirut.

Kim Philby was gentle, stylish, and CHARMING, yes in capital letters.

“His manners were exceptional: he was always the first to offer you a drink, to ask after your sick mother and remember your children’s names.” (A Spy Among Friends, p. 19)

Kim Philby’s charisma made everyone adore him, and moreover, his friends and colleagues want to be like him, or they actually wanted to be him. Philby effortlessly made worshippers out of people. It is quite something, in my opinion, that Nick Elliot bought the exact same umbrella that Philby carried and James Angleton, who later became the head of the counterintelligence in the CIA, bought the exact same homburg hat that Philby wore.

Thanks to his charm and brilliance, Philby rose to the top of MI6’s counterintelligence unit in four years. Yet he mainly sat behind a desk until he was appointed as the MI6 chief in Istanbul. Thanks to his close friendship with James Angleton at the CIA, he ultimately became the MI6 chief in Washington, DC in 1949.

Kim Philby as the MI6 chief in Washington, D.C.

Even when they did not overlap in their stations, Elliott and Philby were always in touch and shared secret information with each other. And it seems that since they could not talk to anyone, even to their wives, about the secrets they carry, these spies had a very intimate social circle where they watched cricket, shareda lot of secrets and a lot of drinks.

When two MI6 officers, Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess (who lived in Philby’s basement for a while!) defected to Moscow in 1951, Philby’s close relationship with them put a target on his back. But Nick Elliott, who believed Kim Philby could do no wrong, was determined to help him in every way he could.

“Within MI6, Elliott swiftly emerged as Philby’s most doughty champion, defending him against all accusers and loudly declaring his innocence. Philby was his friend, his mentor, his ally, and in the world inhabited by Nicholas Elliott, that meant he simply could not be a Soviet spy. This was a friendship Elliott prized above all others; he saw MI5’s accusations not just as a test of that bond but as an assault on the very values of the secret club they had joined in the heat of war. Elliott was standing up for an innocent man “guilty only of an unwise friendship” ; and in his own mind, he was also defending his tribe, his culture, and his class.” (A Spy Among Friends, p.167)

But even Elliott’s best efforts and the support from within the MI6 could not save Philby’s career. While the evidence the MI5 presented against him was circumstantial, Philby was forced to resign. But, thanks to Elliott’s and Angleton’s efforts behind the scenes, he was back in the game a few years later. Philby became as a lower level MI6 agent in Beirut with a cover job as a reporter for The Observer and The Economist. And, soon after, he was a double agent again. When Elliott became the MI6 station chief in Beirut, the two were again inseparable, both professionally and socially.

Nick Elliott in Beirut

“Elliott and Philby spied, plotted, and socialized together in a family friendship that intensified over time. Eleanor and Elizabeth became as close as their husbands. On weekends, the two families shared a bathing cabin named “Acapulco” on Khalde Beach with Colonel Alec Brodie, a much-wounded, one-eyed, pipe-smoking war veteran who was the military attache at the embassy. During school holidays, the Elliott and Philby children mixed happily together.” (A Spy Among Friends, p. 223-24)

Philby’s wife Eleanor wrote those were their happiest years.

In late 1962, Nick Elliott was promoted to the MI6 directorship for Africa based in London. As he was leaving his best friend in Beirut, neither of them knew that the MI5 was still working to corner Philby. The evidence ultimately came about in the form of a conversation between Philby and an old friend from some 30 years ago. Nick Elliott, now utterly enraged and humiliated by  his friend’s treachery, demanded to go and confront Philby himself…

Kim Philby in Beirut

…which brings us back to the apartment in Beirut in the first scene of MacIntyre’s book.

Elliott asked after Philby’s health.

“Perfectly tolerable,” said Philby, adding that he was recovering from a double bout of flu and bronchitis. “They were both against me.”

Philby asked after Elliott’s family. All well, said Elliott. Mark was starting the new term at Eton.

“Wonderful tea,” he said. A pause.

“Don’t tell me you flew all the way here to see me?” said Philby. (A Spy Among Friends, p.257)

Elliott got right on with it.

We find out about how Philby got numerous people in trouble and sometimes sent them to their deaths in the book. And when MacIntyre talks about why on earth Philby did what he did, he portrays him as a man who does not have very strong ties to communism but as a narcissist who just took pleasure in deceiving others.

I am not a psychologist by any means, but as I read the book, I somehow saw a boy ignored and shadowed by his father in Philby. Hiding his true feelings through his charm and brilliance in his own life, it could well be that he found happiness in his double life as “Agent Stanley.” Do not get me wrong, I am not trying to make a case for him, what Philby did is a true betrayal to his colleagues and friends; however, I am not seeing a narcissist there but more of a boy with daddy issues. Some version of Chuck Rhoades, if you will 🙂 It is just that the personal secrets Chuck and Kim carry in their lives are different. Similarly, in Nicholas Elliott, I also see a boy with daddy issues – a boy who ended up valuing friendships more than anything because he needed to have the love and care he did not find in his father from someone else. And the love and care he had for Philby blinded him to a point that he was not able to see what was going on with him. In fact, Elliott never stopped wondering how a man who had so much in common with him was in fact truly different.

Damian Lewis as MI6 agent Hector Meredith in Our Kind of Traitor

Damian Lewis, who will bring Nicholas Elliott to life in the TV adaptation of MacIntyre’s book, 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. Nicholas Brody in Homeland was a US Marine-turned-Al Queda-turned-CIA spy. And, last but not the least, Damian’s Rookery Productions co-produced, along with Alaska TV and History Channel, Damian Lewis: Spy Wars, last year and Damian also hosted the factual program.

In the Spy Wars Special Screening and Q&A that I mentioned above, when asked about the story selection process, Johanna Woolford Gibbon, a producer for the series, said that their goal was 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.

So… I have a theory (or more of an educated guess): The story of Kim Philby, being one of the most notorious spy stories in the 20th century, was on the table for Spy Wars but they decided not to go with it since most people involved in the case are dead. And then Damian thought about the possibility of producing it into a mini-series. Sure this is pure speculation on my end but it is not so far-fetched, is it?

In addition to Damian having had some experience in the world of espionage,  both he and Dominic West have backgrounds similar to those of Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby: Both Damian and Dominic went to boarding schools as kids and then attended Eton College exactly like Elliott did. While their choice of career took Damian and Dominic to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama rather than Oxford or Cambridge, they definitely grew up with the public school types – they are used to an experience of people with power and money. So I think that part of their preparation for their roles is complete!

Susanne White and Damian Lewis on the set of Our Kind of Traitor

At Time Out London Spy Weekend that I was lucky to attend a few years ago, Susanna White, who directed Damian in Our Kind of Traitor, shared with the audience that Damian was carrying the Le Carre book all the time on the set picking and choosing bits from the book that he thought unlocked the character and asking if he could do this bit or that bit in the movie. And when I had the wonderful opportunity to ask Damian about how he unlocked his character Hector after his Times Talks in New York, he said he always has the source material with him if there exists source material. He always takes it around with him and keeps referring back to it all through the day.

That is why I think Damian has already read A Spy Among Friends. And I believe, to be able to get into Elliott’s head, he has (or will) read Elliott’s memoir titled Never Judge a Man by His Umbrella (I just received it in the mail!) and maybe Kim Philby’s autobiography My Silent War. The thing is that, being spies, both Elliott and Philby are unreliable narrators in their own right. But the books could still be useful resources to understand how these men think.

I want to close with a sweet connection of this spy story to Turkey where I was born and grew up. The story is obviously set in a number of locations including London, Bern, Vienna, Beirut and… Istanbul. I honestly had no idea that Istanbul was a huge spy hub in the 1940s. Both Elliott and Philby ended up working in Istanbul. And  Elliottt, in fact, married Elizabeth Holberton, his MI6 secretary and confidante, at the famous Istanbul Park Hotel. I cannot help wonder if the production will be shot in the UK in its entirety or if they will film a scene or two in Istanbul. I do not know if Damian has ever visited Istanbul, but if not, this would be a unique opportunity for him to see this uniquely fantastic city. Fingers crossed!

Author: Damianista

Academic, Traveler, Blogger, Runner, Theatre Lover, Wine Snob, Part-time New Yorker, and Walking Damian Lewis Encyclopedia :D Procrastinated about a fan's diary on Damian Lewis for a while and the rest is history!

2 thoughts on “New Project Alert: A First Look at Damian Lewis in A Spy Among Friends”

  1. This is great post! It makes me very eager to see this film. I’m happy to see Damian in movies that can project his talent. “Dream Horse” is the other. Thanks Damianista!

    1. Read the book, it’s very good, you can easily see Damian as Elliott and Dominic West as Philby. The way MacIntyre tells the story through their friendship is extremely clever. As I have highlighted in the post, Damian and Dominic West have the exact same background with the characters they will portray in the series. I can already imagine them in a living room in Beirut sipping tea. It will be brilliant!

Join the conversation!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.