I just finished watching the six-part A Spy Among Friends on ITVX and cannot wait to share my episode reviews with you! Since, unlike Billions that releases one episode per week, ITVX has dropped all episodes together. So my plan is to share one episode recap per week. Hope you enjoy them as much as I do putting them together.
First things first: As someone who read Ben MacIntyre’s book twice, I find Alexander Cary’s adaptation very clever. Nick Murphy’s background in documentary is evident and Joanna Eatwell proves once again she is the master of costume design. Damian Lewis, Guy Pearce and Anna Maxwell Martin give off-the-chart brilliant performances.
A Spy Among Friends is slow-cooking, captivating and elegant. It is cinematic to a degree that I envy the viewers who could see the first two episodes on big screen at the BFI London Film Festival. There are time jumps and you need to pay attention – don’t text and watch 🙂 So, yes, ladies and gentlemen, A Spy Among Friends is exactly my cup of tea!
So shall we?
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 is a real-life spy and widely known as 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, Kim Philby quickly rises to the top of the counterintelligence unit at the MI6. He becomes the head of the anti-Soviet unit, serves as the MI6 chief in Istanbul and ultimately becomes MI6’s Washington-based liaison with the CIA. He makes close friends with James Angleton, a rising star at the CIA . When MI5 flags, his colleagues at the MI6 and the CIA come to the rescue. As they finally have concrete evidence to confront him, Philby has already provided secret information to the Soviets for 30 years!
The mini-series starts with the moment MI5 receives this piece of evidence in 1963.
Flora Solomon, a long-time friend of Philby’s, the friend who introduced him to his wife Aileen to be precise, gives Lily Thomas of MI5 her official statement: Solomon has known that Philby was a Communist while at Cambridge but she never thought he could be a Soviet spy.
MI5 proudly forwards this information to the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service aka MI6) chief who shares it with Philby’s closest friend at the service: Nicholas Elliott. Ms. Solomon’s statement is the final piece of the puzzle a Russian defector called Golitsyn told the Brits when he defected in Helsinki last year. Elliott is rather surprised to hear this. He saw Golitsyn’s debrief file in which he only talked about an unidentified Soviet spy. But now he is being told that Golitsyn has specified Philby as the traitor.
Someone needs to go to Beirut to get a signed confession from Philby. While Nick Elliott wants to go and confront his best friend, the MI5 chief Sir Roger Hollis is completely against it. Because Elliott was Philby’s staunchest supporter when MI5 suspected Philby was the “third man” who helped the escape of two Soviet Spies Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess to Moscow ten years ago. Could this be the reason the intelligence agencies never told Elliott that Golitsyn identified Philby as the traitor?
Since Philby is still an SIS man, “C” decides, he should be viewed and treated as a potential asset by a fellow SIS man. Thus, it is Nick Elliott who travels to Beirut to make him sing. After 34 hours of taped conversation over 4 days, Philby defects to the USSR.
It has been eight days since Elliott went to Beirut and MI5 tasks Lily Thomas with debriefing him. They want to know whether Elliott has let Philby go. And if he has, why?
The story unfolds in three interrogations in parallel; namely Elliott and Philby in Beirut, Thomas and Elliott at the SIS offices in London, and Philby and his handler Sergei in Moscow, with constant flashbacks as both Nick Elliott and Kim Philby reflect on their past and more importantly, their friendship. And this is key to the mini-series because A Spy Among Friends is not your typical spy thriller where the goal is to show the viewers the mechanics of spy craft. It rather examines love, betrayal, and deceit in a long-term relationship. No wonder the mini-series opens with the following quote from E.M. Forster:
“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”
Lily Thomas (an invented character unlike most other characters in the mini-series) arrives at the SIS offices in London. We are definitely in Mad Men era that is not kind to women who look for opportunities outside home: men dominate the workplace, talk cricket, make sexist jokes, and smoke all the time.
As Lily gives Tony Milne, an SIS man who wants to be present at the debrief, the finger – she actually gives him the number of the Home Secretary to call – Nick Elliott “breaks the ice” with a condescending remark:
“Is that Northumberland I’m hearing here?”
Read: “You don’t have a posh accent. You can’t be one of us.” Because MI5 and MI6 agents have quite different backgrounds. MI6 is a hub for the “old boy network” – the elite public school and Oxbridge products – that both Elliott and Philby belong to whereas MI5 recruits are likely to have working class backgrounds.
Lily, who turns out to be from Durham, cuts to the chase:
“How did Philby manage to escape from Beirut?”
Elliott thinks “escape” is not the right word since Philby was not in custody. And Elliott, not for a second, thought Philby would prefer Russians to what he offered him: complete immunity and secrecy with a nice retirement in the country with his family in return for a full confession. Doesn’t it sound too good to be true?
Thanks to the tapes, we go back to Day 1 of Elliott interrogating Philby. Philby, caught off guard, pretends he was expecting to see Elliott when his longtime colleague and friend opens the door of the SIS safe house in Beirut:
“I rather thought it would be you.”
Lily wants to know what Philby meant here. Elliott does not even want to guess since that would mean playing Philby’s game which he refuses to do. But then Lily rightly points out Elliott’s own game in the first few minutes of the tape.
As Elliott tells Philby that they have obtained evidence which even convinced Elliott himself that his best friend worked for Soviet Intelligence until the end of the war, Lily stops the tape to ask why Elliott he says “until the end of the war” as they both know it is a lie.
The answer is: The Americans. Philby worked as the MI6 chief in Washington, DC between 1949 – 1951. If the Americans knew that Philby was an active KGB spy after the war, they would be out for blood. Knowing that the Americans are either listening to the safe house in Beirut, or that they would probably get hold of the tape later, Elliott chooses to protect the service and country. He also wants to give Philby every incentive to confess. After all, fascism was the problem during the war and Brits and Russians were sort of allies.
Lily now wants to know how Elliott and Philby met.
In 1940. At Elliott’s club. On the first night of the Blitz. The two young men meet just after the explosion and become fast friends thanks to working at different sections of the SIS.
“Do you think Philby was playing you from the very first moment you met?”
Did Philby know that Elliott had recently lost his best friend Basil Fisher in the war (Fisher was shot down in a dogfight during the Battle of Britain) and decided to make a calculated move to be friends with this SIS man?
23 years of friendship. Did any of it mean anything to Philby? The questions that come to mind are not very different from the ones we ask when someone is betrayed by their romantic partner. And it completely makes sense in the 21st century where we talk about work husbands and wives. Elliott seems to be “cuckolded” by his work husband!
In parallel with Thomas’ debrief of Elliott, Kim Philby arrives at a port in the Soviet Union and meets his handler Sergei who calls him “Comrade Philby” and offers vodka shots as they start their own conversation about the interrogation in Beirut.
Philby says, after four days of denying everything, he realized time was running out so he gave Elliott what they would call “chicken feed” in the profession and left. Sergei is surprised that the SIS sent Elliot, Philby’s closest friend to interrogate him.
“Knowing him, he talked them into it.”
Well, Philby certainly knows Elliott!
Sergei is also surprised that Elliot never suspected of Philby. The answer to this puzzle is in right in Philby’s words about British upper class friendships:
“You must understand a friendship within the British ruling class is built on an ingrained belief that victory over one’s enemy is preordained – God given. When you think about it, it’s very remarkable, the level of sentimentality and arrogance that must take in order to be so wilfully blind to the possibility that one of your own might see things differently. ‘
We also figure that Philby is still pissed off with Burgess who fled the UK with Donald MacLean whose cover was blown. Burgess being his house guest in Washington D.C did not look good at all for Philby. That was the first time MI5 suspected he might the “third man” that forced Philby to return to the UK and hold a press conference at his mother’s house to deny the charges.
Since there is real footage of the press conference available, the press conference in the mini-series looks very authentic. And OMG it turns out that Elliott is not only supporting Philby but coaching him for the press conference.
And is Elliott really satisfied that he has secured an 8-page signed confession from Philby in Beirut?!?!
Lily agrees with Philby that the signed confession is “chicken feed.” And she wants to know why Elliott let Philby go as Elliott insists that how come she can think that he let someone, who is responsible for hundreds, maybe thousands of deaths, go. Well, there are several reasons according to Lily. They were close friends for decades. Besides, bringing him back could damage the reputation of the SIS. And, who knows, maybe they had a quid pro quo.
When Elliott says he needs to get out of the room, one may think that he may be trying to save time… but we figure it out quickly as Elliott takes out the box his wife put in his jacket pocket before he left for work that day: Elliott is diabetic. And as he gives himself an insulin shot in the men’s room, Elliott remembers the day Philby introduced him to one of the girls in his office – Elizabeth Holberton – who later became his wife! And why does he remember this exact moment? Because he passed out seconds after being introduced to Elizabeth! Did any of this mean anything to Philby?
Elliott comes back to Lily’s office with tea and squashed flies – Brits have such strange food names!
Elliott is adamant there was no quid pro quo. No final act of relationship. But what Lily really means with quid pro quo is that maybe Nick was able to get some important information from Philby that made him let his friend go. And this information, Lily believes, may have been transferred on the balcony of the safe house – no voices are heard on the tape there. Elliott’s defense is that he wanted Philby’s Russian friends to see them together on the balcony. He wanted to plant some seeds of doubt in their minds about Philby’s trustworthiness. And he should be telling the truth since Sergei asks Philby about the balcony moments with his bestie!
Lily wants to know why Nick got into intelligence. Well, he wanted to do his bit in the war. But also, even as an 8 year old kid in boarding school, he sometimes climbed the roof when other boys were asleep and made plans of eliminating his enemies via surveillance, disinformation, and sabotage. He thinks being a spy is intoxicating. And it seems he was born to do it 🙂
Director Nick Murphy and Damian Lewis talked about this on Empire Film Podcast. When they first met, they talked through Soho Square and asked the question why people became spies. And Damian suggested that what if the two of them had known a big secret that nobody else had known. Wouldn’t that have been very exciting? And that is why it turns out they do not make the spies meet at deserted places but on the contrary at cafes or clubs in the mini-series where life goes on as the spies keep their secrets and do their thing 🙂
Also, a public school boy himself, Damian responded to an audience question about whether the boys who go to expensive public schools would make better spies at the Damian Lewis: Spy Wars Special Screening and Q&A a few years ago.
“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.”
But is Philby really a communist, Lily wonders. It is a “chicken-egg” issue for Nick while Philby tells Sergei that he has been a communist almost all adult life. The KGB is on the fence about Philby’s loyalty because they see Elliott and Philby as “partners-in-crime” on the balcony in Beirut. Sergei’s questions attest to Elliott’s success in planting seeds of doubt and drive Philby to the edge:
“Do you seriously think I wanted to come here?”
While Philby apologizes for slip of the tongue, I am not buying it. Neither is Sergei… Now, the Soviets have those pictures and, on top of that, know that Philby did not really want to come to the USSR. Is Kim Philby a true communist or just a posh British guy enjoying the adrenaline of being a double agent?
And what happened on the balcony?
The funny thing is that the balcony gives Nick Elliott a headache as well. Lily believes Elliott obtained some important piece of information from Philby. Maybe even an operation for Philby to run at the KGB. And when her superiors at the MI5 say there cannot be any such operation, Lily points out that Elliott may have even done it on his discretion without telling SIS.
“Your typical SIS man, as we all know, concurrent with his upbringing, considers himself to be part of a secret, elite club, which, by design, has no rules. Because rules, by design, are strictly for commoners… like us here at MI5.”
Well, she has a point, doesn’t she?
The sharp contrast Lily Thomas draws between the two intelligence agencies is evident in the personal lives of Elliott and Thomas herself. The only thing the two may have in common is the kisses they get from their loving spouses. Otherwise, their lives cannot be more different. Elliott and his wife live in a beautiful house in the heart of Westminster. Their upper class taste is there in everything from their furniture to their clothes. They sit at premium seats at the theatre and eat at fancy restaurants. On the other hand, Lily and her immigrant husband, a doctor, live in a cramped house outside central London. Their working class background is there in what they wear and what they eat. I suspect they may have a tight budget, too, because otherwise why would Lily take the sugar cubes in the office home citing there is no time to go to the shops?
Elizabeth takes Nick to theatre because he needs a smile these days, but it is up for debate how successful their trip to theatre is. It turns out their driver is Elliott’s man who passes a note from Elliott’s asset in Russian embassy that “Philby is at a port in the Black Sea.” And as the show Morecambe and Wise starts, the couple laughs and laughs, but I believe Nick is seriously traumatized by the question Lily asked him earlier in the day.
“Do you think Philby was playing you from the very first moment you met?”
Magical realism kicks in as Elliott, who has been laughing hard at the show, all of a sudden, sees Philby on stage singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” for his bestie. He remembers the night he saw his friend escaping from Beirut. Does this mean Elliott let him go?
We all know less is always more with Damian. And, in the blink of an eye, the laughing man turns into a man in tears. Overwhelmed, Vulnerable. Was any of their friendship real? Lily Thomas has been able to get under Nick’s skin.
One thing that Elliott has not shared with anyone is that someone is having Elliott followed. A man follows him to a cemetery where Elliott hands a Russian newspaper to some man. This man then sits at a cafe, then goes into a church, and disappears before the tail can catch up with him.
Who is having Elliott followed?
The answer comes next morning from his man who played the role of the Russian in the cemetery: It is James Angleton, the chief of counter-intelligence at the CIA, who had Elliot’s house bugged and him followed.
It seems that when he realized something fishy was going on, Elliott ran a little operation himself (proving Lily Thomas right that he can do things on his discretion!) to understand who is following him.
It turns out that Angleton is operating out of a basement very close to Elliott’s house. Is he here in London to keep an eye on Elliott because he thinks, like the Russians, that Elliott and Philby could be partners in crime, or does he have an ulterior motive to be there?
As he sees two boys playing on the street, a repeating pattern in the series probably referring to Elliott and Philby as two boys playing spies, Elliott’s mind goes back to his conversation with Philby on the balcony in Beirut.
Philby: “You’re trying to get me killed?”
Elliott: “Now there’s a thought.”
Philby: “You don’t really mean that.”
Elliott: “Give me one good reason, why not, Kim? And it’d better be a fucking good one.”
Did Philby give Elliott a fucking good reason? This is the question!