“Don’t take your eyes off this star-packed espionage thriller.” – Guardian
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!
So 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, for decades? And the people closest to Philby being career intelligence officers that were keen observers of human behavior make what Philby has been able to get away with for three decades is even more astonishing.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, one may find the answers to these questions in A Spy Among Friends the mini-series adapted from Ben MacIntyre’s New York Times Bestseller “A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and The Great Betrayal for TV. The TV adaptation has been created by Alexander Cary, directed by Nick Murphy and produced by Chrissy Skins with Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce in the lead roles. Damian is also an executive producer on the production through his Ginger Biscuit Entertainment. And A Spy Among Friends finally arriving on TV screens this year makes a TOP MOMENT not only for Damian but for us, fans, too!
The brilliant cast also includes Anna Maxwell Martin (Motherland) as Lily Thomas, Adrian Edmonson as MI5 chief Sir Roger Hollis, and a very familiar face for Billions fans among you: Stephen Kunken aka Ari Spyros is also a co-star in A Spy Among Friends! He is portraying James Angleton, the head of the counter-intelligence chief in the CIA.
Damian and Stephen share a love for football and English Premiere League in particular. While Damian supports Liverpool, Stephen is a big fan of Tottenham Spurs. Given that Nick Murphy is also a huge LFC fan, I am sure there was a lot football talk during filming!
A Spy Among Friends is now streaming on ITVX in the UK and will be arriving on MGM+ in the US in early 2023.
They filmed in London and Romania (In case you missed it, Damian tweeted from Bucharest!) and wrapped up in spring 2022.
And here is Damian talking about Bucharest as a fantastic location for filming:
“I’d never been. And Bucharest is sort of what you’d expect: It’s a conflation of brutalist Soviet-era buildings and some beautiful sort of 17th century Baroque buildings.
“Bucharest actually ended up being our location for four very, very different cities and countries – for Moscow, Berlin, Istanbul, and Beirut – and you are able to film all those places in Bucharest. So, quick advert for the Romanian Film Board! It’s a good place to go, and we had a ball.”
A Spy Among Friends had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on October 7 and they held a private screening for the cast and the crew on October 17.
Here is Damian, with his executive producer hat on, introducing the movie to the cast and crew:
And when Digital Spy asks about his double role in the production, Damian first jokes about being responsible for the donuts but then talks about how it worked:
“I helped him develop it. And then, obviously, everyone else came on. And all of it. All of it. Casting through to heads of department, through to doing recces when I could get there, and location scouts.”
“The question is interesting, because actually it’s the first time I’ve taken on a full-on production producer role and played a lead role. There is a point where you just have to put everything down, and concentrate on playing Nicholas Elliott. Otherwise you’re going to sell yourself short.”
“It’s quite interesting, they are two very different parts of your personality that you pull up for those different roles. And there is always a childlike – not child-ish, hopefully – but a childlike, playful quality that you have to remain in touch with when you’re acting. You just have to. That’s perhaps why it takes us longer to grow up than others.”
“But when you’re producing, it requires something else – a different part of your brain. It’s sometimes quite hard to do it at the same time. So I found myself for the duration of the five or six months’ shoot just performing and acting, and then I was able to be a producer again on the last six, seven, eight months when we’ve been in postproduction.”
In 1963, MI6 agent Kim Philby (Guy Pearce) was revealed to be a KGB spy in one of the most humiliating chapters of Britain’s involvement in the Cold War. This adaptation of Ben Macintyre’s best-selling book explores the impact of this notorious betrayal of the British establishment. It focuses specifically on what happened during the final meeting between Philby and his close friend and fellow MI6 agent Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis), in the days leading up to his defection.
I ordered MacIntyre’s book as soon as we heard about Damian’s new project. It is a brilliant book – a real page turner with its incredible true story, sense of humor and larger-than-life characters. That said I can see it is a challenge to adapt such a book for the small screen.
Here is Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce reading a passage from the book.
As someone who read the book twice, I find Alex Cary’s adaptation very clever. Director 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 fantastic 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 you need to pay attention to – so don’t text and watch 🙂 And the dry humor is simply brilliant. So, yes, ladies and gentlemen, A Spy Among Friends is exactly my cup of tea!
Here is the official trailer!
And here is my short introduction to the mini-series with no spoilers.
A Spy Among Friends starts with the moment MI5 receives the piece of evidence that convinces everyone, including Philby’s staunchest supporters in SIS (aka MI6) that Philby has been working for the Soviet Intelligence for decades. MI5 proudly forwards this information to SIS and the Chief of SIS shares it with Philby’s closest friend at the service:
Someone now 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 strongest ally when MI5 suspected Philby helped the escape of two Soviet Spies Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess to Moscow ten years ago.
However, since Philby is still an SIS man, the chief of SIS decides that 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 confess. After 34 hours of taped conversation over 4 days, Philby defects to the USSR.
Now it has been eight days since Elliott went to Beirut and MI5 tasks Lily Thomas (an invented character) 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.”
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 their upper class background. England’s old boys’ 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.
And it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, or so thought Nick Elliott, when the two young SIS agents met in 1940. They had so much in common: their upper class upbringing, their prestigious education, as well as their attitudes.
Even when they did not overlap in their stations, the two of them were always in touch and shared secret information with each other. Since they could not talk to anyone, even to their wives, about the secrets they carry, they had a very intimate social circle where they watched cricket, shared a lot of secrets and a lot of drinks.
Damian Lewis and the author Ben MacIntyre talk about the mini-series being more about friendship than anything else.
“Yes, it’s a story about spies, but really it’s a story about friendship”.
Damian Lewis and Ben Macintyre give us the inside track on MI6 intelligence officer, Nicholas Elliott.
— ITVX (@ITVX) November 30, 2022
Here is Damian telling Radio Times about the real life character he brings to life in A Spy Among Friends:
“Philby’s the one everyone knows, he’s the charismatic, adored, traitor, so you get to play all of that.
“But I get asked to play those characters, thankfully, quite often because, they’re fabulous to play – for example, like Bobby Axelrod in Billions and obviously Brody and Homeland – and we didn’t know anything about Nicholas Elliott.
“I didn’t know anything about Nicholas Elliott until I read the book, so it’s interesting to be the best friend that is duped, and who really represents all of us, because Philby wasn’t only of course just betraying him – that’s the most intimate betrayal – but he betrayed a generation of people. “And I just enjoyed the tragedy of loving and adoring someone for 30 years, and enabling their treachery repeatedly. And then being the guy that was sent out to interrogate him in order to bring him home to stand trial. It was an awfully tragic arc.”
Guy Pearce, in a recent interview with Collider, talks about the mini-series as well as working with our favorite guy.
“Oh, it’s really classy. Nick Murphy directed it, who I worked with on A Christmas Carol. It’s spectacular. It’s really spectacular. It’s based on a Ben Macintyre book, which is fantastic. Ben’s a wonderful writer, but Alex Cary who wrote the script has done the most wonderful job. I can’t speak highly enough about it. It’s glorious. Yeah.
I play Kim Philby. So he is one of those who were famously known as the “Cambridge Five,” who were five students of Cambridge University, who later on through their life, who either ended up working for MI6 or MI5. All were double agents and working for Russian intelligence, Soviet intelligence. Philby was the most notorious of them all and defected in 1963. So from 1934, right through till 1963 when he defected and […] escaped to Russia .and never came back, he had been working for Russian intelligence. It’s an incredible story. A lot of people know the story of the Cambridge Five, but this story focuses mainly on Kim Philby and his closest friend, Nicholas Elliott, who Damian plays, and the betrayal of that friendship, more than just the betrayal of the country. So it’s a delightful story.”
Damian and and his fellow LFC fan director Nick Murphy discuss A Spy Among Friends, buttocks and much more on the Empire Film Podcast!