How to Ruin a Good Kim Philby Story

It ought to be mighty difficult to make a bad production—be it documentary, fictionalized, semi-fictionalized—out of the career of master spy Kim Philby. Yet somehow the makers of the 6-part mini-series A Spy Among Friends have succeeded in that grim task. (First broadcast a year ago in England on ITVX; in America it’s streaming on MGM+.) This is not from lack of talent or production values. Rather the problem appears to be poor knowledge of the subject, and lack of respect for the available material, most notably the wonderful Ben Macintyre book of the same title, which inspired the TV series but did not inform it to any great extent—alas! [1]

The producers admit that they’ve taken many liberties with the Macintyre book, and historical facts in general. Some of the major characters in the series are conjured up out of thin air. Worse yet, some major players from the true-life story are entirely left out or diminished to unrecognizability. This completely distorts the plot.

For example: when Philby was rumbled in 1962, it wasn’t because of dogged sleuthing on the part of the intelligence services. No, Philby was caught because of a vendetta stirred up against him in London by an influential Russian-Jewish woman, who resented the anti-Israel bias she perceived in the pieces Philby wrote for The Observer. Kim was then stationed in Beirut, working for SIS, but under journalistic cover as stringer for both that newspaper and The Economist. You can watch this series over and over again and never see a hint of the grudge motive in the story. The woman in question does appear several times as a character in the series, but we’re not told her background or the reasons for her vindictiveness towards Philby.

Kim’s colleagues at SIS weren’t particularly interested in catching and punishing him, even when they had evidence he’d worked for the Commies once upon a time. When his best friend and fellow spook Nicholas Elliott visited him in January 1963 and told him the jig was up, all Elliott wanted from Philby was a detailed confession, so SIS could put their historical record in order.[2] At this point, Kim was pretty harmless. In Beirut, he still had a Russian handler, but he was washed up as double-agent; just a lazy, bibulous journalist who now and again passed tidbits to both London and Moscow. (Moscow didn’t even think too much of his contributions; they seemed to be rewrites of his Economist articles.)

The script of A Spy Among Friends ignores this context. Instead it builds its plot around an investigation of Nick Elliott, and asks why he and SIS were bound and determined to cover up Kim Philby’s beastly past. This makes for thin stuff plot-wise, because a) we’re never given a clear answer, and b) such a cover-up never really happened. When Kim was first suspected in the early 1950s of being a KGB asset, his SIS friends gathered ’round because they honestly did not believe he could ever have sold his soul to the Soviets. When a few more facts tumbled out in the early 60s, it was all old, stale material from the 1940s, easily explained away as the product of counter-intelligence tradecraft. (Philby had been “trailing his coat,” perhaps, letting the KGB know he might be available.)

Why would the writer and producers substitute a bad, weak story, when the factual one is so much more thrilling? My guess is that their thinking went sort of like: “Well, the ‘Cambridge Spies’ have been done to death, and LeCarré basically spent his career fictionalizing the Philby story over and over. Let’s come up with something bright and new and clever!” But what we end up with is something dim and dark and muddled, flashbacks and fast-forwards folded into each other, with most of the series shot in less light than the opening scene of The Godfather.

The scriptwriter’s most egregious invention is a character called called Lily Thomas, a Security Service (MI5) officer tasked with interrogating Kim Philby’s old buddy Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis). Elliott of course is suspected of letting Philby slip out of Beirut and defect to Moscow in January 1963. As played by actress Anna Maxwell Martin, Lily Thomas speaks in broad Yorkshire and wears the sad, droopy face of a bloodhound. Again, there was no Lily Thomas, or even a Lily Thomas type. Nor was there sustained investigation of Nicholas Elliott by the munchkins of the Security Service.

Even more incredibly, the dogfaced Yorkshire lass is married to a black Caribbean doctor with whom she lives in the outer suburbs of London. Prompting the question: how common could this have been? And how likely is it that this ménage would not arouse constant comment, inside and outside of the intelligence services? Miscegenation may have been a popular subject in early-60s British drama and film, but that was plainly for its shock value, not because of acceptability and popularity. I feel sorry for the dour, bearded black actor, who rejoices in the name of Gershwyn Eustache, Jr. Poor Gershwyn does a lot of cringing, turning his face away from the camera. He knows he should be with his own people, not with Miss Dogface.

This sort of fictitious stuff takes up at least half the running time, and makes the story drag terribly. Conversely the most engaging bits of the series are those rooted in hard facts. Two or three times we get to see Guy Pearce (as Philby) reenact Kim’s 1955 Pathé newsreel interview with NBC’s Edwin Newman. The care taken with authenticity is impressive. They’ve got Kim’s mother’s 1750 Chippendale tall chest in the frame, they’ve got Kim’s foulard necktie, they’ve got the fake Kim’s hair perfectly-imperfectly slicked down with hair oil. Pearce has Philby’s tics and phrasing down pat. The director even managed to get an actor who does Ed Newman’s flat nasality reasonably well.

Ben Macintyre has described the friendship between Nick Elliott and Kim Philby as a “very particular British sort of male friendship—forged in war, and based largely on alcohol, cricket, and off-colour jokes.” Occasionally the mini-series is able to illustrate this aspect, again with a sort of reenactment of a real event. Here we have scene at a drunken club party during the War. Elliott and Philby are enacting some old SIS colonel’s surprise that Elliott’s family know that his “secret” work isn’t all that secret:

(Philby as stuffy old Colonel): Does your wife know what you do?

Elliott: Yes.

Colonel: How did that come about?

Elliott: She was my secretary for two years and I think the penny must have dropped.

Colonel: Quite so. What about your mother?

Elliott: She thinks I work for SIS, which stands for Secret Intelligence Service.

Colonel: Good God! How did she come to know that?

Elliott: A War Cabinet fell on her at a cocktail party . . . no, a member of the War Cabinet told her at a cocktail party…

This is funny because it’s true, as they say. It comes straight out of Ben Macintyre’s book, and from the memories of Nicholas Elliott.

Less successful is a music-hall fantasy Elliott has toward the end of Episode 1. He gets dressed and goes to the West End with his wife to see a comedy troupe perform. It is 1963. The troupe, vaguely based on the Crazy Gang, or Beyond the Fringe, perform a Morecambe & Wise television number you can find on YouTube. While watching and presumably enjoying this, Nicholas Elliott suddenly imagines traitorous old friend Kim on stage, singing “Are you lonesome tonight?” This is indulgence, and as usual with this series, contrary to fact. Elliott wasn’t lonely for Kim in 1963, he was quite angry and bitter about Kim’s defection. A defection that in Elliott’s eyes was completely unnecessary, since the Service was going to let Kim off scot-free; and pointless, too, as Kim wasn’t going to be of much use to the Russians in Moscow.

The worst misdepiction in this series is its treatment of Flora Solomon. Flora Solomon is the abovementioned Russian-Jewish lady who got angry with Kim and decided to shop him to the Security people. They’d known each other since Kim was a small boy. At one point in the 1930s Kim had even tried to enlist Flora as an asset for Soviet intelligence. Daughter of a gold and oil tycoon from the Russian Empire, she came to London when young, married a Jewish army officer, and established herself as quite the Mayfair socialite, with a regular salon in the 1920s and 30s. As Ben Macintyre writes in A Spy Among Friends, “Russian soul, Jewish heart, British passport,” is how she described herself. Flora liked to pose as high-minded at times, and had considerable achievements. She set up an employee-welfare office at Marks and Spencer in the 1930s, to guarantee that their lowly wage-earning employees would have time off, health care, and other benefits. This became the envy of other retailers, and perhaps a template for the British Welfare State as well. It all seems very laudable, although we should consider the obvious possibility that Flora found it easy to condescend to the rabble, and feared only her betters.

Anyway, this colorful and dramatic soul is someone any sensible scriptwriter should want to highlight. Instead she’s made into a grouchy old Englishwoman. No Russian accent, no Zionist soul, no hint that the real Flora, with her friend Victor Rothschild, set the anti-Philby train in motion. From the Macintyre book:

“How is it The Observer uses a man like Kim? Don’t they know he’s a Communist?” observed Solomon. Rothschild was startled by the certainty in her voice…

“You must do something,” Flora Solomon told Rothschild in her imperious way.

“I will think about it,” he told her.

Victor Rothschild was a veteran string-puller. He did more than think. On his return to London, he immediately reported the conversation to MI5…

After which the MI5 boys managed to persuade Flora to sit for an interview. Although they appreciated confirmation that Kim was an old-time Commie, they didn’t much care for Flora. “Flora Solomon was a strange, rather untrustworthy woman, who never told the truth about her relations with people like Philby in the 1930s, although she clearly had a grudge against him,” wrote Peter Wright in Spycatcher (1987). One reason why she might have had a grudge against him, besides of course the Israel thing, is that Flora introduced Kim to her friend Aileen Furse, who eventually married him, bore him five children…and then drank herself to death in 1957 when Kim deserted her and moved to Beirut. [3]

The rich dramatic possibilities here make one wish a different writer and producer would give the story another go.

The most far-reaching effect of the Philby defection is something that seems mild and innocent compared to spycraft itself. I speak of its effect upon literature. Spycraft literature, mainly, both fictive and otherwise. The public’s appetite for this stuff was indirectly whetted by the Philby story. When Kim’s defection became public knowledge in 1963, John LeCarré was a young SIS operative in Hamburg Station. He’d eventually lose his job, because Philby’s debriefings in Moscow divulged the names of the SIS network in Europe, including David Cornwell (LeCarré) himself. But by then LeCarré had a new novel out, called The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). It was all about double-agenting and defection, and it made the market for serious spy thrillers for decades to come. Later, and even more memorably, LeCarré recycled Philbyana into Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a fictionalized reimagining of the Kim story. Not a patch on the real thing, but still a compelling enough narrative to spawn one of the finest TV mini-series ever made (the 1979 BBC version with Alec Guinness) as well as an interesting but ill-conceived feature film (2011, with Gary Oldman)[4]; in addition to two sequel novels in the so-called “George Smiley Trilogy,” The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People (the latter becoming fodder for another BBC mini-series in 1982).

Having made the leap to Moscow, Kim pretty much had to spill the names of British intelligence operatives in Europe. The KGB didn’t trust him at all. They wondered if they’d taken in a ultra-clever mole who knew where all the bodies were buried. Then, after rolling up the British networks, Kim’s KGB handlers had him write a heavily skewed memoir, My Silent War (1968). The purpose of the book was to show the West how Philby and the Soviets had outsmarted the Western intelligence agencies at every turn, particularly during the War and early Cold War years. This memoir broke off in 1947; the stories of how Kim betrayed Soviet defectors and Albanian freedom-fighters were stale, and so perfectly safe to reveal and brag about. It was Philby’s later doings, when he was First Secretary of the British Embassy in Washington, and later a secret SIS asset in Beirut, that were still too risky to reveal.

In his Afterword to the book A Spy Among Friends, John LeCarré quotes Nicholas Elliott saying Philby probably wrote a second memoir about this later career, which the KGB held back. “My guess is, they’ve got another book in their locker.” But maybe not. At least it’s never seen the light of day. [5]

 *  *  *

Let me finally add that this mini-series is particularly bad in its portrayal of Americans. Fortunately there aren’t many. Mainly you have Jim Angleton, CIA’s chief of counterintelligence from the 1950s to 70s, and bosom buddy of Kim Philby during the War.

James Jesus Angleton was an American-born, English-public-school boy (Malvern College in Herefordshire) who was raised partly in Italy, where his father ran National Cash Register. After Malvern he went to Yale, where he founded a literary magazine called Furioso. It carried poems by his friend from Italy, Ezra Pound. After he graduated, his friend and faculty advisor Norman Holmes Pearson suggested Jim join the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) early in WW2, and so he did. Off to England Pearson and Angleton went, where Jim soon met and lunched regularly with Kim Philby. As they would again in Washington, 1949-1951, when Kim was First Secretary at the embassy and Jim was at the CIA.

You might expect a sort of mid-Atlantic accent from the real Angleton, but actually his speech was as un-nuanced and un-regional as you could get. What you would not expect is the harsh, grating bark we get here, as though poet Angleton were a helicopter reporter from the Chicago School of Broadcasting. Why is it that Americans easily hear the difference between Yorkshire and Lancashire, but Brits, or Brit casting directors, can’t distinguish between Evansville, Indiana and Down East, Maine? I ask merely for information.

Anyway there’s one good joke here, in a Nick Elliott–Jim Angleton exchange. A couple of CIA/MI6 moles get rooted out and shot by the KGB. This gives Nick Elliott, on the phone to Angleton, the opportunity to zing out a classic line:

“She’s dead, Jim.”


[1] Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc; and New York: Crown Publishing (Penguin Random House); both 2014.

[2] In popular parlance SIS is often referred to as MI6, while the Security Service is called MI5. The two agencies are somewhat analogous to the American CIA vs. FBI. I’m generally using the official terminology here, though the popular ones are easier to remember.

[3] in his Afterword to the Macintyre book, John LeCarré quotes Nicholas Elliott saying that Flora Solomon discovered that “Kim Philby was working for Colonel Teague, who was Head of Station in Jerusalem, and Teague was anti-Jewish, and she [Flora] was angry. So she told us some things about him.” LeCarré, or Elliott, claims this information was passed on to “Five” (MI5) but they did nothing. That is not quite true.

[4] Once again, I cannot resist commending Peter Hitchens’s hilarious excoriation of the 2011 film: “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Travesty.”

[5] In my first job after college in 1983, I was working near Rockefeller Center and briefly allowing myself to be recruited by Clandestine Services down in McLean, Virginia. I backed out in the end. Meantime they gave us potential new hires a reading list of some very cheesy-sounding books (The KGB! Its Role Today!), but I believe My Silent War was also on the list. I thought it would be great fun to write a fan letter to Kim Philby telling how much I enjoyed reading about his exploits. I didn’t really enjoy the book; it’s spotty and heavily redacted. Anyway I discovered that the TASS office was just a couple of blocks away. So I mailed the letter there, figuring those Russkie press officers would know how to pass on a letter to Kim, who I imagined was now a decorated general in the KGB. (He wasn’t; I think I had him confused with Bill Haydon in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.) As my letter wasn’t returned, it presumably found its way to Moscow. No reply, though.


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