Philby-Philia Returns Again: “A Spy Among Friends”

What is it about Harold “Kim” Philby and his comrades in the Cambridge Five, the cell of upper-collegiate Commies who infiltrated the British intelligence services from the interwar years until the mid-Sixties, that continues to enchant and fascinate so many on both sides of the Atlantic? Almost as soon as they had defected to Moscow, popular media began obsessing over their story, be it fictitiously (most notably John Le Carré’s classic George Smiley novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a ripping good yarn no matter your politics) or otherwise (there is a small mountain of biographical and historical volumes that recount the story from almost every angle).

One volume from the pile is Ben Macintyre’s 2014 A Spy Among Friends, recently adapted into a television miniseries with Guy Pearce as Philby, Damian Lewis as his longtime friend and colleague Nicholas Elliot, and Stephen Kunken as James Jesus Angleton, the CIA counterintelligence leader who ended his days as a stark-raving paranoid maniac, insisting that the United Nations building in New York was a secret citadel of Kremlin power. Both book and serial operate from a fundamental principle that is rather astonishing once fully realized by the audience: how to go about rebranding and reinvigorating support for the Anglo-American imperial project in the aftermath of revanchist nostalgia like Brexit and Trumpism. Is it at all possible to make imperialism seem potable again after various plebiscites in the last decade have ripped the mask of gentility and civility off the gendarmerie, revealing, for all to see, faces of brutality and bigotry that, only thirty years ago, were properly relegated to the gutter by “polite society,” case and point the failure of nativist Patrick Buchanan’s presidential primary challenge against George H. W. Bush in 1991-1992?

Part of the story’s allure is undeniably that the Cambridge Five served as a template for not just Smiley but other famous spy novels, including a James Bond scenario (007 creator Ian Fleming, like Le Carré, interacted with Philby during his career with the British intelligence service). Furthermore, the Five complicate matters for labor historians who might otherwise be inclined to brush aside all claims of national Communist Party espionage as pure hogwash. On the one hand, no, the vast majority of Communists in the West, who were mostly concerned with trade unionism and civil rights issues, were not agents of espionage and were never asked to perform such tasks by Moscow. On the other hand, however, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross, enraptured by the interwar allure of British Communism’s antifascist and anti-imperial politics, actually did make the transition from Communists (or at least Fellow Travelers) into full-fledged agents of the NKVD and then KGB. Further still, at the beginning of his espionage career, Philby went to Vienna and married a Jewish Communist, partially to save her from being vacuumed up into the concentration camps by the newly-installed Dolfuss regime’s fascist dictatorship and partially owing to high-octane sexual excitement inherent in his age of 22. (It bears mentioning, however, that conservatives have used this one exception to the norm of Communist Party membership as instead a demonstration of a supposed rule why all Communists were espionage agents, which is nonsense.)

Twenty years ago, it was much easier to tell audiences that espionage against the Crown was always bad, something the BBC did in the 2003 serial Cambridge Spies. In that version, the Five were young idealists warped upon realization they were actually trapped by the snarls of Stalin’s treacherous authoritarianism.

But things have fundamentally changed in the West. There is a distinct and unqualified distaste for capitalism and imperialism that was absent earlier. For instance, people continue to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher, who was responsible for revealing Blunt’s espionage to the public during a moment of political theater in the House of Commons. Now, with the Soviet Union a distant memory and austerity a far more diresome agent of mayhem, how to demonize them? Macintyre and Co. offer the interpersonal psychoanalytic framework, claiming Philby was a drunken sociopath. Proffering that old E. M. Forster doggerel, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,” they ask how it was that Philby could have done both. Elliot, his friend at MI6, repeatedly had defended Philby in the twenty years before the final 1963 defection to Moscow and was made to look a complete fool when Kim slipped through his fingers in Beirut onto a Russian-bound naval ship, leading to his “retirement” from government service. Angleton, already a shameless Anglophile and anticommunist, was so completely astonished by realizing he had been duped for 25 years that he descended into a deeper paranoia lubricated by copious amounts of liquor, which in turn created complete chaos within the American intelligence agencies.

The television serial, realizing the weakness of trying to proffer an imperial political rehabilitation of straight white heterosexual men of privilege, try spicing up the mix by introducing the fictional Lily Thomas (Anna Maxwell Martin), the Durham-born mid-level case officer with a West Indian doctor for a husband. How could the British intelligence community be so bad when it provides a living for such a family at the time when demagogues like Enoch Powell were on the verge of launching their long racist campaign against British multiculturalism and immigration? Enchanting as it might be, the efforts fall flat.

Furthermore, it is hard to ignore that this serial, as well as the book it is adapted from, lives in the shadow of Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation of the Le Carré novel starring Gary Oldman, something most evinced by the costume and production designs. That picture, perhaps the best spy film of its decade, was steeped in a distinctive anti-nostalgia, inclined to the notion that the Cold War had been a colossal waste of time, talent, and treasure that might have otherwise been expended in a more propitious manner. Alfredson was extremely subtle in suggestion of a scandalous thesis, that the Cambridge Five had been on the right side and that they had made tremendous personal and professional sacrifices for a good cause. Perhaps the most vivid instance of this was a single passing detail in the opening sequence. As Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) walks through the streets of Budapest in order to meet a supposed Hungarian general planning to defect to the West, he passes a group of African students who are headed down the stairway of a subway station. It is a simple moment lasting less than ten seconds but it carries a tremendous significance. Yes, the Soviet Union had humanitarian failures, a stifling ideological framework that not just smothered ingenuity but oftentimes criminalized dissent, and a sclerotic economic model that ceased to be competitive with the advent of a postwar consumerism centered on blue jeans and luxury automobiles. But it also trained millions of people from across the postcolonial world to become doctors, engineers, agronomists, and other professionals who returned to their home countries with skills that made lives better for millions more of their countrymen. It provided sustenance, respite, and medical rehabilitation to militants fighting the long wars against South African apartheid and colonial Portuguese rule, not to mention the governments of North Korea and Vietnam. It was responsible for setting a geopolitical watermark for quality of living that the West was compelled to surpass and, now that it is gone, has been substantially eroded. Alfredson, a Spaniard whose country has been through immense national pain due to memory of its Communist past, seemed extremely aware of this and so created with Gary Oldman a George Smiley that seems slightly repulsed by his choice of profession. In the shadow of this effort, A Spy Among Friends is downright reactionary.

Such reaction is further evinced in its sexual politics. While the serial is (thankfully) abstemious from overt titillation by way of nudity, it simply refuses to acknowledge the homoerotic element of the Five. While Philby, Cairncross, and Maclean were straight, Blunt and Burgess were both gay, something Le Carré and later Alfredson explored, as did Julian Mitchell’s play Another Country, a brilliant queer theory reading of fascism told through the spectrum of a British boarding school melodrama. Instead, Macintyre obliquely hints about the problems inherent in the definitely mono-sex “Old Boys Club” culture that enabled the Five for so many years. For an entire quarter of a century, the rules of decorum within the upper classes, a hermetically sealed system designed to protect its members from cradle to grave, insulated the Five from the consequences that would have rendered those of lesser privileges to prison. (Indeed, Cairncross and Blunt both were given immunity from prosecution, in part so to spare the Establishment some well-deserved embarrassment, and Philby was offered the same deal in the days before he instead absconded to Moscow!) At the end of the series, the audience is intended to feel some sort of unpronounceable sadness about how the Five repeatedly violated the “sanctity” of the class system. Yet this is predicated upon a tremendous amount of selective attention to detail that otherwise would lead one to disgust. How would you feel about the betrayal of men responsible for the ouster of Iran’s Mossadegh, the murder of Congo’s Lumumba, various bloody affairs in Palestine, Ireland, and India whilst implementing and maintaining their respective partitions, and the upholding of the Boer regime in Pretoria, among other grotesqueries? Putting a more contemporary lens into play, how would you feel about an attempt to rehabilitate the moderate Trump or Brexit voter, the one who didn’t appreciate the overt xenophobia and racism of Nigel Farage or the Donald, didn’t necessarily agree with the overt displays of violence against migrants, but still agreed that, at the end of the day, “we are letting too many of them into our country.” This was made most obvious several years ago during a third season episode of The Crown, the Left Bank/Sony Television series streaming on Netflix. In the 2019 episode “Olding,” the Palace is made aware of Anthony Blunt’s treason in 1964. By this point, Blunt had been disconnected from any police or intelligence agency for years and instead was pleasantly ensconced in the palace as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, a middle-aged gay art historian obliged to create tasteful displays of paintings for various gallery exhibitions. Outraged by the disclosures but restrained by decorum and a desire to avoid embarrassing the Prime Minister, the compromise is to have Prince Philip deliver a harsh scolding during a Royal gallery visit at episode’s climax. It’s hard to imagine a more unintentionally hilarious instance of imperial apologia compromising itself than the apologetic being delivered by the the most racist, unrepentant, and disgusting windbag of the entire House of Windsor, a man-demon whose elder sisters married into the highest ranks of the Nazi SS and was constantly contracting hoof-in-mouth disease with bigoted babblings that kept the tabloids electrified for more than half a century. A Communist versus a Nazi princeling? Would you opt for national unity predicated upon such appeasement?

That notion of national unity is what is sought by the production. It is a very impressive miniseries with high production values, the acting is quite good, but viewers are encouraged to comprehend the political implications of the climax and process it accordingly.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.