I got access recently to a catalog from BBC America, and one of the titles caught my eye… A DVD starring Toby Stephens from Die Another Day. It’s a film called Cambridge Spies which is based on a true story about the most shocking spy story of the 20th Century.
Things have been glossed over, and situations have been elaborated and minor characters invented. Did the spies really have direct access to Klaus Fuchs, the linchpin of the Soviet spy ring in the Manhattan Project? Did they investigate the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War? Were they chums with the Duke of Windsor? Was one of them a relation and close confidant of the Queen Mother? In some cases yes, in some cases I’m not sure.
Episode One: Covers the recruitment of two men at Cambridge University in 1934 to make a cell of four spies: Kim Philby (Toby Stephens), Anthony Blunt (Samuel West), Guy Burgess (Tom Hollander) and Donald Maclean (Rupert Penry-Jones). They are left-wing idealists who would go to great lengths to fight Hitler, including working for Moscow. The highlight of the episode is a chase sequence through Vienna which is very reminiscent of ‘The Third Man’. I don’t like it so much when a program apes a famous cinematographic style so closely, rather than trying to be more original… but it works.
Episodes Two & Three: Cover what the foursome did during the Second World War. I have to say there is less in the series about intelligence being fed to the Soviets, than counter-intelligence between the four trying not to get caught by other British or American spies. A double agent is more valuable for the potential damage he can cause, than for the damage he’s already done. In the second episode Philby gets a chance to assassinate Generalissimo Franco, but if he takes the chance he faces his own death and the deaths of the other spies in the group. If one of them fails or is exposed, the others will also fall.
Episode Four Covers the activities of the spies after the war. They all reach positions of importance… Philby becomes the Head of Counterintelligence at MI5 (in charge of disposing of Russian spies). Blunt becomes a member of the Royal Household and a close confidant of King George and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Burgess and Maclean both get posts at the British Embassy in Washington, DC where their activities are begun to be discovered by suspicious Americans cracking Russian codes Some Russian defectors (such as Igor Gouzenko, who defected to Canada and was secreted at Camp X) also drop hints of a North American spy ring. Burgess and Maclean escape to Russia just ahead of the authorities catching up with them. Philby bluffs his way through interrogation and eventually defects to Russia. Blunt is too close to the Royal Family to be exposed without scandal, and so is invulnerable for a while.
Cambridge Spies is not for children. There are many adult situations. Anyone who does not accept the notion of homosexuality should steer clear as well… Burgess and Blunt are portrayed as gay, which is historically true. But remember that one of the traditional ways of ruining the career of a diplomat or a spy has been to cast his sexuality into doubt. I thought the Adult Accompaniment sequences in the series were well done, not too over the top and also fun.
The dust jacket of the DVD advertises the series stars four of Britain’s most talented young actors. Toby Stephens definitely qualifies ::COOL:: his swagger is dutifully toned down from his performance as Gustav Graves to take on a more complex character. I see Toby Stephens also has a large role in an upcoming film about the Indian Mutiny of 1857 called The Rising. Samuel West has played important roles in the BBC series Longitude and is the son of Prunella Scales, who played Sybil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. He will play Victor Frankenstein in the upcoming Van Helsing. And he’s been in Horatio Hornblower, Notting Hill for a bit and he was even in a Doctor Who program eleven years ago. Tom Hollander I don’t know much about, but he was in Gosford Park and also Enigma, a film about the WW2 German code machine, directed by Michael Apted (MI-5/Spooks and the film Charlotte Gray with Cate Blanchett, another WW2 spy story.
All four performances were good where they needed to be, but Rupert Penry-Jones’s character of Maclean was the least interesting after the first episode. Maclean is a flawed character; his father is a dying cabinet minister and that’s why the Russians want him. Ironically Burgess and Maclean turn out to be the least effective of the four, because of their personal problems.
The Burgess and Maclean scandal rocked the world of espionage when it broke. Ian Fleming even referred to it in The Man With The Golden Gun. It’s great to see a modern retelling of the story. There’s an hour-long History Channel documentary that goes over the story with a much drier and more factual approach, so the viewer is left with both dramatic and historically accurate evidence. There are also four inserts from BBC TV archives featuring the spies before and after their defections. It’s the best (although only) DVD I’ve purchased this year.