‘A Spy Among Friends’: the epic espionage drama to stream now
Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Monday 12 December 2022 By Matt d’Ancona
Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
In modern history, rather than fiction, there is no greater example of the lethally corrosive power of charm than Kim Philby: dazzling Cambridge undergraduate; senior MI6 officer tipped to head the intelligence service; our man in Washington; foreign correspondent for the Observer and Economist; and a ruthlessly devoted servant of the KGB, traitor to his country, and agent on behalf of Soviet communism.
To mark its launch, the new (free) streaming service ITVX is releasing A Spy Among Friends – Alex Cary’s six-episode dramatisation of Macintyre’s book of the same name. It’s a terrific exploration of the mind games and affection that bound and sundered Philby and Nicholas Elliott, his closest friend and colleague in the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS); of the privileged milieu that produced them both; and of the broader Cold War geopolitical mosaic in which their shattered friendship was a dark, broken tile.
Guy Pearce is mesmerising as Philby: a drink-sodden scarecrow from which hangs residual charisma, sentimentality and epic arrogance. And Damian Lewis has never been better than in his performance as Elliott: enraged, broken-hearted but flinty in his determination not to be outflanked in the final reckoning by his treacherous friend.
The series is very clearly labelled as ‘a work of imagination’ and those who want a strictly historical account, meticulously researched, should stick to Macintyre’s original. That said, the series is espionage drama at its very finest, adeptly using the licence conferred by its genre to explore the emotional, psychological and ideological traumas that lurk within this poisoned saga.
At least 300 people died because of Philby’s sabotage of Operation Valuable, the series of MI6-CIA strikes from 1949 on the Stalinist regime in Albania. As Richard Helms, director of the CIA from 1966 to 1973, reflected: ‘I don’t know that the damage he did can ever be actually calculated.’
In addition to this tally of deaths, Philby left a trail of psychological shrapnel wherever he went. In the US, his friend James Jesus Angleton (played brilliantly by Stephen Kunken) descended into deep paranoia, convinced that the US intelligence apparatus and foreign governments around the world had been penetrated by the KGB’s moles.
‘I rather thought it would be you,’ said Philby as Elliott opened the door at the Beirut safe house. In their world, even adversaries had been to the same Cambridge college, frequented the same London clubs, gone to the same tailors.
Yet how sanguine can we be, looking back at the era portrayed in A Spy Among Friends? ‘The privately educated Englishman is the greatest dissembler on earth,’ says George Smiley in le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim. ‘Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damn fool.’
Is that still not true – at least to a much greater extent than we would care to admit? This more recent generation fell out over Brexit rather than Marxism and the Iron Curtain. At stake was national decline rather than nuclear Armageddon. But their cohesion as a tribe – governed by a code of honour, unspoken rules, private loyalties – was still powerfully resonant of a way of running the country that was meant to have ended decades ago.
Which, finally, is the most unsettling feeling of all as one watches Pearce and Lewis majestically re-enact one of the greatest confrontations in the annals of espionage: that, far from being a window into a lost world, the bond and the battle between Philby and Elliott in a Beirut apartment six decades ago still seems all too contemporary.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
The first music acts announced for Tortoise’s festival of ideas and music, Kite (9 to 11 June 2023) include club pop anthem legends Hot Chip, critically acclaimed and much-loved British rock band Suede and trailblazing disco-soul icon Candi Staton. On the comedy bill will be viral sensation Alistair Green, two of comedy’s most talked about new talents, Toussaint Douglass and Josh Berry, Shazia Mirza, creator of Channel 4 National Comedy Award nominated show Coconut and with everyone’s favourite MC Kiri Pritchard-McLean, host of Live From The Covid Arms. Simon Sinek and Marina Hyde are among the first of the speakers to be announced with loads more still to come.
Emancipation (Apple TV+, 9 December)
Inspired by the so-called ‘Whipped Peter’ photograph taken in 1863 by abolitionists in Baton Rouge of the appalling scars on an escapee’s back, Emancipation is a powerful, often devastating account of an enslaved man’s horrific experience. It follows Peter (Will Smith), from the moment that he is separated from his family, on his hellish journey through the swamp (pursued by the slave-catcher Fassel, chillingly played by Ben Foster).
Fuqua communicates the sheer physical horror of Peter’s days in captivity and on the run; Robert Richardson’s cinematography is formidable, often edging towards a monochrome that is reminiscent of Schindler’s List; and Smith himself is simply extraordinary, as uncompromisingly immersed in a role as he has ever been, exuding battered humanity propelled by astonishing determination and (in Peter’s case) profound Christian faith. As compellingly as any filmmaker before them, he and Fuqua insist that we not avert our gaze from the atrocity of enslavement. Nor are we entitled to do so: a must-see movie.
Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait by Gyles Brandreth
Famous for his knitwear, love of the English language, and magnificence as a raconteur, Gyles Brandreth is also a remarkable writer and chronicler of our times.
In the many years that he knew Her Late Majesty the Queen, he formed a high regard for her character, stoicism and sense of duty. This book is a genuine addition to our knowledge of the late monarch, and, more than anything else published to date, gives the reader a true sense of what she was like in private.
Who would have guessed, for instance, that she took to Meghan on first meeting the future Duchess of Sussex and encouraged her to carry on acting if she wished – ‘that’s your profession, after all.’ When Harry and his wife broke cover in their interview with Oprah Winfrey, the Queen was much less troubled than some members of the royal family by ‘this television nonsense’. She and Brandreth also had a very funny disagreement about Rupert the Bear.
For anyone with even the slightest interest in the longest serving monarch in this nation’s history, his book is required reading.
This Is What We Do by Leftfield
From its opening (title) track, Leftfield’s fourth studio album ushers the listener into a mosh pit of the mind, full of deep bass, sampled mantras, hypnotic synth riffs and the infectious brand of progressive house with which they have been synonymous for almost 30 years. ‘They’, of course, is really Neil Barnes, the driving force behind the electronic act since its inception, presently teamed with Adam Wren.
‘Pulse’ and ‘Accumulator’ are already familiar as strong singles, the latter an acid techno beast of a track. Grian Chatten of Fontaines DC adds his snarky tones to ‘Full Way Round’, while poet Lemn Sissay turns a dance track into a plea for social justice.
‘City of Synths’ and ‘Machines Like Me’ pay homage to the greatness of Kraftwerk – which has prompted some to ask if the album is just an exercise in retro celebration. Which prompts me to ask: when the music is this good, who cares?
That’s all for now. Enjoy the week and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner