“Chaps like us.”
“Yes, chaps like you.”
These are two of the last lines spoken in this spy series based around Kim Philby (Guy Pearce), Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis), Anthony Blunt (Nicholas Rowe), Sir Roger Hollis (Adrian Edmondson) and the entirely fictional Lily Thomas (Anna Maxwell Martin).
|Damian Lewis, Guy Pearce|
It’s the early 1960s and an MI6 intelligence operator, the Cambridge-educated Nicholas Elliott, a chum and an intelligence colleague of Philby since 1940, is struggling to accept a “chap like us” has been a KGB double agent for all of that time.
It’s personal for Elliott. Philby was by some distance his best friend but Elliott must now accept that for decades his “best chap” had been gaslighting him by his treasonous betrayal.
This Philby “chap” epitomizes upper-class self-loathing. He is coming apart at the seams and hates the British class system for its rank stupidity. Particularly the inability of the incompetent intelligence services to believe someone born into the ruling class of the British Empire could be a traitor.
|Anna Maxwell Martin|
“Chaps like us” have oodles of charm. It’s essential in deflecting dangerous inquiries into their personal behaviour. They top this with their shield of class superiority, underscoring an “I will not be questioned” haughtiness. None better at this than Sir Anthony Blunt, hiding in plain sight behind the Queen’s largesse, and giving learned dissertations on art history to adoring audiences.
Along with their heavy scotch and gin consumption, “chaps”consume lots of cups of tea and there’s always “it’s Thursday, isn’t it? Let’s have Beef Wellington at my Club”. Getting pissed in local pubs and reviving drunken, improvised limericks from their Cambridge days is a thing, and, of course, they need to be kept abreast of the cricket scores during England vs Australia Test Matches.
Elliott has volunteered to go to Beirut to extract Philby’s confession, but after days of drunken interrogation, Elliott apparently stuffs it up and Philby escapes to Moscow. Or, ponders British intelligence, is this a CIA connivance to embed Philby in the heart of the KGB as a triple-agent for the USA?
|Top - Elliott, Philby, Angleton|
Lower - Lewis, Pearce, Stephen Kunken
Most of this is revealed in episode one and the remaining five episodes are left to carefully unpick the characters of Philby and Elliott. This is achieved mostly through the inquiries of someone who is definitely not a “chap like us” – Lily Thomas, a Northerner, married to a black doctor, and whose outlook on life couldn’t be more different to Elliott or Philby.
Despite the power struggles between their characters, Damian Lewis as Elliott, Guy Pearce as Philby and Ann Maxwell Martin as Thomas all give exquisitely balanced performances. No scenery chewing here.
A Spy Among Friendsis based on a novel by Ben Macintyre and another of Macintyre’s books SAS Rogue Heroes has just been made as a TV series. I haven’t read either book, but these two series couldn’t be more different from each other. One is a grown-up, sophisticated spy drama and the other is neither sophisticated nor grown-up. It’s more like a Marvel Comic adaptation.
However, there is one similarity between the two.
They are both about “Chaps like us”.
John le Carré may well have approved of Damian Lewis’s interpretation of Nicholas Elliott. In The Pigeon Tunnel,le Carré spends an entire chapter on the Elliott-Philby friendship:
“Nicholas Elliott. Philby’s most loyal friend, confidant and devoted brother-in-arms in war and peace, child of Eton…and surely the most entertaining spy I ever met.
In retrospect, he also remains the most enigmatic. To describe his appearance is, these days, to invite ridicule. He was a sparkling bon vivant of the old school. I never once saw him in anything but an immaculately cut, dark three-piece suit.
He was as thin as a wand, and seemed always to hover slightly above the ground at a jaunty angle, a quiet smile on his face and one elbow cocked for the martini glass or cigarette…He looked like a P.G. Wodehouse man-about-town, and spoke like one…
…Among the many extraordinary things that Elliott had done in his life, however, the most extraordinary and undoubtedly the most painful was to sit face to face in Beirut, with his close friend, colleague and mentor Kim Philby, and hear him admit he had been a Soviet spy for all the years they had known each other.
…One evening in May 1986 in my house, twenty-three years after he received Philby’s partial confession, he poured out his heart to me in what turned out to be the first in a succession of such meetings…
While he talked, I scribbled in a notebook.
‘I always had the feeling that Philby himself would like to get the whole thing off his chest and settle down and follow cricket, which was what he loved. He knew cricket averages backwards and forwards. He could recite cricket till the cows came home.’
Self: ‘So, what were your sanctions if [Philby in Beirut] didn’t cooperate?’
Elliott: ‘What’s that, old boy?’
‘Your sanctions, Nick, what could you threaten him with...you could have him sandbagged, for instance, and flown to London?’
‘No-one wanted him in London, old boy’
‘Well, what about the ultimate sanction then – forgive me – could you have him killed, liquidated?’
‘My dear chap. One of us.’
Chaps like us, indeed.