Loyalty and affection are threatened in ‘A Spy Among Friends’

NEW YORK — A main character in “A Spy Among Friends” is one of the most notorious double agents of the Soviet Union. But you don’t need to know anything about him – or really about espionage in general – to enjoy the show.

The MGM+ series starring Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce dramatizes the true story of two British spies and lifelong friends, Nicholas Elliott (Lewis) and Kim Philby (Pearce.) The latter became a notorious British defector. But it’s personal betrayal the creators hope to explore, not stolen microfilm or dead drops.

“We’re not basically telling a spy story. We are telling a story about friendship. This is a series about friendship between people who happen to be in the spy business,” says director Nick Murphy.

Creator and executive producer Alexander Cary and Murphy use 12 hours to unravel this epic betrayal over several decades, moving back and forth in time to capture conversations and memories of the past.

“I think we really tried to tell a little bit of a story here after that. So we tried to dig into the emotional and intellectual and political damage that Philby left,” says Lewis.

It is based on a one-day meeting between Eliot and Philby in Beirut in 1963, in which both men play the latter cat and mouse. Elliot wants to extract a full confession. Philby feigns innocence. The latter would soon leave Lebanon and defect to the Soviet Union, where he died in 1988.

“Philby got a system that really ignored checks and balances because there was just a belief that the system was impenetrable,” says Pearce.

Anna Maxwell Martin plays Lily Thomas, an MI5 agent who interrogates Elliot after Philby’s defection, trying to find out exactly what happened between these two men in Beirut. “Could you explain to me why you let the most dangerous Soviet infiltrator this country has ever known?” he asks Elliot.

Thomas – a complex character – is used to signal a change coming as the old boys’ club shakes up, charting the rise in the 60s of women, people of color and members of the middle class in positions of power.

“She’s representative of the next generation and a completely different type of person – a woman and not from the social militia that these guys come from,” says Lewis. “It’s really there to show that it’s time for a change.”

The series is adapted from a book by Ben Macintyre, who also wrote about the origins of the elite British Special Air Service, which was recently turned into the “Rogue Heroes” series.

Unlike that kinetic sequence, “A Spy Among Friends” is more measured, though no less exciting. It’s a line full of fedoras, boring phones, and many, many glasses of whiskey. There is heavy rain, the cigarette paper is crisp and the tea cups are rattling.

Because it deals with people hiding their true identities, small gestures like a raised eyebrow can telegraph what a character is really thinking. Emotions seep out, not well up. In one scene, Elliott secretly weeps over the loss of his friend amid rolling laughter from the audience of a stage comedy.

Philby’s betrayal cut deep into the British psyche, perhaps more so than his American counterparts, such as Aldrich Ames or Robert Hansen. Philby was a member of the privileged upper class, attending the best schools and walking the elite corridors of power.

“He is an example of everything that is attractive about the Englishman and also dangerous,” says Cary. “Men of this upbringing were raised with enormous levels of entitlement to think they were the ruling class. That’s the scar I think England lives with today.”

Philby’s charm and guile also embarrassed the United States. He befriended Jim Angleton, a rising star in the fledgling CIA who would become its counterintelligence chief, never guessing that Philby was transferring all his trust to Moscow.

As Philby tells his Russian handler after he defected: “It’s really remarkable the level of sentimentality and arrogance it takes to be so willfully blind to the possibility that one of your own might see things differently.”

Philby pierced the complacency of a strict system, posing a threat to the deluded status quo with the possibility that one of its leading lights wasn’t buying their work.

“It’s hurting Britain,” says Murphy. “Everything that the class system supports and therefore justifies – the arguments that this class of people are trustworthy, reliable, they are decent, they put country first, they put England first – is undermined by Philby. .”

On a more personal level, Philby’s deception destroyed the decades-long friendship between him and Eliot. This led Elliott to question whether there was ever a friendship in the first place. It’s a show that makes you question all your relationships.

“I don’t think you need a PhD in British espionage to understand that,” says Murphy. “What makes you turn the pages of history is no respect for the security of Britain’s secret services. It’s respect for the emotional survival of the characters.”

Fittingly, Lewis and Pearce bonded nicely while making the series. “A Spy Among Friends” marks the first time they teamed up and ended up friends, planning visits. “I’m still waiting for that spare room,” Pearce teases Lewis. Lewis replies, “The Pearce suite is waiting.”

___ Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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