6 July 2003 | Philby-3
Spy Story for Sunday Night
This is a lightly fictionalised account of how four tewwibly well brought up English boys betrayed their country to the Soviet Union. Philby's father had been a distinguished diplomat and Arabist and McLean's a cabinet minister. All had public school educations and had been undergraduates at the same Cambridge college. They set off into promising careers in the foreign office and security services and were Soviet agents from the start. Their great coup was to give the Soviets enough details about the atomic bomb to speed up their program to build one by a couple of years, but it was at the expense of blowing McLean and Burgess's cover (they escaped to Moscow in 1951), and Philby being fired from MI6. He joined them in Moscow in 1963. Blunt, by now the Keeper of the Queen's Pictures was then interrogated; he confessed, and was let go.
It's one of the really great spy stories of the 20th century. This version concentrates on the personal dynamics. The amount of contact the spies had with each other after Cambridge seems to be much exaggerated (pretty bad security), but gives us the picture of the gang of four against the Establishment. The women are interesting too. Philby was a ladies' man to whom Donald McLean's American wife Melinda (Anne-Louise Plowman) was attracted. They later lived together in Moscow. Blunt and Burgess were both gay, but friends rather than lovers.
The Establishment, in the person of Lord Halifax (James Fox), Ambassador to Washington, found it difficult to believe that 'people like us' could do such things and started looking for the atomic spy in the embassy kitchens. One or two western counter-intelligence operatives including the CIA's formidable James Jesus Angleton nearly nabbed them, but with Philby tipping them off (and duchessing Angleton), Burgess and McLean made it safely to Moscow.
With four hours to play with all the characters are richly drawn. Tom Hollander's Guy Burgess is a drunken dirty little sod who somehow manages to be witty and charming as well. It was great cover for a spy. As Donald McLean, Rupert Penry-Jones is the Golden Boy who feels himself unworthy, and sees communism as the way to redemption. Toby Stephens as Kim Philby gives us the cleverness, the deviousness and the angst as well, especially in the Spanish episode.(I'm afraid us Philbys are a devious lot, but we bleed, we bleed). Samuel West's Blunt has the occasional hint of emotion, but basically is a cold fish. Art, it seems is his life. He does get on tewwibly well with the Queen.
Seventy years on, it's not so much why they did it, but why they kept it up that mystifies. Given their location close to the heart of British Intelligence and hence knowing as much as anybody outside about what really went on the Soviet Union, it's extraordinary that Philby and McLean in particular continued on right up to 1951 (Blunt was more or less inactive after 1945). It is suggested here that Ms McLean did try to get her husband to give up spying but there's no real explanation as to why he persisted. Perhaps he still believed. Anyway, truth or fiction is hardly the point here - Sunday night is not for history lessons. This is a familiar tale well told, visually splendid and not too taxing. The real story, I suspect, is far too complex for even the most adroit (or left) TV producer. An earlier TV account,"Philby Burgess and McLean" (1977) is also worth watching, if you can find it.