Cambridge Spies

Friday, May 23, 2003 by

Does it matter if a drama purporting to tell a true story becomes nothing more than the writer’s romantic supposition of what really happened? Not to the BBC, it would seem, on the basis of their four-part series Cambridge Spies.

The subject matter is a familiar one. Four Cambridge men who attained leading positions in the British establishment were, in fact, spying for Russia at the height of the Cold War. As they leaked highly sensitive information to the KGB, these men are generally regarded by history as traitors to their country.

Peter Moffat’s script, however, offers the alternative view. Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Donald Maclean were communists, yes, but only because they despised fascism so much. In this way, the argument goes, they were true patriots. Certainly the over wrought emotion of one of the drama’s final scenes, where Burgess and Maclean are sailing across the channel, never to return, and stare tearfully at the English coast would have you believe that these men loved their country. Their motivation was not the downfall of the British establishment, but the perpetuation of it, in the face the threat from Hitler.

“The choice is between communism and fascism,” Philby says in the opening episode. “Nothing in the middle matters.” But of course, he very probably never said this, and that is the central problem with Cambridge Spies: it is based on events but basically a drama, where imagination compliments fact rather than accedes to it.

The programme makers do make clear at the start of each episode that it is a dramatised account of events and certain characters have been invented. There is, however, such authenticity in the writing, performances and direction that the drama becomes powerfully persuasive.

Toby Stephens, as the suave, good looking Philby, seems permanently scared witless by what he is doing (apart from when he’s seducing women), but by contrast, Samuel West, as Blunt, brings a sense of calm detachment and old fashioned British reserve, to the quartet, as if he is the steadying influence. This seems consistent with the man, who was the only one of the spies to remain in Britain after Maclean was unmasked. Blunt who confessed to his crimes in exchange from immunity, was not revealed to have been part of the spying ring until 1979. Maclean, played by Rupert Penry-Jones, comes across as a slightly reckless, and restless, young man who gets in too deep. Indeed, the further up the establishment ladder the spies climb, the more useful they become to the Russians and therefore the closer to being found out by the British.

Stephens, West and Penry-Jones are all believable and watchable but there is no doubt that the star of the show is the brilliant Tom Hollander as Burgess, a drunken, gregarious homosexual, whose intelligence and charm dug him out of trouble time and time again. Hollander has the best lines and the best scenes. His portrayal of Burgess is another reason why the viewer may conclude that the spies were not so bad after all. For example, in the final episode he drives through a line of white picket fences, an obvious symbol of Americana, and sarcastically proclaims “God bless the USA”, while pointing out the Land of the Free’s treatment of blacks and communists. It is hard not to feel yourself applauding his actions, and here, in a nutshell, is Cambridge Spies: the viewer is asked to sympathise with the motives of the four men, and then given plenty of reason to do so.

Stylistically, Cambridge Spies is a quality production. The direction from Tim Fywell maintains a sense of tension and threat of imminent exposure, although it seems odd that the main characters don’t appear to age in the 20 years in which they are involved in the conspiracy. The Russian KGB officers, meanwhile, do what they always do on television and film, namely wear hats and long coats and shuffle about London looking suspicious, muttering dark threats to their agents. We see them meeting the Cambridge spies on park benches or in gloomy pubs, always with an air of danger and conspiracy. Equally, the British top brass fit their accepted celluloid type, being bluffly nonchalant in the face of a crisis and arrogantly dismissive of the idea that anybody of proper schooling could possibly commit treachery against their country.

Overall, however, there is an unfulfilled taste in the mouth, leaving the viewer wanting more. The story of the Cambridge Spies is well documented so perhaps a drama detailing the lives of Burgess, Philby and Maclean after they left Britain would have been more interesting.

History has many judges. Perspectives change as the years roll by so we should not be overly surprised that the most notorious spying ring in British history has had their moment in the sun. Whether their reputations are retrospectively rehabilitated as a result depends on the extent to which the viewer remembers that they were, in truth, watching a fictional drama.


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