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A Spy Among Friends

A Spy Among Friends

I binged this weekend on “Spy Among Friends”. It is the story of Kim Philby’s Defection to the Soviet Union. I am interested in the story for two reasons. The first is he is St John Abdullah Philby’s son. The second is that he defected from Beirut.

St. John Philby, also known as Harry St. John Bridger Philby, was a British explorer, writer, and intelligence officer. He was also a spy for the British government, working for MI6 and the Foreign Office during his career.

St. John Philby was an advisor to King Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, during the 1920s and 1930s. He first met Abdulaziz in 1918 and quickly established a close relationship with him. He became an advisor to the King on political and economic matters and helped to establish and strengthen the kingdom’s relations with the British government.

Philby Sr. played a vital role in the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia and helped to negotiate the first oil concessions for the kingdom. He also helped to modernize the country, introducing new technologies and infrastructure and promoting education and economic development. He lived in Saudi Arabia for several years and became fluent in Arabic, which helped him to establish strong relationships with many of the country’s leaders and tribes.

King Abdulaziz trusted Philby and considered him a close advisor, relying on his knowledge and expertise in the political and economic affairs of the region. Unlike his son, St. John Philby was not a communist, but this didn’t prevent the British government from investigating by the British government.
Despite these controversies, St. John Philby is still regarded as one of the most influential figures in the modern history of Saudi Arabia, and his books and writings on the region are still widely read and studied today.

Now let’s talk about the Beirut scene. Beirut was a major spy hub during the 1960s, particularly during the early part of the decade. The city was still considered a strategically important location due to its proximity to the Middle East and its status as a hub for international travel and commerce. However, the political situation in Lebanon and the region became increasingly unstable, with various factions vying for power, and the city was increasingly affected by violence and instability.

During the 1960s, Beirut was still home to many spies and intelligence operatives from various countries, including the United States, the Soviet Union, Israel, and other Middle Eastern nations. However, the city’s role as a hub for espionage activities began to decline as the decade progressed. The political situation in the region became increasingly complex and dangerous, making it more difficult for spies to operate. Additionally, the increasing violence and instability in the city made it a less attractive location for intelligence agencies.

In addition, the United States and other western countries started withdrawing their diplomats and operatives from Lebanon in the late 60s and early 70s as the civil war broke out.
Despite this, Beirut’s history as a centre of espionage during the Cold War continues to be a topic of interest among historians and intelligence experts.

Who is Kim Philby, then?

Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby was a British intelligence officer who worked for the Soviet Union as a spy. He was a member of the Cambridge Five, a group of spies that included Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross. Philby was a high-ranking member of British intelligence and held several key positions, including head of counterintelligence for MI6. He could pass large amounts of secret information to the Soviet Union for years before his activities were finally discovered in the early 1960s. Philby was able to defect to the Soviet Union in 1963 and lived there until he died in 1988.

The Cambridge Five were educated at Cambridge University and were recruited by Soviet intelligence while they were still students. They all went on to hold key positions in British intelligence and government, and they passed large amounts of secret information to the Soviet Union over many years.
The Cambridge Five were not discovered until the early 1960s when Philby and Burgess fled to the Soviet Union. Maclean was also later revealed to be a spy and also defected. Blunt and Cairncross were eventually exposed but were not charged due to their cooperation with the British government. The story of the Cambridge Five is considered one of the most significant espionage cases of the 20th century and a major failure of British intelligence.

“A Spy Among Friends” is a mini-series based on the book by Ben Macintyre of the same name. It used the book as a source and inspiration but with a dramatic twist. Guy Pearce plays Philby, while Damian Lewis plays his close friend and colleague Nicholas Elliot. You can’t get any more charismatic traitor than Guy Pearce, and it is obvious that he was a charismatic one. Pearce perfectly portrays the aura and magnetism of Philby’s attractiveness and persuasiveness. Throughout the six episodes, the character of Elliot is the enigma. Elliot was tasked to go to Beirut to retrieve him. Philby slips out and defects to the Soviet Union. However, Damian carries his character through the series like a jilted lover, without giving up the game of spies and power.

One of the characters that stood out in this series is Lily Thomas, an MI5 agent tasked with debriefing Elliot after the defection. Played by Anna Maxwell Martin, she brings drama into the show.
“Could you explain to me why you let the most dangerous Soviet penetration agent this country has ever known leg it?” she asks as her opening sentence in her first conversation with Elliot. We are in the 1960s, and this sentence from an MI5 debriefer to a star spy is something to look into. There is a level of upper-class Englishness at play that reflects the time in which the drama was set. Thomas’ interaction with Elliot and her superiors shows the effort of many women who struggle to be seen and heard in their work environment. This doesn’t just shed light on the feminist struggle of the era, the exclusivity of the old boys’ network, and the upper-class Englishness that characterized that era.
A Spy Among Friends is a show that you can’t take your eyes away for any moment; otherwise, you might lose track!

The show is streaming on ITVX in the UK and Amazon Prime

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