In a web of friendship, class, patriotism, and political ideology lurks the world of the British spies and communist traitors depicted in the MGM streaming series A Spy Among Friends. The series portrays the treasonous activities of real-life intelligence agent Kim Philby (Guy Pearce) and his tight friendship with Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis) while both worked for MI6. Elliott never realized until the bitter end that his best friend was a Soviet asset.
Philby worked for MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, for nearly two decades, joining in 1939 before resigning in 1955 under intense suspicion of spying for the Soviet Union. After formal investigations proved inconclusive, Philby was cleared of these accusations by British Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan in 1955. A few years later, Philby decamped to Beirut to serve as a correspondent for The Economist and Observer. He was also shockingly reinstated by MI6 during this time to provide reports to the agency on Middle East politics.
The series is built on Ben MacIntyre’s eponymous book (2019) which provides an accurate historical accounting of these events. But the series takes certain liberties with facts, even creating a fictional character, Lily Thomas (Anna Maxwell Martin), who grills Elliott on behalf of MI5 (British domestic security) about the lapses in judgment that permitted Philby to lurk within MI6 for decades without detection. Having read MacIntyre’s book, I found the prerogatives with certain events taken by the series poignant illustrations of the costs and casualties inflicted by Philby’s deception on Elliott, his friends, and the nation of Britain.
Philby proved to be one of the most valuable Soviet penetration agents in the West. As a double agent, he plumbed the depths of British intelligence and conveyed it to his Soviet handlers. An exhibit in Moscow in 2017 presented the documents (over 900) that he provided to the Soviet Union while spying on its behalf. Russia has also honored Philby with a portrait in the Russian state art gallery and a feature film on state television. He began his service to the Soviet Union in 1934 while in Vienna, where he fell in love with his first wife, an activist in the Viennese communist underground.
Philby, radicalized ideologically in his student days at Cambridge, was part of the “Cambridge 5” spy ring that also included Guy Burgess (Thomas Arnold), Donald Maclean (Daniel Lapaine), Anthony Blunt (Nicholas Rowe), and John Cairncross. Philby’s service and loyalty to the Soviet Union never wavered until his death in Moscow in 1988, having fled to Russia from Beirut in 1962, after being confronted by Elliott with irrefutable evidence that the British government knew that he had betrayed his country to the Soviet Union.
A Spy Among Friends begins with this dramatic confrontation in Beirut between these two friends whose lives and families had been connected for decades. In real life, they had been close friends since 1941 when both were serving in MI6. Elliott was sent by MI5 to Beirut to obtain a confession from Philby after Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn and a British woman named Flora Solomon, also an old friend of Philby’s, had made it transparent to British authorities that Philby was a Soviet double agent. Philby arrives at an apartment in the Christian Quarter of Beirut unsure of who would question him. When Elliott opens the door, Philby states, “I rather hoped it would be you.” This statement is the crux of the series.
Does Philby at some level want to come clean about a life of treachery, one that preyed even on a close friendship? Is that what his hope rests in?
Such a question must be balanced against a life of unstinting service to communism. He remained loyal to his own conscience, albeit one severely malformed. Perhaps his hope was that Elliott, rather than anyone else, would treat him better than others might under the circumstances. Philby did not think he had erred in any way; rather he had been true to Marxist form. The classical understanding of conscience is that it’s God’s window of justice into the human soul and not just strong subjective will that is convinced you are doing the right thing. Our conscience is the seat of divine wisdom, enabling us to exhibit right judgment and conduct.
Moreover, conscience demands vindication for its choices unless it arrives at repentance and seeks forgiveness for past actions. Philby fully believed in the righteousness of communism. In the series, Elliott extracts a confession of sorts from Philby in Beirut, one described by Lily as chicken feed, meaning it was tactical, replete with a truncated list of events and contacts, but no regrets or remorse. And that’s what you expect from a communist because treaties, delays, compromises, peace accords, etc., are merely way stations on the road to revolutionary dominance.
The series wrestles with Elliott’s decision to not place Philby under arrest or detention in Beirut. Why did Elliott not place a man rightly accused of espionage against Britain immediately under arrest and detention, and prevent him from inflicting greater damage? It is a difficult question. Elliott also attended a dinner party later that same night at Philby’s, reasoning that otherwise Philby’s wife would wonder why Elliott would be in Beirut but not visit them. Elliott wanted nothing to seem amiss.
MacIntyre provides different rationales for why Elliott left Philby on his own volition. Philby was caught, according to Elliott. He had confessed and was offered full immunity if he would only detail everything he had done. But years earlier in 1951, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, when the latter’s cover was blown as a Soviet spy by the Venona files, had fled to Moscow. Burgess had been sent by Philby to warn Maclean and inform him to run to Russia. Instead, they both fled to Russia together.
Surely it was possible that an incredibly dedicated and resourceful communist agent like Philby would attempt the same. Or did the British fear the fallout of bringing him home and dealing with the betrayal and the consequences that would surely ripple through the government and society as other treasonous behavior would come to light? Perhaps it would be better for the country and everyone else to just let Philby slip away, along with the dark record of his life. In the end, it remains an open question, even as many doubted Elliott’s conduct at the time and to this day.
Lily’s character represents much of what Elliott’s does not. She is thoroughly middle-class, confident but not arrogant, dry temperamentally, and given to stern moral judgments. The latter stands out when she states to Elliott that “he (Philby) is a communist” and Elliott reflects it by saying, “Chicken, egg?” What comes first: Communism, treason, or Philby’s need to be in the most elite of circles? Does it matter? It raises the question of how exactly ideology matters for Elliott or other members of the British governing elite that he was a part of. Lily is certainly not in doubt. The power of communism, its ability to explain the truth and meaning of justice, and how people should live, was, according to Philby’s own words, its hold on him.
In the series, he tells his Soviet escort during his exit to Moscow that he chose communism while in Vienna because “it was there where I came to know what I stood for.” During Philby’s Vienna sojourn, the Left battled Englebert Dollfuss’s corporatist regime in pitched street battles, and Philby participated in some capacity in this violent struggle. Neither the book nor the series reports exactly what he did there. MacIntyre reports that Philby’s third wife, Eleanor, would leave Britain and come to join him in Moscow after his defection. She recalls asking him: “What is more important in your life, me and the children, or the Communist Party?” Philby answered, “The party, of course.” Elsewhere he stated, “I have always operated on two levels, a personal level and a political one. When the two have come into conflict I have had to put politics first.”
The question Elliott faces from Lily exemplifies this point. Why, she wonders, “did you not place him under arrest? Did you not want to kill him?” Angered by the full scope of Philby’s treachery, and shocked at Elliott’s coolness, she inquires about the number of people who died because of Philby’s actions. Elliott responds that the lives lost were “hundreds, thousands.” He seems casual about it, but as we will come to learn, he is most certainly not. Lily is the blunt edge of conscience that exposes what was the aristocratic club world of MI6, which Elliott exemplified, with all its weaknesses and deficiencies. Is this the real explanation for why Philby could move unnoticed for decades in MI6, even rising to the level of Washington Bureau Chief from 1949–51? In the series, Philby offers this as the reason to the Soviets for why he could be so effective. As in, only a ruling class so arrogant and convinced that it will always prevail could never think that a traitor could be in its midst.
MacIntyre details the disastrous paramilitary operations by MI6 in Georgia and Albania, which attempted to land anti-communist fighters in those countries to stoke uprisings against their communist governments. In both cases, the British-trained soldiers were obliterated quickly. And that’s because Philby had tipped off the Soviets with precise details about the operations. Did anyone wonder why they monumentally failed?
As mentioned, Philby came under tremendous communist suspicion when Guy Burgess, who lived with him in Washington, and Donald Maclean (who both worked for the British Foreign Office) escaped to Russia after the infamous Venona cables revealed to British intelligence that Maclean was a Soviet mole. Elliott fully backed Philby during this period. Philby staged an elaborate press conference protesting his innocence that seemed to vindicate the authenticity of his denials. Of course, he was lying every way imaginable. To this day, MI6 uses the video of Philby’s presser as a master-class demonstration of how to deceive and manipulate opponents.
In the end, MacIntyre’s judgment about Philby seems most apt. He was sympathetic, attentive, brilliant, engaging, and apparently a tremendous friend. Depicted in the series is a friendship, at least on Elliott’s part, that approached the highest level of Aristotelian friendship, a friendship based on willing the other’s good, and not merely predicated on utilitarian or situational needs. And Philby, from Elliott’s perspective, gave every indication that he, too, held their friendship in similar esteem. But was it a friendship of equals? At one point in the series, Elliott describes their friendship as “hero worship” on his part.
Philby used personal relationships for information to provide the Soviet Union. Something he did not only with Elliott, but also with James Jesus Angleton, CIA chief of counterintelligence, and others. Both Angleton and Elliott never knew until it was too late that Philby had betrayed them, using their admiration of him for communist purposes. Angleton, among others, would later claim to have harbored doubts about Philby, but thought that he was a British problem. He was also broken by the news, which instilled in him a corrosive paranoia that undermined the internal environment of the CIA and contributed to his later dismissal from the agency.
A later scene captures this well as Angleton announces to CIA leadership that the agency is compromised just as the British have been by Philby and that new measures will be forthcoming. He does not admit to his colleagues that one source of such undermining was his own judgment and action. MacIntyre notes the truth here, “No one likes to admit they have been utterly conned. The truth was simpler, as it almost always is: Philby was spying on everyone, and no one was spying on him, because he fooled them all.” The consequences of Philby’s work, though, stretch beyond personal betrayals, and include the deaths of many people.
Philby was a Soviet communist monster. Of the many people that he killed with his espionage work, one group stands out. As MacIntyre tells it, Erich and Elisabeth Vermehren were an anti-Hitler German couple because of their devout Catholicism. Elliott, in an intelligence coup, had managed to spirit them to Britain from Istanbul where Erich had been serving in German intelligence. News of their defection went straight to Hitler, who fumed and created a new intelligence apparatus as a result.
Elliott’s career benefited from successfully getting the Vermehrens to Britain, where the clandestine information Erich had was of great use. Erich had passed a file to Elliott of similar Catholics in Germany, fiercely anti-Nazi, who could be called on to rebuild Germany once Hitler fell. Of course, Russian forces got to East Germany first where many of them lived. Philby had obtained the file of these German Catholics and transferred it to the Soviets. They murdered every single person on the list.
Towards the end of the series, Elliott tells Lily that he might visit Philby in East Berlin undercover. She upbraids him scornfully, “You’re your own worst enemy. You’re the country’s worst enemy. He has lied to you for twenty-three years and that is all he has ever done.” Elliott doesn’t meet Philby but returns to him a monogrammed umbrella that had been given in an act of friendship. They are friends no more. By this time, Lily has learned in many ways that Elliott was no slouch, but one capable of immense judgments, acting decisively and prudently when the situation called for it. He tells her that he let Philby go to Moscow in Beirut not out of carelessness or sympathy, but final justice. The Russians, Elliott explains, would never accept Philby, never give him the adoration he craved. He would be miserable and die in misery.
In the final scene, Elliott outwits Philby. We have no conclusive evidence that Philby calculated like this, but one can hope that he did.