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Kim Philby: His Most Intimate Betrayal, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Kim Philby: His Most Intimate Betrayal, BBC Two

Kim Philby: His Most Intimate Betrayal, BBC Two

The point missed on the tangled webs of treachery in over-lavish docu-drama

Kim Philby in Moscow, 1968Rex Features

History may be written by the winners, but its verdict is surely still out on Kim Philby. The presenter of Kim Philby: His Most Intimate Betrayal, Ben Macintyre, acknowledged that Philby is “the most famous double agent in history”, but though such acclaim will never guarantee any kind of moral endorsement, at least it keeps his seat of notoriety warm. The fascination remains, not least for television.

Francis Whately’s two-part docu-drama is the second BBC film in a year (the first was last winter's The Spy Who Went Into the Cold by George Carey, focusing on the crucial Beirut period in 1963 that preceded Philby’s defection to Moscow). Macintyre’s real subject, however, was the spy’s close friend and espionage colleague Nicholas Elliot, and the complacent British establishment world that remained oblivious to what Philby was getting up to over so many years. These films give Elliot, who died in 1994, two hours of that enigmatic, Warholian thing, fame, after which his name will likely retreat back into the history books of espionage.

As we know from the dictatorial textbooks, history can be rewritten, and omission can be no less radical than such commission. In Macintyre’s words, the story of his films began in Berlin in 1939 with Elliot observing Hitler’s 50th birthday celebrations. But it was events from six years earlier that remain at the heart of the Philby story, meaning his time in Vienna and his marriage to Hungarian Communist Litzi Friedmann, events that, by every account, really brought him into the Soviet orbit in which he would remain until his death in 1988. The fact that neither Vienna nor Litzi were even alluded to in this new documentary seems, mildly put, an omission.

By the late Beirut days, Philby was often falling-over blotto – drink being perhaps the spy’s most reliable friend

What His Most Intimate Betrayal did reveal in spades, however, was the ridiculously insider nature of the way in which the British intelligence community brought in new recruits on the eve of World War II (“I knew his people,” was one typical endorsement from on high that welcomed Philby into that world). It was a world of Eton, Cambridge and cricket, copious drinking in London gentlemen's clubs and chummy conversations at their urinals, with its trademark vocabulary of “old chap” and “coming in for a friendly chat”.

How blind it really was to risk, especially anything originating from “inside”! Elliot never really distinguished himself by his competence, either: his crucial 1963 interrogation of Philby in Beirut was messed up by the fact that he opened a window, and so interfered with the tape recording, so no true record of the event remains – thus, it’s only his testimony that we are left with. (The botched incident in Portsmouth harbour in 1956 with Colonel Crabbe disappearing under Nikita Khrushchev’s cruiser was on Elliot’s watch, too.)

The biggest, possibly only coup of Elliot’s career was his extrication of the defecting Abwehr agent Erich Vermehren from Istanbul in 1943, who brought with him, along with a huge range of other documents, lists of German opponents of Communism. (Philby, of course, passed them to Moscow, so trying to find any of them after the war revealed a series of assassinations by Soviet “death squads”. No disagreeing with Macintyre’s verdict that this was a “secret, sordid tragedy”.)

But Vermehren, snitched out of Istanbul with his wife by Elliot in a staged kidnapping and ferried via Cairo to London, was also a man of principles, of conviction, driven on by his Catholic beliefs, which became those of opposition to Nazism – exactly the same motives that had driven Philby to his 1933 decision in Vienna. Passing any verdict on treachery is a treacherous business.

Which makes reaching a neutral judgement on Philby almost impossible. His faith in those original ideals never left him, even when after his defection he wasn’t really given any meaningful role in the KGB (there had been suspicions too that the wartime information coming from him in London, as well as Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, was just too good to be true). As testimonies go, however, little reads truer than the words of his widow, Rufina, whom he married in Moscow. “He saw people suffering too much,” she wrote, but he consoled himself by arguing that, “the ideals were right but the way they were carried out was wrong. The fault lay with the people in charge [of Communism].”

There were plenty of revealing details in His Most Intimate Betrayal, offering a little bit of an insight into Philby the man, even if that remains the most elusive concept. None more so than his anger at his discovery of his second wife Aileen’s affliction with Munchausen syndrome, which saw her self-harming to attract attention. She’d hoodwinked him, Macintyre noted: “The deceiver had been deceived”. Was that really a less "intimate betrayal" than his manipulation of a gullible pal whom he'd been hoodwinking throughout their acquaintance? Philby was a shit on all fronts.

OakesHis Most Intimate Betrayal was a lavish film, beautifully shot in locations which took in Beirut, Istanbul, Washington and Moscow, but rather too much of a solo job for Macintyre (it could well have resisted some gimmickry too, like the scene in which the presenter appeared on screen in preposterous triplicate). The only two interviewees Macintyre (pictured, above right, images by Ben Ryder) spoke to in this first episode were Elliot’s son Mark, and the impressive Rozanne Colchester (her connection to Philby was never a crucial one, however). By contrast, Carey’s film from last year, shot without any such largesse, was awash with a whole crew of the spy's past acquaintances.

The dramatic reconstructions in the film couldn’t be faulted professionally, either – except for the fact that they looked so lavish. David Oakes (pictured, above left) as Philby made us understand the man’s charms, not to mention his verve, as he outplayed the rather nerdy Elliot (William Beck). But faces don’t lie; you only have to look at an image from that informal 1955 press conference that Philby called, with such astonishing chutzpah, after he’d been vindicated in parliament by Anthony Eden, to see the stress there. By the late Beirut days, he was often falling-over blotto – drink being perhaps the spy’s most reliable friend – and light years away from the fresh daisy appearance that Oakes gave him here. Hard to escape the conclusion that Philby has been glamorised, unexpectedly, and from the most unexpected quarter.

  • The second episode of Kim Philby: His Most Intimate Betrayal is on BBC Two, Thursday 3 April
It was a world of Eton, Cambridge and cricket, copious drinking in London gentlemen's clubs and chummy conversations at their urinals

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Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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the strongest impressions these two films have made is, one - how sheerly smug a presenter Macintyre is! and, two - how much is it all Elliot's version? inevitably, because he bungled that Beirut recording, it's all in his words history is (re-)written, in his particular case, by the 'losers'

I can't really top your comment, as I agree.... It was to me, just very Le Carre.

An entertaining spy romp in my book, with the typical bias of those who have the 'facts' and those who some how believe they do. If we really did learn the true facts, we would have no real intelligence service, so for me its more of a question around did the presenter need to be so 'in your face'.

smug is not the word! Macintyre managed, if I remember right, three external interviewees and Rozanne Colchester, though she's as good in screen interview as anyone, wasn't crucial in the Philby story, her contact with him limited to Albania and Istabul (tangentially) Carey's film brought whole crowds of them out - and what speaks better than such human testimony? certainly not a presenter's self-satisfaction hard to resist the idea that Macintyre only got the Nicholas Elliot gig because of his own Eton connections that whole insider world goes on...

Endorsing treachery is a tough one. But betrayal and secrecy are surely at the heart of espionage, a secret and sordid business indeed. Also in the equation is the fact that Philby's personal life appears so deeply unattractive (no wonder Aileen went the way she did; Eleanor was apparently the second biggest boozer in Beirut after her husband. And neither of them 'knew' abiut hs secret life). Unlike others of the Cambridge spies, he wasn't an outsider in his sexuality. And others will know more about whether he actually profited financially from his Soviet contollers (who were also being purged back home at an alarming rate in the late 30s). Worth sticking to the facts: he made his decision in 1933, and never went back on it. Surely he had the chance to? If he had gone along with Elliot's Beirut proposals, what would the secret services have done with him? Surely they wouldn't have exposed him, rather guarded his secret for as long as they could, as with Blunt. He outwitted his interrogators, which says as much as for quick wits as for their very slow ones. He bluffed it out, and you can't but not note an element of panache there - he could have surely gone over in 1951? Some element even of courage there? Though no one will like to acknowledge it.

"To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged." Those words have been attributed to George Blake, another double agent, though from a later generation. the paradox with Philby is that - he did so very much belong? in every sense... though Blake's words below - courtesy Wikipedia - still surely speak for that earlier generation too? 'In an interview he was once asked, "Is there one incident that triggered your decision to effectively change sides?", to which Blake responded, "It was the relentless bombing of small Korean villages by enormous American flying fortresses. Women and children and old people, because the young men were in the army. We might have been victims ourselves. It made me feel ashamed of belonging to these overpowering, technically superior countries fighting against what seemed to me defenceless people. I felt I was on the wrong side ... that it would be better for humanity if the Communist system prevailed, that it would put an end to war."

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