wed 21/04/2021

Queen Elizabeth and the Spy in the Palace, Channel 4 review - how the Fourth Man burrowed deep into the British Establishment | reviews, news & interviews

Queen Elizabeth and the Spy in the Palace, Channel 4 review - how the Fourth Man burrowed deep into the British Establishment

Queen Elizabeth and the Spy in the Palace, Channel 4 review - how the Fourth Man burrowed deep into the British Establishment

Did Anthony Blunt uncover secrets which threatened the survival of the house of Windsor?

Anthony Blunt at a press conference, shortly after being outed as a spy for the Soviets

Director of the Courtauld Institute, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and a particular expert on the art of Poussin, Sir Anthony Blunt spent decades at the epicentre of the royal family and the British Establishment.

Director of the Courtauld Institute, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and a particular expert on the art of Poussin, Sir Anthony Blunt spent decades at the epicentre of the royal family and the British Establishment. He was, as the so-called “Fourth Man” of the Cambridge espionage ring, also a spy for the Russians who handed over countless documents and nuggets of top secret information during and after World War Two, including super-sensitive details about the D-Day landings.

The Blunt story, in all its murky fascination, has long gripped writers, historians, documentary-makers and The Crown’s creator Peter Morgan. Andy Webb's documentary for Channel 4 probably didn’t reveal anything that Blunt-obsessives haven’t already ferreted out elsewhere, but it told the story with punch and panache, aided by some evocative archive footage and historic still photos (Blunt and Cambridge friends, pictured below by Lytton Strachey).

The theme that emerged most strongly was the way Blunt was so closely entwined with royalty and the ruling classes that exposing him might have resulted in catastrophic collateral damage. This would answer the question why, when he’d long been suspected by MI5 of treachery and being in the pay of the Russians, he was left undisturbed for so many years. He came under intense scrutiny after his lover and mentor Guy Burgess defected to Moscow in 1951, and was apparently interviewed 11 times by MI5 between 1951 and 1964, when he finally saw the game was up and confessed to MI5. Even so, this wouldn’t have happened without a tip-off from the FBI. He was given immunity from prosecution in return for the confession, and apparently believed his treason would not be publicly revealed.

It wasn’t until Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister in 1979 that Blunt’s dirty secrets were revealed in the House of Commons. Thatcher, disgusted by what she saw as upper-class cronyism and the Establishment closing ranks to protect itself, described Blunt as “repugnant and contemptible”. It was only then that Blunt was stripped of his knighthood, though his only further punishment was a deluge of hostile publicity. Perhaps they thought hanging was too good for him. As the historian Piers Brendon put it here, “Blunt absolutely got away with it.”

The theory advanced here was that Blunt, who was sent on clandestine missions to Germany in 1945 to rescue assorted letters and artefacts on behalf of the Royal Family, had unearthed evidence of the Windsors’ sympathy for, and possible collusion with, the Nazis, reaching far beyond the well-documented antics of Third Reich fanboy the Duke of Windsor. Blunt dutifully copied the letters to Moscow, and the film quoted Soviet spy Gennady Sokolov’s suggestion that “if the documents discovered by Blunt were published” it would cause a scandal “which could even be the fall of the dynasty” (Blunt in 1962, pictured below by Aubrey Hart).

It’s a fascinating thesis, though incontrovertible proof was lacking. However, as an instructive parable of class and snobbery, the Blunt story takes some beating. He was, to a certain extent, to the manor born, since the Queen Mother (or Mrs George VI) was his third cousin, while his mother Hilda used to be given clothes by Queen Mary. Mixing with a group of posh aesthetes and intellectuals when he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, he was insulated in this dreamy walled garden from the then-draconian legal penalties for homosexuality, and became infatuated with the extrovert Burgess. It seems the titans of the intelligence community couldn’t comprehend that someone of such rarefied breeding might be capable of such heinous treachery. Compare and contrast with the barbarous treatment meted out to code-cracking genius Alan Turing, a crucial contributor to the Allied victory driven to suicide after his conviction for “gross indecency”.

Blunt’s defence was that he and his contemporaries were drawn into working for the Soviets because Stalin seemed to be the only bulwark against Hitler and fascism, though he never expressed any remorse at having enabled the monstrosities of Stalinism, or for anything else. His trite little homily about it being “a case of political conscience against loyalty to country – I chose conscience” was about as convincing as a fake Poussin scrawled with a Sharpie pen. At least Channel 4 managed to resist the temptation to call this film A Very British Traitor.

As an instructive parable of class and snobbery, the Blunt story takes some beating

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters