In a few weeks, families will be gathering around Christmas trees, sharing chunks of ground beef, singing Christmas carols, and unwrapping presents. And across the country, dads — who have spent their entire lives obtaining socks and ties — will be squeezing their rectangular packages. What could it be? A DVD of The soldier James Ryan? A box of Ferrero Rochers? Or the latest book by popular historian Ben Macintyre, whose accounts of modern British history are revered by men of a certain age?
Macintyre’s works include villain heroes (adapted for a BBC TV series) and Operation Mincemeat (a box office hit earlier this year), and the author is now making his debut on ITVX – a bold new streaming era for the UK’s third channel – with a large-scale adaptation of A spy among friends, the inside story of the capture of Soviet double agent Kim Philby. Philby is played here by Guy Pearce (last seen in the Neighbors finale), while Nicholas Elliott, the SIS agent responsible for bringing him in, is portrayed by Damien Lewis. It’s a high-profile cast of men your dad probably likes from things like band of brothers and The king’s speech.
The show’s central question is simple: how did Philby escape from Elliott’s clutches in Beirut so that he could flee to Moscow? Was Elliott in cahoots? Are you running a secret operation? Or did Philby just outsmart his closest friend? “Do you think Philby played you from the moment you met?” Anna Maxwell Martin’s Lily Thomas asks Elliott during his lengthy interrogation. And through extensive flashbacks and other non-linear storytelling, that question is subjected to a similarly penetrating scrutiny.
Much has been written about the controversy surrounding Maxwell Martin’s character Lily, who is a made-up by screenwriter Alex Cary. A working-class woman with a heavy Northeast accent and a black husband seems almost destined to anger tabloid columnists. “Very confident, isn’t it, Ms. Thomas?” observes a stupid spy. “Is this a problem?” she replies coolly. But as a creative choice, it’s less sure-footed. Each episode begins with a disclaimer announcing that “some characters and scenes were created for dramatic purposes,” but it’s hard to overcome the sense that this is a cake to be eaten as well as eaten. From TV programs such as traitor and cambridge spies, to The puzzle man and A different loyalty On the big screen, the Philby story has been told many times. The desire to tell different stories and the desire to tell the same stories over and over again may be incompatible.
But despite Philby and Macintyre’s overexposure, there’s plenty to enjoy A spy among friends. Lewis and Pearce are certainly the most distinguished actors ITV could afford, and both bring their own delicacy to the negotiations: Lewis, a fragile man reeling from betrayal, Pearce, a raunchy man dealing with the aftermath (” Do you think it could find some jam?” he asks like an abandoned Paddington bear adjusting to life in Moscow). The production design is also unusually lavish for an ITV drama – perhaps influenced by the smoky rooms and tweed men of Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation Craft tailor soldier spy.
The story of Philby and the Cambridge spy ring is one of the most intriguing stories in 20th-century British history (or, as it is known today, the Ben Macintyre Cinematic Universe). So it’s a pity that the fairy tale’s inherent questions of class, capitalism and leniency are subordinated to a convenient moral directive. but A spy among friends notes, “Spying can be exhilarating at times.” And the show is, at best, like a sip of hot mulled wine—or should be shiny veinMate?
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/a-spy-among-friends-review-itv-b2240473.html A Spy Among Friends Review: ITVX’s big-budget adaptation is like a sip of hot mulled wine