In ‘A Spy Among Friends,’ B.F.F. Betrayal at an International Level

A twisty MGM+ series tells the story of Kim Philby, a British agent secretly working for the Soviet Union, and Nicholas Elliott, his closest friend.

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By Roslyn Sulcas

Reporting from London

“Why wasn’t he in custody?” asks the MI5 officer Lily Thomas. It is January 1963, and Thomas is talking about Kim Philby, a British intelligence agent who, after being exposed as a Soviet spy, has escaped to Moscow. Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s closest friend and a fellow member of the foreign intelligence agency MI6, looks slightly nonplused. “Well, that’s not how we —” he begins, before coming to an abrupt halt.

That “we” is at the heart of “A Spy Among Friends,” a six-part series based on the book of the same name by Ben Macintyre, and starring Guy Pearce as Philby, Damian Lewis as Elliott and Anna Maxwell Martin as Thomas. The series, produced by Sony Pictures Television, premieres March 12 on MGM+.

It’s the “we” of the old boys’ club, of men bonded by private schools, an Oxbridge education, members-only clubs and the confident assumption of their right to power. The show explores the psychological shock of the realization that a figure considered “one of us” was something quite different all along.

“MI6 tended to attract those public schoolboys, people who had no hesitation about bending the rules because they thought they were above the rules,” Macintyre said in a recent interview. “They believed they were born to lead, and they couldn’t imagine that one of their own could be a traitor.”

The TV adaptation was written by Alex Cary (“Homeland”) and directed by Nick Murphy (“Blood”). Like the book, it is both a tale of espionage and the story of a friendship and a betrayal that is as personally devastating for Elliott as the political betrayal is for the Western powers.

Philby’s story is true: He was one of the Cambridge Five, a group of upper-class Englishmen recruited by the Soviets while in college, and who were eventually, and gradually, unmasked following World War II, after they had been working for the Communist cause from inside British intelligence services for decades.

“It’s such a well-known story in the U.K, Philby as the most successful traitor of the 20th century,” Lewis said in a video interview from New York. “This is a sneak peek at a more psychological, emotional way of looking at it.”

Philby was both Elliott’s best friend and his idol, Lewis said, and Elliott “fatally continued to facilitate his treachery.” Lewis added: “The great tragedy is that he realizes in retrospect that the man he loved and enabled and defended had gotten thousands of people killed.”

Macintyre said that he learned about the Philby-Elliott friendship from the novelist John le Carré, who described it to him as “the best unwritten story of the Cold War.” When he began his research, he discovered “comrades in arms who loved each other as much as heterosexual men in Britain could.”

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