“Good breeding and good manners are no guarantee of loyalty.” On Friday 11 October 2013, the Frontline Club screened Philby – The Spy Who Went Into the Cold. Kim Philby acted as a Soviet double-agent while serving as chief British intelligence officer in the United States, and while heading MI6’s anti-Soviet section. The BBC Storyville preview delved into Kim Philby’s conflicted past.
Moderator Nick Fraser (L) and director George Carey (R) Photo by: George Symonds
Before the lights went down, moderator Nick Fraser introduced director George Carey:
“While I’m a mild connoisseur of, as one might be, the deviant behaviour of the British upper classes, he is a true obsessive [laughter from the audience]. If there were a Mastermind of errors and stupidities committed by the British upper classes, George would score 40 points [more laughter].”
“I’m not sure I would have written that script myself,” Carey was quick to qualify:
“I came to Philby with a slightly more open-minded view [even more laughter]. I hope you all enjoy the film.”
As the lights went up, Fraser engaged the Q&A:
“The very charming but overweight KGB man says he was a romantic who believed in Karl Marx, . . . but when you went to his lair, there was P.G. Woodhouse there, not Karl Marx. What evidence did you ever uncover that he wasn’t just trapped by the decisions in his early life, but actually continued to believe in all the plumbery of Marx and Lenin?”
“I think the two can both be true. He was certainly trapped,” said Carey.
“I think he missed lots of things about England, and I think he felt the Communism that he thought he was fighting for and had done those things for had not really delivered. . . . What puzzled me more than if he’d kept the faith or if it was a burnt out faith, was how on earth he’d got away with it. And it seemed to me he’d got away with it because everyone in that world was like him, like us. They were a gang as it were, and it was too easy.”
Many of the interviewees from the film were present in the audience. “A hopeless cause” was how one attendee described the idea of pursuing the Freedom of Information Act to find out exactly what Philby had done:
“It’s a hopeless cause to the extent that the secret service has never – and will never – disclose documents under any kind of legislation or statute as exists today, because they are in the business of keeping secrets. . . . And they have promised individuals today, yesterday and tomorrow that identities of people who have given information and cooperated will never be disclosed. So quite simply, it’s bad for business to make those kinds of disclosures.”
Fraser put it to Carey:
“You still didn’t quite explain to me in the film, though I love the film deeply, how it was he believed in all this shit for all this time. Because intelligent people like Arthur Koestler or Orwell could have set him right very early on, George.”
“Well,” responded Carey:
“Like many communists themselves, I’m sure he became disillusioned. The point is that was the side you reckoned you belonged to. You’d signed up for it. He’d committed himself to it.”
In reference to a comment on Philby being a product of his time Carey expanded:
“How on earth Philby thought his way through the Soviet–Nazi pact, given that the impetus of his spying was anti-fascist, goodness knows. But the general view amongst KGB I talked to, who kind of went through the same thing themselves was, ‘Oh well, our leader knows best,’ and ‘In the end it’s just expediency,’ ‘In the end it’s the way to defeat themselves,’ but I agree it’s a very difficult question to answer.”
“It was a kind of cast,” opined Fraser, “of upper-middle class intellectuals from places like Winchester, Eton et cetera:”
“Surely now, they would be more likely to be making a ton of money in the City with financial instruments. And the ideologies now – wholly unfashionable.”
In terms of the human cost of espionage, the film was unequivocal:
“Spies may have good causes, but few things they ever do is good.”
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