Life & Culture

A Spy Among Friends review: Too much fiction in real-life espionage story

Portrayal of friendship between SIS agents Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby let down by clumsy portrayal of their era


SONY FOR ITVX A SPY AMONG FRIENDS EPISODE 2 Pictured:DAMIAN LEWIS as Nicholas Elliott and EDWARD-BAKER DULY as Ian Fleming. This photograph must not be syndicated to any other company, publication or website, or permanently archived, without the express written permission of ITV Picture Desk. Full Terms and conditions are available on For further information please contact: 07909906963

A Spy Among Friends
ITV | ★★★✩✩

There’s something quite fascinating about the post-war British intelligence services. Of course Ian Fleming tapped into that with his James Bond creation, to which there’s a nice nod in ITV’s mini-series A Spy Among Friends.

What this adaptation of the book of the same name captures best is the era before the dominance of gadgets and technology, where the principal tool of espionage was one another.

The Enigma machine may have existed, but enigma still ran the circus. Put another way, while there may have been bugging, telephoto lens shots and statecraft, the ability to read the other person in the room was the spy’s greatest asset. But what if your suspect is a life-long best friend?

How would you know they were telling a lie, if all you’ve ever known is them lying?

The core of show is the real-life of friendship between SIS agents Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby.

Portrayed by Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce respectively, both utilise their ability to convey a plethora of conflicting thoughts and emotion behind their dialogue.

Philby was famously part of the Cambridge Five, betraying Western secrets to the KGB for decades, until as the opening scene reveals, a Jewish socialite, Flora Solomon, testified against him.

It’s later on that we learn his first handler was also a Jewish woman, who he knew from his time working with the resistance in Austria during the Second World War.

A jigsaw of blame takes shape through a series of interrogation flashbacks. Elliott interrogates Philby, seeking redemption for his own complicity. A KGB agent interrogates Philby to see if Elliott succeeded in turning him.

And an MI5 agent interrogates Elliott to learn just how complicit he may be, and why he seemingly let Philby go.

This makes it sound more complicated than it really is — as long as you’re just focusing on one screen you’ll be all right.

There’s a sense though that the spaghetti narrative is just a method for obfuscating a plot, where you go in knowing exactly who dun it.

The 2011 thriller remake of Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy arguably played this game much better, but then it wasn’t as beholden to real events and people as is necessary here.

I say this, but by creating an MI5 agent who is after Elliott, the programme makers have effectively half eaten an imaginary cake. Anna Maxwell Martin is a great actress, but her character is just that, a character.

Crowbarring a fictional female M15 interrogator into a true story that took place in the early 1960s rings as false as Philby’s lies. She’s working class, she’s Northern, her husband is black.

I’m surprised she isn’t also non-binary, frankly. That’d really stick it to the establishment.

The text disclaimer that “some characters have been created for dramatic purposes” isn’t helped when they then provide the least drama.

The system was betrayed, but not portraying that system properly is not appreciating the scope of the betrayal.

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