In retrospect, I can’t even begin to comprehend why it has taken me so long to getting round to watching Cambridge Spies (the obvious lack of time given how much theatre I see aside) – a quality BBC drama with a properly thesp-heavy cast about spies, with gayness involved, and Imelda Staunton as the Queen (Mother). But regardless, it has taken me this long and of course I’m kicking myself as I thought it was a brilliant piece of drama. Over four parts, Peter Moffat takes us through the key years of four of the Cambridge Five Soviet spies from their recruitment at Trinity College through to the defection of two of them nearly 20 years later.
It was a story I knew little of, so there was a genuine frisson in watching how it all unfolded, not knowing what would happen next, but the real thrill was in the excellent character work from the four leads – Toby Stephens as Kim Philby, Tom Hollander as Guy Burgess, Rupert Penry-Jones as Donald Maclean and particularly Samuel West as Anthony Blunt. From their idealistic anti-fascist student days when the Soviet Union seemed like the only real option to stand against the encroaching terror, the wisdom of the KGB’s recruiting plan was borne out by the ascendance of these four into the higher echelons of the British state, from where they would be able to provide the most important of secrets.
Maclean’s rise in the Foreign Office was probably the least thrilling of the strands for me, though Penry-Jones’ fresh-facedness brought poignancy to his later struggles. Tom Hollander’s performance as Burgess was something quite extraordinary: flamboyantly unpredictable though working closely with many politicians, he becomes increasingly, heartbreakingly, unstable and touchingly tragic with it. Toby Stephens’ Philby was the biggest revelation for me, I’m never quite sure how I feel about him as an actor, but he is exceptional here. As an SIS officer, his travels were more varied and his heart more open to experiences which consequently resulted in it being bruised repeatedly, whether in being forced apart from lovers, being horrified by the atrocities in Guernica or trying to manage the unsteady Burgess or his feelings for Maclean’s wife.
And then West’s Blunt, the most senior of the group, the most inscrutably enigmatic and ultimately the most heartrendingly portrayed as his emotional distance is challenged by his closeness to Burgess’ lover Jack, his MI5 career becomes supplanted by an unexpected move to Buckingham Palace and his relationship with Russia becomes increasingly strained as suspicions rise about their devotion to the cause. All extremely well done.
Leading players aside, there’s plenty a theatrical spot to had in the rest of the cast as well. Lisa Dillon broke my heart as Kim Philby’s first wife Litzi, in turn provoking one of the most moving moments of the whole show as Philby has to tell his first major lie; Imelda Staunton’s Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother is hilarious as she slowly susses out Blunt’s suitability to join her household as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures; Angus Wright, Nicholas Burns, Darrell D’Silva all pop up too, but none so entertainingly as Nancy Carroll and Benedict Cumberbatch who both cameo in the same scene in a sultry Spanish bar which was a genius moment and a great surprise.
So a thoroughly recommended bit of quality TV, one probably worth investing in on DVD to allow for rewatching as I’m sure there were bits I missed first time round and I’ll certainly enjoy finding out if that’s true.