Contains some spoilers
The key text is supplied by aesthete Anthony Blanche in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. “I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm,” he says to his old Oxford friend, Charles Ryder. “Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, Charles, it has killed you.”
In modern history, rather than fiction, there is no greater example of the lethally corrosive power of charm than Kim Philby: dazzling Cambridge undergraduate; senior MI6 officer tipped to head the intelligence service; our man in Washington, where he formed deep friendships with many in the US intelligence community, notably rising CIA star, James Jesus Angleton; foreign correspondent for the Observer and Economist; and – between his recruitment in Regent’s Park in July 1934 to his death in a Moscow hospital in May 1988 – a ruthlessly devoted servant of the KGB, traitor to his country, and agent on behalf of Soviet communism.
“He had charm to burn,” recalled Nicholas Elliott, his closest friend and colleague in the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Glenn Balfour-Paul, first secretary at the British embassy in Beirut (whose dinner party Philby skipped on 23 January 1963 so he could make his escape to the USSR) described the devilish conundrum more fully.
“He was an unforgivable traitor to his country,” he said, “responsible among much else for the assassinaton by his Soviet associates of many brave men. All I can say is that in the half of him that I knew (the deceitful half, of course) he was a most enjoyable friend.” John le Carré, a former MI6 official, refused to meet Philby on a trip to Moscow in 1987; yet his fellow master of the espionage novel, Graham Greene, was ready to contribute a foreword to the defector’s narcissistic and near-unreadable memoir, My Silent War: The Autobiography of a Spy (1968).
In his superb book on Elliott’s final confrontation with the man who had been like a brother to him, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2014), Ben Macintyre locates a second key text in C.S. Lewis’s great lecture of 1944 on “The Inner Ring” and the seductions of inclusion in the most prestigious elites: “Of all the passions, the passions for the Inner Ring is the most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
For its launch today, the new (free) streaming service ITVX is releasing the six-episode box set of Alex Cary’s dramatisation of Macintyre’s book, a terrific exploration of the mind games and affection that bound and sundered Philby and Elliott; of the privileged milieu that produced them both; and of the broader Cold War geopolitical mosaic in which their shattered friendship was a dark, broken tile.
Guy Pearce is mesmerising as Philby: a drink-sodden scarecrow from which hangs residual charisma, sentimentality and epic arrogance. And Damian Lewis has never been better than in his performance as Elliott: enraged, broken-hearted but flinty in his determination not to be outflanked in the final reckoning by his treacherous friend.
The series is very clearly labelled as “a work of imagination” and those who want a strictly historical account, meticulously researched, should stick to Macintyre’s original. That said, the series is espionage drama at its very finest, adeptly using the licence conferred by its genre to explore the emotional, psychological and ideological traumas that lurk within this poisoned saga. Mischievously, it hints, for instance, at the possible treachery of Sir Roger Hollis, director general of MI5, played by Ade Edmondson (for the record, Macintyre and most other authorities dismiss this long-running thesis, not least because it was vociferously and persuasively denied by the Soviet double agent Oleg Gordievsky).
Most creatively, the series introduces the fictional character of Lily Thomas (Anna Maxwell Martin, terrific), an MI5 interrogator who debriefs Elliott when he returns from Beirut and investigates the circumstances of Philby’s escape on the Dolmatova, a Soviet freighter bound for Odesa. She is a working-class woman from Durham, as far as can be imagined from Elliott’s world of public schools, Oxford and Cambridge and discreet lunches in clubland.
This plot device enables the series to confront directly the role of class in Philby’s story, and the wider disaster of the Cambridge spy ring (Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected to Moscow in 1951; Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was named to the FBI in 1963 by one of his own recruits and former lover, Michael Straight; and John Cairncross, another MI6 officer, was finally confirmed by Gordievsky to have been the so-called “Fifth Man”).
But the dialogue between Lewis and Maxwell Martin has another, structural purpose which is to mirror Elliott’s cross-examination of Philby. He is often portrayed as the Third Man’s final dupe, tricked by a “chicken-feed” partial confession into leaving Beirut so that the KGB could extract their man; or even as silently complicit in Philby’s flight, granting his old friend the chance to “do a fade” and spare the Establishment from having to deal with his return to British soil (for more on Elliott, try the portrait in John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life).
In Cary’s version, Elliott is shown to be much more wily – knowing that, if he allowed Philby the opportunity to slip away, the KGB would always be suspicious of the ease with which he had escaped from Beirut and keep him away from serious operational work (which is indeed what happened – though buried with a full honour guard at Kuntsevo cemetery outside Moscow and portrayed on a Soviet postage stamp, Philby in later life was little more than a mascot for his gloating masters).
Most of the dramatisations of the Cambridge spy ring – An Englishman Abroad (1983), Alan Bennett’s account of Guy Burgess’s meeting in Moscow in 1958 with the actress Coral Browne; Another Country (1984), based on Burgess’s early life; Blunt: The Fourth Man (1987) and Cambridge Spies (2003) – have focused on the double agents themselves, their complex interactions and the origins of their treachery.
Admirably, however, A Spy Among Friends devotes plenty of screen time to the appalling human cost of what they did. Philby was personally responsible for the death of Konstantin Volkov, Vice Consul for the Soviet Union in Istanbul who sought political asylum from the British in September 1945; and for the slaughter of the anti-communist Germans in the Catholic resistance whose names had been given in strict confidence to MI6 by the German defector Erich Vermehren – and duly passed onto Moscow by its obliging mole.
At least 300 people died because of Philby’s sabotage of Operation Valuable, the series of MI6-CIA strikes from 1949 on the Stalinist regime in Albania. As Richard Helms, director of the CIA from 1966 to 1973, reflected: “I don’t know that the damage he did can ever be actually calculated.”
In addition to this tally of deaths, Philby left a trail of psychological shrapnel wherever he went. In the US, Angleton (played brilliantly by Stephen Kunken) descended into deep paranoia, convinced that the US intelligence apparatus and foreign governments around the world had been penetrated by the KGB’s moles.
As Elliott recalled: “The knowledge that he, Jim, the top expert in the world on Soviet espionage, had been totally deceived, had a cataclysmic effect on his personality. Jim henceforward found it difficult to trust anybody, to make two and two add up to four.” Angleton was sacked from the CIA in 1974. (For a more personal account of the price exacted by the Cambridge spies, try Jenny Rees’s Looking for Mr Nobody: The Secret Life of Goronwy Rees, an affecting account of a daughter’s quest to establish, once and for all, whether her father had also betrayed his country).
“I rather thought it would be you,” said Philby as Elliott opened the door at the Beirut safe house. In their world, even adversaries had been to the same Cambridge college, frequented the same London clubs, gone to the same tailors. As the British Empire collapsed, they played ideological chess on a blazing board.
Yet how sanguine can we be, looking back at the era portrayed in A Spy Among Friends? “The privately educated Englishman is the greatest dissembler on earth,” says George Smiley in le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim. “Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damn fool.”
Is that still not true – at least to a much greater extent than we would care to admit? One of my books of the year was Simon Kuper’s Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK (see Creative Sensemaker, 28 April). This more recent generation fell out over Brexit rather than Marxism and the Iron Curtain. At stake was national decline rather than nuclear Armageddon. But their cohesion as a tribe – governed by a code of honour, unspoken rules, private loyalties – was still powerfully resonant of a way of running the country that was meant to have ended decades ago.
Which, finally, is the most unsettling feeling of all as one watches Pearce and Lewis majestically re-enact one of the greatest confrontations in the annals of espionage: that, far from being a window into a lost world, the bond and the battle between Philby and Elliott in a Beirut apartment six decades ago still seems all too contemporary.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
The first music acts announced for Tortoise’s festival of ideas and music, Kite (9-11 June 2023) include club pop anthem legends Hot Chip, critically acclaimed and much-loved British rock band Suede and trailblazing disco-soul icon Candi Staton. On the comedy bill we’ll have viral sensation Alistair Green, two of comedy’s most talked about new talents, Toussaint Douglass and Josh Berry, Shazia Mirza, creator of Channel 4 National Comedy Award nominated show Coconut and with everyone’s favourite MC Kiri Pritchard McLean, host of Live from the Covid Arms. Simon Sinek and Marina Hyde are amongst the first of the speakers to be announced with loads more still to come.
Early bird tickets are now on sale for a limited time and as a member you save an extra 15% off the early bird price.
Emancipation (Apple TV+, 9 December)
First, a viewer advisory: if you are unable to suspend, at least for a couple of hours or so, whatever feelings you may have about the moment at this year’s Oscars when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, do not watch this movie. Its subject matter is simply too serious to become entangled in your mind with that Hollywood moment, deplorable as it undoubtedly was.
That said, I hope you do watch Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation, because it is a powerful, often devastating account of an enslaved man’s horrific experience, his flight from a Louisiana railroad construction site and his enlistment in the Union Army. Inspired by the so-called “Whipped Peter” photograph taken in 1863 by abolitionists in Baton Rouge of the appalling scars on an escapee’s back, and published in Harper’s Weekly, the film follows Smith, as Peter, from the moment that he is separated from his family, on his hellish journey through the swamp (pursued by the slave-catcher Fassel, chillingly played by Ben Foster).
Fuqua, best known for Training Day and The Equalizer franchise, shows that he is able to translate the intensity and kineticism of his action thrillers into a more profound setting, and to communicate the sheer physical horror of Peter’s days in captivity and on the run. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is formidable, often edging towards a monochrome that is reminiscent of Schindler’s List – as is the moment when a little white girl yells: “Runner! Runner!” There are no white saviours in Emancipation.
Smith himself is simply extraordinary, as uncompromisingly immersed in a role as he has ever been; exuding battered humanity propelled by astonishing determination and (in Peter’s case) profound Christian faith. As compellingly as any filmmaker before them, he and Fuqua insist that we not avert our gaze from the atrocity of enslavement. Nor are we entitled to do so: a must-see movie.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (BFI Player; Criterion Collection Blu-ray)
Long acknowledged as a masterpiece of avant-garde feminist cinema, the late Belgian director Chantel Akerman’s 1975 movie has suddenly been catapulted into the critical stratosphere – topping Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade poll of 1,600 cineastes, ahead of Vertigo (which was in first place in 2012) and Citizen Kane (which was unchallenged in pole position for 50 years).
Clocking in at three-and-a-half hours, Jeanne Dielman is a vision of domestic routine so fastidious that the slightest disruption feels like a major plot reveal. Delphine Seyrig plays a middle-aged widow, meticulously cooking for her moody son Sylvain; on-screen for almost every moment of the movie, chopping vegetables, making coffee, buying yarn, listening to a neighbour outside the front door (and out of shot), preparing for bed.
Every detail is recorded with what the film theorist Laura Mulvey has called “anthropological exactitude.” The fact that Jeanne has also become a sex worker does not alter the pace or the tone of the film by a scintilla. Yet – precisely for this reason – as tiny things start to go wrong, we feel a detonation approaching. The film’s final ten minutes are amongst the most extraordinary endings in all cinema.
Akerman, who was only 24 when the movie opened at Cannes, has long been revered by filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes and – in particular – Joanna Hogg, director of The Souvenir (2019) and its sequel, who, along with Adam Roberts, co-authored the indispensable Chantal Akerman Retrospective Handbook (see Creative Sensemaker, 3 February, 2022).
Anyone who says they saw this one coming is telling pure porkies. Jeanne Dielman’s leap to the top from 36th place ten years ago is the talk of the global movie writers’ demi-monde, on- and offline. All that can be said with any confidence is that the movie’s triumph marks a change for the good: this is, rather shamefully, the first time a female director has achieved top honours in the poll. It also suggests that, for all the talk of cinema reaching its twilight years, the enthusiasm for exploratory, experimental, risk-taking movies is stronger than ever.
Between 2008 and 2019, Robert Downey Jr – or “RDJ”, as he is known in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – appeared as Iron Man in ten movies. Conservatively, he is worth $300 million, though the real figure is almost certainly greater.
His father, Robert Downey Sr, who died in July 2021 from complications associated with Parkinson’s Disease, was a maverick meteor of the American cinematic counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, responsible for such absurdist classics as Chafed Elbows (1966), Putney Swope (1969) and Greaser’s Palace (1972).
Yet, as different as father and son might seem to be, they were carved from the same timber: both recovered from serious drug addiction (in Senior’s case, “after 15 years of total fucking insanity; in Junior’s, after spending a year in California State Prison and many other setbacks). Like his father, the younger Downey is mercurial, charming, and creatively curious to an extent that the generation raised on MCU movies has not yet seen in action.
In this often moving documentary about Senior, father and son collaborated with director Chris Smith in an exploration of the former’s career, the two men’s relationship, and the impact upon it of impending mortality.
Senior’s capacity for mischief was unquenchable, to the extent that he was simultaneously making his own version of the film. “I still think on some level like he’s fucking with us,” says Junior with barely-concealed admiration. The strong bond between Senior and the director Paul Thomas Anderson, who gave him bit parts in Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) is a source of amusement. PTA, says Junior, is “the son my Dad wishes he had had.”
But that wasn’t remotely true. The mutual admiration of father and son ran deep. Junior says that his father was “connected to some sort of creative deity”, while Senior says it was clear from his son’s first cameo in Pound (1970), aged five, that he was an instinctive actor.
The two spend hours talking to one another about the process of filmmaking, the complexity of creativity and parenthood, and the means by which people deal with the suffering they experience and cause. But, in the end, what shines through is the simplicity of their love for one another. As Junior says, tears streaming down his face: “There’s part of me that thinks: oh, I’ll miss him.”
Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait – Gyles Brandreth (Penguin)
Famous for his knitwear, love of the English language (thanks to Channel 4’s Countdown), and magnificence as a raconteur, Gyles Brandreth is also a remarkable writer and chronicler of our times.
I can vouch for this personally as we were once colleagues on the Sunday Telegraph, to which he contributed a series of exceptional interviews with exceptional individuals – starting, as I recall, with Prince Philip. While MP for Chester, he also kept one of the best and most illuminating political diaries of recent decades.
All of which is to say that he is very far from a kowtowing courtier. Yes, in the many years that he knew Her Late Majesty the Queen, he formed a high regard for her character, stoicism and sense of duty. But this book is a genuine addition to our knowledge of the late monarch, and, more than anything else published to date, gives the reader a true sense of what she was like in private.
Who would have guessed, for instance, that, in her final years, she was a fan of Line of Duty (though she objected that there’s “an awful lot of mumbling on television now”)? Or that she once called upon an exorcist to investigate reported disturbances in the room at Sandringham where her father died?
She took to Meghan on first meeting the future Duchess of Sussex and encouraged her to carry on acting if she wished – “that’s your profession, after all.” When Harry and his wife broke cover in their interview with Oprah Winfrey, the Queen was much less troubled than some members of the royal family by “this television nonsense”. She and Brandreth also had a very funny disagreement about Rupert the Bear.
For anyone with even the slightest interest in the longest serving monarch in this nation’s history, his book is required reading.
Adventures in Modern Recording – from ABC to ZTT – Trevor Horn (Nine Eight Books)
Trevor Horn was in the Tortoise newsroom on Tuesday evening for our final Late of 2022 (you can see the brilliant Liz Moseley interviewing him here). In anticipation of which, I thought I should read his memoir.
And what a book it is. Tracing Horn’s life from his upbringing in Durham via his career as a performer in Buggles and Yes (a band he had long idolised), to his spectacular role in defining the culture and style of the Eighties – and beyond.
The inimitable sound of ABC’s The Lexicon of Love, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s first album, Propaganda, Grace Jones’ “Slave to the Rhythm”, the Pet Shop Boys’ “Left To My Own Devices” and Seal’s “Crazy” – Horn was responsible for all this majesty and much more.
What he had, and has, is a preternatural ability to spot the germ of magic in an act or a song that might initially sound terrible. This was certainly the case with Frankie’s early performances of ‘Relax’. But Horn grasped that the track could be turned into something exceptional and ended up producing the greatest anthem of 1980s hedonism. He also enabled the band to follow it up with another smash hit, ‘Two Tribes’ – with the consequence that, at one point in 1984, Frankie occupied the number one and number two slots in the UK charts.
But it wasn’t always about commercial success. The account of Horn’s collaboration with Malcolm McLaren on Duck Rock (1983) is both hilarious and instructive: the two men, though very different, clicked almost immediately and went on a magical mystery tour of the world in search of interesting music that they could fuse into a new form of international, multi-genre pop. The album did not sell especially well on its release, but has come to be recognised as a landmark in world music.
All of which is to say that Adventures in Recording is much more than a volume of memorabilia and witty anecdotage. It’s also a manual for all who aspire to true creativity, by one of pop’s few authentic geniuses.
A Man’s Place – Annie Ernaux (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
When Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in Literature in October, I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read a single one of her books. So, in the past couple of months, I have been trying to catch up.
First published as La Place in 1982, Ernaux’s memoir of her father (which won the coveted Prix Renaudot two years later), is a good place to start. It includes what amounts to a writer’s manifesto, announcing Ernaux’s determination to stick rigorously to the forensic, to include “[n]o lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony” and to respect the discipline of l’écriture plate (literally, “flat writing”).
So her memories of Alphonse Duchesne and her life growing up in Normandy where he and her mother ran a café-grocery, are unadorned and rooted powerfully in the actual. This is how she characterises his own youth: “Milking the cows at dawn and at dusk, October drizzle, baskets of apples tipped into the cider press, chicken droppings shovelled into buckets, being hot and thirsty.”
As in many of her other books, the theme of class and social status permeates A Man’s Place. After the war, her mother was appalled that her husband found work filling in the holes left by German shells: “How low can you go.” As shopkeepers, her parents achieved a new and sometimes mean-spirited rank in the social hierarchy: “They were no longer on the side of the humiliated”.
And as her education proceeded, she realised that a social distance was opening between her father and herself: “anything to do with language was a source of resentment and distress, far more than money… I soon realized that I had entered a new world.”If you enjoy this short volume, try The Years (perhaps her defining work), Getting Lost (the diary she kept of her passionate affair with a married Soviet embassy attaché), and Happening (a harrowing account of her experience of illegal abortion in 1963, recently turned into an excellent movie by Audrey Diwan). And check out this excellent Alexander Schwartz New Yorker piece on the 82-year-old writer, published last month.
This Is What We Do – Leftfield
From its opening (title) track, Leftfield’s fourth studio album ushers the listener into a mosh pit of the mind, full of deep bass, sampled mantras, hypnotic synth riffs and the infectious brand of progressive house with which they have been synonymous for almost 30 years.
“They”, of course, is really Neil Barnes, the driving force behind the electronic act since its inception, presently teamed with Adam Wren. Now happily in remission from cancer and recovered from a bout of depression, his response to this period of adversity in his life has not been to turn it into a musical misery memoir but to burst back defiantly with a terrific album of overwhelming sonic power.
‘Pulse’ and ‘Accumulator’ are already familiar as strong singles, the latter an acid techno beast of a track. And, as ever, Barnes is good at recruiting interesting collaborators to add vocals when it suits him (remember John Lydon on 1993’s thrilling ‘Open Up’?). Grian Chatten of Fontaines DC adds his snarky tones to “Full Way Round”, while poet Lemn Sissay turns a dance track into a plea for social justice.
“City of Synths” and “Machines Like Me” pay homage to the greatness of Kraftwerk – which has prompted some to ask if the album is just an exercise in retro celebration. Which prompts me to ask: when the music is this good, who cares?
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3 – Sinfonia of London
Relaunched in 2018 by British conductor John Wilson, Sinfonia of London has fast established itself as a force to be reckoned with. Here, the orchestra delivers a fine recording of three works by Rachmaninoff – and one in particular.
The Third Symphony (1935-6) was the composer’s last; an unfettered exercise in Russian Romanticism, surging emotions and motifs full of hope, apprehension and yearning. The Adagio is especially fine, thanks to Wilson’s trademark ability to bring the lyrical best out of an orchestra while maintaining a clear sense of order.
‘Vocalise’, composed in 1915, is a beautiful song, here performed by instruments alone (you might recognise its cultural footprint from the 1999 Pet Shop Boys track ‘Happiness is an Option’). But the album’s highlight is the haunting interpretation of ‘The Isle of the Dead’, a symphonic poem whose composition Rachmaninoff completed in 1908.
Inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name – five different versions of which he completed between 1880 and 1886 – the composer’s 20-minute account of the journey of the dead, transported by the ferryman, towards a desolate island, is haunting, hypnotic and absolutely engrossing.
Ella & Louis Christmas – Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstroang
We all have our seasonal rituals, and one of mine is to avoid Christmas music until the second week of Advent. Too strict?
At any rate: this is one of my favourite Yuletide compilations, combining the vocal perfection of Ella Fitzgerald with the genius of Satchmo (whose version of ‘White Christmas’ is as good as any I know). His great collaborator Velma Middleton also features on a live performance of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, while The Commanders join him on ‘Zat You, Santa Claus?’
Fitzgerald’s voice on ‘The Christmas Song’ and ‘Christmas Night in Harlem’ will transport you to an imagined New York in the late Fifties, twinkling with tall trees and smoke-filled clubs, adorned with festive holly, each with a Don Draper propping up the bar, nursing his second Old Fashioned, pretending not to tap his foot.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy ITV, Getty Images, Netflix, Apple TV+, BFI