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Cambridge Spies (2003)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Cambridge Spies (2003)
BBC/Perpetual Motion Pictures, 9-30/5/2003
4 x 60 minutes, colour
DirectorTim Fywell
ProducerMark Shivas
ScriptPeter Moffat

Cast: Toby Stephens (Kim Philby); Tom Hollander (Guy Burgess); Samuel West (Anthony Blunt); Rupert Penry-Jones (Donald Maclean); Marcel Iures (Otto); Imelda Staunton (The Queen)

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The lives of the double agents Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby, from when they first all met at Cambridge University in 1934 to the Moscow defection of two of them in 1951.

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It was widely assumed that the big budget four-part miniseries Cambridge Spies (BBC, 2003) would, by virtue of its length and expense, be the definitive account of the spying activities of Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and 'Kim' Philby, with all the advantages that hindsight might bring. The almost mythic status of these men and their activities had already been explored in a variety of ways since the 1970s, with varying degrees of obliqueness and accuracy.

So how does it compare? The relationship between Blunt and Burgess is much more understated when compared with Blunt (BBC, tx. 11/1/1986), for instance, while the depiction of 1930s radicalism and its effect on the four young men, though articulated with great clarity and specificity, lacks the sheer romantic forcefulness of Traitor (BBC, tx. 14/10/1971), Dennis Potter's fictionalised interpretation. Samuel West's glacial turn as Blunt recalls Ian Richardson's more nakedly villainous performance in Blunt, but is otherwise more plausible and down to earth. However, his scenes with the royals are far less convincing and intriguing than those in A Question of Attribution (BBC, tx. 20/10/1991).

Although limited by Blunt's historically inevitable exclusion, Ian Curteis's Philby, Burgess & Maclean (ITV, tx. 31/5/1977) remains the dramatisation that makes the clearest effort to stick to the known facts. Conversely, Peter Moffat's script for Cambridge Spies was immediately criticised by the media for perceived anachronisms, omissions and dramatic flights of fancy. The first episode even begins with the ominous disclaimer: "certain events and characters have been created or changed for dramatic effect". An early sequence showing Philby and Burgess instigating a strike by the University waiters is an admitted fabrication and the script also restricts to one scene the role played by John Cairncross, now assumed by many to have been the 'fifth man'.

Despite these occasional dramatically convenient elisions, in charting seventeen years of treacherous activities, Cambridge Spies makes for compelling drama, with Tom Hollander stealing the show as the passionate, wretched and finally dissolute Burgess, while Toby Stephens is both soulful and rakish as the womanising and tarnished Philby.

Although Tim Fywell's studied direction and the sumptuous production design and cinematography give the miniseries a romanticised, even nostalgic glow, Cambridge Spies doesn't flinch from depicting the terrible consequences of the men's actions. It remains mainly notable however for successfully bringing to life the 1930s idealism which initially spurred them to action.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. 'To the revolution' (2:47)
2. Club for life (3:30)
3. Spy test (2:41)
4. Jump in the river (2:25)
Blunt (1987)
Englishman Abroad, An (1983)
Philby, Burgess and Maclean (1977)
Question of Attribution, A (1991)
Andrews, Anthony (1948-)
Cold War Spies
TV Drama in the 2000s