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Philby, Burgess and Maclean (1977)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Philby, Burgess and Maclean (1977)
Granada Television for ITV Playhouse, tx. 31/5/1977
DirectorGordon Flemyng
ScriptIan Curteis

Cast: Anthony Bate (Philby); Michael Culver (Maclean); Derek Jacobi (Burgess); Anthony Langdon (Volkov); Richard Hurndall (Menzies); Arthur Lowe (Herbert Morrison); Peter Vaughan (Philby's 'Control')

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The facts surrounding the exposure and defection of the British double agents Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.

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Towards the end of Lay Down Your Arms (BBC, tx. 23/5/1970), writer Dennis Potter includes a joke about the 1950s spy scandals, when we learn that an intelligence briefing is to be given by a "...fellow by the name of Philby". Ian Curteis begins his script for Philby, Burgess & Maclean (ITV, tx. 31/5/1977) in a similar fashion, with the casual revelation that the man being briefed to investigate a Russian defector's claims about high-ranking KGB moles in the British Secret Service is actually Philby himself.

Covering the years between the Volkov incident of 1945 and the 1955 press conference in which Philby flatly denied being the 'third man', Philby, Burgess & Maclean is as lean, compact and economical as its title suggests. With admirable directness and clarity, it looks at how the KGB activities of Harold 'Kim' Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean came to be unmasked and their eventual defection to Moscow. The main emphasis is on Philby, played in resolute fashion by Anthony Bate, in an interpretation that foregrounds matter-of-fact naturalism, eschewing the superficial charisma and bonhomie usually ascribed to the most famous of the three spies.

Derek Jacobi is customarily engaging and twitchy as Burgess, while Michael Culver really stands out in a richly nuanced performance as the increasingly desperate Maclean. Although the three title characters never appear simultaneously, Jacobi and Culver share a number of fine scenes together, bringing out the best in Curteis's sharp dialogue. The best of them is a melancholy four-minute sequence filmed in a single take, in which the two men reminisce while planning their defection during a park stroll. Gordon Flemyng's low-key but assured direction is very effective here, and also makes the most of Arthur Lowe's amusing cameo as Herbert Morrison, the then Foreign Secretary.

When repeated in 2002, the play was, said Curteis, still relevant for its exploration of whether we "owe a loyalty stronger and deeper than to our own country". Of the many dramas about the Cambridge spy ring, Philby, Burgess & Maclean remains particularly notable for emphasising the fear of nuclear war, plausibly presenting it as a contributing factor for their treachery. In other respects however, history has been unkind to this drama, from its dated (and uncredited) music score, to the fact that it was made some two years before Anthony Blunt's role in the spy ring was revealed.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Burgess and Maclean (3:51)
2. Kitchen table politics (3:41)
3. Philby in trouble (2:55)
Cambridge Spies (2003)
Englishman Abroad, An (1983)
Curteis, Ian (1935-)
Jacobi, Sir Derek (1938-)
Lowe, Arthur (1915-1982)
Vaughan, Peter (1923-)
Cold War Spies