A Spy Among Friends review – don’t take your eyes off this star-packed espionage thriller

Guy Pearce is a charismatic traitor, Damian Lewis is an enigma and Anna Maxwell Martin carries along a fabulous drama that’s full of excitement – if a tad stuffy

The story of the notorious MI6 agent and Soviet spy Kim Philby has been told numerous times before, but A Spy Among Friends (ITVX) has a fresh bash at it, using Ben Macintyre’s book of the same name as its source and inspiration. The stakes are high. This is one of the flagship dramas to launch ITV’s revamped online player and new subscription service. It comes with a starry cast and what should be an irresistible tale of intrigue, double-crossing and suspense, stretched out over multiple locations from Istanbul, Beirut and London to Moscow and Ohio.

It begins with the big reveal that Philby (Guy Pearce) is a traitor who has been working for the KGB and feeding them intel for the past 20 years. His close friend and fellow SIS (AKA MI6) agent Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis) is tasked with going to Beirut to retrieve Philby and extract a full confession, despite appearing to doubt the depth of his friend’s betrayal. It becomes a sort of espionage stew at this point, jumping around in time from the early days of Philby and Elliott’s friendship in the second world war, to MI5’s 1963 interrogation of Elliott, to work out who knew what about Philby and when.

This is not the kind of drama one can watch with an eye on something else. Heaven forbid you get distracted by a text message; there are a couple of instances where I had to rewind several minutes because I briefly looked away. There are so many layers to peel back. Elliott is looking into Philby’s betrayals, but MI5 are looking into Elliott and Philby and MI6, and everyone involved is hoping the CIA doesn’t find out about it before they get their ducks in a row. That is a lot of spy-on-spy spying.

Lily Thomas (Anna Maxwell Martin).
Spy-on-spy spying! … Lily Thomas (Anna Maxwell Martin). Photograph: Ed Miller/Sony Pictures Television

There’s no denying that this is a fabulous cast. Lewis is suitably ambiguous as Elliott, who carries with him the hurt of a jilted lover and the confusion of a man whose entire belief system is falling apart. Pearce makes Philby’s charisma apparent for all to see, and makes the most of his range, whether that’s taking part in a West End song and dance or dealing with the fallout from his unmasking. Anna Maxwell Martin plays Lily Thomas, an MI5 agent looking into what exactly happened. Lily is a “composite” of real people, an invention to carry the drama along. When she sits down to business, at a desk with a tape recorder, Line of Duty fans will surely be waiting for that long beep. “Could you explain to me why you let the most dangerous Soviet penetration agent this country has ever known leg it?” she asks, sternly, as we learn how Philby was able to abscond.

There are plenty of small thrills to be had from a world built on codes and double meanings. Men with umbrellas exchange instructions in newspapers; names are seemingly mispronounced, in order to convey a clandestine message. The most intriguing code of all, which A Spy Among Friends excels at exploring, is that of class and tradition. There is an upper-echelons fantasy of Englishness at play. MI6 is an old boys’ network where decisions of international importance are hashed out in members’ clubs and on cricket pitches. When that is questioned by one of their own pledging his allegiance to the communist cause, they are almost as baffled and offended as they are alarmed. But the old world is changing, and Thomas – northern, female, married to a Black doctor – is supposed to represent that. It’s laid on a bit thick, but Maxwell Martin just about carries it off.

Yet ironically, given that it deals with the fall of the stuffy old guard, there’s something a little stuffy and uptight about the whole thing. There is plenty of excitement in the material – ambushes, bombs, chases, executions, and, of course, a royal connection, when Sir Anthony Blunt turns up – yet it still manages to drag its feet. It tries to get around the complexity of the plot with a number of conversations simply explaining what is going on. These are useful but oddly static, and certainly slow the momentum. Perhaps it suffers from an unfortunate comparison with another recent series adapted from a Macintyre book, SAS Rogue Heroes, which channels its fascinating history lesson into something far more vivacious and entertaining. This is all very fine and elegant, but it’s lacking in charisma.

  • A Spy Among Friends is available on ITVX in the UK and BritBox in Australia


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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