It’s anchored by a dayslong meeting between Elliott and Philby in Beirut in 1963, in which both men play a final cat-and-mouse. Elliott wants to extract a full confession; Philby is feigning innocence. The latter will soon flee Lebanon and defect to the Soviet Union, where he died in 1988.
“Philby took a system that really ignored checks and balances because there was just a belief that the system was impenetrable,” says Pearce.
Anna Maxwell Martin plays Lily Thomas, an MI5 agent interrogating Elliott after Philby’s defection, trying to find out what exactly happened between these two men in Beirut. “Could you explain to me why you let the most dangerous Soviet penetration agent this country has ever known leg it?” she asks Elliott.
Thomas — a composite character — is used to signal a change is coming as the old boys’ club gets shaken, charting the rise in the ’60s of women, people of color and members of the middle class to positions of authority.
“She is representative of the next generation and a different type of person entirely — a woman and not from the social militia these guys come from,” says Lewis. “She is really there to illustrate that it’s time for a change.”
The series is adapted from a book by Ben Macintyre, who also wrote about the origins of Britain’s elite Special Air Service which was recently turned into the series Rogue Heroes.
Unlike that kinetic series, A Spy Among Friends is more measured, though no less gripping. It’s a series awash in fedoras, clunky telephones and many, many glasses of whiskey. There is pelting rain, the crisp burn of cigarette paper and cups of tea rattling.
Because it deals with people hiding their true identity, small gestures like a raised eyebrow can telegraph what a character is really thinking. Feelings leak out, not gush. In one scene, Elliott secretly weeps about the loss of his friend amid rollicking laughter from among the audience of a stage comedy.