A lie amid history
Will your interpretation of history be more interesting than the real thing?
“All artists are willing to suffer for their work,” Banksy once said. After forcing myself to watch ITVX’s A Spy Among Friends, I know all too well that the same can be true for critics.
I never came to ASAF intending to write a TV review — I am rather late to the scene, after all — but I felt compelled to give my two cents, having recently read the book it’s based on by Ben Macintyre. In fact, I am late to the scene precisely because I was engrossed in the book as the TV version came out.
In this media landscape, I actually think this perspective — of someone who has read ASAF before watching it — was rare. In all seriousness, I can’t fathom any other reason for some of the TV reviews that followed — of a “satisfyingly complex” show, “fabulous drama” and “carefully crafted intelligent thriller” — which sound almost as delusional as Kim Philby’s politics, and suggest widespread unfamiliarity with the text.
ASAF (the book), if you didn’t know, explores the life of the notorious double agent, Philby, through the prism of his friendship with Nicholas Elliott, also an M16 agent. The gist is that M16 is a boys’ club for toffs, and that Elliott, being a toff, and others (also being toffs), were blind to recognising that their pal, another toff, was “guilty as hell” when it came to being a Commie spy for Russia, as a judge once said about Philby.
The book is packed full of intricate details about Philby, Elliott, their friends and families, as well as M15 and M16 in that period; sometimes too many details, if you ask me. But the TV version condenses this into the most simplistic of narratives, and not for reasons of brevity or making things easier for audiences to understand, but ideological capture. It is not so much a representation of Macintyre’s book but an allegory, designed to promote progressive politics.
The biggest evidence of this comes in the shape of Lily Taylor (played by Anna Maxwell Martin), a working-class M15 agent from Durham, who never existed yet dominates the TV show. Her function, as an invented character, is essentially to expose the toxic patriarchy — made more despicable because it is a posho patriarchy — of M16.
There is no subtlety to this exploration of gender politics
There is no subtlety to this exploration of gender politics, not least because Lily has the personality of a hammer. It is as though the writers think making a character utterly rude = making them working class. At one point, for instance, she tells Elliott to “burst into flames for all I care” when he asks if he can smoke. (Incidentally, this etiquette would have never existed in 1963, nor would Lily have complained about M16 doing “sweet FA”, meaning, I assume, f**k all).
Even James Jesus Angleton, Chief of Counterintelligence for the CIA, is not safe from this diverse trailblazer. In one scene, he visits Lily at her house in West Norwood (as you do!) to discuss the Philby case. Our Lily isn’t having any of it, though. “If you wouldn’t mind getting on with it”, she says, before telling Angleton, who’s being rained on (probably the most realistic part), “would you mind staying on the mat? You’re dripping all over the floor”, and then moving onto gender politics (“would you be doing all this if I was a man?”). Eventually Lily terminates the conversation by telling Angleton “I’m gonna miss me train!”.
ASAF offends my artistic sensibilities on three fronts
ASAF offends my artistic sensibilities on three fronts, as the scriptwriting is dreadful (in another scene, Lily asks her doctor husband “how’s work?” leading to a boring conversation about flu season); the acting isn’t good (Guy Pearce captures Philby’s accent, but not his charm, and Damian Lewis seems to think he’s playing an owl), as well as being historically inaccurate and proud of it. When I tweeted my shock at the invention of Lily, Nick Murphy, the director of ASAF told me: “I’m sorry if this means you won’t watch, Charlotte, but it’s a device we’re proud of”, accompanied with a smiley face. Maybe mansplaining wasn’t a thing in the 60s…
Some will always say that history can never be 100% accurately represented in art. Sathnam Sanghera recently tweeted “History is argument. Narratives take over from other narratives all the time”, reflecting the ever-fashionable line. But this idea of “everyone having a different narrative” has been pushed to the point where you could write a book called “How Women Won the Battle of Hastings” and probably get a publishing deal. “Delusion is okay — as long as you’re diverse”, is the message from the Wokies.
What especially perplexed me about ASAF (the TV show) is why, if the writers were so keen to promote diversity, they did not centre the drama on Philby’s wives, who are pivotal and fascinating figures in ASAF (the book), and female. That, and why they turned Elliott’s wife, a fun and intelligent woman in real life, into a cardboard cutout. In bringing a “diverse” character to life, writers dulled down the personalities, and relevance, of people who actually existed.
But what is most perplexing — not just with ASAF, but every drama or book that sees the past as a canvas that can be reworked — is why writers think their fiction (which they call history) is better than reality. It takes a certain arrogance to believe that you can improve it, worse still that you have the moral responsibility to erase parts you find objectionable. There is a reason people come back to the Philby story; because it is fascinating in itself — without the need for Lily Taylors. Sadly, as in the case of Kim Philby, ideology will remain paramount for some.
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