Last weekend I saw the movie (starring Gary Oldman, John Hurt and Colin Firth). In spite of the stellar cast, the film was disappointing: the movie is based on a novel of the same title with a plot so complicated and detailed it is probably impossible to adapt into a two-hour film. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy is one of my all-time favorite books and is considered by some critics to be the best spy novel ever written. Somerville just purchased some new copies of Tinker, and there are also many other copies available throughout the network.
If you want to take another crack at watching Tinker, Tailor, check out the miniseries produced by the BBC in 1979. It’s far far better than the movie and features sterling perfomances by Alec Guinness and Ian Richardson. SPL and many other Minuteman Libraries have it on DVD.
The historical events that inspired Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are just as intriguing as the novel. In the 1930s Cambridge undergraduates H.A.R. “Kim” Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, and John Cairncross were among many students who were avid Communists. These four, however, went beyond mere armchair leftism: they became spies for the Soviet Union. Faculty member Anthony Blunt is believed to have played a key role in their recruitment.
During World War II and afterwards Philby et al. all worked for the British goverment, passing important material to the Soviets. Their spying came to a halt in 1950, when Philby (at left) was British intelligence’s representative in Washington, and Burgess and Maclean were working at the British Embassy. Philby was informed by London that a British diplomat in the U.S. was spying for the Soviets, and he was ordered to find out who it was. Philby knew it was Maclean (at right). He was in the difficult position of having to conduct an investigation to unmask Maclean, while giving Maclean enough warning to escape. Burgess was enlisted to help Maclean escape the U.S., but Burgess actually went with him to Moscow instead.
It was obvious to British intelligence that Maclean had been tipped off, and the logical suspect was Philby. Burgess’ disappearance raised eyebrows as well. Soon afterward Philby was fired by British intelligence. A year later Cairncross admitted to spying for the Soviets after a search of his house turned up incriminating papers. Cairncross was never prosecuted, however. Philby defected to the Soviet Union in 1963.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Cambridge Spies, take a look at Deceiving the Deceivers: Kim Philby, Donald Mclean and Guy Burgess. It’s one of the few books on the subject to take advantage of declassified Soviet files released in the mid-nineties. The network also has a copy of Anthony Blunt: His Lives, a fascinating biography of the man who became a distinguished member of the Cambridge faculty, worked for British intelligence during World War II (and also spied for the Soviets), and became the curator of the royal family’s art collections. If you’re interested in reading about Philby & company but wanting something shorter than a book, the BBC has a great write-up on the Cold War and the Cambridge Spies here.
For a more creative look at two of the Cambridge Spies, check out a pair of brief plays by Alan Bennett. An Englishman Abroad is based on events in the life of Coral Browne, an Australian actress who had a chance encounter with Guy Burgess (at left) in Moscow after his defection when she was on tour in a performance of Hamlet. A Question of Attribution deals with a few days in the life of Anthony Blunt leading up to his public exposure as a former Soviet spy.
Well, I think I’ve given you enough ideas for things to read or watch for one post….