Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpyA recent xkcd cartoon [http://xkcd.com/964/] described (in the tooltip) music stores as “just rooms where CDs are set out to age before they’re thrown away”. Tart, and not yet entirely accurate, but you can see things going that way.

For myself, I’ll occasionally browse the increasingly large bargain bins, where well-aged CDs and DVDs decay a little more, and a couple of weeks ago, bought the BBC’s original dramatisations of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, starring Alec Guinness. Probably, finding the set for sale was not entirely an accident, given the release of the Holywood film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at that time.

The first series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, was screened in 1979, when I would have been, um, young; but I did remember it. I never got round to seeing the modern film, through lack of enthusiasm. I’ve always said that the Holywood system suffers from reverse Midas syndrome: everything they touch turns to shit. Apart from anything else, the BBC version’s seven 50-minute episodes allowed for a pace and depth that couldn’t be achieved in a shorter film.

(The DVD transfer is quite poor though. It looks as though it was recorded from a domestic VHS player.)

The story in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is based loosely on the history of Kim Philby, a Soviet spy within MI6, although the idea of a “mole” at the very highest levels of British Intelligence may be more about MI5. (“MI6”, actually the Secret Intelligence Service, is responsible for overseas intelligence. “MI5”, the Security Service, looks after intelligence and counter-intelligence on UK territory. Le Carré’s “Circus” is the headquarters of SIS/MI6.).

When Philby had been unmasked and ousted from MI6, it had not been feasible to bring him to court for lack of explicit evidence. He moved to Beirut and worked as a journalist for several years, until a Soviet defector brought new information to MI5. MI5 decided to send an officer to Beirut to interview Philby, hoping to use the new revelations to bully him into a wider confession. But, and here is the critical point, Philby appeared to know that someone sent by London was coming to see him.

Although he remained in Beirut and met the officer, when the matter of obtaining a signed statement was raised, Philby disappeared. Six months later, the Soviet Union announced that he had been given citizenship. He spent the rest of his life (miserably) in Moscow.

Had Philby been tipped off? If so, by whom? Just like the book, there was a narrow pool of suspects. The only people at MI5 who had known in advance of the approach to Philby were the Director-General, Roger Hollis; his deputy, Graham Mitchell; Director of ‘D’ branch (counter espionage), Malcolm Cumming; Cumming’s subordinate, head of D1, Arthur Martin; and finally, Martin’s secretary. (The Director-General of MI6, Dick White, also knew, as did (obviously!) the officer sent to talk to Philby, Nicholas Elliott of MI6.)

The disappearance of Philby set off a full-scale mole hunt at MI5, but the issue was never resolved. The Deputy Director, Graham Mitchell, was put under surveilliance and observed to behave strangely on occasion, but there was no conclusive evidence one way or the other. In a notorious 1987 book, Spycatcher, subject of an unsuccessful attempt at suppression by the British government, the author, Peter Wright, claimed that the Director-General himself, Sir Roger Hollis, was the Soviet “mole”. (Hollis had died in 1973).

A contrary point of view was presented in another book of the period, also facing Government hurdles before publication. The author of this one, Nigel West (known to use the cover identity of Rupert Allason, former MP) in the book M.I.5. 1945-72, A Matter of Trust, argued that Hollis was innocent, and that any suspicion was because of diabolical Soviet plotting to incriminate him and shield the real spy.

But the identity of the “real spy”, if there was one, has never emerged. No tidy endings, not like fiction.

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