Spy movies - The guys who came in from the cold

Plans for a big-screen version of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' prove that film-goers still have an appetite for espionage. Geoffrey Macnab assesses the enduring appeal of the spook

To mark MI5's centenary and the 20th anniversary of the end of the Cold War, the Cambridge Film Festival has just hosted a season called The Spying Game. Such titles as Martin Campbell's GoldenEye, Paul Greengrass's The Bourne Supremacy and Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps are all included.

Experts on the history of espionage in Britain take a dim view of films on the subject. James Bond is all very well but the spies they've encountered are more likely to have been complaining about their pension arrangements than quaffing martinis. Counter-terrorism work, they point out, is excruciatingly slow and painstaking.

Film-makers, they grumble, don't always seem to know the difference between MI5 and MI6. (The latter is Britain's external intelligence agency while the former is its counterintelligence and security agency.) "Mostly they're fantasy," declares author Phillip Knightley, biographer of double agent Kim Philby, of British spy movies. Knightley says that there are very few espionage-based films that are "believable" and "close to the truth". He lists the ones that have impressed him the most: The Ipcress File, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and An Englishman Abroad (all screened in the Cambridge season). "And that's about it."

Knightley's choices are instructive. Thoughtful, character-based dramas that have "got the measure of the thought processes and the personality of people attracted to treachery" appeal to him far more than action-driven thrillers.

Thomas Hennessey, co-author of Spooks: the Unofficial History of MI5, likewise names The Ipcress File as a spy film with at least a hint of credibility about it. "It's low-key. It's slow," he says approvingly of the movie adaptation of Len Deighton's novel that is as famous for its scenes of Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) cooking omelettes as for its action sequences.

The golden years for English treachery – and for spawning films and novels about it – were the 1930s. That was when young Cambridge types like Philby, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt became communists and started their lifetime work of betrayal. What has made such characters so fascinating for generations of writers and film-makers is how their behaviour has revealed hidden aspects about British attitudes toward class and sexuality as well as toward politics. "The Americans did it (their treachery) for money and that's not very interesting," Knightley suggests.

The lines between patriots and traitors was often thin. They looked, talked and behaved the same. The traitors remained "British" even after they had betrayed their country. Philby, for example, still took The Times to keep up on the cricket scores when he was living in exile in Moscow and working for the KGB.

"The crucial line came from Philby who said 'to betray, you have to belong. I never did – and if people were foolish enough to think that I did, well that was their look-out.'"

Arguably, the best British spy films aren't really about spying at all. They are dramas that probe away at the idiosyncrasies of the British Establishment. The histories of MI5 and MI6 offer very rich pickings for film-makers interested in analysing snobbery and double standards.

We're often more in the realm of Ealing comedies than in the world of 007. Take the case of Percy Sillitoe, appointed director general of MI5 at the end of the Second World War. He was a former policeman who had gradually worked his way up the ranks to become a chief constable. The old hands in the agency looked askance at having someone from his relatively humble background as their boss. "They used to speak in Latin in his presence because they knew he couldn't understand it," Hennessey recalls of the petty malice that the MI5 top brass showed toward Sillitoe.

A career in spying – or at least a career in MI5 – used to be something to be pursued by the sons of the middle-classes. "You'd have a son who goes into the clergy, one in the (armed) forces and one who is a spy," Knightley suggests. That was what made traitors so deadly – they were betraying the very class that they were created to protect.

The spies who stayed loyal may have been from good, upstanding families but that didn't mean that they behaved in a scrupulously honourable fashion. The very nature of the profession pushed them in the opposite direction. Knightley cites the case of one young woman recruited from university to serve in the security forces. "She spent six weeks training and then gave it up. She said that in those six weeks, they taught her to do everything that her mother told her a decent girl would never do."

Nor was a career in espionage especially lucrative. "Far from it!" exclaims Knightley. "Only those who were rich before they went in emerged rich from the experience." Hennessey points out that the British intelligence agencies used to recruit "people who had an income of their own to subsidise them because the pay was atrocious". Before proper vetting procedures were put in places, friends of friends would be hired or would-be secret agents were hired on the basis of the schools and universities they attended.

Writers like John le Carré (who "had been in the (spying) business himself" as Knightley puts it) and Alan Bennett are expert at exploring the psychology of treachery. The best films and dramas based on these writers' work convey both the intellectual appeal of espionage and the thrill of the profession. However, they often tend to to be small-scale, intimate affairs. They are movies about men in rooms, talking. Think of Alec Guinness playing George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People and the images that spring to mind aren't chases or shoot-outs but all those shots of Guinness patiently polishing the fat lenses of his spectacles as he tries to thread his case against Karla together. Guinness based his portrayal loosely on real-life British intelligence officer Maurice Oldfield.

It's a measure of Smiley's appeal that historians see traces of so many other real-life characters in le Carré's most famous fictional creation, the famously intelligent and methodical MI5 officer Guy Liddell and Dick White, who served as boss both of MI5 and MI6.

Earlier this summer, Working Title, the British production outfit behind Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary, announced it was planning a big-screen version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This will be directed by Tomas Alfredson (who made Let the Right One In). It will be fascinating to see how they cope with such intimate and downbeat material. A glossy, big-budget movie won't work at all. The new film will need to capture the seediness and pathos of Smiley's world – but would a downbeat film work at the box-office? Who will play Smiley? (Jim Broadbent and Simon Russell Beale are among the names being mooted.) Smiley is a loner, an outsider, unhappy in his personal life – a long, long way from Jason Bourne and James Bond.

Investigative journalists relish the spying "game". They see it as a world akin to their own. "They (journalists and spies) both do the same kind of thing – they go out into the world and look for monsters," says Knightley. "They interview the monster, assess his truthfulness. They only differ when they go back to headquarters. The journalist publishes as quickly as he can and the spy uses the information for political advantage."

For feature film-makers, though, the challenge is different: they're not exposing a traitor or unearthing vital secret information. They're trying to make drama that engages audiences. They don't have time to explore all the nuances of a case against a traitor or to explore the inner workings of the security agencies. (That's why slow-burning spy stories often seem to work better as TV mini-series.) Few of the movies in the Cambridge Festival season engaged with the issue that probably matters most to the British public – the risk to their civil liberties posed by the "spooks". The films celebrate the derring-do of secret agents or tell embroiled stories about their battles with foreign powers. They rarely deal with the way the British security agencies intrude into the lives of their own citizens. (New technology has increased the opportunity for eavesdropping yet further.) We're yet to see a British spy film akin to German hit The Lives of Others in which the drama hinges on Stasi-era East Germans voyeuristically peering in on the lives of their own citizens.

The rules of the spy movie have changed with the collapse of the old Soviet Union. "In the Cold War, the enemy was still a fairly decent fellow. Now, the enemy is considered a low-down, treacherous Islamist," Knightley says, hinting at the whiff of racism that can be detected in many recent Western forays into the genre.

Even so, the pleasures of the British spy film remain the same as ever. Forget about the ideology and the politics. Audiences still lap up stories about bluffing and double-bluffing, and skulduggery at the heart of the British establishment. They're intrigued by the notion of traitors in their midst. Above all, they relish rattling good yarns – and that's what the best spy films still provide.

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