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.

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit