Sir Colin Figures

Authoritative head of MI6

Colin Frederick Figures, intelligence officer: born Birmingham 1 July 1925; OBE 1969; CMG 1978, KCMG 1983; Deputy Chief, Secret Intelligence Service 1979-81, Chief 1981-85; Deputy Secretary, Cabinet Office 1985-89; married 1956 Pamela Timmis (one son, two daughters); died Esher, Surrey 8 December 2006.

Colin Figures was appointed the ninth chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, also known informally as MI6, in 1981. His four years in the post were an important period in the development of SIS's relations with Whitehall and Downing Street.

The Service had already established its credentials in the context of the Cold War; the Philby and Blake disasters were passing into history and SIS had scored some important successes in recruiting agents from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It was only beginning to play a significant role in wider foreign policy issues, however, and Figures deserves the credit for establishing its credibility on the Whitehall stage through a combination of his own authority and the intelligence successes scored by his staff.

Figures was a career SIS officer, having joined straight from Cambridge in 1951 with a degree in French and Russian. His linguistic abilities flagged him as a future Soviet Bloc specialist and after an initial training post in Germany and a junior slot in the embassy in Amman he moved to head up the important station in Warsaw in 1959. His operational successes against the difficult Polish target over the three years there established him as a high-flyer who knew how to recruit and run foreign spies and marked him as a potential senior officer in SIS.

SovBloc affairs dominated his career for the next 11 years, including a spell as head of station in a Vienna which Harry Lime would still have recognised as an Iron Curtain border post.

His reputation secure, in 1973 he was invited to broaden his experience by taking on the supervision of SIS's activities in Northern Ireland. The responsibilities in this job underlined his ability to liaise effectively with both the Security Service (MI5) and the Army and he built up a solid Whitehall reputation as someone who inspired confidence in the corridors of power, a risk-taker when necessary but never a risk-seeker. In 1981 he was appointed Deputy Chief of SIS in 1979 and Chief ("C") in 1981.

His time at the head of the Service was an unalloyed success. His background characterised solid Midlands middle-class values - he was born in Birmingham in 1925, the son of Frederick Figures, an insurance executive, and his wife Muriel - and he represented what we fondly remember as those traditional sterling attributes. He had complete integrity and was totally unpompous with an infectious sense of humour and a great ability to enjoy life. There was nothing of the puritan about him, but he was staunchly loyal to his family. He inspired affection and respect among his staff; they rank him among the very best of their post-war chiefs. An instinctive delegator, he was nevertheless always there with gentle advice, cunningly offered as an apparently diffident suggestion rather than as an order.

Politically this period was dominated by the South Atlantic and, although SIS had not forecast the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, it was generally accepted that it was virtually impossible for a foreign intelligence service to keep tabs on the political switchbacks of an erratic dictator. It is now easy to forget how uncertain the outcome of the campaign to recapture the islands looked as Argentine Exocets began to hammer the Royal Navy, but secret intelligence allied to military skill won the day.

The SIS contribution was based both on their own reporting and on the excellent liaisons the Service had built up in North and South America, in Western Europe and in the old Commonwealth. As a relatively small service it could never have provided all the answers on its own, but it had a number of loyal allies who were there when it mattered.

In the years when Figures headed SIS it was unavowed, in other words its existence was not officially acknowledged. Still less was the identity of CSS (Chief of the Secret Service) admitted, but this was a matter of indifference to the inherently modest Colin Figures. He nevertheless moved somewhat into the limelight on his retirement as C in 1985, when he was appointed to the Cabinet Office as Intelligence Co-Ordinator in succession to Sir Tony Duff. This job carried the responsibility for overseeing the intelligence priorities of SIS, the Security Service and GCHQ, harmonising the relations between each of them and Whitehall, and advising on their budgetary questions and finance.

When Figures retired as Co-Ordinator in 1989, he typically focused on his wife and family. He had a particularly soft spot for the Isle of Wight, even listing beachcombing as a pursuit, and enjoyed sport both as a player and a spectator. He played rugby at King Edward's School in Birmingham as well as at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and had an outside chance of a rugby Blue. Perhaps as a compensation in 1948 he was a founder of the Woodpeckers, a combined Oxford and Cambridge touring rugby side. His love of cricket was demonstrated by his habit of keeping the Test match commentary on, very quietly, in the Chief's office on the 10th floor of Century House.

His military service was with the Worcester Regiment from 1945-48, including spells on the Inter-Service Language Course at Cambridge and subsequently with the British military missions in Romania and Hungary.

Figures was appointed OBE in 1969 following his Vienna posting, CMG in 1978 and KCMG in 1983.

In 1956 he married Pam Timmis, an unfailing support to him throughout both his SIS career and his retirement, not least during his recent years battling Parkinson's disease. She too was held in considerable affection by members of the Service. Together they had a son and two daughters.

Alec Guinness could have played Sir Colin Figures rather well. In fact he almost did.

Alastair Rellie