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

News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Sport
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
football
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teacher

£90 - £145 per day + travel expenses: Randstad Education Newcastle: Primary Su...

Service Delivery Manager - Software Company

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Service Delivery Manager Kingston Up...

Year 3 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 Primary Teacher in HullA f...

Drama Teacher - Hull and Grimsby

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: The JobRandstad are currently in need of ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments