How MI5 opened a surveillance file on star who fled US persecution

Sam Wanamaker escaped to 'tolerant' Britain after being blacklisted as a Communist at home. But the Security Service was also keeping a watchful eye ...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker fled to Britain after being blacklisted as a suspected Communist during the McCarthy era, he hailed his adoptive country as a haven of tolerance free from the paranoia gripping his homeland.

Unknown to him, he was the subject of a campaign of surveillance and scrutiny by the British security services every bit as intense as that in the United States. It almost resulted in him and his young family – including the actress Zoë Wanamaker – being returned to America, where he might have been jailed.

The MI5 file on Wanamaker, released today at the National Archives in Kew, west London, details for the first time how he was placed under close watch after his arrival in Britain in 1951. Details of his conduct and contacts with "persons of interest" were routinely passed to officials at the American embassy. His mail was secretly opened and plainclothes officers routinely watched his home.

The documents show that the theatre producer, whose legacy to Britain includes the re-establishment of the Globe Theatre in London, was assessed by MI5 to be a Communist sympathiser and placed on a list of those to be interned in the event of war with the Soviet Union.

Wanamaker, a member of the American Communist Party for two years in the 1940s, was being tracked by the FBI in his native country and was informed on by friends and colleagues in Hollywood.

The FBI file was obtained by the BBC this year. But the measures against him in Britain, which the actor lauded as a bastion of "the true spirit of modern democracy", have until now remained secret.

The file reveals how a mole in the Communist Party of Great Britain reported that Wanamaker was coming to London shortly after he was blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the Congressional body which along with Senator John McCarthy carried on a witch hunt against suspected subversives.

Wanamaker, who came to Britain with his wife and two children to make a film, Mr Denning Drives North, was careful not to provide ammunition to the authorities by mixing with known Communists in London. In a letter to Pamela Knelman, a Canadian Marxist and actress who invited him to a party in Highgate, he said: "You must understand that being an American in Britain one must tread with careful precision on matters involving peace, which has now become a highly political and controversial subject."

Alluding to the power of the State Department to rescind the passports of American citizens abroad, he added: "I must be extremely careful about protecting that position and not doing anything which will given them cause, just or not, for any action of the above nature."

The file shows that shortly after his arrival in London, an official at the American embassy in Grosvenor Square wrote to MI5 citing an FBI report which described Wanamaker as a "concealed Communist" and asking: "Should his activities and contacts in the UK come to your attention during his stay I should very much appreciate being advised."

The quality of the evidence gathered against the actor was variable. One report by a Special Branch chief inspector noted that "he keeps his secretaries busy during the day" and held up the influence of Stanislavski, the Russian pioneer of "method" acting, on Wanamaker as evidence of subversive Soviet sympathies.

Four years later, when he applied to the Home Office for permission to remain indefinitely in Britain, the US embassy warned MI5 that it intended to seize the passport of Wanamaker and his wife, Charlotte.

One MI5 memo makes it clear that the agency was considering recommending the removal of his permission to stay in Britain despite his growing stature as an actor and producer in London. It said: "It would not be unfair to him to say that there is evidence that his sympathies are with the Communists."

Earlier this year, Zoë Wanamaker, who saw the FBI file on her father as a part of a programme for the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? series, said that if her father, who died in 1993, had been forced to return to America, he would have faced imprisonment. She said: "If he'd gone before that committee, he'd either have had to inform on others, or remain silent and risk going to jail."

The Security Service eventually decided to place Wanamaker on the list of people to be interned in the event of a "emergency" involving the Soviet Union. The Home Office granted him leave to remain indefinitely in Britain in 1957.

His venture to establish a theatre in Liverpool, the New Shakespeare Theatre Club, was viewed by the city's Special Branch officer "as a vehicle for disseminating extreme left-wing political propaganda and if successful will be a great asset to the Communist Party".

In the event, the theatre was lauded for breaking new ground as Britain's first combined arts and performance centre.

Comments