For many years the names Philby, Burgess and Maclean (and later, Blunt) were synonymous with treachery in Britain, although you’d hardly know it from watching the first two parts of this dramatisation of their careers as Soviet spies. Instead it portrayed them unequivocally as floppy-haired heroes, sacrificing themselves for the cause of social justice in a 1930s Britain riddled with pro-Nazi sympathisers.
At first glance, it was convincing stuff. Concentrating on the spies’ personal view of the world (and thus deftly avoiding the bigger picture), it piled on the anti-Semitic aristocrats, Hitler-loving politicians (and Royalty) and privilege-adoring academics, to the point where it was all too easy to believe that the four young Cambridge undergraduates saw Russia’s brand of “communism” as Britain’s only hope of salvation from the jackboot.
To some extent this was a welcome change from previous accounts, which have tended to play down or ignore the factors that might have driven them to genuine idealism. But then it went too far, ignoring the factors (such as the emerging details of Stalin’s terror regime) that should have made them question their allegiances, and going out of its way to provide apologist explanations for actions such as their failure to fight fascism in Spain, their repeated use of the privilege they claimed to despise, and Philby’s shameful cover-up of the Nazi bombing of Guernica. You see, they had no idea what was going on in the camps, and they were only obeying orders – but haven’t we heard that somewhere before?
It didn’t help that many key incidents, such as the heroes’ defence of a Jewish student and Burgess’s promotion of a strike by college servants, were made up, inserted into the story to show them in a better light. Twenty years ago this kind of revisionism might have been the work of the KGB, but today the motivation was more probably a desire to cast four handsome, ratings-attracting young men in sympathetic roles.
That might not seem too big a deal, except that it’s really quite close to casting four handsome men as admirable young SS officers who kill Jews for idealistic reasons. Philby, Burgess, Blunt and Maclean served a brutal totalitarian regime which murdered even more of its citizens than the Nazis did (eight million peasants systematically starved to death in their homes). They knew the real nature of Stalinism (they’d have had to be deaf and blind not to), but in an arrogance which exactly mirrored that of the pro-Nazis towards the Jews, considered its victims justifiably expendable for the good of the Project. Making Boys-Own heroes of them is a ratings-grabber too far.