The movie starts in the cloisters of Cambridge University, takes us to the bustling interior of the spy headquarters of Century House next to Waterloo station, and then to the elegant, padded gentlemen’s clubs of Knightsbridge and Pall Mall. It should be called “The Traitors’ Club.”
The script details the treachery of Kim Philby’s five university spies, but the arc spans another man from Cambridge who was not part of that classless clique, and how he was the most popular of all of them. He was caught and detained, but rescued five years later by two anti-nuclear pacifists with a knitting needle ladder, and then taken to Russia in a camper van and with a Scottish career criminal’s connivance.
Movies also say that they are based on evidence, although they are commonly viewed as nothing more than a starting point. In this possible screenplay, the only fact in question is whether safecracker Paddy Meehan told the KGB how to get George Blake out of jail or whether he was trying to alert British intelligence that it was arranged by Soviet agents in his own camp.
At the age of 98, Blake died last week. If he was responsible for the betrayal of 40 or 400 agents or double agents – one of them was David Cornwell, alias John le Carré – he was guilty in any event of passing on to the Soviet Union any piece of sensitive information that crossed his MI6 desk and would be useful. This involved a joint MI6-CIA tunneling operation under the Berlin Wall, tapping into the communications of Russian and East German military intelligence. Alarmed, along with a few harmless nuggets, the other side sent back streams of misinformation for years to prevent arousing suspicion.
Blake’s history – Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross – was drastically different from that of the private school-educated Cambridge Five. He spent much of his childhood in the Netherlands and was sent to Cairo to live with his cousins, one of whom was a communist, after the death of his father, an Egyptian Jew. When Germany invaded the country in 1940, he returned to the Netherlands and became a messenger as a teenager for the resistance.
He was released because of his youth, although briefly interned, and fled the country disguised as a monk through France, Spain and Gibraltar, joining his mother and sisters in Britain, taking the name of Blake instead of Behar. He was recruited, mainly for his language abilities, by MI6.
He was sent to Seoul in 1948 as head of a new station under the guise of a British vice-consul, with orders, according to the official history of MI6, to target northeast China and communist activities in Korea. After the outbreak of the Korean War, he was arrested, and it was his two years of reading Das Kapital in a North Korean prison, among other books, that cemented his belief in communism. While the Cambridge Five were anti-fascists, Blake became a devout believer in communism, passing information to the USSR, especially in wartime.
He had read Russian and Marxist literature before at Cambridge, where MI6 had sent him to study Russian in 1947, but it was this extended contact with him in his prison cell that had changed him. “If I had read Marx in a different environment, if I had lived comfortably in an apartment in London, I might have come to the same conclusions. But perhaps I would not have taken such drastic steps.”If I had read Marx in another setting, if I had lived comfortably in a London apartment, I might have come to the same conclusions. But maybe I would not have taken such drastic steps.
He himself was betrayed in 1961 and convicted after a largely secret trial of espionage. A vicious maximum sentence, consecutive rather than concurrent, of 42 years was granted to him.
Patrick – widely called Paddy – Meehan joins the story at this stage. Having graduated from the Borstal Reformatory, where he learned expertise as a safecracker, he spent much of his adult life in jail. He orchestrated the escape from Peterhead Prison of Terry “Scarface” Martin in 1955 and did it himself in 1963, when he served an eight-year term in Nottingham Prison and absconded during a cricket match.
He made his way to East Germany using a fake passport (he had briefly been a Communist in his youth), where he was detained for 14 months. He was questioned by the KGB and passed on details on how Blake was able to break out of jail, according to his own account. Later, in a U.K. jail.