It’s a few weeks now since I watched Cambridge Spies, so it’s starting to fade in my mind and this won’t be a proper review – but I wanted to write a brief posting to say I enjoyed it and think it will have a lot of appeal to fellow costume drama fans.
I didn’t watch the series when it was first shown on the BBC, because I think for some reason I got it into my head that it was a docu-drama, a genre I find hard to like – but, despite the announcement at the beginning of each of the four episodes that this is a true story with some changes, it’s a fully-realised drama without that “docu” feeling about it.
The director is Tim Fywell, who made the movie of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, and it has the same sort of breathtakingly beautiful photography and the feeling of a vanished world – especially the opening episode, set at Cambridge between the wars, which has something of the languorous atmosphere of Brideshead Revisited. The script is by Peter Moffat. I don’t think I’ve seen much of his other work, but he scripted last year’s Einstein and Eddington – another one I sadly managed to miss.
All the four lead actors are excellent – Toby Stephens as Kim Philby, Tom Hollander as Guy Burgess, Rupert Penry-Jones as Donald Maclean and Samuel West as Anthony Blunt. I kept changing my mind about which one of them was giving the best performance and in the end decided it really didn’t matter – the contrasts between their different personalities are what makes it. The drama traces how their idealism gets them hooked into something they can’t get out of, and also weaves in their personal lives and love affairs, gay and straight. And it looks at how many of their relationships are sacrificed to the cause of Russia, even when they start to stop believing in that cause.
To be honest, I thought the opening episode was the best, or most convincing, part – as they got into their spying careers, some scenes seemed so unlikely that I found myself thinking, surely it couldn’t have happened quite like that. But then, the reality of this story is so improbable that very possibly some of the parts I was raising my eyebrows at were the things that were based on truth!
I saw Cambridge Spies on TV, when it was repeated on an obscure satellite station in the UK, but would like to see the background documentary included on the DVD box set to find out just how much is true, so perhaps I’ll borrow the bonus disc from a DVD club – or weaken and buy the set.:)
I don’t think this series is quite up there with Another Country, Julian Mitchell’s brilliant drama based on the schooldays of Guy Burgess, which I saw and loved on stage back in the early 1980s (I also like the film version) – but it’s still fascinating to watch.