ingle spies head

Nicholas Farrell as the slightly worse for wear Guy Burgess. Pictures: Alastair Muir

Single Spies

Birmingham Rep


FOR those of a certain age the Burgess and Maclean affair was the sensation of the age. Front page news on and off for years.

Two Foreign Office officials, establishment through and through, first of all vanished, amid cloak and dagger tales of spying, then turned up at a Press conference as traitors in Moscow.

They had spied for the Soviets from the 1930s, through the Second World War and defected to Moscow in 1951 as the net closed in, not very successfully as it turned out.

It was the height of the Cold War and the very real fear of a nuclear Armageddon with the four-minute warning and public information films about defending yourself against nuclear attack – although I suspect that even if you could whitewash all your windows and assemble your family together huddled under a stout table, all in less than four minutes, there might still have been a flaw or two discovered in the Government advice if an A-bomb had actually arrived.

Alan Bennett’s play looks at two of what was to become known as the Cambridge Five, opening with Guy Francis de Moncy Burgess - Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge.

Australian actress Coral Browne was touring Russia with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, forerunner of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in 1958, seven years after the defection, when she met Burgess by chance and visited his dingy flat, which was nevertheless palatial by Moscow standards, where, lightly lubricated, he offers her a lunch of a tomato – just the one.

Nicholas Farrell, as Burgess, is quite superbBelinda Lang, an Englishman abroad – the title of the Bennett TV play from which the first act of Single Spies is adapted.

We discover his spying was because “it seemed the right thing to do at the time” which seemed to be the mantra of both he and fellow spy Anthony Blunt, who we shall meet later.

Belinda Lang as actress Coral Browne

Life in Moscow was less than convivial for a man of taste so he persuaded Browne, played with a haughty mix of fascination and indifference by Belinda Lang, to measure him for a suit and take the measurements to his Savile Row tailor where, despite being a defector and Soviet spy, he still had an account, as he did with his hat maker and other gentlemen’s establishments although his pyjama supplier had closed his account.

The reason given being his spying for the Soviets and we see a strange moment of support for the estranged Englishman from Browne as she admonishes the sales assistant for refusing to reopen the account tempered slightly when she hears the origin of the company.

Hungarian firm, you see, and 1956 had seen Russian tanks roll into Budapest as 2,500 Hungarians died in a short-lived revolution.

Burgess never fitted in to Moscow life, refusing to learn Russian and was unhappy that he was unable to carry on his homosexual life – although he did have a lover he described as “allocated” to him, although he was never sure whether the young man concerned had been given the English spy as a reward or a punishment.

There is some delightful wit and interchanges between actress and spy and we find Farrell’s Burgess is a man who seems to accept rather than enjoy his situation. He was to die young, aged 52, some 12 years after his defection, with drink an ever increasing feature of his later life.

In Farrell’s hands he becomes a sad figure, living a lonely life, drinking and listening to his one Jack Buchannan record, desperate for gossip and news of the society life he has left behind.

Sir Anthony Blunt was the fourth man in the infamous quintet – Kim Philby was the third and John Cairncross the fifth.

David Robb gives us a rather aloof, humourless Blunt, University of London Professor, director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a leading art historian and expert on French art and architecture -  and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures.

We meet him in his office at the institute where he is being questioned by Inspector Chubb from . . . we never did find out where, who shows him a succession of photographs of BluBlunt and Chubbnt’s contemporaries in the hope of discovering more spies. He wants information not only about other students and acquaintances from Cambridge but also on art, as he attempts to expand his own growing knowledge.

Farrell takes on the role of Chubb quite admirably, the shabbily, slightly bumbling, urbane, Burgess forgotten and replaced by the more down to earth, gritty and lower class Chubb.

David Robb as Sir Anthony Blunt with Nicholas Farrell as Inspector Chubb

The heart of the act is a chance meeting with the Queen, played by Lang again. The cut glass, actress’s enunciation of Browne replaced by the more clipped tones of HMQ. Playing someone we all know and hear so well – at least in public – is a challenge and perhaps considering the meeting is in the late 1960s when the Queen would have been in her early 40s, the portrayal seems to have her older and more frail that you would expect, and, perhaps, a little short of the gravitas you might expect.

Bennett gives us a Queen who is quite witty and toys with Blunt about fakes, frauds and pictures not being what they seem to be, with one particular painting, originally thought to be by Titian, the main subject being questioned after cleaning and x-rays revealed three hidden figures.

It is a clever avenue to explore as the Queen is talking to the biggest fraud around, someone who was certainly not what was seen and who can throw light on a host of ghostly figures in the background.

Blunt was given anonymity from prosecution in 1964 after admitting he was a Soviet spy, a fact that remained a closely guarded secret until it was revealed by Margaret Thatcher 15 years later when he was immediately stripped of his knighthood.

Like Burgess in Moscow, Blunt is also a lonely man, with few friends and the added fear of exposure held over his head if information dries up. Both are perhaps traitors trapped in a foreign country.

Peter McKintosh’s set is a wall of a Palladian Soviet government building in the opening act with a picture of Joe Stalin in every window, which becomes walls of a gallery in Buckingham Palace, covered in works of art in the second act with Burgess’s scruffy, untidy flat and Blunt’s comfortable office sitting on a red square of carpet which at times seems a little lost on the huge Rep stage.

This revival of the 1988 National Theatre production, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, brings a sensational episode in our recent history to life in a clever, beautifully written and well-acted way. Worth a look. To 27-02-16.

Roger Clarke



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