Friendship, according to the author Ben Macintyre, is the reason why Harold “Kim” Philby remains “the greatest double agent of all time”. The “third man” of the notorious set of Communist spies who met at Cambridge University in the 1930s exploited his closest friends to gift British and American secrets to Moscow, leading to the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands, over 30 years as a traitor working for the KGB.

One of those friendships, with a man who protected Philby for many years, fellow MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott, is at the heart of a gripping new six-part ITV drama, A Spy Among Friends, based on Macintyre’s book of the same name. Fittingly, it stars Etonian Damian Lewis as Elliott, whose father was a famous headmaster of the school, and Guy Pearce as Philby.

Eton “was a more progressive, sort of democratic place when I was there”, notes Lewis, when I mention that John le Carré, who taught there in the 1950s, described Etonians as “a curse on the earth”. Yet was Elliott responsible in some way for Philby’s crimes because he vouched for him? Lewis believed he was. “Elliot’s tragic arc is that he loves, adores, admires, and supports a man for his entire life, and defends him at critical points when he might have been exposed.

“And then he is the man who was sent to bring him back in a four-day interview in Beirut” – in 1962, Elliott was dispatched to the Middle East, where Philby was working as a journalist, to secure his confession after the spy had been confirmed as the third man by a Soviet defector. “Elliott is confronted by his greatest friend, his soulmate, his lover for all intents and purposes, platonically, who betrayed him and his country.” He never got over that betrayal.

I’m in a room with some of the heavyweights connected with the drama – Lewis, screenwriter Alexander Cary, director Nick Murphy, and Anna Maxwell Martin who plays a fictional MI5 officer, questioning Elliott on why Philby was allowed to escape from Beirut on a steamer to Moscow.

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