When Kim Philby died in Soviet Russia, the last member of the notorious British Communist spies was given a hero's funeral procession, sealing one of England's most incredible spying sagas. The 4-part BBC mini-series dubbed “The Cambridge Spies,” the group of five, reduced to a key four, were ultimately responsible for giving away major secrets during their tenure in high-profile positions.
In addition to the skillful casting and lush production design, Peter Moffat's screenplay covers key periods where the youth formed their idealistic associations in college, and rose to prominence at the BBC, MI6, the British Consulate in America, and the Queen Mum's personal circle of associates. The betrayal of a nation is reduced to subtext – there's little moral grandstanding by historical figureheads in the series – while Moffat's script clearly emphasizes the strong friendship that kept the group together for decades, while personal lives crumbled as the demands of espionage became far too taxing on most members.
That's what makes “Cambridge Spies” such an outstanding drama; though chronicling the arrogance of upper-crust society and their complete inability to suspect their own well-bred kindred of treason, it's really a tragedy of human lives ruined by ideology and class rules.
There's two commentary tracks in the set, gathering the series' writer, director and producer for Parts 1 and 4. A bit too relaxed for the listener, both tracks are broken up by various silent gaps, and much of the conversation consists of material already covered within the dramas. Aside from a few minor historical footnotes, most will find a repetition of material that's better organized in the included History Channel documentary on Disc 2, “Spy Web: The Cambridge Spies,” which briskly assembles archival footage and interviews for a solid postscript to the mini-series.
Some of the interview clips are also archived on Disc 2 in a separate gallery, “A Cambridge Spies Historical Scrapbook,” which includes news reports on the deaths of Donald MacLean and Kim Philby behind the Iron Curtain; Philby admitting his espionage after years of denial, and Anthony Blunt's appearance in an art tour of the Queen Mum's gallery before he was outed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
“Cambridge Spies” is short, sweet, and highly addictive, and benefits from compelling, outrageous facts. Note, while listed as Unrated, “Cambridge Spies” does contain frank language, nudity, and sexual situations.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan