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Monday, 28 April, 2003, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Cambridge Spies
Cambridge Spies
Newsnight Review discussed the television drama Cambridge Spies.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review)

Rosie Boycott, it's been accused in some newspapers of glamorising traitors, does it?

It certainly glamorising them at the beginning, yes. You have to remember it was a glamorous life they were leading. They were there in Cambridge, they were young, they were privileged and I mean if I have a fault with the first part of the programme, I think it's the sense that he doesn't get across actually there was a lot of agitation at that time. You had one and a half million people unemployed and in those universities, there was a lot of feeling that socialism and Communism was the way forward for a lot of people. These four took it further than anybody else. They were glamorous and they did lead a glamorous and exciting life. Towards the end of it, I think the glamour stays a little bit too precise. And too strong and that you should have seen much more of their own critical facility once they discovered what Stalin's regime was all about. It had lots of good points. It made for very good television. As for historical accuracy there are a heck of a lot of mistakes.

Will Self, the writer has made them pro- Jewish, they defend the honour of a Jewish student, he has made them pro-worker and they start a strike in the university. He has admitted he invented those scenes, does that matter that he said he invented those scenes?

I think the historical inaccuracy is unforgivable. These are recent events. The real story is exciting and incredibly revealing of the nature of the British establishment at the time and on an enduring level. The historical liberties that have been taken, kick off from the start. MacLean and Anthony Blunt hardly every met. They are in a slackers' paradise where they drink and conduct affairs and many of them open homosexuals. This wouldn't have happened. MacLean, the political ring master, the man that was passing incredible information directly to Stalin, was sitting in on meetings with Roosevelt but was made out to be a fairly lowly attaché at the Embassy. None of it really adds up. Why do it this way? I couldn't understand this.

It started as a heterosexual story which it wasn't primarily. I wonder if they were nervous about the American market there?

I don't know. I was impressed in the way it dealt with them all even-handedly. For me, I thought they made the concessions because they worked. I saw all four episodes back-to-back. I started at ten o'clock and I couldn't turn it off. I thought it was gripping and the characters were beautifully drawn and the sets were exciting. It was very cinematic and as a dramatic production, it was really engrossing.

Mark, it is dramatic, but does it not matter if you make up scenes that never happen, particularly if they appear to change the motivation, the ideology of the characters?

No, firstly it's a drama, and it says at the beginning of every episode, certain characters and scenes are invented. So we understand that. We understand how TV movies of the week work. I grew up being told that these people were nothing more than a joke, public school twits that were playing with Communism. To watch a drama that takes that idealism seriously was enlivening. I thought it dealt seriously with the problem of the Hitler style impact.

For one second it dealt with that. You never saw at any point the consequences of lives that were lost because of the secrets they betrayed. One of the most important spies in it, who infiltrated Bletchley and gave probably the biggest piece of information which was about the tanks that the Germans had and was able to give that to the Russians and let them win the Kursk battle which turned the war at that point. Things like that would have been easy to introduce to give it a hard historical edge, it was glossed over, to see Melinda looking lovely and a bit of a love story.

The pre-text that was given for them getting away with it that Anthony Blunt was responsible for bringing back the compromising letters from Edward VIII to Hitler. That was absolute nonsense. Anyone who has written on the subject says that was a conspiracy theory that people love to fall for and it wouldn't play out or make any sense. The real story was the embarrassment of the British establishment. They were that much plonkers.

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