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EDITIONS
True Spies Sunday, 20 October, 2002, 10:41 GMT 11:41 UK
The making of True Spies
Peter Taylor
Peter Taylor
You wouldn't expect spies to appear on television and reveal how the "Secret State" works. So how did the new series True Spies ever get made?


True Spies was 18 months in the making. We started, as ever, with a blank sheet of paper and an idea.

We wanted to investigate how the 'Secret State' - that's the intelligence services, MI5 and Special Branch - has countered what it perceived to be domestic 'subversion' from the chilliest decades of the Cold War to the present day.

There remains a deep-rooted culture of secrecy within Special Branch and there were powerful internal voices opposed to what we were trying to do

Peter Taylor
After our BBC Two Irish trilogy Brits - in which we covered the secret 'war' against the IRA - a series examining how the intelligence services had countered other "enemies within" seemed a natural progression.

But it was never going to be easy.

Daunting challenge

Beginning a new series is always the same. It's both challenging and daunting. You know where you're going but you're never quite sure how you're going to get there.

True Spies was no exception. We're a small team that has worked closely together for the past five years through Provos (1997), Loyalists (1999) and Brits (2000).

That's myself, producer Sam Collyns (although Andrew Williams produced Provos), associate producer Julia Hannis and film archivist Stuart Robertson. Sarah Hann also joined the team for True Spies.

We knew from the outset that we could only get the series to work if we could persuade former members of the intelligence services to be interviewed.

This inevitably raised the formidable obstacle of the Official Secrets Act. Under the Act an offence is committed if a disclosure is made 'without lawful authority' and if that disclosure causes 'damage'.

Stella Rimington was interviewed for
Former MI5 chief Stella Rimington
We clearly had no intention of causing any damage to national security or current operational procedures - we had already walked that tightrope in Brits and our recent SAS Embassy Siege - but 'lawful authority' posed a different problem.

We knew that if we were to avoid prosecution, we would have to ensure that all former members of the intelligence services we interviewed had 'lawful authority' to speak.

This meant gaining the support of Chief Constables and Heads of Special Branch around the country and top cover from the Association of Chief Police Officers.

It took many months but we finally succeeded - with the result that no Special Branch officer spoke without 'lawful authority'.

Culture of secrecy

But why did they agree? I think the climate of excessive secrecy, at least on the part of the police service, is slowly changing. True Spies is testimony to it.

We were finally able to track down and interview an agent from the far Left and one from the far Right

Peter Taylor
Frankly, most senior officers believed that their former colleagues had an important story to tell and that our project was an important contribution to contemporary history.

That doesn't mean to say that everyone was happy. There remains a deep-rooted culture of secrecy within Special Branch and there were powerful internal voices opposed to what we were trying to do. In the end, they did not prevail.

In contrast to the police, the Security Service (MI5), showed no sign of changing its own longstanding policy of tightly sealed lips.

Realistically, it was highly unlikely ever to do so given the row over the publication of Stella Rimington's book Open Secret and the prosecution of former MI5 officer David Shayler.

But True Spies isn't just about MI5 and Special Branch. It's also about the agents they recruited and ran and the organisations they penetrated.

Spies risk retribution

If getting former Special Branch officers to talk was difficult, finding and persuading former agents seemed virtually impossible since they run the risk of retribution from those they once spied on and cultivated as their friends.

Arthur Scargill was monitored by spies
Arthur Scargill was targeted by the "Secret State"
After months of research and persistence by Julia, we were finally able to track down and interview an agent from the far Left and one from the far Right. They provide an astonishing insight into a dark and dangerous world and are, of course, not identified.

Sam used the technique he perfected in our Irish trilogy of shooting lips and eyes and back of heads with me, out of focus, sometimes in shot. The questions you see and hear me ask are therefore in real time.

The final crucial element we needed were interviews with those on the receiving end of the spies' attentions.

In the end, we interviewed a range of so-called 'victims' from Arthur Scargill and Derek 'Red Robbo' Robinson to Tariq Ali and some members of the public who hadn't the slightest idea they were being watched.

There are interviews with political 'victims' too, from a present Labour minister to a former Labour MP.

Tracking down spies

Because True Spies is contemporary history, we also needed Stuart to dig out archive film of many of the incidents and events we cover. There was always a frisson in the edit suite when Stuart walked in with the footage matching precisely what the interviewee was saying.

We were also keen to create the political and social context in which these events took place.

The Cold War, fear of Communism and Trotskyite "subversion" were real and it's easy to dismiss them today as paranoid exaggerations epitomised by "Reds under the bed". They were not.

To recreate the social climate of the time, Sam carefully trawled endless Top Twenty's and the BBC record library to come up with an appropriate soundtrack for the series.

True Spies hits range from Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" (circa 1964 - for which your veteran reporter claims credit) to The Beat's "Stand Down Margaret" 1979).

We even thought of issuing a soundtrack CD of the series.

We also use clips from famous TV sitcoms from the periods we cover from Til Death Us Do Part and Spitting Image to The Fast Show and The Royle Family. None of these events took place in a political, social and cultural vacuum.

We did, however, encounter our fair share of failures. Many former Special Branch officers we contacted or met refused to be interviewed, decisions that we respected.

On one occasion Julia and I turned up on the doorstep of a former Special Branch officer whom we'd tried to talk to on several occasions without success.

He held the key to one of the most important industrial spy stories. Julia and Sam had made a previous visit but he wasn't at home. So Julia and I tried again.

This time he was at home. We rang the bell repeatedly but nobody came. In the end I peeped round the window and saw people watching the television. I rang again and this time the man came to the door.

He looked surprised to see us and even more surprised when we told him who we were. He said he hadn't opened the door because he thought we were Jehovah's witnesses!

He refused to say anything but said he was sorry and assured us he was looking forward to watching the programmes.

Throughout True Spies runs a central political question - to what extent is the state justified in interfering with individual liberty to protect the freedoms of us all?

To quote Billy Bragg as he sings over the violent confrontation at Orgreave during the 1984 miners' strike, that depends on "whose side are you on".


The first programme in the new three-part series True Spies was broadcast on BBC Two on Sunday 27 October.

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