The British Broadcasting Co., the BBC, in May premiered a four-part television documentary, titled the “Cambridge Spies.” The film’s episodes, each an hour long, purport to be the true story of the four British traitors, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean and Anthony Blunt. All four betrayed their country to Josef Stalin. The docudrama, which cost the British taxpayer $10 million, is a combination of lies and whitewash. So reports John Gross, the distinguished British critic in the June issue of the New Criterion. His judgment is irrefutable.
The miniseries has yet to be shown in the United States but undoubtedly some PBS station somewhere is negotiating with the BBC for the privilege of showing this film monstrosity in this country.
The BBC depends on PBS’ “Masterpiece Theater” to help meet the expenses on BBC productions. And if PBS does plan to show it, I would hope Russell Baker, the “Masterpiece” host, would in this instance decline the honor of introducing it. Actually, PBS should reject buying this miniseries as it would reject a miniseries glorifying fascism or apartheid. The BBC has transformed treason on behalf of communism into an act of nobility. American public television should not be complicit in BBC’s conspiracy against decency.
The most important count in the John Gross indictment is that the documentary gives “no idea of the nature of the regime which Philby and the others chose to serve.” Why the cover-up? These so-called idealists were betraying their own democratic country to a Gulagian dictatorship headed by a mass murderer. Would BBC show a documentary about Nazi Germany and glorifying four British spies who sold out to the Nazis without indicating what the Hitler regime was like?
The docudrama portrays these traitors as loving innocents, misunderstood idealists “who were animated by their detestation of fascism,” writes Mr. Gross. At some point in the film, one of the characters says, “To fight fascism, you have to be a communist.” In other words, you couldn’t trust the British government, the snobbish upper classes or the British Trades Union Congress to fight the fascist beast. You could only trust the Soviet Union, which, it will be recalled, signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany, thus betraying the fight against fascism.
Two incidents in the so-called documentary are shown in order to underline why the Cambridge Four became communist spies. In one of them, a drink in the hand of Philby’s Jewish girl friend is knocked over by some Cambridge right-wing lout who refuses to apologize for his fascist behavior. Never happened. In the other, right-wing undergraduates are shown beating up striking college waiters at Cambridge. C’mon now, how can you blame Philby for turning traitor?
An even more dramatic incident that never happened shows a KGB plot to assassinate Generalissimo Francisco Franco that fails because Philby, writes Mr. Gross, “decent and humane fellow that he is, can’t bring himself to pull the trigger.” Mr. Gross calls these nonevents “fabrications.” I prefer a simpler word “lies.”
How does BBC explain the inexplicable? Listen to Janet Tranter, the BBC executive who commissioned the miniseries:
“It would be a very boring drama indeed if it didn’t provoke a divided opinion. Otherwise, we are going to have a drama saying, ‘What ho. These chaps are traitors and we hate them.’ It is much more complicated than that. … We are trying to put their treachery into perspective.”
Oleg Gordievsky, the former KGB colonel who spied for Britain while he was the KGB station chief in London, was commissioned by the London Daily Telegraph to vet the docudrama. His conclusion was that the BBC film “resembled an official KGB textbook.” He told the Telegraph:
“The films present so distorted a version of the history they claim to portray that they do not tell the story of the Cambridge spies. What they portray is more akin to a piece of propaganda. In true KGB fashion, the programs treat the Cambridge spies as heroes. … Most of the dramatically powerful moments are not based on fact. They are fictional.”
In defending the BBC, a spokesman said “the truth is elusive.” Perhaps BBC, in its hunt for the elusive truth should now commission an “Operation Rewrite” on the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss, anti-fascist idealists all.
Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.