Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce in A Spy Among Friends

Exploring the Cambridge Five in ITVX’s ‘A Spy Among Friends’

The double agents were part of the Cambridge spy ring

A Spy Among Friends reveals how the ‘Cambridge Five’ spy ring included Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and The Queen’s art curator Anthony Blunt.

So who were Burgess, Maclean, and Blunt? Why did they turn double agent and betray their country, and who else was in the Cambridge Five?

Here’s everything you need to know about the Cambridge Five, as featured in the ITVX series A Spy Among Friends…

Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce in character in A Spy Among Friends
Damian Lewis stars as Nicholas Elliott, who was duped by his friend and double agent Kim Philby, played by Guy Pearce (Credit: ITVX/Sony Pictures)

A Spy Among Friends Cambridge Five: Who was Guy Burgess?

Guy Burgess was born in Devon into a very wealthy British family. His father was a Naval officer, and Guy studied at Eton before enrolling at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1930.

At Cambridge, he met Kim Philby (played by Guy Pearce in A Spy Among Friends) and Anthony Blunt, who was a young lecturer there. The pair become very close friends.

Both Blunt and Burgess were gay and may have been lovers – at a time when it was illegal in Britain.

In the period between the First and Second World Wars, communism attracted the young men. They believed it stood the best chance of fighting the Nazis and worrying rise of fascism.

After leaving university, Burgess worked for the BBC, MI5 and MI6, and as a diplomat at the Foreign Office.

I Hate Suzie actor Thomas Arnold brings Guy Burgess to life in the ITVX drama.

A Spy Among Friends: Who was Anthony Blunt?

The son of a vicar, Anthony Blunt was born in Bournemouth and was distantly related to the Queen.

He won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied modern languages.

Blunt stayed on to teach after he graduated in 1930 and, like Burgess, was drawn to communism.

He worked as a journalist and art critic, and for MI5.

His character appeared in season two of The Crown.

Samuel West played the character, who retrieved sensitive letters between the Duke of Windsor (who abdicated) and Hitler.

Blunt’s exposure by the secret service appeared in season three of the Netflix drama.

A Spy Among Friends: Who Was Donald Maclean?

Donald Maclean was the son of a Liberal cabinet minister.

He arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1931 to study modern languages.

Maclean became firm friends with Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.

He graduated in 1934, joined the Foreign Office, and quickly rose through the ranks.

Actor Daniel Lapaine, husband of Fay Ripley, plays Donald Maclean in A Spy Among Friends on ITVX.

Guy Pearce in character as Kim Philby
Guy Pearce plays Kim Philby in A Spy Among Friends (Credit: ITVX/Sony Pictures)

A Spy Among Friends: How were Burgess, Maclean and Blunt recruited by the KGB?

In 1934, KGB agent Arnold Deutsch was working undercover in London as a lecturer.

He wanted to recruit new spies to the KGB.

Deutsch – code name “Otto” – knew Kim Philby’s first wife, a political activist.

She suggested Philby for the job.

Otto and Philby met in London’s Regent’s Park, and Philby agreed.

During the summer, Philby invited Donald Maclean to join him.

Maclean quickly recruited Guy Burgess – who invited Anthony Blunt.

How were Burgess and Maclean found out?

In 1949, Philby was sent to the US to liaise between British and American intelligence services.

However, he found out the Americans had evidence that Donald Maclean was a Russian double agent.

So Philby arranged for Guy Burgess to help Maclean defect to Moscow.

No-one else was under suspicion.

But Burgess panicked.

Just before midnight on May 25 1951, he screeched to a halt on Southampton docks with Maclean in the car.

Both of them abandoned it and jumped on the midnight ferry to St Malo.

From there, they made their way to Moscow where they defected.

Spy Among Friends Cambridge Five: How was Anthony Blunt caught?

The defection of both Burgess and Maclean blew the Cambridge spy ring apart.

Suspicion quickly fell on Kim Philby.

Although he was initially cleared of wrong-doing, he was forced to leave the security services.

In 1962, he was unmasked as a double agent.

Two years later, Blunt was confronted, and confessed to being a double agent. He was offered immunity from prosecution and continued to work for the Royal Family.

As The Crown showed, Blunt had detailed knowledge of the Duke of Windsor’s links to the Nazis, and it suggested he also had a compromising portrait of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Fearing the damage that his exposure would do, the British government kept it quiet until 1979.

He was even knighted by the Queen for his services to art!

In 1979, Blunt’s role was outed in a book, Climate of Treason – though his name was not used.

But answering questions in the House of Commons, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher confirmed it was Blunt.

Thatcher was said to be appalled by the old boy network cover-up.

Blunt was stripped of his knighthood and vilified in the press.

Guy Pearce in character as Kim Philby
Kim Philby (Guy Pearce) enjoyed the high life and hid in plain sight (Credit: ITVX/Sony Pictures)

Who else was in the Cambridge Five?

After Burgess and Maclean defected, the hunt was on for the “third man” in the Cambridge spy ring – so called because they had studied at Trinity College, Cambridge.

The “third man” was later revealed to be Kim Philby.

Anthony Blunt was the fourth man, exposed publicly in 1979.

In the 1990s, the Soviets revealed that the “fifth man” was John Cairncross.

A Spy Among Friends: Who was John Cairncross? How did he know Blunt, Burgess and Maclean?

Born in Scotland, John Cairncross attended Trinity College Cambridge and went on to work at codebreaking site Bletchley Park.

Notes found in Burgess’ flat after he defected pointed the finger at Cairncross.

But he was finally unmasked by Blunt’s secret confession in 1964.

Cairncross was never prosecuted.

In the early 1990s, while living in the US, he was publicly exposed in two books by former Russian agents.

Cairncross returned to the UK to write his memoirs, and died of a stroke in October 1995 aged 82.

A Spy Among Friends: Is Guy Burgess still alive?

Guy Burgess was known for being “constantly under the influence of alcohol”.

His drinking escalated even more once he defected to Moscow.

Burgess died of a heart attack following liver failure in a Moscow hospital in 1963 – the same year that Philby defected. He was 52.

Guy Pearce and Damian Lewis in character
Kim Philby (Guy Pearce) was confronted by Nicholas Elliott over his crimes (Credit: ITVX/Sony Pictures)

A Spy Among Friends: Is Donald Maclean still alive?

Donald Maclean’s wife Melinda joined him in Moscow, but began an affair with Kim Philby after his arrival.

Understandably, it destroyed the friendship between the two men.

After a brief reconciliation, Melinda returned to the US.

Don’s two sons, daughter and beloved grandaughter also eventually returned to the West.

He lived out his years largely alone, tending the garden of his house outside Moscow.

Don Maclean was also an alcoholic and died alone in March 1983 in Moscow, aged 69.

He said: “I do not at all regret having done what seemed and still seems to be my duty.”

Is Anthony Blunt still alive?

Anthony Blunt claimed he bitterly regretted his actions as a spy and came to loathe the Soviet regime.

He lived in central London as a recluse, after being exposed in Parliament and in the press.

Blunt died at his London home in March 1983 of a heart attack. He was 73.

Is Kim Philby still alive?

Philby worked for the KGB after his defection, helping spies prepare for missions.

He lived in a small flat in Moscow.

Like other members of the Cambridge Five, Philby also became an alcoholic and died in 1988 in Moscow, aged 76, of an unknown cause.

Philby is buried in Moscow’s Kuntsevo Cemetery.

His last wife Rufina Pukhova claimed he was “disillusioned with communism and tortured by his failings”.

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All six episodes of A Spy Among Friends stream on ITVX from Thursday December 08 2022.

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Nancy Brown
Associate Editor