Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce in character in A Spy Among Friends

Damian Lewis stars as Nicholas Elliott in ITVX’s Cold War series A Spy Among Friends

How did the Old Etonian know double agent Kim Philby?

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British secret agent Nicholas Elliott is the focus of new Cold War thriller A Spy Among Friends, starring Damian Lewis.

The ITVX series tells the story of his friendship with infamous Russian double agent Kim Philby – played by Guy Pearce.

Some suspect Nicholas helped Philby to flee.

So who was Nicholas Elliott? And what happened to him?

Here’s everything you need to know about Nicholas Elliott in A Spy Among Friends

Damian Lewis in character as Nicholas Elliott
Damian Lewis plays Nicholas Elliott in A Spy Among Friends (Credit: ITVX/Sony Pictures)

Who was Nicholas Elliott? Where did he go to school?

Nicholas Elliott, played by Damian Lewis in A Spy Among Friends, was born on 15 November 1916 into a rich family.

The Elliotts were known as “the backbone of the British Empire”.

Nicholas’ grandfather was Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, and his father Claude was Headmaster of posh private school Eton.

Elliott was brought up by nannies before attending a prep school and then Eton.

How did Nicholas Elliott become a spy?

It’s all about the old boys’ network.

In 1935, Elliott went up to Trinity College, Cambridge.

That was the same college that Philby – played by Guy Pearce in A Spy Among Friends – had attended, but he’d already left.

After graduating in 1938, Elliott was offered a job as an attaché at The Hague by a family friend at an Eton cricket match.

While working at The Hague, he was asked to help on a spy mission in Hamburg.

Later, on a visit back to the UK, Elliott was invited to join MI6 as a spy.

The deal was done over a glass of Champagne at Ascot races with Sir Robert Vansittart, a senior diplomat.

Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce in character as Nick Elliott and Kim Philby
Guy Pearce and Damian Lewis star in A Spy Among Friends (Credit: ITVX/Sony Pictures)

When did Nicholas Elliott meet Kim Philby?

Although they both attended Trinity College, Cambridge, Philby left in 1934 – the year Elliott arrived.

In 1940, Elliott worked as a liaison officer between MI6 (foreign security) and MI5 (home security).

He was based at MI5’s wartime HQ at London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison.

He began visiting posh gentlemen’s clubs, where he networked and enjoyed his favourite tipple – pink gin.

Around this time, Elliott’s closest friend Basil Fisher was killed in the Battle of Britain.

Weeks later, Elliott – still consumed by grief – met Kim Philby for the first time and the pair bonded instantly.

Philby filled the gap in Elliott’s life left by the death of his friend.

A Spy Among Friends: Where did Nicholas Elliott first meet Kim Philby?

According to author Ben Macintyre, Elliott “could never recall” when he first met Kim Philby.

A Spy Among Friends is based on Macintyre’s critically-acclaimed non-fiction book of the same name.

At the time they met, Philby was an MI6 agent –  but also secretly working for the Russian KGB.

It’s likely the pair met at either of their gentlemen’s clubs, or in the MI6 building.

Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce as Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby in A Spy Among Friends
Nick Elliott (Damian Lewis) thought fellow spy Kim Philby was a trusted friend (Credit: ITVX/Sony Pictures)

Did Nicholas Elliott know Philby was a double agent?

Nicholas Elliott did not know Philby was a double agent, according to all the evidence.

And Elliott himself denied it.

Suspicion first fell on Philby in 1951 when his close friends from Cambridge – and fellow spies – Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess defected to Moscow.

The Americans were on the verge of exposing Maclean, and decided someone in MI6 had tipped them off – the so-called “third man” in what became known as the Cambridge Spy Ring.

Elliott refused to believe Philby was the mysterious third man, and without enough evidence, Philby was exonerated.

But Philby was pushed out of MI6 and went back to work as a journalist.

In 1962, Elliott was left devastated when Philby was finally unmasked as a double agent for the Soviet Union.

He couldn’t believe his friend had lied to him for 30 years.

A Spy Among Friends: Did Nicholas Elliott confront Philby?

When Elliot was presented with the mound of evidence against Philby, Elliott offered to travel to Beirut – where Philby lived – and confront him.

He told Philby: “I once looked up to you. My God, how I despise you now.”

Elliott returned with Philby’s written confession.

But, instead of heading to the UK, Philby defected to Moscow.

The names and information Philby gave Elliott proved useless.

Some historians believe Elliott let him escape, to spare the British government any further embarrassment.

Others say Elliott genuinely thought Philby would accept the secret service’s offer of a new life in exchange for information. He felt it was the gentlemanly thing to do.

Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce as Nick Elliott and Kim Philby at a party
Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis) and Kim Philby (Guy Pearce) shared many happy times in gentlemen’s clubs (Credit: ITVX/Sony Pictures)

Was Nicholas Elliott a double agent?

According to the authorities – and Elliott himself – he was not a double agent like his friend Philby.

But in 2022, evidence emerged that Elliott had a decade-long affair with a Swedish woman which ended shortly before Philby disappeared.

This, of course, meant he would have been vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians.

Philby likely knew of the affair, though there is no evidence Elliott was blackmailed.

Elliott’s career was impacted by the Philby scandal. He was investigated, and never scaled the heights of MI6.

He also missed out on a knighthood.

The spy retired from MI6 in 1968, and was appointed as a director of conglomerate Lonrho until 1973.

He was also an unofficial advisor on intelligence to Margaret Thatcher.

A Spy Among Friends: Was Nicholas Elliott married?

Nicholas Elliott marred Elizabeth Holberton in 1943.

The couple had a son, Mark, and a daughter, Claudia.

His daughter tragically died before him, and Elliott turned to transcendental meditation for comfort.

Was Nicholas Elliot involved in other scandals?

In 1956, Elliott sent an experienced diver, Lionel Crabbe, to spy on the underneath of a Russian ship moored in Portsmouth.

The Russians reported seeing a diver in difficulty just before he disappeared.

Crabbe’s headless body washed up two months later.

Elliott was criticised for sending Crabbe on the MI6 mission, as the diver had been drinking heavily just hours earlier.

No-one knows why Crabbe died.

Is Nicholas Elliott still alive?

Nicholas Elliott died of cancer in London on April 13 1994.

He was 77.

On his deathbed, he told a friend: “I now know my sell-by date. I think I can say I have enjoyed a not uninteresting life.”

Before he died, he wrote two autobiographies, which are now out of print.

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A Spy Among Friends airs on ITVX from Thursday December 08 2022.

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Nancy Brown
Associate Editor