I suspect George Blake, the MI6 officer turned KGB double agent, would enjoy toddling over to the Hampstead Theatre to see himself in the new production of Simon Gray’s play Cell Mates. The problem is that the instant he landed at Heathrow, he’d be arrested and made to serve the remaining 37 years of his 42-year jail sentence, which was rudely interrupted by his escape from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966.
When I met him at his dacha near Moscow in May 2012, I found a shrunken old man. He was then 89, with a straggly beard, false teeth, slippers and a cane. Only his deceiver’s charm remained intact. He stood waiting for me in the lane outside, then led me through a door into his vast garden. ‘This house, you would not believe it, was built before the Revolution,’ he marvelled. Here is where he entertained Kim Philby on weekends in the 1970s, until the two traitors fell out.
Blake (who is still alive today) sat and talked amiably for hours. At times I struggled to remind myself that in the 1950s this half-blind geriatric had given the KGB the names of several hundred British agents, most of them living behind the Iron Curtain. About 40 are reckoned to have been killed. Many others spent years in jail. Dick White, who was ‘C’ at MI6 when Blake was exposed in 1961, assessed the damage he did as ‘much worse than Philby’.
If Blake could catch the play, about his early Moscow days, he might reflect that the subsequent half-century has worked out rather well for him. Cell Mates premiered in London in 1995 but was suspended after three shows when Stephen Fry (playing Blake) escaped to Belgium, plagued by bipolar disorder. The production soon closed. But Gray’s play deserves its revival. In Hampstead it stars Geoffrey Streatfeild as Blake and Emmet Byrne as his Irish rescuer, Sean Bourke.
The play — which draws on Bourke’s and Blake’s memoirs — doesn’t stray far from reality. The two men met as fellow prisoners in the Scrubs. Soon after Bourke was released, he sprang Britain’s greatest traitor alone, without KGB help, by the simple means of throwing a rope ladder over the prison wall, and then scraping him up after he crashed painfully to earth. As a minor character in Cell Mates remarks: ‘It’s like something out of a … a comic book!’ The play’s director, Edward Hall, says his actors struggled to believe the story of the escape.
The two fugitives hid for weeks in a Hampstead flat, a short walk from the theatre. Eventually they legged it separately to Moscow, where they shared a flat under KGB surveillance. Much of the play’s action is Gray’s reimagining of the awkward cohabitation of Irish fantasist and deadly double agent. ‘It’s about two men who become co-dependent without willing it,’ says Hall. The play ends with Blake alone, abandoned by Bourke, trying to justify his treachery, above all to himself.
The two men’s paths diverged after Bourke returned to Ireland in 1968. The Irish refused to extradite him to Britain. He published his engaging book, The Springing of George Blake. Alfred Hitchcock bought the rights, and spent a decade planning a film about the escape. Bourke, suddenly rich, dispensed endless largesse and drinks to hangers-on. But Hitchcock died in 1980 without making the film. Bourke drank himself to death two years later, aged 47, in a borrowed caravan in a small town on Ireland’s west coast.
In Moscow, Blake replaced Bourke with the perfect housemate — his beloved Dutch mother — and prospered. Philby and Guy Burgess never came to feel at home in Russia: Burgess described his first Soviet experience as ‘like Glasgow on a Saturday night in the 19th century’.
But for the cosmopolitan Blake, there was no such thing as exile. He had grown up in Rotterdam, son of an Egyptian-Jewish father who had served in the British army in the first world war. Blake spent the late 1930s in an uncle’s mansion in Cairo, then joined the Dutch Resistance, and in 1942 fled across occupied Europe to London to become a British agent.
He remains an Anglophile, who loves English literature (especially John le Carré). The dacha contains the excellent library that he inherited from his soulmate and fellow traitor, Donald Maclean. However, Blake never felt British, so when he fell for communism in a North Korean prison camp in 1951 he didn’t feel he was betraying his country. It took him about a week in the USSR in 1967 to learn that real existing communism didn’t work. Yet his love for the Russian language and Orthodox religious traditions endured.
His charming Russian wife Ida (who served us sandwiches) introduced him to a new life. In the 1980s Blake’s three British sons got in touch, visited him in Moscow, and reconciled with him. Blake seems to regard this as the most significant event of his life. He came to consider himself ‘a foreign-made car that has adapted very well to Russian roads’.
He admitted to me that he often dreamed ‘about police and things’, but when I asked whether he had traumas, he laughed. He was a satisfied man, he said.
I sensed that whenever any murdered agents surfaced before his mind’s eye, he repressed them. Anyway, his core belief (taken from his Calvinist upbringing) is determinism: all our actions are predestined, so can’t be helped.
He no longer believes in anything much. He and Maclean had dreamed of communism with a human face, but Maclean died in 1983 and Blake ditched the fantasy after Gorbachev failed. In old age he just seems to enjoy family, neighbourhood and the little things in life. I left the dacha feeling that he was a happy traitor.
He would probably like Cell Mates, with its English wit, and its focus on the human rather than the political. But I suspect he’s contented enough in his dacha, patiently awaiting the day when his ashes will be strewn in the surrounding woods.
Simon Kuper is a columnist for the Financial Times.