Simon Kuper Simon Kuper

The spy who stayed out in the cold

A meeting with the MI6 double-agent who condemned scores of British spooks to death

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.

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