Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Secrets of Her Majesty’s Secret Service (British TV/PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights before I’d watched another PBS show right after the second Presidential debate: a British retread from the year before called Secrets of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, an episode dealing with the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as Military Intelligence Unit 6 (MI6), the outfit the fictional James Bond works for — and of course the main business of the director and writers was to highlight the differences between the Bondian fiction and the agency’s reality, which is mostly concerned with recruiting foreign nationals in the U.K. and getting them to spy on their home countries. Its founding director from 1909 to 1923 was Captain Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming, who usually dropped the first part of his hyphenated last name and was just addressed as “Cumming.” When he signed official documents it got abbreviated still further, to a simple “C” in green ink, and ever since tradition has decreed that whoever is running MI6 is identified only as “C” (in the Bond books it is, of course, “M”) and signs all official documents the same way Cumming did — just the letter “C” in green ink. The show discusses some of MI6’s biggest embarrassments, including the length of time Soviet “mole” Kim Philby was part of the upper echelon and the sheer number of people the Soviets were able to recruit when they were young idealistic students in Cambridge (MI6 tended to recruit its agents from the upper classes and in the 1920’s and 1930’s a lot of upper-class young men had flirtations with Communism, and in some cases it was far more of a lifetime commitment), also the agency’s recovery later in the Cold War when it grabbed Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky (who’s still alive and was interviewed for the show) out of Russia just as he was about to be exposed and executed as an MI6 informant. (For those who are still entranced by the romantic world of James Bond, most of the daily business of an MI6 officer consists of recruiting “agents” — i.e., informants — from other countries’ diplomatic services or wherever they can find them, though it was amusing to hear that when Gamal Abdel Nasser was setting up his secret service in Egypt he bought large quantities of the Bond novels by Ian Fleming and had his own secret service people read them to see which parts reflected actual espionage activities and which were totally fictional.) There have been other shows with far more to say about real-life espionage, both our own and our enemies’, but this was at least an interesting time-filler and it was good after the last disastrous Presidential debate to watch a film about genuinely intelligent people on both sides serving their countries without thought (much thought, anyway) of their own egos!