Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Great news! There's going to be a major TV drama series based on Henry Hemming's "M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster"

Knight, testing Q's latest secret camera device
When I reviewed Henry Hemming's insanely enjoyable biography of MI5 spy chief Maxwell Knight earlier this year, I wondered why there hadn't been a single TV drama or documentary about this truly extraordinary man. Little did I know that a really serious TV production company had snapped up the rights to M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster  before it was even published. As the company was Mammoth Screen, who are responsible for Poldark, Victoria and Witness for the Prosecution, we know that the series will have a stack of dosh lavished on it, and that it'll be snapped up by a major broadcaster - the BBC (if it can afford it) or ITV - or a major-league online video platform like Amazon or Netflix. Mark Chapman, who wrote the screenplay for Stephen Spielberg's highly enjoyable 2015 fact-based spy movie, Bridge of Spies, has been asked to adapt Hemming's book,  so the script should be top-hole. I'm genuinely excited by this news, which I only discovered after The Salisbury Review asked me to review the book for their next issue. Here's the new (hopefully much-improved) version - please holler if you spot any howlers:

Maxwell Knight started out as a rackety, unfocussed young man who couldn’t settle to anything. In the early 1920s, he hung around London nightclubs, played the clarinet in an unsuccessful jazz band, populated his flat with a bizarre menagerie of exotic animals (including a bear and a bush-baby), and, after his father died, was forbidden any contact with his highly respectable family by his older brother. He eventually drifted into a career as a spy in the private sector, working for a businessman who unofficially fed whatever information his agents gleaned to the government. Tasked with spying on the burgeoning British Fascisti movement, Knight became a member in 1924. While reporting back on their activities, he simultaneously infiltrated half a dozen fascist colleagues into the British Communist Party. As a visceral anti-communist, he was sympathetic to many of the aims of the early British fascists, who saw themselves as King & Country patriots rather than ideologues wedded to a particular political theory. Convinced that a communist coup was imminent, the early fascists saw it as their duty to save the country by resisting and disrupting the Bolshevists when the revolution came, and to leave the stage once order had been restored. Knight became a close friend and admirer of the charismatic little street-fighter, William Joyce, and married a leading member of the movement.
Knight, being spied on by a heavily-disguised Soviet agent
When the General Strike failed to produce a Bolshevik coup, British fascism fizzled out (albeit temporarily), and Knight and his wife decamped to Exmoor to try their hand at running a pub. Knight was bored, and spent most of his time fishing. In the early '30s, he was recruited by the government to identify domestic communist spies - which he did successfully, breaking up a major Soviet-run spy ring which was stealing British military secrets. As the threat of Hitler grew, the former Labour MP Oswald Mosley hijacked and resurrected the moribund fascist movement, accepted funding from Mussolini, added anti-Semitism, military-style uniforms and mass rallies, and adopted a distinctly pro-German stance. Mosley’s brand of fascism didn’t appeal to Knight, but he was initially reluctant to treat it as a serious national threat. It was only when war seemed inevitable that he turned his attention to rooting out fascist spies. He was again successful, preventing a plot to release memos between Churchill and Roosevelt which could have scuppered the possibility of America entering the war in Europe. Despite this, and despite later denials, it seems likely that Knight phoned William Joyce to warn him that he was about to be arrested, thus precipitating the traitor's flight to Germany and his eventual reincarnation as Lord Haw-Haw.  Whether Knight did this out of fear that Joyce would reveal too much of his own fascist past, or because of a sentimental attachment to an old friend whose courage and toughness he admired, it's impossible to say.

Welcoming an agent in from the cold
Knight practically invented the art of "running" agents. He had received no official training as a spy, and, when he became a fully-fledged MI5 spymaster, there was no existing template to follow. He had to invent what’s now universally known, thanks to the novels of John le Carré - one of Knight’s recruits - as spycraft. Knight followed his own instincts. For instance, he was happy to ignore the law by breaking into suspects' homes. He also ignored the long-running British prejudice against using female agents: he thought women were in some ways better suited to undercover work than men. He recruited six of them - mostly posh young ladies - and they performed brilliantly. For years, he resisted pressure to use his official office to run operations, preferring to meet agents at his London flat, which still served as a private zoo. Perhaps that’s not as odd as it sounds, given that he was in effect applying the lessons he’d learned from handling animals - for which he evidently had a great natural gift - to handling agents.

Perhaps the greatest contradiction in this master of the secret world’s complex character was his desire for publicity. In the 1930s, while head of MI5’s M Section - he was actually known as “M” - he wrote a series of flamboyant Bulldog Drummond-style spy thrillers which were published, albeit without much success, under his own name. In 1946, while still an MI5 chief (he wouldn't retire until 1961), again using his own name, he produced the first of 34 books about animals. By the time he retired from MI5 in 1961, he was one of the country’s best-known naturalists, having made numerous appearances on radio and television. He was even a guest on Desert Island Discs, where he chose a record by the legendary New Orleans jazz musician, Sidney Bechet, who had once given him clarinet lessons. Suspicions that he might be more than a somewhat eccentric animal expert were aroused by his habit of arriving at Broadcasting House in large, chauffeur-driven cars with blacked-out windows. As he was a senior member of the state security apparatus at the time, why didn’t he use an alias? No matter - somehow, his secret remained safe, and friends and acquaintances from the worlds of naturalism, publishing and broadcasting who attended his memorial service in 1968 were apparently mystified by the army of anonymous men in brown felt hats who were also paying their respects.
"This recording will self-destruct in five seconds..."
The rights to this rivetting account of one of the most fascinating Britons of the 20th Century have been bought by a television production company, and filming is due to start next year. It’s about time. As I read the book, I kept wondering why Maxwell Knight hadn’t previously attracted the attention of documentary-makers and dramatists - after all, Anthony Masters published a biography of the spymaster in 1985. I suspect it’s because of Knight’s association with the early British fascist movement and the fact that, although he left fascism behind, he remained a man of the right. Hemming tells us, “…his unit would always be more right-wing, more daring and more maverick than any other MI5 section.” If his unit had been the most left-wing in MI5, or if he’d been revealed as yet another secret service communist traitor, we’d probably never have heard the end of him.


  1. I think the word Le Carré uses to describe the techniques used by officers of the circus and their agents is 'tradecraft' not 'spycraft'. Like you, I am looking forward to seeing the series.

    1. I misspoke myself. And, anyway, I am living as a gay man.

      Thanks very much, ex-KCS - you are, of course, quite right. Both terms are generally acceptable, I think - but not in the context of le Carré novels.

    2. Pavement artists and lamplighters – did "M" stand for Mayhew as in Mayhew's London?

  2. Cock Inn Regular1 November 2017 at 13:02

    The Salisbury Review is a superb publication. Some of its readers are likely to know the difference between a Fascist and a Nazi.

    One of the SR's illustrious readers certainly did : " I am not a Fascist. Fascists are a bunch of shopkeepers. I am a Nazi." Alan Clark.

  3. I'm currently around halfway through Hemming's book and greatly enjoying it.

    As for a television version, I wonder how the BBC will handle the desperate attempts of the Comintern to spy on and undermine Britain in the years leading up to WWII?

    Any reader with an ounce of sense, and who wasn't already aware of what went on, will recognise the seeds then being sown of so much of today's poisonous vegetation.

    The parent plant might have died, but the spawn lives on.

    1. I agree - perhaps they'll simply portray Knight as a villain. The BBC's attitude to Soviet communism has been on display in recent days - I wonder if they'll be celebrating the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht in a similar fashion next November.