Actress Léa Seydoux and actor Daniel Craig on the set of the next James Bond movie. But Damian Lewis, who fronts a new documentary all about spies, isn't convinced by Bond's spymaster skills!
Homeland star Damian Lewis has never presented a documentary series before, or any show for that matter. But having starred in spy thrillers, including Homeland and the 2016 John le Carré film Our Kind of Traitor, he couldn’t resist when he was asked to front this thrilling new eight-part series about real-life spies. The stories are arguably far better than any espionage James Bond-style fiction, too.
First up is the tale of KGB double agent Oleg Gordievsky, who saved the world from almost certain Cold War nuclear armageddon during the 1980s.
The series also covers the story of how, in 2006, British intelligence agencies thwarted the deadliest terror plot ever devised on home soil, as well as the ‘spy swap’ that brought Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, to Salisbury.
Here Damian Lewis, 48, reveals how he got to meet real-life CIA field operatives and why he doesn’t rate James Bond as a spy…
What drew you to this project?
“Actually my brother [series producer Gareth Lewis] called me up and asked me! I was reluctant at first because I don’t consider myself a presenter, but I was also curious. I enjoy the genre and I’ve done a lot of research in my career with Homeland and Our Kind of Traitor, so thought it was an opportunity to see if we can unearth something a bit more personal about the agents themselves and about the ramifications on global politics from decisions taken by these individuals.”
Some of the stories reveal some extraordinary close calls…
“We tell the story about the liquid bomb plot of 2006, which happened a year after the 7/7 bombings. It was a massive, massive plot to blow up airlines between the UK and the US and the intelligence agencies got there, I kid you not, at the 11th hour!”
Several of the spies get their cover blown, though. Why do you think that is?
“In the end that the old cliché that it takes a spy to catch a spy is often because, after a sociopathic, compartmentalisation of one’s life, they feel the need to speak. I think their egos are what gets the better of them and they find themselves actually confiding in other spies. It’s that increasingly loose talk that actually undoes them in the end.”
You’ve also visited the CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia. What was that like?
“We went to meet some of their field operatives for Homeland research. Halfway through John Brennan, the former CIA director, talked about [former CIA employee and American whistleblower] Edward Snowden. He got visibly angry and I think he realised he’d revealed too much. I spoke to his adviser afterwards and I said, ‘what happened there?’ And he said, ‘I’ve just asked him the same thing!’ Later Brennan apologised unreservedly and said, ‘I’m so sorry, it was unprofessional but the damage that man has done is incalculable and irreparable.’ It was a fascinating meeting.”
Lots of spies went to boarding school. As an old Etonian why do you think that is?
“What I’d say is, if you’re sent away from home at the age of eight and you’re asked to cope emotionally with a new situation, there’s a natural and instinctive compartmentalising of one’s emotional life, which is very helpful to a covert life in espionage. But actually spy craft is very untechnical and there are exotic words like ‘dead drop’ and ‘brush past’, but that just means you walking into a supermarket with the same Sainsbury’s carrier bag as me and us leaving with each other’s bags!”
So what do you think makes a good spy?
“Of course there’s a need for discretion and an ability to be covert as a spy, otherwise you’d be a rubbish spy, like James Bond! But what’s brilliant about James Bond is that his recovery is better than anyone else’s – that’s where your two hours of movie happens, it’s him getting himself out of the massive mistakes he’s made early on!”
* Damian Lewis: Spy Wars is on History, Monday at 9pm
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