Emma Appleton, Keeley Hawes and Michael Stuhlbarg lead the cast of Channel 4’s spy drama Traitors, a tense thriller set within the post-war corridors of power.
- Channel 4 to make an epic spy thriller set just after the Second World War
- Bodyguard star Keeley Hawes says Richard Madden would make a “phenomenal” James Bond
- Meet the cast of Traitors
Here’s what you need to know:
When is Traitors on TV?
Six-part drama Traitors will begin at Sunday 17th February on Channel 4 at 9pm.
Traitors will later be released internationally on Netflix.
What is Traitors about?
Originally announced under the working title “Jerusalem”, Traitors is the story of the oddly-named Feef Symonds (Emma Appleton). Feef is a “bold” young woman who joins the Civil Service in 1945 just as Clement Attlee’s Labour Party sweeps to victory, defeating wartime leader Winston Churchill in a surprise landslide.
Ambitious and determined to make something of her life, Feef is unappreciated by her family – but her American lover is a different matter. With his encouragement, she agrees to spy on her own government on behalf of the Americans, who have a hidden agenda: they want to ensure that England’s ‘socialist’ leaders don’t play into Soviet hands.
“Struggling to work out what she stands for, and what she’s capable of, Feef must learn to think for herself and play by her own rules at a time when knowledge becomes power and nothing and no one is what they seem,” Channel 4 teases in the official synopsis.
The drama is created and written by Boardwalk Empire writer (and award-winning playwright) Bash Doran in her first original commission for British TV.
Executive producers Eleanor Moran, Tim Carter and Rory Aitken previously told RadioTimes.com that the “tense and emotionally charged spy thriller” will depict the realities of the “surprisingly tortured relationship between Britain and America, which echoes down the decades and resonates more powerfully than ever in the era of Trump and Brexit.”
Speaking about Traitors at the Radio Times Covers Party, Keeley Hawes praised “the amazing Emma Appleton, who carries the show,” adding: “I can’t wait for everyone to see how amazing she is.”
A relative newcomer to our screens, Appleton – who leads the cast as Feef Symonds – starred as Fay Brookestone in the TV series Clique, and has also appeared in Genius, The End of the F***ing World, and Grantchester.
Explaining Feef’s motivations, Appleton said at a screening at the BFI in London: “Adventure is what she’s after. That’s the ticket with her. She’s desperate to get out of living with her family – they’re not proud of her, and they don’t see any aspiration for her, they just want her to get married and settle down and be a wife, and that is not her agenda whatsoever. She’s definitely the kind of character who’s just willing to push those boundaries.”
Bodyguard and The Durrells star Keeley Hawes plays Priscilla Garrick, a senior civil servant at the Cabinet Office with a fearsome reputation. The actress told a screening at the BFI: “She can’t be seen to be giving quarter. She understands perfectly well how she has to behave in order to be taken seriously.”
The Shape of Water’s Michael Stuhlbarg joins her in the cast as Rowe, a single-minded man from the American intelligence services. Stuhlbarg previously worked with writer Bash Doran in Boardwalk Empire.
Ordeal by Innocence actor Luke Treadaway is set to play young Labour politician Hugh Fenton, Stephen Campbell Moore will play Philip, and Matt Lauria is Feef’s lover Peter McCormick.
Greg McHugh, who has starred in Fresh Meat, The A Word and A Discovery of Witches, will play civil service man David Hennessey.
Brandon P Bell plays soldier and driver Jackson Cole, who signed up to the military hoping that the African American contribution in the war would ease the appalling racism back home in the US. By 1945, he is disillusioned and has lost his faith in humanity.
Reflecting on her decision to introduce this character and his storyline, writer Bash Doran said: “When you do something period, then the chances are, unless it’s very Empire specific, it’s basically going to be a white cast. And I didn’t want whiteness to be positioned as some sort of default norm. So I felt very conscious, once I decided that this is something I wanted to do, that whiteness and race had to be explored and not ignored.
“[But] there were very, very few people of colour in the civil service. At the same time, I had always wanted to tell a story of the African American experience in the Second World War.”
Did the Americans really recruit a spy within the UK government?
Traitors is not based on a true story – but thanks to the secretive nature of the spying business, we may never know for sure whether America did (or did not) have an agent like Feef working from the inside of the UK government.
“I did some fairly deep research into both the history of the CIA and I talked to a bunch of spies,” writer Bash Doran said at the BFI screening. “And what I have been assured is there is no reason to think that there wasn’t.”
How accurate is Traitors compared to real-life history?
The first episode of Traitors begins in 1945, and we see some major events in history play out through the eyes of our characters. America drops the atom bomb in Japan; Labour wins in a landslide, unseating Tory Prime Minister Winston Churchill; Parliament debates taking US money and the Anglo-American Loan. And of course, the Cold War is already starting to creep in.
“You definitely have to be faithful [to history], but the license to me comes in the curation of the events,” Doran explained. “It’s not a documentary, but as you curate all of history for that period, you inevitably create a very specific analysis.”
She called on the services of University of Oxford academic Professor Patricia Clavin, who checked dialogue and scripts and analysis “as well as just the facts, because there’s no such thing as just the facts.”
Professor Clavin reported: “Bash was interesting, she was one of the very few people I’ve spoken to and mentioned the word war debts and international loans, and her eyes haven’t glazed over.”
Bash’s drama also takes on the civil service’s ‘marriage bar’, which prohibited married women from joining, and required female civil servants to resign as soon as they married, unless granted a waiver.
This had been a point of contention for decades, and by the end of the Second World War it had become a pressing issue as so many women had been recruited while the men were away fighting. In 1946 the marriage bar was finally abolished for the Home Civil Service.
Hawes said: “That was absolutely fascinating to me, I must have missed a chapter of history at school because I didn’t know anything about that. It just wasn’t part of anything that I learned, and it’s such a huge part.”
Will there be a second series of Traitors?
Nothing has been confirmed, but it sounds like there is potential for the drama to continue beyond series one. Executive producer Eleanor Morgan hinted: “We’d love that.”