A Spy Among Friends, which debuted on streaming service ITVX, tells the story of a Soviet double agent who manoeuvred his way into the British intelligence services during the Cold War – a betrayal which was especially staggering for one particular friend and colleague.


Those who tune in will no doubt wonder if the series is based on a true story, and if any of the characters in the show were real-life individuals.

Here's everything you need to know about the inspiration behind A Spy Among Friends.

Is A Spy Among Friends based on a true story?

Nicholas and Kim sat facing one another in a room
Guy Pearce as Kim Philby and Damian Lewis as Nicholas Elliott in A Spy Among Friends. Sony for ITVX

A Spy Among Friends is based on a true story about real-life spies Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott.

Philby was a British intelligence officer who, in 1963, was revealed to be a member of the Cambridge Five spy ring, which had divulged British secrets to the Soviet Union for decades. After being uncovered, he flew to the Soviet Union where he remained until his death 25 years later.

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Meanwhile, Nicholas Elliott was an MI6 officer who had been good friends with Philby for decades when his betrayal was revealed. Elliott was tasked with attempting to secure Philby's confession after the intelligence service's suspicions were raised. You can watch a clip of Elliott interrogating Philby in A Spy Among Friends below.

In the series, Philby is played by Guy Pearce, who admitted in an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com that while he had heard of Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five, he did not know about their history "in any detail".

He said: "Therefore [I] had a lot of work to do when I started this. I wasn't really aware of Nicholas Elliott. But I very quickly found myself intrigued.

"I suppose what's great about our show is that the question of friendship and the betrayal of friends is something we can all perhaps relate to, even if we haven't been betrayed.

"I think we certainly can imagine what it might feel like if we were betrayed by one of our friends, let alone a friend who we've known for 20-odd years, and let alone in such a public way that is also connected to so many bigger important elements within the society and the country that we live in."

Meanwhile, Damian Lewis told RadioTimes.com that he "didn't know anything about Nicholas Elliott" until he read the book, but that he found the "awfully tragic arc" compelling as it was such as "intimate betrayal".

Lewis also explained what it was about Nicholas that appealed to him as an actor: "Philby... is obviously the rock star. In this country in particular, Philby and the Cambridge Spies is quite well-trodden ground. Why make another programme about Philby, Burgess, McLean and Blunt? They're all familiar names. The one unfamiliar name is Nicholas Elliott.

"He became our sort of audience, our way in. I also thought that he was an interesting man to play — in some ways, structurally at least, he's our everyman."

Is A Spy Among Friends based on a book?

Lily sat at a kitchen table with her arms crossed and a cup and saucer placed before her
Anna Maxwell Martin as Lily Thomas in A Spy Among Friends. Sony for ITVX

It is. A Spy Among Friends is an adaptation of the non-fiction book of the same name, which was written by Ben Macintyre.

Amongst many other non-fiction books he has written, Macintyre also wrote SAS: Rogue Heroes, on which Steven Knight's BBC war drama was based.

What have the Spy Among Friends cast and crew said about the adaptation?

Nicholas, Kim and Angleton stood in a garden in a line, all wearing black suits
Stephen Kunken as James Jesus Angleton, Damian Lewis as Nicholas Elliott and Guy Pearce as Kim Philby in A Spy Among Friends. Sony for ITVX

Alex Cary, the writer behind the series who already knew Lewis from working together on Homeland, told RadioTimes.com in an exclusive interview that he didn't "know how to adapt" Macintyre's book at first, because he was "nervous that I would just regurgitate the book, which is brilliant as a book, but structurally it wouldn't have been as satisfying on the screen".

Cary then said that his "original way into the story was through the Lily character", an entirely fictional character played by Anna Maxwell Martin who is seen interviewing Elliott after Philby's deception has been uncovered.

Cary continued: "Once I understood her part in it and Elliott's journey with her, because a lot of this is about the ending of one very deep, intimate friendship and the beginning of another one that he wasn't expecting.

"So then it became sort of a battle of a personal intimate story between Elliot and Philby and Elliot and Lily, and an espionage story, and the structure just sort of evolved as I was sort of digging about it on paper."

Speaking about what her character adds to the story, Martin said: "She's sort of instrumental to it. Alex talks about this so I'm not blowing my own trumpet by saying it. He talks about needing to invent a character as a way into the narrative. He came up with Lily because he had to have someone who could interrogate Elliott and his version of events, so he could see it unfold through his eyes."

A Spy Among Friends airs on Sunday 9th July at 9pm on ITV1. All six episodes of A Spy Among Friends are streaming on ITVX now. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on.

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