I missed Cambridge Spies when it was first shown on BBC2 twenty years ago, but having heard good things about it, I acquired the DVD and I've belatedly got around to watching it. I'm glad I did, because it's an entertaining account of a fascinating part of our history. When the series was first broadcast, several commentators made the point that historical accuracy is sometimes sacrificed. That's true, but of course in the murky world of spying, figuring out the precise truth is very difficult.
There's a distinct touch of glamour about the series, deriving in part from the Cambridge setting of key early scenes. This is the story of Kim Philby, Donald McLean, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt, who were contemporaries at Cambridge and betrayed Britain because of a blind devotion to Russia. The casting is interesting. Toby Stephens, Rupert Penry-Jones, Tom Hollander, and Samuel West are all fine actors. What's more, they come from pretty privileged backgrounds - as does Benedict Cumberbatch, who has a smaller part - and I think their understanding of the world the spies inhabited gives their performances added zip.
Imelda Staunton, Anna Louise-Plowman, Anthony Andrews, and Ronald Pickup are among the other members of a high-calibre cast, while Peter Moffat's script copes pretty well with the extended timeline of events. Where the script doesn't work quite so well is in its failure to probe the inherent flaws of blind idealism, which are hinted at but not developed quite as effectively as they might have been.
Because of some of the blurring of historical fact, Cambridge Spies is emphatically an entertainment rather than a documentary. But it's nicely done and remains well worth watching because of the quality of the actors and the high production values.