why spies secretly yearn for a life in showbiz


On his way to conduct underground business, Sir Mansfield Cumming, founding chief of MI6, often visited the principal stage costume designer and wigmaker Willy Clarkson (“telegraphic address: Wiggery, London”) to dress up. Cumming kept a picture of a German soldier on his desk and amused himself by revealing to astonished visitors that the insignificant figure himself was in make-up.

The smell of greasy paint and the roar of the crowd: The counterintuitive truth is that many people working in intelligence are as sensitive to the attractiveness of the latter as any baby on Broadway (although ‘they must necessarily be content with whispered praise of their acting skills by a privileged few). The intersection of espionage and show business dates back centuries, as shown by a study of the “affinities between these two worlds of smoke and mirrors, and … the overlapping expertise of some of their main players.”

The authors are Christopher Andrew, official MI5 historian, and theatrical biographer Julius Green. It’s a whirlwind tour that includes everything from Alfred the Great spying on Danish invaders in minstrel disguise to Richard Moore, Cumming’s current successor as MI6 ‘C’, posting his interviews with people like Ian McKellen on social media.

A captivating first chapter on the Elizabethans establishes the authors’ preferred method: a peek through the activities of famous showbiz people with connections to intelligence (Christopher Marlowe); a deeper dive into the secret work of intelligence professionals with connections to showbiz (spy playwright Anthony Munday); and an investigation into how espionage is portrayed in contemporary entertainment (cool satires like Ben Jonson’s painting of overly complicated spy plots and a brave attempt to co-opt Shakespeare as a spy writer).

Galloping through the centuries, the authors blow the covers of countless playwrights and entertainers who turn out to have been spies: Sir John Vanbrugh, Joseph Addison, Voltaire, Beaumarchais, Josephine Baker. Noël Coward undertook a secret mission to persuade influential Americans of the need for the United States to enter World War II – “My Disguise [was] my reputation as a bit of an idiot. Circus impresario Cyril Mills led double agents during the war, a fact that was not made public until it was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1989.

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