Cambridge Spies - The Guy Burgess Files
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Cambridge Spies - The Guy Burgess Files

TV interview discovery


In March 2013, Professor Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert, researchers at the Department of Journalism, City, University of London, published a collection of true stories of moments when the worlds of media, propaganda, politics, espionage and crime have met, casting journalism into controversy. The book, entitled When Reporters Cross the Line (Biteback Publishing 2013), includes a chapter on how Old Etonian Guy Burgess had worked at various times, often simultaneously, for the BBC, MI5, MI6 and the KGB.

After his defection the FBI, who were investigating Burgess's time as a diplomat in the US, found the audio tape and made a transcript for their files. When Purvis and Hulbert discovered the existence of the Burgess tape, they made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FBI asking for the secret tape to be released 'unclassified'. Nine months later their request was agreed to by the FBI.

During the eleven-minute, studio-quality, recording Burgess recounts the day in 1938 that he visited Chartwell, the Kent home of Winston Churchill, then a Conservative backbencher. Burgess even recreates Churchill's side of the story with a number of amusing impressions.

Recovery of the video

by Jeff Hulbert, Honorary Research Fellow at City, University of London

The background to CBC's filmed interview with Guy Burgess

The Cambridge spy Guy Burgess defected to the Soviet Union along with fellow Foreign Office diplomat Donald Maclean in May 1951. For the next five years nothing more was heard of them, although press interest and speculation in the UK and USA was particularly intense.

In February 1956 Burgess and Maclean resurfaced in Moscow when they met a couple of western journalists in a meeting organised by the KGB. Later that year Burgess was seen in Moscow from time to time by Western correspondents and he began dropping hints about his wish to visit Britain.

We now know that in his campaign to be allowed back, partly to visit his ailing mother, he went as far as to give his first and, it is believed, his only television interview in Moscow.

In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1959 he not only repeated what he had said at the 1956 press conference that he was not a spy but now also claimed that he had come to Russia as a tourist. Subsequent discoveries in the KGB archive many years later proved  Burgess was a spy but at the time in the 1950s the British authorities, unable to prove in a court of law that Burgess was lying, were thrown into turmoil by the possibility of Burgess returning home and walking the streets a free man.

Burgess's plan to return home

Burgess's hopes were picked up at an early stage  in his conversations with his friend, the former Labour MP and then party vice-chairman, Tom Driberg, who had arranged to interview Burgess in Moscow and who planned to write a book about him. Shortly before publication the book was serialised in several articles published by The Daily Mail in 1956. Burgess had spoken about his fondness for the UK and how he had hoped to visit for a week or two a year.

Over the next three years the hints periodically resurfaced and some of these were picked up by Fleet Street.

In early 1959 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan visited Moscow and Burgess made approaches to journalists travelling with Macmillan's entourage saying that he wanted to come back for a visit because his mother was ill, but was rebuffed. But the Cabinet, perhaps in anticipation that something might happen, discussed the prospect of Burgess wanting to return and decided on a course of action that was essentially designed to dissuade him.

The response of the British Government

Shortly after the journalists' rebuffs, Burgess spoke to a Foreign Office official who was accompanying Macmillan, and told him 'I will not make embarrassments for Her Majesty's Government if they don't make them for me.'

The whole issue was discussed by the Cabinet in London within days of the story first breaking, and while Macmillan was still in Moscow.

The Cabinet was told that Burgess was drinking heavily, was delusional and was a notorious homosexual (homosexuality was still illegal in Britain).

It was told that Burgess couldn't be stopped because there was no evidence that he had actually done anything illegal. He couldn't be charged with spying because they had no legally admissible proof. Of course evidence did exist, but it was in the KGB's archives and clearly they would never hand it over. The Cabinet was also told that the chances of a prosecution for homosexuality were also slim.

The Cabinet realised that if that news got out it would probably be impossible to stop Burgess from trying to come back to the UK; and it might actually encourage him because he would feel emboldened. So the Foreign Office and the Home Office were instructed to 'concert means of keeping him away'.

The only thing to be done was to bluff him by issuing a vague threat that if he turned up the government would not guarantee that he wouldn't be arrested as soon as he landed. Likewise, there could be no guarantee that his passport would be handed back when the time came for him to leave the country again. There would be no safe conduct pass.

It seems that it was this prospect that finally put the brakes on his attempted return. For the rest of his life he spoke of wanting to come home, but never again with any real passion.

The television interview

Guy Burgess was interviewed for a magazine programme called 'Close-Up' which ran for several years on CBC's English-language national TV channel. The interview was broadcast on 11 March 1959 at 10pm on a Wednesday night. Other guests in that programme included the poet and critic, Dame Edith Sitwell, whose interview had been filmed in her Yorkshire mansion, and the US comedian, actor and philanthropist Shelley Berman, who took part in a live discussion.

The interview shows Burgess for the first time as a real person, rather than someone constructed solely from the diverse recollections of others. Following the release to us of the Burgess audio tape by the FBI last year we know what he sounded like: posh, with an occasional irascibility, but with a sense of humour, and a gift for impersonation. But his was still a disconnected voice. Now, with the release of this film we can hear the voice, see the stained false teeth. We see him in animated conversation, see the cigarette between his fingers bearing just a hint of tobacco stains providing evidence of his chain smoking.

He was filmed in one of his favourite places in Moscow: the cemetery of the former nunnery of Novodevichy, close to the flat that he shared with his partner, Tolya. He wears his Eton tie and his favourite - only - camel hair overcoat. The very picture of an English toff.

In the interview Burgess denies that he was a spy, and suggests that he was nothing more than a tourist. It seems that Burgess at one time thought he was only shepherding the increasingly unstable Donald Maclean to a place where Maclean would be met by KGB officers and transported on to Moscow. But when the pair met the KGB they left Burgess in no doubt that he would be going to Moscow, too.  He had passed that point of no return. So far as we know he had not been under MI5 suspicion until his disappearance.

We know now that Burgess was a KGB spy and that he received Soviet decorations. In fact in the interview he very nearly suggests what evidence he thought that the British government might actually have against him until he denounces instead Russian defectors - the Petrovs, KGB agents who defected in Australia in 1954.

The authenticity of the interview

CBC's archivist Arthur Schwartzel discovered the interview while 'helping my colleague look for some cover material concerning the cold war… and I just saw that name there: "GUY BURGESS". And it meant something to me right away …'

He told CBC 'I was pretty sure this was significant ... I was starting to get kind of excited about that.'

Arthur had heard about the FBI audio tape released to us in 2014 and so his colleagues asked what we knew about the film that Arthur had just discovered. We knew nothing about it, although always suspected that something like it might turn up in the future. After detailed research we were sure certain that nobody else they knew anything about it either. It was a completely unknown gem from the cold war years.

We arranged for some British experts on Burgess to come to see the interview. We arranged a screening at one of Guy Burgess's favourite London haunts, the Reform Club in Pall Mall. A large TV screen was put in the library and a group of us gathered on a rather large sofa for the British premiere of what we could call 'Burgess-the only ever TV interview'. One of our guests at the Reform Club was Robert Elphick who was the Reuters correspondent in Moscow at the time of the recording and who often met the Cambridge spy there. He immediately confirmed that the man being interviewed was Burgess. He also recognised the location in Moscow. None of our other guests doubted that it was Burgess on the screen. If you want to make your own check compare the voice in this TV interview with the tape of what at the time was believed to be the only known recording of the voice of Guy Burgess, which we got after a Freedom of Information request to the FBI archives. The voices are very similar apart from the fact that on the FBI tape Burgess has had more to drink.

So how does Arthur feel about his discovery? 'This is different because I found something I wasn't really looking for. So it was satisfying and surprising … I hope people enjoy seeing it. This is the biggest thing I have stumbled on in the collection, for sure.'

The date of the interview

The freelance cameraman, Erik Durschmied, who shot the interview, wrote that he was in Moscow in early 1959 to cover 'a visit by a Western prime minister'.

Durschmied told how he set up the interview: he had, by chance, been at a British Embassy reception in Moscow. There he happened to speak to a junior diplomat (presumably British), asking how he might go about getting interviews with Burgess and Maclean. 'Call them', the diplomat said. Maclean was 'a crashing bore', and his contact details weren't known, but the diplomat had Burgess's details: 'here is Guy's number' he said, writing the phone number on a piece of paper. The next day Durschmied telephoned Burgess from his hotel and after a brief KGB check was called by Burgess who invited him around for a drink, but in typical Burgess fashion he asked if Durschmied could bring a bottle of scotch as he had nothing to offer.

The Burgess he found was melancholy and, so Durschmied told BBC2's Newsnight on 23 February, Burgess voiced the sentiment that he'd rather go back to Britain and a British prison than spend his days in Moscow.

In 1959 Durschmied was already a notable freelance film maker, who had already shot acclaimed film footage of Fidel Castro's struggle in the Cuban Sierra Maestra Mountains, over a year before Castro swept to power. His subsequent career included spells working for several major broadcasters, including CBC, BBC, CBS, and ITN, frequently covering conflicts, and highly praised. One of the awards he received was for his film of the Aberfan disaster in 1966 shot for the BBC's Panorama programme. In later years he became a best-selling author.

The interviewer

The impression CBC wanted to give at the time was that the interview was a link-up between Burgess in Moscow and J Frank Willis, the presenter of 'Close-Up' in a CBC studio in Canada. For example there is a shot of Willis asking a question to Burgess whose image is projected on a screen. But as soon as we saw the tape we suspected that it didn't actually happen that way.

Our investigations confirm this and we are now certain this was a case of what CBC, and possibly other TV networks, call a're-ask'. This is how it happened. In his memoirs the cameraman Erik Durschmied says that he not only arranged the interview but conducted it himself. In other words he did the 'asking'. We have no reason to doubt this. What would then have happened to create a're-ask' was that Durschmied would have sent his footage back to CBC in Canada for processing and editing.

When the CBC editors had decided which parts of the interview to transmit they would have put the presenter J Frank Willis in a studio to record a 're-ask'. He would have had a list of Durschmied's questions to Burgess in front of him and looking at a projection of the film of Burgess on a screen he would have re-asked those questions. The video of him asking the questions to a projection of Burgess on the screen would have been taken away and edited with Burgess's answers from the original interview to produce a complete interview ready for transmission. We don't know if anybody else was present other than Burgess and Durschmied but it is worth noting that when the Tom Driberg was with Burgess in 1956 he noted that Burgess was always shadowed by a handful of KGB staff.

Burgess's Canadian connection

As to why Burgess decided to give an interview to CBC and nobody else the simple answer would appear to be because Durschmied, who was born in Austria but had moved to Canada and become a Canadian citizen, asked him.

In the interview Burgess says that his mother was half-Canadian.

The world takes no notice of the interview

Burgess's interview, what surely must have been a Western media scoop, seems to have fallen completely flat: so flat that it was entirely forgotten.

More remarkably, Durschmied's autobiography spends several pages recounting his meeting with Burgess, and the filming, but that appears to have passed everybody by almost without notice.

When we made the FBI freedom of information application that resulted in the release of the Burgess tape in January this year we suspected that more material would one day come to light. But the Burgess tape was known about. Everyone had just assumed that it had been lost or was no longer playable.

But until today this television interview has left virtually no trace anywhere, apart from in Durschmied's memoirs. It barely made a ripple inside Canada, and as far as we can tell, outside it never registered at all.

The Canadian press largely ignored it.

That pattern was repeated in the USA and other English-speaking countries and more importantly in the UK where only days before the popular and serious press had been carrying stories about Burgess wanting to visit the UK.

Total recall

In April 1962 arrest warrants were finally issued by the British authorities for both Burgess and Maclean.  Days later rumours circulated that both Burgess and Maclean were returning to the UK and would be arrested on the tarmac of London Airport. However, the reports were untrue and Fleet Street was left looking rather silly, having arrived mob-handed to record the event.

We said at the time of the FBI release of the Burgess audio that we always thought there were more recordings of Burgess. We suspected that during his career at the BBC his voice had been recorded and transmitted but maybe not filed under his name. What we never expected was that a transmitted TV interview existed outside the UK and had sunk into a black hole. We are really grateful that CBC contacted us as soon as they made the discovery and we have tried to help them in any way we can just as we would anybody else who finds interesting material and contacts us.

As to why nobody found this interview before CBC contacted us I suppose no one looked for it because no one seems to have known that it existed.