A Spy Among Friends’ Lily Thomas Never Existed, But She’s Vital to this True Story Drama

Anna Maxwell Martin’s MI5 character was invented for ITV’s excellent Kim Philby spy series, which is all the better for her being there.

Anna Maxwell Martin as Lily Thomas in A Spy Among Friends
Photo: ITVX

Q. Detective Inspector Nicki Jennings, school headteacher Sita Anwar, nuclear physicist Ulanya Khomyuk, and MI5 spycatcher Lily Thomas… what do they have in common?

A. They’re all intelligent, high-achieving, mostly working class, female characters from period-set true story TV dramas (The Gold, Steeltown Murders, Chernobyl and A Spy Among Friends), but unlike their castmates with real-world counterparts, none of them really existed.

At the end of a true-story drama, when the moment comes for viewers to see the real people the actors have been playing, the above lot have no accompanying photograph or news footage. Their roles are patchworks, either several real-world figures rolled into one, or wish-fulfilment created to open up storytelling perspectives. Wherever history hasn’t traditionally allowed women in, or wherever history books have failed to commemorate women’s work as (cough) rigorously as that of men, some screenwriters have opted to put their thumb on the scales.

MI5 intelligence officer Lily Thomas, played by Anna Maxwell Martin (Line of Duty, Motherhood) forms one side of A Spy Among Friends’ central triangle. Unlike the other two sides of that triangle– Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby, real historical figures played by Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce – Thomas is an invention of writer Alex Cary (Homeland).

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Speaking to Televisual, Cary explained that he didn’t want to simply regurgitate Ben Macintyre’s book on infamous KGB mole Kim Philby when adapting it for television. The story of Philby’s decades-long deception inside the Secret Intelligence Service, and his eventual defection to the Soviet Union, is well-worn. Rather than spycraft and life-or-death action – though both do feature in the six-episode series – what clearly captured Cary and director Nick Murphy’s imaginations about the Philby saga is the emotional fallout of his betrayal.

More specifically, A Spy Among Friends is fascinated by the emotional fallout of Philby’s betrayal of his best friend Elliott, two men from a generation, class and profession trained to master their emotions from their earliest days at boarding school. What happens when someone from a world built on elitist ancestral codes impenetrable to outsiders, breaks those sacred bonds, asks this drama. How does it feel?

Lewis and Pearce are terrific as Elliott and Philby. Lewis in particular hints at his character’s tamped down vulnerability with real skill and restraint. The Elliott/Philby scenes, both pre- and post-Philby’s unveiling as a traitor, are captivatingly layered and build a satisfying sense of their complex history. Elliott’s scenes with Anna Maxwell Martin’s Lily Thomas character though, are what really get this drama motoring.

Writer Alex Cary invented Lily Thomas seeking “a modern steward for the viewer.” A no-nonsense, Durham-born woman whose brains had taken her to the male, upper-class enclave of the intelligence services, Thomas was designed to contrast with the world around her. Scenes of her married life in a suburban terraced house with her West Indian-British GP husband showed her distance from Elliott and Philby’s all-white, elegant townhouses, country piles and gentlemen’s clubs.

Cary designed Thomas as “a working class woman who on paper was an affront to these posh British men in these corridors of power.” Inspirations reportedly included Fiona Hill, the British-American foreign affairs specialist who went from a working class coal-mining family in Durham to the White House, where she worked as an adviser on Russia, including to former president Donald Trump.

Thomas being northern, female and – as she describes it – “the opposite of posh” is both disarming and intriguing to Elliott. When she’s assigned as his debriefer after he lets Philby slip through his fingers in Beirut, a captivating dynamic is worked up between them. They’re enjoyably antagonistic until something much more complex and ultimately satisfying develops – mutual respect? Tentative allyship? Whatever they become, Lily Thomas opens a window on those stuffy corridors of power, letting in fresh air and us along with it.

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As Elliott’s debriefer, Thomas is tasked with making sense of his story, which aligns her with the viewer. She listens and relistens to recordings of Elliott and Philby’s final conversations, poring over details and and organising the story’s frequent jumps in time and location into one linear tale. As one of the only characters who exists solely in the present day of this story, 1963, she’s a landmark for the audience. Without her, we’d lose our bearings.

Cary said as much speaking to radiotimes.com, when he explained that his original route into the story was through Lily.

“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, then it became sort of a battle of a personal intimate story between Elliott and Philby and Elliott and Lily, and an espionage story.”

It would be patronising for screenwriters to insert female characters into male-dominated historical stories purely as an emotional locus, or as tutting, men-correcting moral compasses. That’s not what Lily Thomas is – particularly as played by flinty, funny Anna Maxwell Martin. She’s an outsider, like us, and our guide through this shifting, slippery story. She’s a fresh perspective without whom the excellent A Spy Among Friends would be far poorer.

A Spy Among Friends airs on Sundays at 9pm on ITV1. All episodes are available to stream on ITVX now in the UK, and on MGM+ in the US.