Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sidney Reilly, the mystery continues

I've finished watching the last DVD of the 1980s TV series Reilly Ace of Spies, and the show was good viewing from beginning to end. The only bonus feature was a short biographical film about Reilly from this century based on a book published only a few years ago. The upshot of watching the bonus extra is this.

A lot of what you just watched about the life of Sidney Reilly probably isn't true.

The original TV show is based on a book by Robin Lockhart, a British diplomat who worked with Reilly in Russia. Lockhart had actual conversations with Reilly and others who knew him as the source for his book, and that may be the problem. Reilly was a habitual liar, especially about his own exploits. The more recent work of biography gets into the documents available about the things that happened, and Reilly's accounts are in many cases at least embellished and in some cases, probably flat out lies.

Do not let that stop you from enjoying the show, because it is very enjoyable as a drama.

It's the trivia fan in me that enjoys spotting actors I've seen in other TV shows and movies in the cast of a big production like this, and if you enjoy British mystery shows, there are several familiar faces in recurring roles in Reilly Ace of Spies. I brought up in an earlier post about the series that David Suchet, who went on to play Poirot on TV, showed up in a pivotal role for a single episode. Other actors on British mystery shows have recurring roles. On the left, Tom Bell, who plays the hateful weasel Bill Otley in the Helen Mirren vehicle Prime Suspect, plays the even more hateful Felix Derzhinsky, head of the Cheka, which would become the KGB in later years. In the center, we have a picture of David Burke as Dr. Watson from the TV series that starred Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. Burke wore a convincing black wig and a not so convincing bushy mustache to play Joseph Stalin in Reilly. On the right, Hugh Fraser, who played Poirot's sidekick Hastings opposite David Suchet, shows up in several episodes as the British intelligence agent Hill in this mini-series.

A little trivia game I like to play with a big cast like this is to ask what actor I recognize has the smallest part. While there are several actors who go on to other work in TV and movies who are in only one episode of Reilly, Alfred Molina would have to get the nod as the most recognizable face with the smallest part. Unlike some of the other actors, Molina's career isn't confined to British TV, as he became a bona fide movie star. But in Reilly, Molina gets one, count 'em, one scene. It's a good scene and his character is essential to moving the plot along, but it's amusing to see such a big future star getting such a tiny part.*

*Side note: My favorite tiny part by a future star is in The Graduate. Richard Dreyfuss pokes his head in a doorway and has one line. "You want me to call the cops? I'll call the cops." My second favorite is a young Charles Bronson getting a few scenes as second thug from the right in the Tracy-Hepburn comedy Pat and Mike. In the comments, CDP points out another tiny role for a future movie star, and possibly the quintessential example, Robert Duvall beautifully underplaying Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.


CDP said...

I liked Robert Duvall as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Matty Boy said...

Excellent call, CDP. I had forgotten about that.

namastenancy said...

It's amazing how that series continues to grip us, years after it was first shown. I guess that's a mark of great performances. I remember hunting down all the (then) scarce information on the real Sidney Reilly and not being that surprised that the show took enormous artistic liberties with what was known about his life. Still, if the show wasn't truly autobiographical, I think that it was true emotionally -to the increasing arms race which lead to WW I and to the horrific turmoil in Russia during WW I and the Revolution, the enormous cost in lives and the psychic toll on the survivors.

Matty Boy said...

It doesn't purport to be a documentary, so I won't rip it into a million little pieces, but I was more than a little put off reading the results of the later research. There is no evidence that Reilly knew the arms manufacturer Zaharoff, brilliantly played by Leo McKern. His life pre-WW I has the right to be shadowy, but after the war and his return from Russia, the mini-series makes Reilly look like an internationally connect social big shot, able to get meetings with Henry Ford and other rich anti-Communists. In reality, after stopping working for British intelligence, Reilly was low on cash and had to go back to work as a pharmacist.