I have just taken part in a television programme for the BBC and by chance the question again arose: “What is a typical British secret service officer really like? Is there an example from films or literature?”

Now, I am a little tired of James Bond movies – don’t misunderstand me, they are first-rate entertainment, commendable acting, superb special effects, just…. not a lot to do with real secret service work. They tend to suggest that the greatest danger to a British secret service officer is that he might drown in his own testosterone.

So where does one look for an accurate example?

There is a rather forgotten little movie from 1941 called “Pimpernel Smith” which is, not surprisingly, a modern rendering of the Scarlet Pimpernel story. The lead role of Professor Horatio Smith is played by Leslie Howard, a British actor who also produced and directed the film. He was killed shortly after the film was completed when the plane he was travelling in was shot down by German fighter aircraft. The film is not perfect: one has to get past the fact that it is a propaganda piece packed with rather comical Nazis and there are attitudes towards women that can only be excused in that they are “of their time” (but perhaps no worse than the imprint of misogyny in the DNA of every James Bond movie). There is however, more than a kernel of truth in “Pimpernel Smith”.

Howard knew members of the British secret service very well and was indeed involved in some of its work, so he knew what he was talking about. Horatio Smith is, in my opinion, a typical British secret service officer. He is, in essence, an English gentleman: courteous, cultured, tolerant, loyal and above all, fiercely determined to resist injustice. Often apparently bumbling, but actually deeply thoughtful, Smith never uses violence. He prefers to rely on his wits, especially in the matter of misdirection. He is a loner and his social skills are not always the best, but he forms firm friendships and makes a point of keeping his word.

Not all the world’s secret service officers are like this. For instance, the majority of CIA officers are different to this model. They tend to be (although there are considerable exceptions) more military in their approach, more direct. This is not to suggest any sort of moral superiority for a British officer – rather it has much to do with training and the availability of resources. American officers usually have more than enough money, personnel and equipment to get the job done; British officers are often scraping around just to fund their air fare.

Of course, it is an ideal, but please take my word for it that, in many parts of the world, this reputation for trustworthiness has often stood the British secret service in good stead.

It is an asset that the Service would do well not to endanger.


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