With Prisoners of the Castle, his new tale of World War II intrigue, English historian, journalist and author Ben Macintyre finds himself back on the New York Times best-seller list. Not since Ian Fleming and John le Carré has a spy writer so captivated readers — as well as film and TV producers, who snap up the rights to Macintyre’s books as fast as he can write them. Next up is the BBC miniseries SAS Rogue Heroes, created by Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight, to be released stateside on Epix. Hot on its heels is A Spy Among Friends, starring Guy Pearce as the notorious British double agent Kim Philly.
The Hollywood Reporter checked in with Macintyre to talk about his latest work of non-fiction — a return to Colditz Castle, the infamous fortress where Nazi-held Allied prisoners plotted a daring escape — and offer a little insight into the psychology and enduring allure of the cinematic spy.
Do you have top secret access to MI5 files?
I wish it were true. I’m delighted when people think that, that somehow I have access to some central artery of secret information, but I don’t really. One of the sea changes in Britain recently was the change in official secrecy, when the decision was taken to start declassifying material that had always been kept secret. So for me, that was a real game changer. The first [spy] book I wrote, which was about a spy and a crook called Eddie Chapman — Agent Zigzag — that was because MI5 had released this vast trove of material on him.
MI6, the external intelligence service, the equivalent of the CIA, does not release its files, so there it’s more a question of access to people. I know quite a lot of the people involved, and MI6 is very understanding about my approaching them. Let’s put it that way.
And your books are best-sellers. People can’t seem to get enough.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? I wrote several books before I ever entered the spy world, and I never intended to be a specialist spy writer, but I think these books have a sort of purpose. I think we’re all fascinated by the double life and the hidden conflict and the war between people who appear to be what they are not, and people who spend their lives being either two people or more people. I think that happens every time we watch a James Bond film. We think, ‘Gosh, I could live a double life.’ I think it has a sort of elemental hold on us.
What do you think drives most spies?
Well, there was that old acronym that was coined. I think it was coined by the CIA actually, originally in the ’50s, which was M.I.C.E., which stands for the four presumed motivations of spies:
Money, which is still the most important. They would never admit that, but the truth is the whole system is greased by very large amounts of money. You pay people to do this. If you are asking the second secretary in the Chinese embassy in Berlin to spy for you, you are paying him a lot of money. So, money.
Ideology. I’ve never come across a successful spy who didn’t claim that they were motivated at least partially by ideology, that they were serving a higher cause of some sort. It’s not always true, and frequently it is completely untrue, but it’s the fig leaf that most spies operate under, I would say.
Coercion. Frequently, particularly in the war actually, people are forced into betraying secrets or providing secrets, and that could be through blackmail or love or error or stupidity. There are whole sets of ways that coercion works.
And then ego, and I would say ego, of all four, is probably the most important. Most spies are motivated by big buckets of hubris. There is something that is deeply attractive in the human psyche, I suspect, in knowing a little bit more than the person standing next to you in the 97 bus queue. That is something that all humans enjoy. I think also spying drives people a bit mad, or they have to be a bit mad to do it. Now which way that goes or whether the two things are complementary, I don’t know. But there is an element of absurdity to spying. There’s a ridiculous element to it. It’s a preposterous thing to do, and you have to be slightly off-kilter to do it, I think.
I have to say while you were going through the M.I.C.E. I started to think of those images of allegedly classified documents on Donald Trump’s floor, and Trump hits a lot of those categories. I’m wondering what you thought of those images?
Well, fascinating, aren’t they? What have we got there? We’ve got ideology. We’ve got money. We’ve certainly got plenty of ego. Trump is certainly somebody who likes to be thought at least to know a little bit more than the person standing next to him.
You’re being adapted by Hollywood quite a bit now. How has that been going?
It’s extraordinary, really. There’s a phrase in English: “You wait hours for a bus and then four come along at once.” In my case, you wait 35 years for anything to be made into any kind of screen representation and then suddenly ka-bang. It’s all happening at once, so it’s been incredibly exciting. Operation Mincemeat, which is the film that came out this year, was tremendously exciting. The Special Air Service book that I wrote [about British special forces that infiltrated the Nazis in World War II] has been adapted as a BBC series, which will be coming out in the United States as well. That’s starring Jack O’Connell, Connor Swindells and Alfie Allen and done by Steve Knight, who made Peaky Blinders and who has a brilliant grip on kind of male, almost atavistic violence.
And then the third one that will be this year is A Spy Among Friends [for Britbox U.K. and Spectrum] with Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce, which has been produced by Sony and is an utterly brilliant piece of work. That is a very much more dense and deep and profound psychological thriller because it’s a brilliant story of intimate betrayal, really, between two incredibly close male friends, as close as you could probably be in a platonic way.
Has Prisoners of the Castle been optioned?
It has. That will be a TV series. Prisoners will also be a six-parter, I think, which is incredibly exciting. There is a way of doing the Colditz story that will be so different and yet redolent of the 1970s black-and-white series that I remember as a child. For my family, that was absolutely appointment viewing. One-third of the British population tuned in to watch that show. It was the most successful drama ever made by the BBC at the time it went out. Prisoners is very different from that, and there is a way of telling it, I think, through the prism of different people: the non-white soldier in Colditz who escaped; the German security officer, who’s a critical person in it; the dentist, Julius Green. I’m incredibly excited to make a really different sort of Colditz series.