TV

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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