Hearing Guy Burgess’s plummy, upper-class voice for the first time
The Guy Burgess tape is a brilliant example of the value of sheer persistence and tenacity in journalism – and full credit to Jeff Hulbert and Stewart Purvis at City University for doggedly pursuing it with government agencies in both Britain and America.
But also credit to them for the hunch that the tape might still exist. The best way to exploit freedom of information on both sides of the Atlantic is to ask for specific items, preferably with dates and extra detail, rather than go on fishing expeditions for “everything you’ve got on Guy Burgess”.
To be frank, the tape gives us no new substantial facts about Guy Burgess or about Winston Churchill in the aftermath of Munich. Historians have long known about the extraordinary meeting the 27-year old Burgess had with Winston Churchill at his country home, Chartwell in Kent, in October 1938. And historians and the authorities have long had a transcript of what Burgess says on the tape.
And we must be careful, of course, not to take Burgess’s word for his account of his conversation with the future prime minister, though this 1951 account does tally very closely with what he told the Labour MP Tom Driberg, who visited him in exile in Moscow in 1956. We should remember that Burgess was a spy and a dishonest man, and also keen, as anyone would be, to present himself in the best possible light, especially when he almost certainly knew by May 1951 that he was under suspicion.
But the tape makes compelling listening, as well as being hugely entertaining. It seems astonishing that no other audio recording of Guy Burgess seems to exist anywhere else in the world, even though Burgess worked for the BBC for more than five years (albeit as a behind-the-scenes producer) and only died in 1963. There is some newsreel footage, taken in 1956, but Burgess doesn’t speak in it.
Hearing Burgess’s plummy, upper-class voice, clearly the worse for drink late in the evening – “I am extremely tired” – one quickly understands how the upper-class, highly intelligent, hugely confident, young BBC producer (and sometime diplomat) wheedled his way into the British pre-war establishment.
At one point Burgess tells how he and the MP and diarist Harold Nicolson used to sit in “the halls of our clubs” and bait the senior cabinet minister Sir John Simon (an-arch appeaser), and Burgess would say loudly behind Simon’s back – in a Churchill voice – “a man of the most infinite cowardice”. Sir John Simon, according to Burgess, would always turn his back.
The most fascinating thing about the recording is the timing. It was recorded by Norman Luker, the head of the BBC in America at that time, at an informal dinner party in New York. Luker had invited Burgess and a few mutual friends round to his flat to mark Burgess’s return to Britain on the Queen Mary a day or two later. Less than a month afterwards, on 25 May, Burgess and another member of the Cambridge spy-ring, Donald Maclean, fled abroad and ended up in Moscow.
On the tape Guy Burgess describes how Winston Churchill asked his advice about what to do in the aftermath of the Munich Agreement – which Neville Chamberlain signed only the day before Burgess turned up at Chartwell. This was Winston Churchill in a dark moment of despair. “An old man, without power and without party,” Burgess quotes him saying.
Churchill reportedly showed the young Burgess a letter from the Czech President Edvard Benes (whom Churchill repeatedly and hilariously called “Herr Beans”, we’re told) begging his assistance. “What assistance can I offer?” Burgess reports him asking. “What help can I give?”
“Offer him your eloquence,” the quick-witted Burgess told Churchill (according to his account). “Stump the country. Make speeches. Awaken people to the issues at stake.” This, says Burgess, greatly warmed Churchill. “My eloquence,” he replied. “That indeed Herr Beans can count on.”
The writer Michael Dobbs, who studied Churchill and even wrote a TV play about the 1938 Burgess-Churchill encounter, believes this did indeed stiffen Churchill’s resolve. That’s why he called his play The Turning Point, though Churchill had, of course, been warning of the danger from Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s.
In short, was Guy Burgess, among friends in New York, fearing imminent exposure, in part setting out the case for his own defence? Back in 1938, he seems to be reminding people, he was working against the appeasers – men like Chamberlain and Simon whom he felt were really betraying their country. He was united with the future prime minister in the war against the evils of fascism.
In the end it was a defence he personally never had to make, of course, for he was never caught. And unlike some KGB spies who fled to Moscow during the cold war, he was never interviewed on radio, television or film.
Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter