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London espionage: the spy who shoved me

International spying techniques vary, but London is an espionage capital in both fact and fiction says the ‘Spooks’ actor Peter Firth

“London has always been the spy capital of the world. Foreign powers often conduct their nefarious business within the heart of the city, with Mayfair, St James’s and Westminster being the hub of deals brokered or, more often, broken. Most establishment clubs where government ministers, defence personnel and security services socialise are in Pall Mall, minutes from Mayfair with its casinos and nightclubs; environments that are full of the individuals that spies want to target.  

We have a high kill rate in Spooks, but maybe no more than in reality. Rival powers seem to prefer London for assassinations, or ‘wetwork’. Different nations have different techniques. Poison is an obvious method; take the case of the famous poisoned umbrella with which Georgi Markov was prodded in the back of the leg on Waterloo Bridge. A slow and painful death ensued. Radioactive polonium-210 was put into Alexander Litvininko’s tea in the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square near to the US Embassy.

It took three weeks to kill him. Nobody has been brought to justice, which shows how spies operate outside of the law. Another method is ‘defenestration’ or throwing an enemy from a window, leaving no murder weapon. The last known case was in 2007 in Carlton House Terrace, St James’s, where we frequently film Spooks.

We also filmed in St Ermin’s Hotel Westminster, known since WWII as ‘The Spy Hotel’. Winston Churchill had created the SOE: Special Operations Executive, dedicated solely to sabotage and destruction in Occupied Europe. They based themselves on the top floor of the hotel, where they kept a huge stash of secret explosives. The SOE is now the SAS. A tunnel runs from the hotel to Parliament. I tried to gain access, but was told they had ‘lost the key’.

Crossing St James’s Park from the Mall to Westminster, the Blue Bridge takes you across the lake. This is more infamously known as the ‘Bridge of Spies’ and is situated halfway between MI5 HQ and the clubs of St James’s. They say more intel has been shared on this bridge than anywhere else in the world.

Filming in these locations lends authenticity to Spooks. We often shoot on the streets of London with hidden cameras. Putting wires on the actors and sending them into Trafalgar Square is an effective and cheap way to film crowd scenes.

MI5 was formed out of the British Army’s intelligence corps, known within the army as ‘Green Slime’. But if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. MI5’s sole remit is protecting UK citizens from those who would harm them, so any ungentlemanly acts are always, you could argue, for the greater good.”

British Airways High Life, September 2015.