Secret Story of Britain's Greatest Spymaster

To a generation of young BBC viewers, he was a genial naturalist who taught them about tadpoles. To his neighbours, an eccentric Englishman who kept a baboon, a parrot and a bear cub in his London flat. But the true secret life of Maxwell Knight, MI5’s “greatest spymaster”, is to be told in full for the first-time, after an author examined declassified documents to uncover the remarkable story which inspired Ian Fleming’s M.
Henry Hemming, a historian, will for the first time name the ordinary members of the public recruited and trained by Knight, piecing together the previously top-secret intelligence which helped bring down fascism in Britain during the Second World War. The book, which is not out until May, has already been snapped by by Mammoth Screen, the television producers behind Poldark, Victoria and Witness for the Prosecution, who hope to begin filming next year. The television drama is to be adapted by Matt Charman, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Bridge of Spies.
Hemming said the new information would show how “ordinary, unsuspecting people” were turned into the steeliest of spies by Knight, who spent 30 years as the “top spymaster” at MI5 and trained agents who penetrated the radical fascist and communist groups of the day. Among them was John Le Carre, who is now known to have based Jack Brotherhood in A Perfect Spy on him. Ian Fleming also took influence from Knight when he created M, with the name coming directly from the eccentric agent’s department.
The exploits of Knight, who was not recognised for his espionage in his lifetime, were not revealed until the 1980s, when a biography shed some light on his shadowy life. But the declassification of official documents, beginning in the 1990s and ongoing, has allowed Hemming to piece together accurate information about his career for the first time, along with access to private family archives and interviews with retired MI5 officers. The information, he said, was a “gold mine”.

In particular, it will show how Knight was became “one of the great spymasters of the 20th century” despite being “entirely self-taught” and drawing on his experience of looking after pets to train his people. A jazz musician, he is said to have been particularly proud of keeping a baboon, “quite a small bear” and a parrot at home, boasting that no-one else in London would have had them. “He was certainly eccentric, but brilliant,” Hemming told the Telegraph. “He reinvented himself later as a David Attenborough-type figure, and became a really prolific BBC broadcaster. “Almost none of the people watching would have had any idea that he worked for MI5.”
In fact, Knight had spent 30 years as a “legendary spymaster despite an almost total lack of qualifications”, becoming one of the first to recognise the potential of training women for the job. The book will reveal the names of the seven key agents who helped win the Second World War by breaking up the fascist movement. The dramatisation of the non-fiction book, called M, will begin with a “ghost from the past which has come back to haunt him,” Hemming said.
Mammoth hope to recreate the success of Poldark and Victoria on the small screen in 2018, but has not yet announced whether M will go to the BBC, ITV or a broadcasting rival. Matt Charman, screenwriter, said: “I raced through Henry Hemming’s book, constantly having to remind myself that it wasn't a work of fiction. “It really has everything you'd want from a great espionage story: incredible agents risking their lives; the highest possible stakes, with the safety of the world hanging in the balance; and at its heart a complicated, mercurial spymaster spinning an ever more intricate web.”
Damien Timmer, managing director of Mammoth Screen, said: “Maxwell Knight is a genuinely fascinating character, and his journey through some of the most turbulent years of the 20th century constantly astounded me.”
The book is out in May.

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