The death of the notorious Soviet agent George Blake took place just before Christmas of 2020. It reminded me of a book I read many years ago. The Springing of George Blake is based on actual events, but it reads like a Cold War spy thriller. That may explain why Alfred Hitchcock bought the film rights: in fact, he bought them twice ‑ since his first option had been allowed to lapse. Hitchcock had a lifelong interest in stories that involved spies and international espionage: from The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps in the 1930s to North By Northwest and Torn Curtain thirty years later. In this case, the final draft of a screenplay called The Short Night was written, but the movie was never produced due to Hitchcock’s death.
The author of The Springing of George Blake was Sean Bourke, the Irishman who was largely responsible for the agent’s escape from Wormwood Scrubs prison. Not long after reading the book, I went to Limerick to make a documentary film about Bourke. He had been befriended by Blake when they were both imprisoned in the Scrubs. Blake had been a senior officer in MI6 and is generally regarded as one of the most effective – and damaging ‑ of any of the double agents who worked for Russia. The precise details of his offences were never revealed, but the information he passed on to his Soviet handlers is believed to have resulted in the deaths of many British agents in Eastern Europe. George Blake had been sentenced to forty-two years in prison: one year, it was said, for every agent who had died as a result of his treachery.
Sean Bourke, meanwhile, had twelve months to serve of a seven-year stretch in Wormwood Scrubs. He had been sent there for sending a home-made bomb to a policeman whom he believed had spread rumours that he was homosexual. Perhaps these were more than rumours: Bourke had previously been imprisoned for committing homosexual acts at a time when such acts were illegal in England. However, he protested to me – several times and, perhaps, just a shade too strenuously – that he was entirely heterosexual in his orientation.
Bourke was born in Limerick and was a second cousin of the celebrated actor and movie star Richard Harris, but, unlike his famous relative, he grew up in impoverished circumstances and when he met Blake he had already spent much of his life in penal institutions in both Ireland and England. This began when he was just twelve, and he was sent to the infamous reform school at Daingean in Co Offaly for the heinous crime of stealing some bananas.
He told me that the three years he was held in Daingean were “a living hell”, and in 2009 the Ryan Commission of Enquiry into Institutional Child Abuse concluded that the Oblate priests who ran the school had subjected the boys sent there to regular floggings and frequent sexual abuse. Bourke described in harrowing detail some of the brutality that he had witnessed, and told me that, when he was finally released from Daingean, he was given a ticket for the Liverpool boat and advised to leave Ireland for good.
He said he took that boat, but it wasn’t long before he was imprisoned again: this time in an English reformatory for possession of a stolen radio. On this occasion, however, the regime was very different from the one that he had endured in Daingean. This borstal was run by a charismatic governor and modelled along the lines of an English public school, with the boys assigned to different “houses” and encouraged to take part in team games and friendly competitions. This environment seemed to offer Bourke the structure in which he could develop and thrive. When I asked him what he had learned in borstal, he said it was the meaning of “friendship and loyalty”.
He may have had little formal education, but Bourke struck me as a very intelligent and highly articulate individual. During his time in borstal, he had been encouraged to read widely and he had gained an impressive knowledge of Shakespeare: I found that he still liked to quote frequently from the plays. Unfortunately, he drifted back into petty crime soon after his release and, in the years that followed, he was often behind bars. While in Wormwood Scrubs, he founded and edited the prison magazine, New Horizon. Soon after George Blake arrived in the Scrubs, he began to write for the magazine. They became friends – or, at least, so it had seemed to Bourke – with shared interests in literature: Bourke told me that it was their common love of Shakespeare that had drawn him to George Blake.
By all accounts, Blake was an intriguing and charming character. But he could not have survived for long as an effective double agent if he were not also capable of ruthlessness and the ability to manipulate and deceive others. Bourke was clearly flattered by the attention he received from a well-educated, well-spoken, sophisticated and super-confident man like Blake. Indeed, when he spoke to me about him, I got the impression that Bourke was still somewhat infatuated. He told me he believed that Blake had received an excessive and cruel sentence – which was, at that time, the longest ever imposed by an English court.
Blake would have known that Bourke was scheduled for early release. Given that so much of what he did in his life was covert, calculated and purposeful, it seems likely that this was a key factor leading Blake to cultivate their friendship. That may explain why, shortly before Bourke was due to leave prison, Blake asked if he would help him to escape. He offered to pay for his assistance, but Bourke said he would help him without any payment.
Bourke kept his promise. After his release, he made contact with Michael Randle and Pat Pottle ‑ two supporters of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) whom he had met in prison. These two men were also members of the “Committee of 100”, a radical splinter group from CND that had been founded by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, which was committed to “direct action”: in other words, they had their own ideological reasons for wanting to help Blake escape.
The plan that Bourke hatched was very simple – even basic. He managed to smuggle a two-way radio to Blake in prison and used it to communicate directly with him: “Fox Michael to Baker Charlie”. The code that Bourke chose to confirm their identities to each other came from the seventeenth century Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace. Bourke would open their illicit conversations with “Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage”, and Blake would respond with “Minds innocent and quiet take them for a hermitage.” This literary exchange may seem rather self-conscious and naive, and perilously close to a parody of the serious espionage practices in which Blake had previously been involved.
During the prison’s weekly film show – when the prison guards were distracted ‑ Bourke threw a rope ladder he had made over the Scrub’s perimeter wall for Blake to climb. The rungs of the ladder consisted of large knitting needles, since Bourke reckoned that wooden slats would prove too heavy for him to clear the twenty-five-foot-high wall. Blake was able to scale the makeshift ladder, but he was injured when he fell awkwardly on the way down. He was quickly bundled into a waiting car by Bourke, who drove him to a nearby bedsit that he had rented. They banged into another car en route, but for understandable reasons Bourke did not stop to exchange insurance details with its driver.
He had planned that they would both travel on to Ireland, from where he was confident that they would not be extradited back to the UK since they could claim their offences had been for “political” reasons. However, Blake seemed less enthusiastic than Bourke about this idea: he claimed that he was not convinced they would be safe in Ireland from the attentions of MI6, and he was able to convince Bourke that they would both be more secure if they were inside the Soviet Union. For the next few weeks, they flitted between different houses and flats that were owned by CND sympathisers. Blake’s injury was treated by a doctor who was also sympathetic, and their plans to escape to Russia were laid.
The British police had assumed at first that this jailbreak could only have been a sophisticated operation that was planned and sanctioned at a high level by the KGB. They investigated unsubstantiated reports that a crack commando squad had come ashore on rubber rafts from a Russian warship moored off the south coast of England. British police even detained an orchestra from Czechoslovakia after a tip-off that Blake was being smuggled out of the country concealed in the case of a classical harp.
The British press had also assumed that the escape was organised and executed by the Soviet secret service, an assumption that only served to annoy and provoke Bourke, who was proud of his success in springing Blake from prison and craved some public recognition of his daring exploit. He sent a signed letter to the Metropolitan police, providing the address of the bedsit that he and Blake had first used after the jailbreak, and challenging them to capture him. When they searched the flat, the police found fingerprints and other evidence that proved Blake and Bourke had both been there.
With some reluctance, the police now admitted that Bourke had become a “person of interest” and released his prison mug shot to the press. Despite the enormous amount of publicity that the escape had generated, both Blake and Bourke managed to evade arrest in the weeks that followed. Eventually, Blake travelled from London to East Germany, hidden in the luggage compartment of a camper van that was driven by Michael Randle. From there, he was moved to Moscow – where he was feted on arrival. Meanwhile, Bourke had used his contacts in the criminal underworld to acquire a fake British passport, under the name of “Robert Garvin”, and he joined Blake in Russia a few weeks later.
Bourke was deeply hurt when it soon became obvious that Blake had little interest in maintaining their friendship in Moscow, seeming instead to regard him as something of a social embarrassment. This was partly because of Bourke’s excessive drinking, but it seems that there were other reasons for the breakdown of their relationship. These may have included Blake’s own snobbery – a trait not unknown among certain Marxist intellectuals. Another reason might have been Bourke’s obvious lack of enthusiasm for the Soviet regime. He told me that he had only intended to stay in Russia for a few weeks, or a couple of months at most, but he claimed that Blake had done his utmost to prevent him from ever leaving the USSR.
Blake was now a colonel in the KGB, and, according to Bourke, he advised his colleagues that Bourke should not be allowed to return to Ireland because he “knew too much”. At the same time, he managed to convince Bourke that he would be executed by the KGB if he tried to leave Russia. Bourke told me that he believed Blake’s warnings, and became convinced that he had become a prisoner once again – this time inside the Soviet Union.
Although he had received a substantial cash reward and a state pension for his role in freeing Blake, Bourke did not enjoy his time in Russia. Apart from his suspicions that Blake was conspiring with the KGB to have him killed, he found Moscow an uncongenial environment. He told me that there weren’t even any decent pubs for him to visit, and his most constant companions were the KGB handlers whom he believed (correctly) were closely monitoring his every move since they suspected he might be a plant from British Intelligence. This was during the bleak years of the Brezhnev regime: a period when Russia’s economic, social and political decline came to be known as the “era of stagnation”.
There was no Irish embassy in Russia at that time, so Bourke decided to call into the British embassy in Moscow and ask if they could assist him in his attempts to leave the Soviet Union. Embassy staff were amazed when he introduced himself as “the man you’re looking for”. Later, one of them noted, in a confidential report to the British foreign office, that Bourke spoke with a “pleasant Southern Irish brogue”. He also acknowledged (with faint praise) that Bourke was “clearly not unintelligent”. But he pointed out that Bourke was not a British citizen and recommended that his request should simply be passed on to the Irish government.
When Bourke eventually discovered that he was free to leave Russia, he told me he felt betrayed by the man for whom he had risked his own freedom. Bourke believed that Blake did not wish him to return to Ireland because he did not want the details of his escape to be publicised in the West. According to Bourke, this was simply because Blake was ashamed that his escape had been organised by an “ignorant Irish convict”, and not by high-ranking officers of the KGB. According to Blake, however, the real reason that he did not want Bourke to leave Russia was because he believed he would reveal the identities of Randle and Pottle to the British authorities and he wanted to protect them from any subsequent prosecution.
After almost two years of growing frustration, Bourke finally asked and was given permission to leave the Soviet Union. By that stage, I imagine that his KGB handlers were probably more than happy to see him go. He was given another false passport that enabled him to travel back to Ireland. He returned to Limerick, where he had been born, where his family still lived and where he remained for most of the rest of his life. Once in Ireland, he gave a series of media interviews. These were widely reported in the British press as well as by the Irish media. For the British, Bourke seemed to conform to the stereotypical image of a certain type of Irishman: insolent and reckless, swaggering and eloquent, dissolute and rebellious. He even looked a bit like Brendan Behan.
It was also true that, like his cousin Richard Harris, Bourke gave the press good copy and displayed a genuine flair for dramatic performance. He clearly relished being the centre of media attention, and he was sometimes reluctant to let facts get in the way of a good story. While in Russia, he had written a draft of The Springing of George Blake, his vivid account of the prison escape and its aftermath. A draft of the manuscript was confiscated by the KGB at Moscow airport, but Bourke rewrote it when he was back in Ireland.
The book may not have been wholly reliable, but it was very well-written, with a narrative that rattled along, and it became an instant bestseller. Some had questioned whether Bourke was the true author of the book, and I heard rumours that it had been ghosted by another (uncredited) writer. However, I had read other articles that Bourke had published in the journal of Jim Kemmy’s Democratic Socialist Party in Limerick, and I could recognise both his distinctive style of writing and his obvious abilities as a storyteller.
Following Bourke’s arrival in Ireland, the British authorities launched extradition proceedings, but, as he had predicted, an Irish court ruled that Bourke’s actions fell within the political offences exemption of Ireland’s extradition laws. Unlike others who would later claim the same privilege, Bourke was not anti-British in his attitudes or opinions. Indeed, he told me that he detested the IRA and that the years he spent in England had been the happiest of his life.
Bourke had made a good deal of money from the sales of his book and from the movie options that Hitchcock had bought, but when I filmed with him he was almost penniless and in the throes of chronic alcoholism. I found Bourke to be a likeable and engaging character, as well as a natural raconteur. However, I spent much of my time trying to keep him sober – and not always successfully. He had promised that he would abstain from drinking while we were filming, but he proved adept at concealing alcohol from me – in fact, it seemed to be just the sort of challenge that he enjoyed.
On one occasion, I found that the innocuous bowl of mushroom soup he was having for lunch had been heavily laced with vodka. By that stage, I knew that much of the footage we had shot with him was unusable because of his persistent drunkenness. The soup was, so to speak, the last straw for me. I pulled Bourke to one side and told him that he had betrayed my trust, and that I was abandoning our film. He listened to me in silence, with his head down. When I had finished, he sprang to attention, saluted me smartly, and swore that he would not take another drop of alcohol until we had finished filming.
I chose to believe him, and he kept his word. It was only when we said goodbye at the end of our shoot that I saw him disappear into the nearest pub. Not only had he remained sober for the rest of our filming, he had asked my permission before he did anything, and had even insisted that I should search him regularly to ensure that he wasn’t hiding any booze. He also addressed me as “sir” for the remainder of the shoot, which I found quite poignant as well as a little embarrassing. It seemed to me that Bourke felt a compulsion to challenge any form of authority ‑ including my own ‑ but that he also liked to feel he was operating within firm and defined constraints. Perhaps, that was a legacy of the formative years that he had spent in prison.
Bourke remained extremely bitter about his treatment by Blake. He described him as a “complete narcissist” and said he believed he had only pretended to be his friend. But he also told me that, if he had the chance again, he would still choose to help him escape. He said he did not share Blake’s political opinions or ideology, but he had always regarded his forty-two years sentence as “barbaric”. It was clear to me that Bourke remained proud that he had been able to outwit both the British police and prison officers (or “screws”). He was also pleased that he had caused some political embarrassment for the British government – since Blake had not been sent to a high-security prison despite the serious nature of his offences.
Bourke told me that he was currently writing another book. He said this would be “the big one” ‑ a major work that would act as both a prequel and sequel to the first book. At that stage of his life, it was difficult for me to believe that he had the capacity to produce any form of sustained writing: he seemed too firmly in the grip of his alcoholism. However, I heard reports that, in the months that followed our filming, he had stopped drinking and had begun to write again.
Not long after that, Bourke moved out of Limerick and into a caravan near Kilkee in Co Clare. That was where he collapsed by the roadside one morning. He died of a heart attack that was probably related to his years of heavy drinking. No manuscript was found among his few possessions, and, perhaps inevitably, various conspiracy theories about his death have emerged since then. According to one, his death was the long-term effect of poison administered to him by the KGB before he left Moscow. According to another theory, he was murdered by KGB agents in order to obtain and destroy the manuscript of his new book since they believed it would disclose too many secrets about the Soviet intelligence services. (I am not convinced by either theory.)
George Blake made one last appearance in a British court. But this time he was not in the dock, and appeared via a video link from Moscow. In his book, Bourke had given pseudonyms to Michael Randle and Paul Pottle ‑ the two CND supporters who had helped him spring Blake from Wormwood Scrubs. However, it did not take long for British police to realise that the names he had chosen ‑ Michael Reynolds and Pat Porter – along with other personal details provided, left little doubt about the men’s real identities.
Although they were aware of the role that Randle and Pottle had played in Blake’s escape, it was not considered politically expedient for the police to pursue any further enquiries. Then, twenty years after the jailbreak, a former Unionist MP at Westminster, H Montgomery Hyde, published a book in which their identities were revealed. Questions were raised in the House of Commons, and a television documentary was broadcast in which, for the first time, Randle and Pottle publicly admitted their involvement. They were eventually tried at the Old Bailey in 1991 – with George Blake giving evidence from Moscow on their behalf. Both men made powerful speeches from the dock, and they were acquitted on all counts. I cannot help wondering if Bourke would have been as fortunate if he had ever faced an English jury.
There was a further and unexpected twist in this story some years later. The English playwright Simon Gray wrote a drama about Blake’s escape and his time in Moscow called “Cell Mates”. In his play, Gray explores the ambivalent relationship that developed between the two men, and he questions whether Blake had deceived Bourke in a somewhat similar way to his previous betrayal of British agents. In one effective and revealing passage of his script, Gray imagines how Blake might have explained his deception of Bourke: “Spies betray people,” he reflects. “That is what we do. It becomes a habit. Difficult to break – even when it’s not strictly necessary.”
If Blake had acquired this compulsion to betray his friends, then, perhaps, Bourke had a contrary but corresponding need to believe in friendship and loyalty.
In Gray’s play Stephen Fry was cast in the role of Blake, and Bourke was to be played by the late Rik Mayall in a rare non-comedic role. The production achieved its own form of notoriety – and, perhaps, its own form of betrayal ‑ when Fry disappeared without any explanation just a few hours before the play was about to open in London. Gray and Mayall were concerned for his safety, but it emerged that he had bolted to Belgium because of acute stage fright induced by an unfavourable preview notice.
A few years after Bourke’s death, George Blake published No Other Choice, an autobiography in which, as its title indicates, he seeks to justify his career as a Soviet spy. (This title – with its hint of something inevitable or predestined ‑ may also carry an echo of the author’s Dutch Calvinist upbringing.) In his book, Blake writes about Sean Bourke with a surprising amount of sympathy, and even a degree of affection. He recognises that Bourke did not share his own “ideological commitment to the Soviet system”, and that meant he had “latched on to everything negative” about the communist regime in Russia. Blake also acknowledges that Bourke had come to resent his behaviour and adds that he “could not blame him” for harbouring such feelings. He accepts that he might have misled Bourke while they were in prison about the nature (and purpose) of their relationship.
Shortly before he died, Blake also expressed some qualified sympathy for the many British agents he had betrayed. But he insisted that those agents “were not innocent people. They were no better and no worse than me.” Blake remained convinced of the rightness of the cause he had followed for most of his life ‑ and the failings of those who had opposed that cause. He insisted that he had always operated on the side of “good against evil” and suggested that the collapse of Soviet communism came about simply because the Russians had “fucked it up”.
For me, this implies that, despite his claims of being “no better and no worse” than any other spy, Blake still considered himself morally superior to those who had died as a result of the information he gave to his KGB handlers. And, harsh as Blake’s prison sentence may have been, it was mild in comparison to the treatment meted out by the KGB to those he had identified as British spies.
After Blake’s death, Vladimir Putin – himself a former KGB officer – conveyed his “deep condolences” to the dead man’s family and praised “Colonel Blake’s invaluable role” in “maintaining peace on this planet”. By then, of course, Sean Bourke was not around to offer his own opinion, but I suspect it would have been rather different.
David Blake Knox is an author, a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films.