WHEN the urbane English actor met one of the country’s most notorious traitors, the Security Service MI5 was desperate to find out all it could about what passed between them.
Over Christmas of 1958, Michael Redgrave – one of Britain’s biggest stars and soon to be knighted – was leading the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company on a rare tour behind the Iron Curtain to the Soviet Union.
There, in Moscow, he encountered his old friend from Cambridge – Guy Burgess who had fled there seven years earlier with his fellow Foreign Office diplomat and Soviet double agent Donald Maclean, in one of the biggest spy scandals of the Cold War.
Details of their unlikely reunion are revealed in newly-declassified MI5 files released by the National Archives in Kew.
It did not get off to a good start, with the louche, flamboyantly homosexual Burgess turning up drunk at the theatre where Redgrave was starring in a production of Hamlet.
“We also heard that after one of the performances Burgess made his way to Redgrave’s dressing room and there was sick,” the British ambassador Sir Patrick Reilly reported.
Nevertheless, Redgrave agreed to visit Burgess for lunch in his flat – which had been provided by the KGB following his defection.
Burgess clearly enjoyed their get-together writing to his mother in London – in a letter intercepted by MI5 – that they had had “fine gossips”.
He gushed about Redgrave’s acting: “I have never seen such a reception as Michael’s Hamlet got on its last night.
“It’s certainly the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen – better than Gielgud, better than Olivier, much better than Paul Scofield. And everyone here thought the same too.”
Burgess also described how he had befriended another member of the cast, actress Coral Browne – an encounter later dramatised by Alan Bennett in the television play, An Englishman Abroad, starring Alan Bates.
Browne honoured a promise to buy Burgess a set of eight new suits from his London tailor and send them on to Moscow.
MI5, on the other hand was interested in rather weightier matters. Redgrave – the father of the actors Vanessa, Corin and Lynn – had first come to their attention in 1940 when he signed the manifesto of the Communist-inspired “People’s Vigilance Committee”.
Their curiosity was further whetted by a chance meeting at the Savile Club between MI5 officer Cedric Cliffe and a friend who knew Redgrave and had spoken to him about his meeting with Burgess.
Much of what Burgess was said to have told the actor they already knew – that he was “miserably unhappy” in Moscow, despite having been provided with a comfortable house, a housekeeper, and a “boyfriend” who also apparently doubled as a “state security spy”.
A further meeting between Cliffe’s source and Redgrave confimed Burgess had not wanted to defect – believing his own role was simply to get Maclean safely out of the country – and that he had been duped by his KGB handlers.
“Burgess said that in spite of his wishes he had been forced to continue his journey and ended up in Russia.”
As his KGB handler Yuri Modin later admitted, Mosow had concluded that it had two “burnt out” agents on its hands and it could not afford to leave Burgess behind.