Unearthed: the only existing audio of ‘posh’ Cambridge spy Guy Burgess

Charming, dissolute, devious: Guy Burgess. PA Archive

Guy Burgess was, at various times and often simultaneously, a radio producer for the BBC, an informer for MI5, a propagandist for MI6, a diplomat for the FBI and a spy for the KGB. In the book which I wrote with City University colleague Jeff Hulbert last year, When Reporters Cross the Line, we said that Guy Burgess set something of a gold standard for conflicts of interest.

During the research for our Burgess chapter we found all sorts of facts about the man and his extraordinary life. We knew what he looked like from stills and one piece of silent newsreel. We knew how tall he was, what he weighed, the various ailments he collected because of his prodigious drinking and who he slept with. We even found out that he smelt like a combination of the previous night’s alcohol and that morning’s chewed garlic cloves.

But nowhere could we find exactly what he sounded like. The BBC sound archive produced no trace of a recording of their former employee. We had a hunch that somewhere in the many radio programmes Burgess had produced he probably had appeared on the air at some point, but maybe nobody wrote it down.

All we could find was a reference in, of all places the FBI files in Washington, to Burgess having made a sound recording in 1951, just before he defected to Russia, in which he told his favourite anecdote. He had talked about the day back in September 1938 when he met Winston Churchill and they shared their mutual despair at the Munich agreement which Chamberlain had just signed with Hitler. The files had a transcript of what Burgess had said about this meeting into a friend’s tape-recorder in New York the day before he got on the boat back to Britain and then on to Russia.

We thought that if a transcript existed it was obvious that at some point a tape existed and might still exist. So Jeff put in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request on our behalf to both the British and American authorities. The British came back saying they didn’t know where any such tape was but nine months after our request the FBI told us they had put “a release” in the transatlantic mail.

Letter from America

It came in the Christmas post and on our first day back after the holiday break we found an FBI envelope sitting in my post box at City University. I was so excited I took Jeff and the envelope into a studio at City University to record in sound and video the moment of us opening the envelope. Michael Crick of Channel 4 News, to whom we gave the tapes, was to say later that only an old newsman would think of recording the moment.

We feared the “release” might be just more paperwork but in fact the FBI had run off a CD for us of Burgess’s tape which they had discovered in New York during their enquiries after his defection to Russia. The only known recording of the voice of one of Britain’s biggest traitors was in excellent quality and alongside it was an FBI letter declaring that the tape was now declassified and released without any deletions.

When we listened to the CD we realised it contained what was the third attempt by Burgess and his friend on that slightly drunken night to put his anecdote onto tape. The very first words on the recording – which weren’t on the transcript – are Burgess declaring, presumably in response to his friend giving him some kind of advice off mic: “I won’t take any notice of you … I’m not in the least shy. I am extremely tired.”

He then explains: “I am now recording for the third time because I think the story is of some interest, my interview with Mr Winston Churchill in September 1938.” Burgess was known as a good mimic and he imitates Churchill’s side of the conversation.

Posh accent

In some ways this is a short radio play about the meeting between Burgess and Churchill in which Burgess plays both parts. He delivers his lines with a slight slur, which may be due to the amount of drink that he had been consuming just before finally sorting out the tape recorder.

Burgess has been played on screen half a dozen times by actors including Alan Bates, Benedict Cumberbatch and Derek Jacobi. Mostly they played the Old Etonian with what we would regard as a “posh” accent. But being the first people anywhere to hear the voice of the real Guy Burgess for the first time since he died in Moscow in 1963, what struck us that none of the actors had been anywhere near posh enough in their versions. The real Burgess was much closer to Harry Enfield’s character Mr Cholmondley-Warner than to a contemporary old Etonian like David Cameron.

We have gathered together everything from our research – video, audio, documents, articles and stills – and put them on a microsite so that anybody inside or outside the university can use these resources.

As a hack at heart I get a cheap thrill of getting the exclusive, but Jeff Hulbert thinks rather more deeply about the historical significance of what we have found. He believes we can now hear for ourselves exactly how “establishment” Burgess was and that it helps to explain why he found it so easy to mix with the ruling elite: he spoke and sounded just like they did.

But Jeff thinks the tape also reveals Burgess’s underlying sense of humour, which for many was his underlying charm, as well as a quick wit. Jeff’s overall verdict is that we get a real glimpse of Burgess the man who, in spite of all his treachery, still commanded the respect and friendship of a loyal band of followers. Jeff says: “What is striking is that his voice betrays no hint of tension. This is remarkable because less than four weeks later he would defect to the Soviet Union with Donald Maclean.”

Thanks go to Kristian Brunt-Seymour, a student on the City University broadcast journalism course, who has edited the video and audio and voiced the news package. Ben Sawtell created the microsite with his colleagues in the City University communications team. Dave Goodfellow and the technical team in the journalism department made it all work.

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