‘Damian Lewis: Spy Wars’ brings to light real-life espionage tales

Damian Lewis is a recognisable face on the big and small screen. 

Of late, he has been praised for his roles as King Henry VIII in "Wolf Hall" and Bobby Axelrod in "Billions". He was also cast as Steve McQueen in Quentin Tarantino’s "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood". And let us not forget about his role as Nicholas Brody in "Homeland". 

Having covered a gamut of genres, from espionage to history, it does make his latest stint as a narrator for History’s "Damian Lewis: Spy Wars" almost surreal. 

He says: “We’ve got a really good selection of stories; the Beta Israel story, about the lost tribe of Israel and Ethiopia. “This Mossad mission, I’m sure 98% of people watching won’t have heard of this story. So, I think it’s a little glimpse through a window of what they did it’s an incredible story. You will sit and watch and be utterly engaged. I think that’s true of all our stories.

“Even the ‘Argo’ story we come in from a slightly different angle with a bit more back story, from the intelligence part of it rather than the film making an aspect of it.” 

On being a part of this project, he adds: “As soon as you put yourself in front of a camera, or in front of an audience, as a performer, there’s a whole intricate web of thoughts that run through your head. ‘How you want to be presented and how can you successfully be a credible part of your show, your story, whatever it is, and we had to work quite quickly. I was flying in and out of New York from "Billions" and we had a budget, obviously, we had to be aware of. 

“From a craft point of view presenting it was trying to take the curse off ‘The News at 10’ aspect of it, you know, a journalist walking towards camera with his thumb and forefinger together talking about what’s going on in the building behind me.” 

He continues: “I wanted something a bit fresher, a bit more immediate, a bit more conversational, so that when you cut from a fantastically colourful KGB story you don’t come to a slightly staid, uninteresting presenter format. 

“I discussed this a lot with Gareth (Lewis), my brother, that the camera angles that may be in the same way that you would have a matching cut in a drama if we were already close with you and you’re in a scene we’d need to come close to you. And it will feel a bit more like I’m in conversation as well with the guys we’ve been interviewing. 

“And there was something filmic in the way we tried to present those pieces to camera, and when it wasn’t just a straight-up close cut to me, that it might be that you needed a little breath so it might be that we pan across to me.” 

In the series, which started not too long ago, there are several engaging episodes to come like the story of Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent who systematically dismantled the US’s network of undercover Soviet agents. 

His espionage was described by the Department of Justice as “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history”. Many of us have watched "Argo". In the Escape from Tehran episode, viewers will see what went on during this mission in January 1980, when two CIA agents and six employees of the US embassy in Iran arrived at Mehrabad Airport, Tehran, with fake passports, papers and scripts. 

This is the remarkable story of how one man used inspiration from Hollywood to school six frightened diplomats in the art of “being someone else”, and score a victory for the CIA, in one of the darkest moments for American foreign policy. 

On being a part of this series, Lewis shares, “I read le Carré. A lot of people of my generation probably have all read a bit of le Carré. I’ve been in a le Carré movie, three or four years ago, Our Kind of Traitor, I’ve played Nicholas Brody and done enormous amounts of research for ‘Homeland’. I’ve been to Langley and the director of the CIA, John Brennan, other people, all of them during the Snowden era, I’ve been invited to the White House… I’ve had a really interesting time because of the jobs I’ve taken and so when it came to this (I was interested).”

"Damian Lewis: Spy Wars" airs on History (DStv channel 186) on Fridays at 8.15pm, with repeats during the week.

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