The world’s first secret agents are recalled by PBS
Queen Elizabeth II had a secret agent handy when she parachuted into the 2012 London Olympics with James Bond – or, rather, Daniel Craig – but her same-named forerunner had her own brigade of spies.
The new PBS documentary series “Queen Elizabeth’s Secret Agents” starts a weekly three-part run Sunday, Jan. 28 (check local listings). Incorporating dramatized sequences, it examines the roots of the first secret service agency in the world, launched under the 40-years-plus rule of Queen Elizabeth I when she was targeted by enemies including her own cousin: Mary, Queen of Scots.
William Cecil accrued his own power base while serving as Elizabeth I’s “spymaster,” and Lisa Hilton – author of a number of fiction and nonfiction works about the monarchy (“Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens,” “The Stolen Queen,” etc.) – is among the program’s sources on his role, and those of other spies (including his professional successor, his son Robert), in the history of the royals.
“I think perhaps the greatest achievement of Elizabeth’s reign, which is in large part due to William Cecil, was that she survived to reign at all,” Hilton says in an interview for this article. “Certainly in the U.K., we think of Elizabethan England as a golden age, and that’s a very retroactive view. At the time, Elizabeth was perceived as the dictatorial tyrant of a failed state. Holding together her authority and rule was really significant.”
In turn, her secret agents were subjected to political pressures as well as the challenges of basic espionage. “They did hold the destinies of the monarchs in their hands, quite literally,” Hilton confirms. “What’s also fascinating about this show is the way it examines the psychology of this nascent information service, and the incredible intensity under which these agents had to live. They could never be quite sure whether they were speaking to a friend or a foe, since people turned their coats so many times.”
While stressing that Elizabeth’s spies operated without the gadgetry associated with James Bond, particularly in the film series, Hilton credits that character with embodying the true spirit of the British Secret Service. With her thriller novel “Maestra” being developed as a movie by Sony Pictures, she notes that she wouldn’t mind writing one of Agent 007’s screen adventures herself.
“It’s about time you had a woman do it,” reasons Hilton, who deems Bond’s world “kind of ludicrous and fantastic … and yet, when you look at the world around us, it doesn’t seem as far-fetched. Although I doubt that actual secret agents look like Daniel Craig.”