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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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BBC Archive releases new documents about Cambridge spy Guy Burgess and his early career at BBC

Guy Burgess
  • Twenty-four previously unreleased documents about notorious spy, Guy Burgess, now available online
  • What was Guy Burgess trying desperately to retrieve, when breaking down a door at the Langham?
  • Newly released documents reveal why the communist agent felt he should always travel first class

The BBC Archive is today launching a new online collection that explores Guy Burgess' time working at the BBC.

As part of the BBC's plans to open up parts of its extensive archives, 24 documents dating back to 1936 have been made available online for the first time, giving a unique insight into the character of this notorious spy.

Jean Seaton, BBC Historian, said: "These documents paint a tantalising portrait of Burgess as he collides with the BBC which he joined from Cambridge and left for the Foreign Office.

"It's clear that Burgess was a louche, hard-drinking, dishevelled, outrageous man; and a brilliant, charming one who deftly made himself an indispensable insider, in order to betray the system he lived within."

Revealing references from Cambridge, where Burgess was first recruited as a spy, begin this collection.

One describes Burgess as "a man of considerable self-assurance and a fellow for whom it is easy to feel both admiration and liking", another, from the renowned historian Sir George Trevelyan, states: "He has passed through the communist measles that so many of our clever young men go through, and is well out of it. There is nothing second rate about him and I think he would prove a great addition to your staff."

Burgess worked for the BBC twice between 1936 and 1944 as a producer of The Week In Westminster and reports released show how Burgess spent his time wining and dining MPs and refused to travel second class.

When questioned by the corporation about his excessive expenditure on travel, Burgess replies: "I normally travel first class and see no reason why I should alter my practice when on BBC business, particularly when I am in my best clothes."

In an incident at The Langham Hotel in 1941, three internal memos discuss what happened the night Burgess tried to break down the door to his office with a fire extinguisher to retrieve "urgently necessary papers", and how the House Superintendent perceived this to be "most unsatisfactory, and I must add uncalled for".

In support of these documents the BBC is also releasing a collection of archive TV and radio programmes which examine the gradual exposure of the Cambridge Spies over four decades.

Julie Rowbotham, Executive Producer, BBC Archive, said: "The BBC archive holds just under one million hours of programming and serves as a reminder of how the BBC evolved, and has an unrivalled record of recent British contemporary history.

"The programmes we are making available online put these amazing Burgess documents into context and reveal how this young BBC producer's name became synonymous with one of the greatest spy scandals of the 20th century."

These two collections are the latest in a series to be released online which explore the cultural and political developments that shaped the 20th century.

Both the Guy Burgess and the Cambridge Spies collections are available from today (18 August 2009) and can be viewed by going to bbc.co.uk/archive.

Notes to Editors

Explore over 80 years of UK and BBC history with the BBC Archive website. Programmes, documents and images bring the past to life and reveal forgotten stories. Through the creation of these online collections, the BBC hopes to release hidden treasures providing a fascinating source of socio-political history.

The collection, Burgess At The BBC – The Early Career Of A Notorious Spy, is the 23rd to be released by BBC Archive and will now form a part of this permanent resource which the BBC has made available online. For more information, visit bbc.co.uk/archive.

The BBC Archive's Burgess At The BBC – The Early Career Of A Notorious Spy collection includes 24 internal documents, memos and letters.

Highlights include:

  • An internal memo about staff photographs: Burgess is pursued for a photograph by an exasperated BBC administrator.
    Written: 1937
    Synopsis: This amusing memo bears witness to the fact that Guy Burgess didn't respond well to the requirements of office administration. Sadly, no copy of the photograph of Burgess on the beach at Margate can be found in the BBC archives.
  • Letter from Guy Burgess to Anthony Blunt: Burgess, as a BBC producer, advises Blunt about speaking on the radio.
    Written: 1938
    Synopsis: Burgess demonstrates a somewhat cavalier approach to programme timing in the advice he gives to Anthony Blunt about the appropriate way of dealing with a shortfall in things to say.
  • A memo from Burgess about Winston Churchill: Burgess recounts his conversation with a mistrustful Churchill.
    Written: 1938
    Synopsis: This short, fascinating memo gives us a glimpse of Burgess' working life at the BBC. It also reveals that, according to Burgess at least, Winston Churchill distrusted the BBC and, as a member of the opposition, was wary of Government interference in its broadcasts.
  • Memo from Burgess querying his salary: Burgess forgets to sign his BBC staff contract and is unhappy with the salary offered.
    Written: 1941
    Synopsis: In this memo explaining why he hasn't signed his contract, Burgess sets out his claim for a higher salary than that offered. He argues not only that he is returning to the BBC with an extra two years' experience under his belt, but, also that he has spent the last two years working in broadcasting and propaganda for the Government. So, obviously, deserves a pay rise.
  • The Langham incident – the response from Burgess: Burgess gives his version of events in the case of the locked door.
    Written: 1941
    Synopsis: This is Guy Burgess' response to the report from the Langham Hotel watchman. He sets out, in itemised detail, his side of the story about the night when he couldn't get into his hotel room and recalls the ensuing disastrous consequences (particularly for the door of room 316).
  • An expenses claim sheet and covering note from Burgess: Burgess insists on travelling first class and claims for visiting the House of Commons.
    Written: 1943
    Synopsis: This claim for expenses incurred while on BBC business includes travelling first class to a memorial service and using taxis as a matter of course. The claim would appear to have been contested by the BBC as the accompanying note from Burgess (written on the back of another memo) sets out a forthright list of his reasons for making it.
  • Letter from the Foreign Office to the BBC about Burgess: His country needs him – Burgess is required for essential war work.
    Written: 1944
    Synopsis: A request comes for the release of Guy Burgess from his contract at the BBC so that he can take part in important war propaganda work at the Foreign Office.
  • Memo to the Director-General about Burgess' resignation: The manner and timing of Burgess' departure from the BBC causes concern.
    Written: 1944
    Synopsis: This fascinating memo confirms that the BBC was reluctant to let Burgess go because he was a good producer (a phrase that would later come back to haunt the organisation). It also points to possible tension in relations between the BBC and the Foreign Office, as disapproval is expressed about job offers being made to BBC staff without prior notification to BBC management.
  • A note for Burgess' staff record: A summary of Burgess' strengths, weaknesses and suitability for re-employment.
    Written: 1944
    Synopsis: According to his line manager, Director of Talks, George Barnes, Burgess is good at foreign affairs, understands subjects quickly and has a wide circle of acquaintances. However, his administrative abilities (as borne out by some of the documents in this collection) leave much to be desired.

DM

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