Home Television Drama Reilly, Ace of Spies

Reilly, Ace of Spies

1 9 8 3 (UK)
1 x 75 minute episode
11 x 60 minute episodes

The true story of Sidney Reilly – a legendary Russian agent working for the British to try to topple the Bolshevik regime before James Bond had sipped his first unstirred Martini.

Reilly was a spy for the British Empire from World War I until his mysterious disappearance in Russia in 1925 after he attempted to overthrow Lenin and install himself as the leader of a new Soviet government.

Izvestia, the Russian newspaper, later claimed that he had been executed in 1925 by the Soviet Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal.


Written by Troy Kennedy Martin, it featured a fine performance from New Zealand actor Sam Neill, who wore a centre parting and a seductive frown as the cold-hearted killer and irresistible womaniser (in Moscow eight women claimed to be the Mrs Reilly before being rounded up by the Tsar’s police).

Reilly also featured early TV performances by Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan and Joanna Whalley and provided strong roles for such established players as Tom Bell, David Burke (as Stalin) and Kenneth Cranham (particularly good as Lenin), with Ian Charleson appearing as Bruce Lockhart, whose son Robin wrote the book on which the series was based.

Rather less successful was the politically incorrect casting (under heavy make-up) of the otherwise excellent David Suchet as Manchurian policeman Tsientin.

The sets of turn-of-the-century Moscow, Paris, and Port Arthur were stunning. One error was spotted: as Sam undressed he displayed a white bikini-marked bottom when Reilly would have worn a swimsuit down to his knees.

Reilly, Ace of Spies was the most ambitious and expensive series yet from Euston Films, at £4.5 million. The uncredited theme music, adapted from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Romance from The Gadfly was so popular that it was released as a single.

Sidney Reilly
Sam Neill
Bruce Lockhart
Ian Charleson
Margaret Reilly (nee Thomas)
Jeananne Crowley
Peter Egan
Norman Rodway
Tom Bell
Kenneth Cranham
Basil Zaharov
Leo McKern
Inspector Tsientin
David Suchet
David Burke