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George Blake and the men who outwitted bungling MI5

Story of KGB double agent who was sprung from jail and holed up in Hampstead is told at theatre

01 December, 2017 — By John Gulliver

George Blake

I ALWAYS feel I have a personal stake in the George Blake story. Blake, as readers may know, was a KGB double agent who was sprung from Wormwood Scrubs, holed up in Hampstead, and then smuggled across to Berlin in the late 1960s – and then to Moscow.

I never met Blake but, as the joke goes, I know a man who did. He was an in-law relative, Pat Pottle, one of the few romantic anarchists I have known.

He grew up in Paddington, one of five brothers in a left-wing Irish family – father an engineering shop steward. Printer, consummate anarchist, Pat, drawn to the ban-the-bomb movement, got 18 months jail time for sitting down in Trafalgar Square in a CND demo with the great philosopher Bertrand Russell. It was then that Pat met the infamous Blake in the Scrubs.

He considered Blake’s 42-year sentence vicious retribution by the state and with fellow convict Sean Bourke and peacenik Michael Randle, got him over the wall in October 1966.

Pat Pottle and Michael Randle

They drove him to a block of flats off Willow Road, Hampstead – a few hundred yards from where I lived at the time, though I knew nothing of their plot. They holed Blake up in a small flat for several months – and then, believe it or not, got hold of a second-hand camper van, hid him in it, and drove across the continent, across the then West German border – into East Germany. It was the most amazing escape story of post-war Britain – three amateurs who had outwitted a bungling MI5, though the agency maintained for years that it had been masterminded by the KGB!

Decades later in 1991 Pat and Michael Randle published a book about their part in the escape and were tried at the Old Bailey. But, in another twist to the story, they both discharged their barristers and mounted a “political” defence arguing that though they didn’t agree with Blake’s activities they thought his sentence was unjust. To the amazement of the legal world, not to speak of MI5, the jury acquitted them.

Blake lives in Russia and is 95; Sean Bourke died an alcoholic; Michael Randle, a retired academic, lives in Yorkshire; while Pat moved to north Wales where he ran a printing shop and later lived in Hornsey. He died in 2000 at 62. And for this man, who had a beautiful romantic soul, and a radical spirit, I have always had the fondest of thoughts.

For the story of this escape, you can see a revival of Simon Gray’s 1995 drama, Cell Mates, at Hampstead Theatre, which opened this week. Call the box office on 020 7722 9301.

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