Wild People: Maxwell Knight, cuckoo spymaster

In the 1950s, armchair naturalists knew Maxwell Knight as a pioneering wildlife broadcaster. But TV’s avuncular birdwatcher had another life – as the likely inspiration for ‘M’, James Bond’s spy chief

5th February 2018
Maxwell Knight with his cuckoo, Goo

Some of the children at Putney Vale Primary could not quite believe it when they heard who was going to be formally opening their new school. It was 1956, and for any British child with even a passing interest in the natural world, one of the most familiar voices on the radio was Maxwell Knight. 

During the 1950s alone, Knight featured in more than 300 radio programmes and 40 television shows. He wrote 20 books about both natural history and the many different pets that he had kept, ranging from a cuckoo to a bear.

When opening the school, this avuncular naturalist did not disappoint. He answered every question, told funny stories about different animals, and even brought along one of his pets. Yet some teachers may have been confused, perhaps, to see this softly spoken figure depart in a large, black, chauffeur-driven Hillman, a vehicle so often associated with government officials.

As well as being a much-loved BBC natural history broadcaster, Maxwell Knight was an MI5 spymaster. His colleagues called him ‘M’. On the day that he opened this school, he was also running a delicate operation that involved one of his most experienced undercover agents, Tom Driberg, heading out to Moscow to spy on Guy Burgess, one of the notorious ‘Cambridge Spies’. 

During the last 25 years in MI5, Knight had changed the way the organisation operated. He had introduced new techniques, a different understanding of how to handle spies and had demonstrated repeatedly the benefits of using women as agents.

THE M FACTOR

Throughout, he had been known as ‘M’; his section was called ‘M Section’; and his agents had codenames such as ‘M/C’ or ‘M/7’. Had you asked anyone working in intelligence during the 1950s about ‘M’, chances are they would have thought you meant Maxwell Knight. Although Ian Fleming never revealed why he called the spymaster in the James Bond novels ‘M’, it is not a great leap of the imagination to think that this was a nod to Knight.

He kept a menagerie of animals in his flat – including Bessie, a small bear

Today Maxwell Knight is seen as a legendary MI5 spymaster, mainly because of the extraordinary ability
he had to run spies longer than most of his colleagues, and to get them deeper inside hostile organisations than most of peers could. 

There are various theories about why he was able to do this. In my biography of Knight, I argue that the secret to his technique lies in the childhood he spent looking after all sorts of different animals, from the pets he had bought or been given, through to injured animals he found in the wild. He learned to work out their different characters and to shower them with affection. He did the same with his MI5 agents.

His love of animals was such that even as a successful MI5 spymaster, he kept a menagerie of animals in his flat – including, at one point in the 1920s, Bessie, a small bear. He would take her for walks down the Kings Road in Chelsea. But the creature he was most attached to was Goo, a cuckoo. As a spymaster whose speciality was placing his agents inside hostile organisations, much as a cuckoo deposits her eggs in another bird’s nest, it is easy to see why he was so fond of this particular species. 

For all his success in MI5, and later as a natural history broadcaster, Knight’s private life was complicated. Although he married three times, it seems that none of these relationships was actually consummated. James Bond would not have approved. At one point, he and his then secretary, Joan Miller, tried to have an affair. Nothing came of it. Miller wrote a memoir long after Knight’s death suggesting that he was gay, although I found nothing to support that. He may have had a complicated private life, but this did not stop him from becoming arguably MI5’s greatest spymaster – and a highly popular television naturalist. 

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