Red Joan is based on a novel of the same name written by Jennie Rooney, which was itself inspired by the life of Melita Norwood. Norwood worked at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association (the body which was responsible for Britain’s atom bomb programme) as a secretary and supplied the Soviet Union with nuclear secrets. The materials that Norwood betrayed to the USSR hastened the pace by about 5 years at which the Soviets developed nuclear bomb technology.
Sophie Cookson is the young Joan Stanley studying physics at Cambridge. She became involved with Communists and radical politics through her friend Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and Leo (Tom Hughes), a German Jew. Her story, which reaches as far back as 1938, is recalled in flashbacks as Joan in old age is questioned by the Special Branch. The questioning reveals that Joan was more concerned about “leveling the playing field” in the postwar world rather than communism.
The breakthrough for her and the Russians came when she was given access to research work relating to a theory about the corrosive nature of uranium at high temperatures. Melita was “groomed” for a life in espionage by her highly political mother Gertrude, who also spied for Moscow. In the 1930s Gertrude set up a safe house for the Soviets’ network of radio operators in the UK.
“Melita was not a hard line Stalinist. She was an emotional Communist and quite naive. She thought what she was doing was for the benefit of the entire world.
“She thought of Stalin in those early days as a sort of Clement Attlee figure. When she became (politically) active in the 1930s, Russia was seen by many people as the only nation capable of defeating the Nazis.
“She once said she didn’t agree with spying against one’s country. She said her purpose had been to keep Russia abreast.”
However, a biographical book by also reveals that Norwood herself recruited at least one spy to work for Russia. She declined to identify her recruit.
An historian who specialises in eastern European political emigres, Mr Burke first met Norwood in 1997. Mr Burke says Norwood had little time for the new generation of spies and their working methods which became Cold War lore.
“She didn’t like what she called the “playboy spies”. She also had no time for things like honeytraps. She believed in doing things the old-fashioned way.”
Professor Christopher Andrew, the official historian for MI5 who has written the forward to the new book said there was no doubt that the Russians thought she was a significant operator.
“Melita was the longest lasting Soviet spy in British history and that country’s most important female operative. How important particular pieces of information is often in the ears of the beholder. But the point is that the Russians thought what she was doing was very important and they told her so.”
The Spy Who Came In From the Co-op will be published by Boydell and Brewster on 17 October priced £18.99
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