Thursday, May 8, 2008


'Spycatcher' was a BBC television series, starring Bernard Archard, which ran from 1959 to 1961. It was based on the real-life activities of Dutch counterintelligence officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Oreste Pinto (once called "the greatest living authority on security" by Dwight D. Eisenhower) who specialised in the interrogation of suspected spies during World War II and had later published his memoirs under the title "Spy Catcher". Each episode showed Pinto (Archard) questioning, and eventually exposing, an enemy agent.

"Producer Terence Cook and I knew that Colonel Pinto – aged about 40 – was a star part, but we wanted an 'unknown' to play it," said Robert Barr, who scripted the drama. "Agents laughed. No one of star value, they said, could possibly have reached that age without being a star." But Archard was summoned, after a BBC employee recalled him as a Coal Board official in a 1958 dramatised documentary on open-cast mining, and he landed the role.

On August 28, 1959, the Radio Times published this article by Robert Barr about the TV series 'Spycatcher':

The series of adventure stories which begans at 8:45pm tonight tells how Colonel Oreste Pinto and his team of investigators sorted out, among the stream of war-time refugees arriving in Britain, those who were genuine and those who were spies:

During the war, when I was attached to General Eisenhower's personal staff, I sometimes saw a Dutch Intelligence officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Pinto, visit the camp to make personal reports. General Eisenhower once referred to him as "the greatest living expert in security".

Oreste Pinto, a lean, kindly Dutchman and an excellent story-teller, began his Secret Service career with the Deuxieme Bureau, the French equivalent of M.I.5, and at the outbreak of war was engaged in counter-intelligence work for Britain. With the German occupation of Europe there began a steady flow, at times it was a flood, of refugees into Britain. Most of them were determined anti-NAZIs - young man from the disbanded armies, and fishermen - welcome recruits for the newly-formed Free Forces. But as this flow of refugees continued it became clear to British counter-intelligence that since the Germans could not stop the escapes, at least they could use them to infiltrate spies into Britain. So every refugee and escaper who arrived in Britain, whether by cockleshell boat across the North Sea, or by the long overland routes to Gibraltar and Lison, was brought before Colonel Pinto's team of interrogators for "screening".

Here, in makeshift premises in London, their stories were heard and their few possessions were minutely examined. And it was here that the smallest possessions - a forgotten bus ticket, the old-fashioned watch, the pocket English dictionary, or the odd cigarettes - were made to give up their secrets. The problems facing the counter-intelligence team were infinite: the spies had to be caught before they could engage in espionage; only a tiny fraction of the escapers were potential spies, and the others must not be made to feel that that they had escaped from one Gestapo only to fall into the hands of another; often the most patriotic of the refugees vouched unwittingly for the spy who had travelled with them.

The record of Colonel Pinto and his team in trapping the spies who came to Britain is exceptional and is fully described in Colonel Pinto's two excellent books Spycatcher and Friend Or Foe? which tell in exciting detail both the methods and intentions of the spies and the patience and experience required to trap them.

Every efficient spy, says Colonel Pinto, would have a plausible and well-supported story. Only the ability of the interrogator to probe beneath the surface could succeed in breaking the spy's story. Colonel Pinto lists the following qualifications "for a successful spycatcher": a phenomenal memory, patience and regard for detail, a gift for languages, courage, a detailed knowledge of the capitals and towns of the world, a thorough knowledge of international law, a gift for detection, and a long experience of the methods and tricks of spies.

The six stories of the series have been chosen to show these qualities in action. Most of the stories deal with agents who came to Britain at great risk and determined to spy - but not all of them! In choosing the stories I have tried to put the viewer in the same quandary as the spycatcher, for in at least two cases the suspect was finally proved innocent, although in one case you might not agree!

(My thanks to Action TV)

Iin 1962, the story of Oreste Pinto continued with a new series filmed in Pinto's native country of The Netherlands. 'Die Fuik' starred Frits Butzelaar as Pinto and ran for ten episodes.

Toby OB


john said...

Interesting read. As a young man I watched the serie on Dutch National Television. My Inlaws owned the book in Dutch version.
Recently I did read the book again.( We inherited everything from them including a lot of books)
It still nice to read.
I googled to find more about Oreste Pinto and so I found your site.

Toby O'B said...

Thanks for checking in, John!

Anonymous said...

I suggest that a comment about Pinto and his opinion that Operation Market garden was betrayed by a double agent was merited.
I read Spycatcher over 50 years ago