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Ian Fleming's 007 was a fantasy. Sidney Reilly was real. He was

the greatest espionage agent of all time

Spies have come back into fashion. From the movie-screen exploits of Sean Connery and Roger Moore as James Bond to the novels of John le Carre, undercover operatives seem to be surfacing everywhere. Public television enters the spy game this month with a $10-million British production, Reilly: Ace of Spies.

What is behind the revival of secret-agent mania? In an essay about the 007 movies, film historian Drew Moniot observes that spies come back into vogue whenever political tensions in the world increase. During crises people search for a source of stability. Spies seem to reassure us that the "alienation, dehumanization, and loss of meaning" in the modern world can be overcome by an adventurous individual who gains control of his own destiny.

Sidney Reilly, an infamous real-life operative, was a kind of modern antihero who made up his own rules. The twelve-part series, based on Reilly's life, is the season's premiere program of Mystery! It is underwritten by the Mobil Corporation and produced by WGBH, in Boston.

Sam Neill, who plays Reilly, has the dark good looks, suggestive eyebrows, and dimpled smile that might remind some of the dashing young Sean Connery. He is best known for his starring role in an Australian film, My Brilliant Career. Neill promises that the series won't be predictable cloak-and-dagger intrigue. "The curious thing about this series," he says, "is that it doesn't follow any particular formula. It wolild be nice if! could say it's like John le Carre or Upstairs, Downstairs or James Bond. There is a lot of it that is romantic. It has thriller elements, spy-story elements, period-drama elements. It has elements of a number of different genres."

Though some believe Reilly was the inspiration for Ian Fleming's James Bond (Fleming denied it), Reilly wasn't typical Bond-style spy material. In fact, he wasn't even British. Born in 1874 near Odessa, Russia, Reilly was raised in a wealthy family. Ever the master dissimulator, Reilly left no definitive proof of what his original family name was. Robin Bruce Lockhart, who knew Reilly personally, wrote the book, Reilly: Ace of Spies (Penguin Books), that inspired the current series. Lockhart reports that his Christian name was Georgi and that he took the name Sigmund Rosenblum only after learning he was the illegitimate son of his mother's physician, Doctor Rosenblum. Michael Kettle, a historian who spent many years researching his own book, Sidney Reilly: The True Story (Corgi Books), insists that Reilly was born Sigmund Georgievich Rosenblum and abandoned his family after having been forbidden to marry his first cousin.

The contradictory stories are representative of the mystery in which Reilly hid himself. The stories, Neill observes, are a justification for and an indication of the kind of person Reilly was: untrusting and bitter, feeling betrayed and alone.

He might or might not have studied at the University of Vienna, but we know that he was eventually enlisted by the British Secret Intelligence Service as an operative. (Again, accounts differ on the particulars.) He assumed the name Reilly around the tum of the century and was soon performing hazardous assignments for British intelligence. Reportedly, one World War I escapade brought Reilly face-to-face with Kaiser Wilhelm II. Another story has it that as he sold Germanbuilt ships to Russia he was simultaneously sending the ships' blueprints to England. A master of languages and disguises, Reilly was also ruthless in his dealings with other agents and cruel in his relations with women. He kept dozens of mistresses, married bigamously at least twice, and had an affair with his half sister that ended in her suicide ..

In an attempt to know Reilly better, Neill researched his part extensively; he even consulted a psychologist to, find out how Reilly might have reacted to the discovery that he was an illegitimate child. "She told me that such a revelation could cause somebody to become extremely bitter, trusting nobody. They'd have felt they'd been betrayed. And they'd be really very dangerous." Explaining Reilly's relationships with women, Neill observes that the spy "felt betrayed by his mother. She died when he needed her most, and she produced him as illegitimate. He might have had an unacknowledged desire to revenge himself against womankind."

Among the other performers in the series is veteran stage, screen, and TV actor Leo McKem (who played Horace Rumpole in Mystery/'s Rumpole of the Bailey) as Sir Basil Zaharov, a munitions dealer. Also appearing, as Dzerzhinsky, head of the Russian secret police, is Tom Bell, who was the father in Masterpiece Theatre's Sons and Lovers.

Neill says the series is interesting historically: "It has to do with the career and the complexities of a strange guy. In a way, I think Reilly is a kind of modem character."

And why does Neill think that spies are so appealing now? "Most of our lives are pretty dull, really. And here's a guy who had an extraordinary life and made an enormous difference to the affairs of his time. One ofthe directors of the series used to say, 'Reilly enjoyed screwing history.' And that's right. He was a cold bastard, but in the end he became a humane one. That's a victory of sorts."