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The Courier: History vs. Hollywood


Benedict Cumberbatch
Born: July 19, 1976
Hammersmith, London, England, UK

Greville Wynne
Born: March 19, 1919
Birthplace: Wrockwardine Wood, Shropshire, UK
Death: February 28, 1990, London, England, UK (throat cancer)

Merab Ninidze
Born: November 3, 1965
Tbilisi, USSR

Oleg Penkovsky
Born: April 23, 1919
Birthplace: Vladikavkaz, Russia
Death: May 16, 1963, Moscow, USSR
(executed by Soviet Union)

Jessie Buckley
Born: December 28, 1989
Killarney, Ireland

Sheila Wynne

Keir Hills

Andrew Wynne

Angus Wright
Born: November 11, 1964
Washington, D.C., USA

Sir Arthur Temple ‘Dickie’ Franks
Born: July 13, 1920
Death: October 12, 2008

Historical Accuracy (Q&A):

Why did MI6 recruit British businessman Greville Wynne?

MI6 took a liking to the engineer-turned-businessman Greville Wynne (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) due to the fact that he often traveled to Eastern Europe on business trips. They recruited him in November 1960. Under the guise of a sales trip, he made his first contact with high-ranking Soviet intelligence colonel Oleg Penkovsky in Moscow.

The Courier true story reveals that Wynne met Penkovsky eight months after the Soviet double agent had first tried to get in touch with the CIA by handing a bulky envelope of documents to two wary American students in Moscow. Officials in London had also been aware of Penkovsky since he had approached two British businessmen and gave them his business card in hopes it would reach MI6. British spy Greville Wynne became one of Penkovsky's couriers, delivering information back to MI6 and the CIA.

The real Greville Wynne (left), and Benedict Cumberbatch (right) in The Courier movie.

What type of business did Greville Wynne operate?

In 1950, engineer Greville Wynne set up his own business as an exporter of industrial engineering products. It required plenty of foreign travel, including to Soviet bloc countries. This provided a near-perfect cover for spying. -The New York Times

Why did Oleg Penkovsky want to become a spy for the West?

In 1961 and 1962, at the height of the Cold War, disgruntled colonel Oleg Penkovsky (portrayed by Merab Ninidze) became the highest-ranking Soviet military official to spy for the United Kingdom up until that time. Penkovsky's career in the Soviet military had been hindered by the fact that his father had died fighting as an officer for the White Army against the Bolsheviks (Red Army) during the Russian Civil War (1917 – 1923) and Penkovsky didn't denounce this legacy. The loosely allied forces that made up the White Army favored capitalism and social democracy, which stood in contrast to the communist ideologies of the Red Army. The Courier fact-check reveals that, like his father, Penkovsky had become disillusioned with the Soviet system.

The real Oleg Penkovsky (left), and actor Merab Ninidze (right) in the movie.

Are MI6 agent Dickie Franks and CIA agent Emily Donovan based on real people?

While Angus Wright's character, MI6 agent Dickie Franks, was indeed a real person who worked for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, according to his 2008 obituary in The Independent, he had nothing to do with the recruitment of civilian Greville Wynne and the claim that he did is based on incorrect reports in the press. For example, his obituaries in The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times all claim that he did recruit the businessman Greville Wynne, which according to The Independent is false.
As for Rachel Brosnahan's character, CIA operative Emily Donovan, she is not based on a real person. During an interview at Sundance, Brosnahan told The Davis Clipper's Tom Haraldsen, "Emily is a combination of several true-life figures who worked with Benedict's character (Greville Wynne) to help the CIA penetrate the Soviet nuclear program."

Rachel Brosnahan's character, CIA agent Emily Donovan, is fictional.

What did Oleg Penkovsky want in exchange for sharing Soviet secrets with Great Britain and the United States?

In researching The Courier true story, we discovered that in exchange for sharing restricted information, Soviet intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky requested citizenship and military rank in either the U.S.A. or Great Britain. In the movie, he only seeks assurances that he will be able to defect with his family.

Did Greville Wynne have an affair?

In The Courier movie, Wynne's wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) becomes suspicious of his trips to the Soviet Union, suspecting that he is having an affair. The film mentions a previous affair, which is part of the reason Sheila is suspicious this time. It seems likely that Wynne did have an affair in the years prior to becoming a spy for MI6, though we found little evidence to verify this. In real life, Wynne's wife Sheila divorced him after he was released from the Moscow prison and returned to Britain. Like in the movie, they had one son together, Andrew. Wynne married his second wife, Herma van Buren, in 1970. She had worked as his secretary and interpreter, speaking eight languages. They separated several years prior to Wynne's death in 1990.

Read Greville Wynne's autobiography The Man from Odessa to learn more about his life and role as a British spy.

Why was the movie originally called "Ironbark"?

The Courier premiered at Sundance in January 2020 under its original title, Ironbark. In the movie, the title refers to Oleg Penkovsky's codename. However, in real life, IRONBARK was the codename for the documents that Soviet double agent Oleg Penkovsky had been passing to the CIA. Penkovsky's real-life codename was HERO.

Did British spy Greville Wynne help to prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Yes. The true story behind The Courier confirms that some of the intelligence Wynne received from his Russian contact, Soviet military intelligence colonel Oleg Penkovsky, informed the United Kingdom about the Soviet emplacement of missiles in Cuba. This intelligence gave both the United Kingdom and the United States the knowledge necessary to manage the quickly evolving military friction with the Soviet Union. The U.S. was then able to use U-2 spy planes to take photographs and identify the missile sites (see image below). Oleg Penkovsky also provided documents that revealed that the Soviet Union was ill-equipped to fight a war in the area.

In addition, Colonel Penkovsky provided Wynne with the names and photographs of roughly 300 East bloc intelligence agents, as well as information about Soviet weapons production and military manpower. -The New York Times

On the left is a U-2 overflight photo of a missile site in Cuba, taken on October 14, 1962. A similar image is shown in The Courier movie (right), based on intelligence from Oleg Penkovsky's character.

When were British spy Greville Wynne and Soviet double agent Oleg Penkovsky captured?

Like in The Courier movie, a fact-check confirms that KGB surveillance resulted in Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky both being arrested in October 1962, the same month the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding. An NSA employee-turned-Soviet Spy named Jack Dunlap revealed Penkovsky's treasonous activities to the KGB, despite the KGB having already known about the betrayal. Penkovsky was arrested first, and after his interrogation, Wynne was apprehended. Both Wynne and Penkovsky were convicted of espionage.

The real Greville Wynne after his release, and Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie.

How long had the KGB known that Oleg Penkovsky was engaging in espionage?

The Courier true story reveals that top KGB officials knew that Penkovsky was a double agent for more than a year, but they wanted to protect their source, a valuable mole in the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). The KGB waited to arrest Penkovsky so that they could build up a case against him that didn't expose their moles who had provided information about him. In the movie, they arrest Penkovsky shortly after discovering he was a double agent.

Was Oleg Penkovsky executed by the Soviet Union for espionage?

The almost universally accepted version of events is that Oleg Penkovsky was executed in 1963 for providing top-secret information to the United Kingdom. This version is supported by Alexander Zagvozdin, who was the KGB's chief interrogator during the investigation. He claims that Penkovsky had been questioned probably 100 times before being shot and cremated. In Greville Wynne's 1981 book The Man from Odessa, Wynne claims that Penkovsky committed suicide in a Soviet labor camp. However, that claim seems unlikely to be true. Wynne himself had earlier stated that Penkovsky had been shot, including during his appearance on the game show To Tell the Truth.

What was Greville Wynne's punishment?

After being arrested by the KGB in 1962 and convicted of spying on May 11, 1963, Wynne was sentenced to eight years in Moscow's Lubyanka prison, where he was held in brutal conditions and subjected to severe beatings and psychological pressure. In declining health, he was released roughly two years later on April 22, 1964 in exchange for Soviet spy Konon Molody, who had called himself Gordon Lonsdale while operating in Britain. -The New York Times

Spy Greville Wynne with his son Andrew and wife Sheila outside of their London home after being released from the Soviet prison in April 1964.

What did Greville Wynne do after he was released from the Soviet prison?

Wynne returned to his life as a businessman. He and his wife Sheila divorced not long after his release. He later appeared as himself on the May 23, 1967 episode of the American game show To Tell the Truth. He also wrote two books about his experiences as a British spy, The Man from Moscow (1967) and The Man from Odessa (1981). However, life wasn't always easy for Wynne after his imprisonment. He battled depression and alcoholism. He passed away from throat cancer in London in 1990 at age 70.

Greville Wynne is pictured during his 1967 appearance on the game show To Tell the Truth.

Have any other movies or TV shows been made about Greville Wynne?

Yes. David Calder played Wynne in the 1985 BBC serial Wynne and Penkovsky. In 2007, Peter Lindford portrayed Wynne in episode one of the BBC docudrama Nuclear Secrets, titled "The Spy from Moscow."

Greville Wynne Interview & Related Videos

Watch an interview with British spy Greville Wynne upon his release from the Soviet prison. Also, see Wynne in his appearance on the American game show To Tell the Truth.