02 Apr 2017

Ivor Montagu; ITTF President, Oscar winner, spy...

by Wade Townsend

Ivor Montagu was born in London on the 23rd April 1904 and was the second son to Louis Montagu the 2nd Baron Swaythling. Born in to a life of affluence, he grew up in a large London mansion that now serves as a diplomatic consulate.  If you head over to his Wikipedia page, you will see that he is known for being a filmmaker, table tennis player, and spy.

There are a few standouts in that list, but table tennis player is the one that is most of the mark. He wasn’t just any old table tennis player. After starting a club while studying Zoology at Kings College, Cambridge, Montagu went on to write the rules for table tennis, found the International Table Tennis Federation, establish and help finance the first World Championships in London in 1926, and serve as ITTF President from 1927 to 1931 and then again from 1958 to 1966.

If table tennis had its own currency, Montagu’s face would be on every coin.

Then there is the matter of filmmaker. That too is somewhat of an understatement. Montagu directed “Wings Over Everest”, a short film about the first single engine biplane to clear the peak of Mt. Everest. In 1935 it won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film (Novelty). Just a filmmaker? Montagu was an Oscar winning filmmaker.  Not only a director, he was also a screenwriter. He co-wrote the screenplay for “Scott of the Antarctic” which went on to be the third highest grossing film in Britain in 1949. In modern terms that would be like writing Captain America: Civil War in 2016.

And while he had a productive film making career of his own, it was in the works of others that he had the greatest influence. In particular shaping the career of Alfred Hitchcock.

In 1926 Alfred Hitchcock had already directed two feature films, but both to lukewarm reception. Then came his next project, “The Lodger”. It was too avant-garde and expressionistic for the studio to properly get their head around and they were unwilling to release the film. In steps Montagu, who was recommended to give Hitchcock’s work a once over. His post-production efforts led to a far more approachable cut of the film. The studio heads gave the movie the go ahead to be released.

The Lodger is now considered the first truly “Hitchcockian” film. It was a commercial success and brought Hitchcock fame. Without Montagu the world maybe never would have had Psycho, Rear Window, or Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. Hitichcock’s stubbornness meant he didn’t public recognise Montagu’s help and influence. However, Montagu went on to serve as producer on more of his films.

This is where we approach the subject of spying.

Among the intellectual classes during the period, socialist sympathies were common. Montagu was a vocal supporter and gave multiple public speeches on the communist movement. Because of the class of people he moved in and his obvious socialist sympathies, Montagu made a perfect recruit as a Soviet spy.

Quickly he was going by the codename ‘Intelligentsia’ and head of a London spy ring known as the X Group. His spying exploits were slow to being with and at first the information was largely trivial, such as providing access to research on how long a man could stay underwater. Eventually the X Group recruited scientists, military officials and even Czechoslovakian government insiders. Soon he was passing on important information to the Soviet Union and was a valuable asset to the communist movement. Meanwhile Montagu’s brother, Ewen, was working for MI6 and famously wrote the novel “The Man Who Never Was, which funnily enough went to be made in to a film.

Montagu’s spying didn’t just have an influence on WWII, it had a possibly unforeseeable consequence on one of the most recognisable and influential figures of the 20th century.

Montagu was good friends with Charlie Chaplin; the extent of the friendship going so far as to give marriage advice to The Tramp’s creator. British intelligence, watching Montagu, intercepted a telegram to the movie star that said he was looking forward to catching up for lunch and hoped to be back from Peking in time to meet with Chaplin.

This information was passed on to the US where the Communist witch hunt was in full swing and the McCarthy Blacklist the bane of Hollywood. The intercepted telegram was the the primary piece of evidence used against Chaplin that ultimately led to him being branded a Communist and banned from the United States. Britain said the charges against Chaplin were ridiculous and that there was no real evidence to substantiate their claims; but the US didn’t listen. The ITTF President had single handedly shaped the future film making career of one the medium’s greatest ever practitioners.

Ivor Montagu; the father of table tennis, cinema legend, and Soviet spy. There is a lot more to ITTF’s first President than you would expect.

Illustration: Kayla Coombs Facebook and Instagram.

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