The upcoming Netflix series Traitors, which premieres on Mar. 29, focuses on a young woman named Feef Symonds getting her start in Civil Service in post-WWII London. But she's hiding a huge secret: she's also a spy for the Americans intent on preventing a team-up between the United Kingdom and the Soviets. It sounds like a fascinating and underreported bit of history, but is it? Was Feef Symonds a real person?
Her name may be enough of a tipoff; if a British woman with as distinctive a designation as Feef Symonds spied on her own government, she would have her own Oscar-nominated film by now. Feef is a creation of showrunner Bash Doran, who embraced all the trappings of historical fiction for the show. Traitors blends invented elements with real events to create a hybrid of the two. Much of the backstory is true: the political push-pull between the U.K.'s Tory and Labour parties, the realities of life post-war, and the ever-complicated relationship between Britain and America. But the characters aren't based on real people, though Doran did think there was a possibility a person like Feef may have existed.
Radio Times reported on a screening of Traitors at the BFI in London where Doran explained, "I did some fairly deep research into both the history of the CIA and I talked to a bunch of spies. And what I have been assured is there is no reason to think that there wasn't" someone like Feef out there.
But just because it's possible doesn't mean it happened. There is a chance that there were British Civil Service workers spying on behalf of other countries; since spies have to fly under the radar, there's no way to know for sure if it happened or not until someone comes clean. However, there doesn't appear to be a record of anyone matching Feef's exact character description. Instead, like many fictional characters before her, she allows Doran to explore certain ideas and themes without being married to facts.
Doran shared a statement with Channel 4, which was then sent to Bustle UK, in which she discussed the decision to keep things in the realm of fiction. She said they went out of their way to not dramatize historical figures like Prime Minister Winston Churchill or his successor Clement Attlee. "I wanted the freedom to improvise around the moment — so ground it in truth but also be able to go on a really creative journey," Doran said.
Real spies came in surprising packages, which proves that anyone up to the task could have carried it out. According to the History Channel website, baseball player Morris "Moe" Berg gathered intelligence on the Nazis during WWII and was even assigned to assassinate German physicist Werner Heisenberg (ultimately, he didn't). Writer Graham Greene spied for the British secret intelligence service MI6 in the 1940s, too. Even Julia Child worked for the Office of Strategic Services during the war and was classified as a "senior civilian intelligence officer"!
Feef's low profile is probably better suited to the job. But the idea that any normal person could actually be up to unimaginable things means that perhaps there was a real life Feef out there who's keeping her secrets even now.