Sam Neill as Captain Sidney Reilly, MC, jaded British Secret Service agent
London, November 1918
Series: Reilly: Ace of Spies
Episode: “After Moscow” (Episode 9)
Air Date: October 26, 1983
Director: Martin Campbell
Costume Designer: Elizabeth Waller
You’re probably still reading the title. “Sweater vest?” you ask yourself. “Has he gone barmy?”
First off, you’re probably British if you’re using the word “barmy”; secondly, it’s true – there are few men who can both pull off a sweater vest and look badass in it. One of these men is obviously Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan, who even sported two during the first Dirty Harry film. To be fair, Eastwood probably could’ve played Dirty Harry wearing a pink tutu and a purple silk shoulder holster and he still would’ve looked badass. Probably.
The other man is Sam Neill as satanically suave British agent Sidney Reilly in the 1983 mini-series Reilly: Ace of Spies.
If you’re a longtime reader of this blog or a fan of good British TV, you’re familiar with the series and probably a little sick of hearing me ramble on about it. The real life Reilly, often cited as the basis for the fictional James Bond, was born in the Ukraine (ooh, sensitive subject these days) on March 24, 1873; his 141st birthday would’ve been four days from now, but his 1925 execution in Russia nipped that possibility in the bud. Reilly was executed for his role in the “Lockhart Plot”, a conspiracy to overthrow Lenin and the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. To read more about that, get a book or just read my prior post about those particular episodes.
The Reilly legend as depicted in the mini series deviates strongly from the true story mostly due to exaggerations about his life told from Reilly himself. However, both the legend and the facts intersect around this time; Reilly indeed try to overthrow Lenin with the help of fellow ambassadors and agents, and he barely managed to escape with his life after the leftist Social Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan took a shot at Lenin with a Browning. The conspiracy, despite being unrelated to Kaplan’s efforts, was uncovered, and the agents scrambled. Reilly went undercover as a Baltic German, going so far as to dine with German military officials on his way back to London. This was September 1918, and the war was nearly over, but the Germans were still the hated enemy of Reilly’s English masters. On October 10, Reilly even sent an apology letter to Capt. van Den Bosch, one of his hosts. In the letter, Reilly explained that he was a British agent who had just been in Russia attempting to take over the government. Whether it was a guilty conscience or the need to brag, Reilly’s letter is very characteristic of his personality.
Reilly arrived back in London on November 8, 1918. In real life, he immediately reported back to his boss at MI6, Cmdr. Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, better known as “C” or “Commander Cummings” on the show. Reilly began working with fellow agents Hill and Lockhart, hoping they would campaign on his behalf to allow “C” to send him back into Russia.
One should remember that, although the show portrays Reilly as a veteran British agent by this point, this was his only true mission for them in real life. Eventually, the Foreign Office allowed Reilly to choose a fellow agent – he chose Hill – to accompany him back into Russia under the guise of the British Trade Corporation. Reilly and Hill met with C in mid-December, just before they returned to Russia. Reilly was aware of the fact that both he and Hill had just been sentenced to death in absentia by a revolutionary tribunal in Moscow.
On the show, Reilly is indeed back in London in early November, but he is balancing his fate in his mind; should he stick with the secret service or take his chances with Boris Savinkov’s counter-revolutionary government of borderline terrrorists? Complicating the situation is the presence of Adamson, a quiet and determined Bolshevik assassin who has chosen Reilly’s weakest moment to strike.
Adamson’s unknowing instrument in his attempted destruction of Reilly is Alexandra, better known as “The Plugger”, a charmingly witty self-proclaimed whore with a penchant for putting champagne in her cereal and earned her nickname for her love of guns and late night shooting tricks.
Although she was an invention of Troy Kennedy Martin’s, “The Plugger” is one of the more memorable characters from the show and very evocative of Reilly’s first seen love, the fiery redheaded prostitute Rose McConnell, who was murdered in the first episode.
What’d He Wear?
When he’s not out on the town or hosting a party, Reilly relaxes at his luxurious flat in a Fair Isle sweater vest, or – in more intimate moments – a brown dressing gown.
Reilly returns from securing a loan for Krasin the Bolshevik and begins moving money around in his private office. For this, he wears a soft wool sweater vest with a light brown ground, fitted to his waist with a wide, ribbed waistband. The sweater has a v-neck, as most sweater vests do.
The pattern of the vest is difficult to describe, but it alternates between rust-colored abstract lines and a pattern of dark green shapes of X’s, snowflakes, and rhombuses (rhombi?). Reilly’s pattern does look similar to the pattern on this long-sleeve jumper worn by the Prince of Wales, if that helps?
Thanks to Hal, a great commenter on this blog, the sweater vest’s knit has been identified as the “Fair Isle” technique. Fair Isle is a knitting technique derived from northern Scotland, traditionally consisting of a palette of no more than five colors with only two colors used per row.
Although some people incorrectly use “Fair Isle” to describe any knitting with stitches knit in alternating colors, Reilly’s sleeveless jumper is a better example of the more traditional and correct Fair Isle technique.
The Prince of Wales actually popularized the Fair Isle technique when he began wearing Fair Isle sweater vests in the early 1920s. This scene predates the prince’s public Fair Isle wearing by about three years, but the show often shows Reilly ahead of his era, both in sartorial terms and in his ideas.
Underneath the vest, Reilly wears a slim-fitting white long-sleeve button-down shirt with a front placket and rounded cuffs that fasten with a single button. The very slim spread collar is worn with the neck button open, allowing Reilly’s day cravat to emerge.
Reilly’s day cravat is dark brown silk with white polka dots, tied with a simple knot and worn under his shirt, although it sits high under the collar and puffs out considerably.
Reilly’s day cravat should not be confused with an ascot; a day cravat is a more rakish example of leisure wear or sports wear. The “ascot” technically refers to a formal cravat worn in the daytime (which, yes, should be called a “day cravat” but sometimes the sartorial gods hate us.) The day cravat, which Reilly is shown to be wearing, is more like a scarf that is tied and tucked under an open-neck shirt.
For a great explanation of the difference between ascots and cravats as well as instructions on how to tie and wear them, check out this page at Dress Like A Grownup!
Reilly’s trousers are dark gray with double reverse pleats. There are side pockets, but no rear pockets. The plain-hemmed bottoms break fully over his shoes, which appear to be the same dark brown plain-toe Oxfords he has worn throughout the episode.
As an aviator in the war (he was in the Canadian Royal Flying Corps), Reilly would have been an early adopter of wristwatches. This episode marks the first appearance of Reilly’s vintage watch, which has a gold square case and a white face, worn snugly on his left wrist with a black leather strap. Previously, he had typically worn a more traditional pocket watch.
Once the excitement of revolutions and assassinations dies down, Reilly settles into bed with his paid paramour Alexandra. When he wakes up, he eases into a very large and very comfortable dressing gown, tying it with a sash around his waist. The robe is dark brown with lighter brown pinpoint dots. It has large shawl lapels and two hip pockets.
Go Big or Go Home
Sidney Reilly remains calm when others would not. Knowing that he is marked for assassination, Reilly treats Adamson as though he were a pesty private eye rather than a calculating killer. It is in this episode that we see that Reilly now values his purpose in life higher than his life itself; he wants to bring about the end of the Bolsheviks at all costs.
Although calm when dealing with the highs of receiving the Military Cross and the lows of Adamson’s murderous intent and a seer predicting his execution, Reilly allows himself to passionately argue for the anti-Bolshevik cause. He even told Caryll Houselander, the seer, that it was the passion of the conspiracy that most intrigued him. At this point, Reilly’s previous desire to live large and obtain wealth has been discarded; we begin to see the man who will sell off all of his priceless possessions and valiantly sacrifice himself at the cost of Bolshevik advancement.
What to Imbibe
At the opening of the episode, Reilly is waking up in the morning when he hears the popping of a champagne cork from the kitchen. He enters and finds Alexandra, the prostitute he had drunkenly “rented” the evening prior, pouring his Bollinger into a bowl of cereal.
“Bollinger?” he inquires, more intrigued than disappointed.
“You’ve run of milk,” she matter-of-factly replies. It’s too charming to argue with, so he apologizes and sits down next to her to read his mail, where he discovers and nonchalantly announces that he’ll be receiving the Military Cross.
Alexanda is evidently a fan of champagne breakfasts, at least when she can get them. On her last morning with Reilly, she pours them each a glass of Bollinger, likely a tribute to their first morning together.
After dispatching Adamson, Reilly enlists the help of C and Hill to dispose of the body. When C and Hill return to Reilly’s flat, he pours them each a glass of brandy, which C seems to especially enjoy.
So remember – champagne is good with breakfast, and brandy is your go-to for a post-assassination attempt nightcap.
How to Get the Look
Reilly’s leisure attire is simple, but attractive enough that he can receive guests, whether they’re assassins, prostitutes, or co-workers.
- Light brown Fair Isle wool sweater vest with alternating rows of rust brown and dark green patterns
- White dress shirt with slim spread collar, front placket, and rounded 1-button cuffs
- Dark gray double reverse-pleated trousers with side pockets and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Dark brown silk day cravat with white polka dots
- Dark brown leather plain-toe oxfords/balmorals
- Gold tank watch with a square white face on a black leather strap
Early in the series, in the fourth episode, the Luger is introduced as Reilly’s primary sidearm. He often carries revolvers while on the job, but a clear preference is shown for the Luger.
Now an iconic firearm recognizable even to non-experts, the Luger was developed at the turn of the century for the increasingly growing Imperial German Army. It was named after its designer, Georg Luger, and was quickly adopted by the Swiss Army in May 1900, likely because they realized the only thing missing from their knives was the ability to fire projectiles.
As its usage increased and more countries went to war over the years, the Luger went through a number of variants, including longer barreled versions and even fully automatic versions with a 32-round drum magazine and a full stock.
The initial Luger from 1900 was chambered for the proprietary 7.65×21 mm Parabellum cartridge, also known as .30 Luger. Although popular with the Swiss, who used the 7.65 mm through World War II, the 7.65 mm was too anemic for the abilities of the Luger pistol. In 1908, the Luger P08 variant was developed, carrying the newly developed 9×19 mm Parabellum (“9 mm Luger”) which is still one of the most popular – if not the most popular – cartridges around the world more than 100 years later.
The Luger remains a unique pistol to this day. While most semi-automatics operate on a short recoil or blowback system, the Luger uses a toggle-lock action with a joint arm on the back, rather than a slide. The toggle-lock is a very complex mechanism, but it completes an entire cycle in a fraction of a second.
Thus, it makes sense that a pro like Reilly would have a pistol like the Luger, which he keeps accessible in a desk drawer in his office, next to his newly-received Military Cross.
Luckily for Reilly, he had just opened his desk drawer to put away some of his papers when Alexandra, in a fit of insatiable horniness, popped up from underneath the bottom of his desk and surrendered herself to him. This – Reilly’s “weakness” mentioned by Adamson – distracts him just enough to allow the Russian assassin to enter unnoticed.
Reilly, however, is sharp-eyed. Catching a glimpse of Adamson as the latter raises his Webley to fire, Reilly immediately pushes Alexandra down and out of harm’s way, then ducks as the Webley round shatters the mirror behind him. Without losing a second, Reilly simultaneously grabs his Luger from the open desk drawer, pops up, and takes quick but careful aim. The shot fired by Reilly is fatal, smashing into Adamson’s chest and knocking him to the ground.
It is an exciting sequence, and – although the episode was building up to a Reilly vs. Adamson confrontation – still catches the audience off guard.
Despite the insecure storage in his desk, which is likely due to the nature of his profession rather than irresponsibility, Reilly is shown to be a relatively responsible gun owner. He takes it to a gunsmith in Piccadilly, and it is that scene where the show makes a strange technical blunder. As the gunsmith looks over Reilly’s Luger, he remarks with disappointment, “You’ve been firing Parabellum in it again.” Reilly admits, “I’m afraid so.”
Well, no shit.
“Parabellum”, whether it’s 7.65 mm or 9 mm, is the only ammunition available for the Luger, for which Parabellum was developed in the first place! While this bit of throwaway dialogue was probably just drafted to give Reilly and the gunsmith some “gun talk” to go over and further Reilly’s reputation as someone who doesn’t follow the rules, it’s still incorrect.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the series. This particular sequence is from the ninth episode, the aptly named “After Moscow”. Neill is excellent in the episode as Reilly undergoes his transition from shrewd agent to selfless anti-revolutionary, and Lindsay Duncan is particularly charming as the proud Plugger.
Alexandra really steals the show, especially as Reilly goes through his mail…
Alexandra: Bad news?
Reilly: It’s from the revolutionary tribunal in Petrograd. I’m to be tried for treason in my absence, and if found guilty… sentenced to death.
Alexandra: (still chomping on her champagne-soaked cereal) Doesn’t sound too good, does it?