Sam Neill as Sidney Reilly, shrewd and opportunistic Russian-born British agent
Hamburg, Germany, Spring 1905
Series: Reilly: Ace of Spies
Episode: “The Visiting Fireman” (Episode 3)
Air Date: September 14, 1983
Director: Martin Campbell
Costume Designer: Elizabeth Waller
In honor of Sam Neill’s 75th birthday this week, I want to revisit one of my favorite roles for the New Zealand actor. Almost a decade before his starring role in the
groundbreaking groundshaking blockbuster Jurassic Park, Neill had been one of the contenders suggested to replace Roger Moore as James Bond, though the actor himself had been reluctant to take what he’s since called a “mortifying” audition and was likely grateful when the role went to Timothy Dalton instead. Neill may have been considered after his excellent performance earlier in the ’80s as Sidney Reilly, a real-life spy whose early 20th century exploits had been cited by Ian Fleming as one of his inspirations for the literary 007.
Reilly, Ace of Spies debuted on ITV in the fall of 1983, with 12 episodes spanning the first quarter of the 20th century. The stylish series was scripted by Troy Kennedy Martin, adapted from Robin Bruce Lockhart’s biography Ace of Spies, chronicling the man who had spied with his own father, Scottish-born diplomat R.H. Bruce Lockhart. In addition to the overall espionage themes of the series and Neill’s later audition, Reilly, Ace of Spies‘s connections to the Bond series include the work of costume designer Elizabeth Waller—who was costume designer for For Your Eyes Only two years earlier—and a handful of episodes directed by Martin Campbell, who would later direct GoldenEye and Casino Royale.
Premiering on Neill’s 36th birthday, the third episode (entitled “The Visiting Fireman”) was one of the six directed by Campbell. In short, the episode chronicles Reilly’s arrival in Hamburg, replacing a murdered British agent by posing as a German welder and fireman to infiltrate the Blohm & Voss armaments factory, where he seduces his landlord’s daughter Ulla (Joanne Whalley), ruthlessly shifts suspicion onto a less-experienced and increasingly paranoid fellow spy (portrayed by a young Bill Nighy!), and secures plans for a new naval gun before making his swift escape, credited in Michael Bryant’s narration as introducing “a new age of professionalism in European espionage.”
Andrew Cook, author of Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly, acknowledges that “the story of how Reilly infiltrated the Krupps plant in Essen and made away with plans of German’s most secret weapon bears all the hallmarks of a classic Reilly storyline, with the courageous and resourceful ‘Master Spy’ triumphing against the odds,” but ultimately dismisses the story as wholly fabricated, a by-product of Reilly’s own self-aggrandizing legend. Cook dedicates an entire appendix to his investigation of Reilly’s supposed alias of Karl Hahn, which included poring through the Krupps factory archives to such an extent that he leaves little doubt that it never happened. Still, the series’ primary duty to entertain is indubitably fulfilled by this tale of espionage, seduction, and betrayal in the 007 style, though Reilly’s coldness to the situation is better established as a primary differentiation between him and the fictional James Bond.
As September 17 is recognized as Von Steuben Day, celebrating a famous German figure in the American Revolution, it further felt appropriate to highlight Reilly’s warm garb for disguising himself as a German factory worker.
What’d He Wear?
Like the cinematic spy he inspired, Sidney Reilly maintains a dashing closet of tailored suits, but he wisely adopts a hardier costume when posing as the swaggering German welder “Fricker”. The linchpin of Fricker’s workwear is a variation of a classic pea jacket, a ard-wearing short woolen coat that had been favored by seamen for centuries. Now a winter style staple that defies class and gender, the pea coat’s maritime roots had established it as a working man’s outerwear by the early 20th century when Reilly smartly chose it to anchor his limited wardrobe for his mission to Germany.
Reilly’s pea coat appears to be made from the traditional dark navy “pilot cloth”, the coarse and heavy wool that had long protected its seafaring wearers. As modeled by Reilly, pea coats are characterized by their short length, relatively trim cut, broad lapels, and double-breasted front. Reilly’s coat has widely notched lapels, swelled along the edges, with a 6×3-button double-breasted arrangement that closes the thigh-length coat over his torso. The only external pockets are horizontally positioned along his hips at hand level and covered with non-buttoning flaps. The set-in sleeves appear to have some trim along the cuffs, perhaps made from black leather.
Reilly wears a black mariner’s cap that’s consistent with the garb of a worker who may have learned his trades at sea, though—despite the name—this headgear had also been a favorite among European factory workers since the early 19th century. These caps are characterized by stiff black leather visors and soft round covers like the all-black crown on Reilly’s hat.
Around his neck, Reilly knots a paisley neckerchief in muted tones of dark navy, burgundy, green, and gold.
Reilly’s intermediate layer under his pea jacket is a gray wool waistcoat (vest) with a high-fastening four-button front, detailed with short notch lapels, a straight-cut bottom, and a dark brown satin-finished back.
Appropriate for an era where men’s shirts typically had detachable collars, Reilly’s working-class disguise cycles through a series of pencil-striped cotton collarless shirts. The neckbands have buttonholes onto which a separate collar could be attached with studs, but Reilly—as the insouciant Herr Fricker—never attaches one, leaving the top open.
He most frequently wears a white shirt with gray stripes, designed with a white contrasting neckband, front placket, and button cuffs. On occasion, he also wears a tan shirt with brown stripes, though the neckband matches the rest of the shirt and the cuffs appear to be double (French) cuffs, fastened with links.
Reilly wears dark taupe wool flat-front trousers with tall belt loops, slanted side pockets, split “fish-tail” back for braces, and plain-hemmed bottoms with a full break that envelop the tops of his black leather derby-laced work boots. His boot leather coordinates with his wide black leather heavy-duty belt, which closes through a large squared silver-toned single-prong buckle.
Perhaps given the rough nature of his work, Reilly relies on the redundancy of “belt and braces” by additionally wearing a set of suspenders (braces) that fasten to buttons along the inside of his trouser waistband. These suspenders are a gradient effect of blue along the edges, gradating to a light gray center with two dark-blue hairline stripes.
How to Get the Look
“The Visiting Fireman” centers around Sidney Reilly’s unique professionalism as an early 20th century spy, which no doubt includes his well-researched garb to effectively portray a lower-class factory worker whose everyday wardrobe would consist of a well-traveled pea coat and mariner’s cap over his hardy layers.
While such a costume would look just that more than a century later, there are certainly classic workwear philosophies that could be incorporated into a modern outfit without looking like you’re out to sabotage an armaments factory… unless that’s what you’re going for.
- Dark navy heavy wool pea coat with wide notch lapels, 6×3-button double-breasted front, straight flapped hip pockets, and set-in sleeves with leather-trimmed cuffs
- Gray wool four-button high-fastening single-breasted waistcoat with short notch lapels and straight-cut bottom
- White (with gray pencil stripes) cotton collarless shirt with white neckband, front placket, and button cuffs
- Dark navy, burgundy, gold, and green paisley neckerchief
- Taupe wool flat-front trousers with tall belt loops, slanted front pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Blue-to-gray gradient-striped suspenders/braces
- Wide black leather belt with large squared steel single-prong buckle
- Black leather derby-laced work boots
- Black peaked mariner’s cap with black soft wool crown and black patent leather visor
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the series.
I also recommend Andrew Cook’s Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly and Richard B. Spence’s Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly, both published in 2002 and seeking to work through the many myths to learn the truth about this secretive but significant agent of the early 20th century.