The British Secret Service collected information about actress Zoe Wanamaker's family for years after they fled to the UK to escape the anti-communist witch-hunts of McCarthyism in their native America, MI5 files released today show.
Sam Wanamaker told friends he had wanted to stay in Britain because of the greater tolerance towards Communism and said that personal freedom had disappeared in America.
But what he may not have known is that MI5 was keeping a file — released for the first time today at the National Archives in Kew — that included his conversations, associations and even his theatrical projects and sharing the information with the American Embassy.
And in the event of a national emergency Wanamaker would have found himself behind bars. His file notes that he should be interred to prevent a security threat and recommends his wife, Charlotte, should have restrictions placed on her movements.
British intelligence agents picked up rumours that the Wanamakers were expected by the Communist Party in the UK around April 1951.
As his daughter Zoe recently discovered when she read his FBI file as part of the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? family history programme, the actor and director was due be called to give evidence to the US Senate Committee investigating communist activity.
The MI5 file contains copies of personal letters sent by Wanamaker, bugged telephone conversations of his associates in which he is mentioned, and even a transcript of a private meeting he held with other figures from the film world. Just a year after the family arrived in the UK, in September 1952, MI5 wrote a letter to the American Embassy about Wanamaker's activities.
It states: “He continues to maintain contact with what are generally regarded as left wing theatrical groups. The general impression prevailing in the theatrical world is that Wanamaker appears very sympathetic towards communists and communism.”
But Wanamaker was acutely aware of the delicate position he and his family were in and was very careful not to give the authorities any ammunition against them while their presence in this country was still temporary.
Even his creative influences fell under scrutiny. In 1952 he produced the play The Winter Journey at the St James' theatre in London and a report from the Metropolitan Police stated: “It has been pointed out to me that Wanamaker has been much influenced by Stanislavsky and People's Art Theatre ... and his production of Winter Journey shows the Moscow Art Theatre influence.”
For years the family were forced to apply for repeated extensions to their right to stay in the country.
A Home Office file discussing his latest application acknowledges: “He is unlike most of the US visitors of the theatrical world in that the majority of his projects do materialise.”
Finally in August 1956 MI5 notes: “Wanamaker has not come to our notice as being in contact with other Communists in this country since Feb 1955.”
Another letter, in 1957, notes: “Although there can be no doubt where Sam Wanamaker's sympathies lie, he continues to take care not to prejudice his position by any association with Communists or Communist activities.”
And in March 1957 the family was granted indefinite leave to remain, but that did not stop a brief flurry of interest in his brother's visit to the UK.
The file noted that he would be working with Hannah Weinstend and Sapphire Films, an organisation which the writer brands “a nest of un-Americans”.
Even after the Wanamakers became permanent UK residents, MI5 kept tabs on their activities.
His projects the New Shakespeare Theatre Club and New Shakespeare Film Society are branded clear vehicles for spreading left-wing ideas despite the fact that it was his love of Shakespeare that led to his two-decade long quest to recreate the Globe theatre on London's Southwark.