The man who knew too much

Last updated 05:00 17/06/2014
Paddy Costello
FASCINATING LIFE: A new documentary questions whether Kiwi Paddy Costello whether really a Soviet spy.

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Paddy Costello was arguably one of New Zealand's finest exports. Diplomat, soldier and linguist, he led a fascinating life. 

But perhaps the reason he is not a household name is because of accusations he was a Soviet spy.

The new locally made Prime documentary, The Man Who Knew Too Much, tells the intriguing story of Paddy and raises questions about allegations he was working for the Russians.

Paddy was born in Auckland in 1912 to an Irish father and Australian mother. At age 20, he departed New Zealand to pursue an academic life in Britain.

He joined the Communist party while at Cambridge University and in 1935 married a London-born Ukrainian woman with ties to the party. His left-wing views aroused suspicion and later there were rumours that he was a Soviet spy.

"Paddy Costello was a remarkable New Zealander that very few people know about, and his life was an extraordinary adventure that intersected with a number of the big events of the century, which he had an active role in," says documentary director Richard Riddiford.

In the course of making the programme, Riddiford interviewed academics, historians and author Sir James McNeish who wrote a book about Paddy, published in 2007, called The Sixth Man: The Extraordinary Life Of Paddy Costello.

"James McNeish set out to refute the notion that Paddy was a spy and he wrote a wonderful book that is the basis for our documentary," says Riddiford.

"We choose to keep more of an open mind as to whether he was a spy, and certainly didn't start from this position. We wanted this debate to drive the story. Our opinions kept changing as we interviewed people and this made for an intriguing journey. Hopefully, the audience will be similarly intrigued."

Riddiford carried out interviews locally and ventured as far afield as London, Cairo, Monte Cassino, Paris, Auschwitz and Moscow. He also spoke with three of Paddy's children.

"They were all very guarded at first because they are thoroughly sick of stories about whether their father was a spy or not," says Riddiford. "Once they realised we wanted to do much more than that they were all extremely helpful and it was a great privilege to meet and talk to them."

Riddiford met a wide range of interesting people while making the documentary and says: "I have never made a documentary that had such an articulate, interesting and iconoclastic group of individuals to talk to.

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"His youngest daughter Katie was very interesting as she really didn't care whether her father was a spy or not. He was simply the most fascinating person that she has come across in her life."

So does Paddy deserve to be labelled a spy?

"Whether he was a spy or not, he doesn't deserve to be remembered as just this because he was foremost a New Zealander who helped define what that meant.

"Unlike many people of that time, he was not a colonial toady who was desperate to be seen to follow the Empire line. Because of his Irish background, he had no particular respect for the English which often got him into trouble."

Sunday, 8.30pm

-TV Guide

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