Ivor Montagu

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Ivor Montagu
Ivor Montagu.jpg
Ivor Montagu in middle age
Born Ivor Goldsmid Samuel Montagu
23 April 1904
Kensington, London, England
Died 5 November 1984(1984-11-05) (aged 80)
Watford, Hertfordshire, England
Known for Filmmaker, critic, table tennis player, spy
Awards Lenin Peace Prize
International Table Tennis Foundation Hall of Fame

The Honorable Ivor Goldsmid Samuel Montagu (23 April 1904, Kensington, London – 5 November 1984, Watford) was an English filmmaker, screenwriter, producer, film critic, writer, table tennis player, and Communist activist in the 1930s. He helped to develop a lively intellectual film culture in Britain during the interwar years, and was also the founder of the International Table Tennis Federation.

Life and career[edit]

Montagu was born into enormous wealth, as the third son of Gladys Helen Rachel Goldsmid and Louis Montagu, 2nd Baron Swaythling, a Jewish banking dynasty with a mansion in Kensington. He attended Westminster School and King's College, Cambridge, where he contributed to Granta. He became involved in zoological research.

With Sidney Bernstein he established the London Film Society in 1925, the first British film association devoted to showing art films and independent films. Montagu became the first film critic of The Observer and the New Statesman. He did the post-production work on Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger in 1926 and was hired by Gaumont-British in the 1930s, working as a producer on a number of the Hitchcock thrillers. His 1928 silent slapstick movie 'Bluebottles' (slang for police) is included in the British Film Institute's History of the Avant-Garde – Britain in the Twenties.[1] The story was by H G Wells, and the stars of the film were Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, while the remaining cast were his friends including Norman Haire (also Montagu's doctor), Sergei Nolbandov and Joe Beckett.

Montagu joined the Fabian Society in his youth, then the British Socialist Party, and then the Communist Party of Great Britain. This brought him into contact with Russian film makers. In 1930 he accompanied his friend Sergei Eisenstein to New York and Hollywood; later in the decade Montagu made a number of compilation films, including Defence of Madrid (1936) and Peace and Plenty (1939)[2] about the Spanish Civil War. He directed the documentary Wings Over Everest (1934) with Geoffrey Barkas. As a political figure and for a time a communist, much of his work at the time was on low budget, independent political films. By World War II, however, he made a film for the Ministry of Information. After the war Montagu worked as a film critic and reviewer.

In 1933, Montagu was a founder member of the Association of Cinematograph and Television Technicians, holding various positions in the union until the 1960s. He also held post on the World Council of Peace.

Montagu had a keen interest in wildlife conservation, and was a council member of the Fauna Preservation Society for several years. He was friends with the eminent Soviet conservationist and zoologist Prof. A Bannikov. He had contacts in Mongolia, and was a champion for the conservation of the endangered Przewalski's horse.

Table tennis[edit]

Montagu was a champion table tennis player, representing Britain in matches all over the world. He also helped to establish and finance the first world championships in London in 1926.

Montagu founded the International Table Tennis Federation that same year, and was president of the group for more than forty years, not retiring until 1967. He also founded the English Table Tennis Association (ETTA), and served several terms as chairman and president.[3]

The Family Who Came In From The Cold[edit]

His eldest brother Ewen Montagu, a strait-laced barrister in civilian life, became a Naval Intelligence Officer RNVR in MI6, during the Second World War, privy to the secrets of top-secret Ultra and the mastermind of the successful deception that launched the invasion of Sicily, Operation Mincemeat. He later wrote a best-selling account of that adventure, The Man Who Never Was." Ironically, Ivor Montagu turned to be working, albeit briefly, for the other side. A 25 July 1940 cable from Simon Davidovitch Kremer, Secretary to the Soviet Military Attaché in London, identified him as the somewhat reluctant new recruit who was supposed to create an "X Group" of like-minded friends. [4][5] By the following year, Hitler had invaded Russia and the Soviet Union became an ally of Britain's, so that by June, 1941, both brothers were technically working for the same side.

Ivor knew of his elder brother's spy work, but it seems doubtful his brother knew of his. Counter-espionage agents at MI5, however, even Ewen's boss Masterman, seem to have suspected Ivor in general because of his outspoken Communist politics, his hanging around with scruffy Russians and housing a Jewish refugee in his house in the country. By far the greatest suspicions were aroused by Ivor's passionate support of international ping-pong which was so out to lunch, MI5 assumed it simply had to be a cover for something else. They even tapped his phone and opened his mail, creating 3 volumes on Ivor by early 1942, but to no avail. They found nothing specific, much to Ewen's relief, since he always worried that his own career in MI6 would be tripped up by mix-ups with his left-wing brother.[6]

Only after the decryption in the 1960s of Venona telegraphs from March 1940 through April 1942 was he identified as "Ivor Montagu, the well known local communist, journalist and lecturer," code name "Intelligentsia" in communications from the Soviet GRU. Montagu's rather haphazard informing had little of the impact of those much more famous Cambridge-educated spies, also recruited in the 1930s, who continued to work at the height of the Cold War - Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean. In 1952, MI5 intercepted a telegram from Ivor Montagu telling Charlie Chaplin how sorry he was to miss him in London when the star visited England that year; the British agency had agreed to spy on Charlie Chaplin for the FBI, who were looking for ways to keep him out of America at the height of the McCarthy Blacklist.[7] Apart from that, they left Montagu and his ping pong tournaments alone.

Montagu was awarded the prestigious Lenin Peace Prize in 1959, given by the Soviet government to a number of recipients whose work furthers the cause of Socialism, primarily outside of the USSR.


Montagu wrote many pamphlets and books, such as Film World (1964), With Eisenstein in Hollywood (1968), and The Youngest Son (1970). He wrote two books about table tennis: Table Tennis Today (1924) and Table Tennis (1936).

Hall of Fame[edit]

Montagu was inducted into the International Table Tennis Foundation Hall of Fame in 1995.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ O'Pray, Michael; British Film Institute (2000), Britain in the twenties history of the avant-garde, BFI Video, retrieved 15 April 2013 
  2. ^ British Film Institute: Peace and Plenty. Ivor Montagu, 1939.
  3. ^ "Ivor Goldsmid Montagu". International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Retrieved 3 April 2014. 
  4. ^ Records of the Government Code and Cypher School 15/43, British National Archives, Kew
  5. ^ Macintyre, Ben. Operation Mincemeat. pp. 89–93. 
  6. ^ McIntrye, pp. 129-133
  7. ^ The Guardian, 17 February 2012. Retrieved 6 July 2013.
  8. ^ "ITTF Hall of Fame" (PDF). International Table Tennis Federation. Retrieved 3 April 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

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