We expect to find him leaning casually on a bar in a tropical paradise ordering his signature vesper martini, but it seems James Bond may in fact be more likely to frequent an exclusive watering hole a bit closer to his office.

In his first recorded interview, the head of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) has revealed that the spies in his organisation, better known as MI6, have their own bar, accessible only to those working at the headquarters in Vauxhall, London.

Sir Alex Younger said the bar was an essential element in allowing his operatives to unwind, given that they cannot talk to anyone outside MI6 about the pressures of their work.

"We can't talk even to our closest friends about what we're doing and so therefore we need a culture within where we can do that with each other," said Sir Alex.

Advertisement

"And it's why we have our own bar, for instance - one of the most exclusive bars in London, it's fair to say."

Speaking on the podcast "Off the Record with Alistair Bunkall", Sir Alex, who goes by the code name "C" and reportedly sticks to the convention of writing only in green ink - even in emails - did not say whether the bar adhered rigidly to Bond's recipe for the perfect martini: three measures of Gordon's gin, one of vodka and half a measure of Kina Lillet; shake very well until ice-cold, then garnish with a large slice of lemon peel.

During the discussion, Sir Alex said global tensions were at their highest level since the end of the Cold War.

Assessing tensions with China and Russia, a deepening standoff with Iran in the Gulf and the continued threat from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and al-Qaeda, the MI6 chief said: "It does feel like we're at some sort of high point, at least since the end of the Cold War. I think that there is a lot of brinkmanship going on."

Sir Alex acknowledged that the controversy surrounding intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 invasion had cast a long shadow over the service. "Clearly we've got to be able to internalise the lessons of the past and move on in a way that we learn from them and where we can avoid any repetition of mistakes," he said.

He hinted at the difficulties of being able to offer advice to politicians and his professional duty to explain the likely implications of tub-thumping promises made in public.

"I think we [MI6] have got an important role to play in making sure that our positioning doesn't end in miscalculation, and properly understanding the motivations of people who are presenting extremely hard-line positions in public but are likely to be motivated by a whole set of much more complex issues in private," he added.

Sir Alex has been head of MI6 since 2014 and has provided advice to three prime ministers: David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

Advertisement

"You've got to be really clear what mode you are in, and in fact this is one of the big lessons of the past," he said. "As intelligence professionals we are habitually very, very disciplined in distinguishing between fact and analysis.

"That discipline runs right up to my relationship with the leadership of the country."

Sir Alex joined MI6 in 1991, having received a "tap on the shoulder", but said he had never had ambitions to lead his organisation, instead seeing himself as "an operational officer".

"It was a transition to start thinking about myself as a senior leader. I'm extremely grateful to people around me who perhaps saw it more in myself than I did in me," he added.

"One of the things I loved about my early career in SIS was that I was given problems to deal with, I was supported and I was trained, but by and large the way I got on with it and did it was down to me."