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A spy thriller that really happened; and an adoring portrait of Lee Iacocca

By Arthur Unger / January 27, 1984

Sigmund Rosenblum, a.k.a. Sidney Reilly, may not be, as some Britons claim, ''the greatest spy in history,'' but he is certainly turning out to be the greatest spy in television history so far, bar none. And that includes fictional undercover men such as Ian Fleming's 007 as well as le Carre's Smiley. Sidney Reilly has one great advantage over all the others - he was a real person!

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You can join millions of spy buffs in marveling at the incredible exploits of Mr. Reilly, played by Sam Neill, on the ''Mystery!'' series: Reilly: Ace of Spies (PBS, Thursdays, 9-10 p.m., check local listings for repeats). Since there are 12 parts to the series and only two have been aired so far, it is possible (and recommended by this critic) that you start watching next week if you are not already watching. Each individual episode can stand by itself, and the first episode is the slowest one. Some critics in Britain have called ''Reilly'' the best TV series since ''Brideshead Revisited.''

''Reilly: Ace of Spies'' is based on a book with the same title (Penguin, $3. 95) by Robin Bruce Lockhart. First published in England in 1967, the book was well received there but made little splash when Stein & Day brought it out here the same year. Now, Penguin, anticipating a big boost in sales because of the TV series, is republishing it in paperback.

As part of the big push for the book (and, incidentally, the series), Robin Bruce Lockhart is now in America telling his own story as well as the story of Reilly. He visited the Monitor New York Bureau where he felt quite at home, since Lockhart has spent 15 years in the newspaper business, eight years of it with Financial Times as foreign manager and then close to eight years with the Beaverbrook papers. ''So,'' he smiles confidently, ''you see, I am an investigator at heart.'' During World War II he was in naval intelligence for Britain: ''Liaison work with our own secret service,'' he explains.

Did he ever plan to make it a career?

''No, my father was in it and I knew it was nasty. There's no glamour to it at all. It's a filthy business.'' He says this with vehemence, although he appears to be a mild-mannered man, conservatively bespectacled and dressed in sweater and tweeds, the look of an Oxford don with just a touch of Fleet Street.

How did Lockhart first get involved with Reilly?

''My father was in Russia, sent by (British Prime Minister David) Lloyd George after the revolution as a kind of unofficial envoy to establish relations with the Bolsheviks. Eventually he got arrested for attempting to assassinate Lenin, finally being swapped for (Soviet diplomat Maxim Maximovich) Litvinov. My father, who, as you may gather, was in the secret service, knew Reilly in Russia , as did many of his connections. They were in and out of our house in Britain all the time. As a boy, I was excited by it all.''

Lockhart believes that many spy cases are more outrageous than fiction. ''The only things the public gets to hear about in the espionage world are failures. Either defectors or something somebody's missed out on. You never hear about successes for obvious reasons, although all sorts of astounding things have been done.

''In the last war, the most astounding thing was what they called 'Enigma.' We got hold of a German cipher machine and we were getting signals that Rommel was sending to Hitler before Hitler had them himself. That story has never been told properly.''

Did Lockhart ever consider using Reilly as a fictional character?

He shakes his head. ''He's so extraordinary, I don't think you could. He's so contradictory in his behavior that if you put it in a fiction story, a critic would probably say it is stupid and unbelievable.''

Is Lockhart pleased with the TV series?

''Every writer has reservations about a film version of his book, and it's difficult for me to be objective. I think the series as a whole is very good, but my only criticism is in the early episodes, because I think they're a bit slow. They stretched those early episodes, whereas in the second half of the series they stick closely to the book . . . and it moves faster.''

How did Lockhart do his research?