Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Review
London, 1979. Post-war idealism is dead, the economy stagnant and the cold war a permanent state of mind. This is a dark production (designed by Austin Spriggs), shot in restaurants after closing time, on rainy drives through the night, in vacant houses with curtains drawn: and to incidental music (composed by Geoffrey Burgon) from a modern-baroque quartet whose first violin is apparently having a nervous breakdown. A whole generation is retiring ingloriously from Whitehall, among them George Smiley, former number 2 of the Circus (which we would call MI6). Control, former number 1, is now dead, having resigned after a quixotic Czech operation went badly wrong. And so, to everyone's relief, a line has finally been drawn on failures of the past. Good intelligence is coming in again. Except that a missing, low-grade agent has turned up with a story that cannot be ignored: that the Service is compromised. One of the four top men is a Russian mole, and none of the insiders can be trusted with the investigation. It is time to recall Smiley.
It sounds like a detective novel in which Smiley works the four suspects in turn until the case breaks, but this is exactly what does not happen. The book's disordered sequence of events is exacerbated by the fashion of the early 1980s for very slow television dramatisations. This was the age of a 10-hour production of Evelyn Waugh's slender novel Brideshead Revisited, so the heftier Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is almost concise at a mere 7 by 50 minutes. But it could easily be done in half that, as Radio 4 later proved, and the style is therefore leisurely.
Episode 1, for instance, does not begin with Smiley's recall. First we have a wordless teaser of a committee gathering to meet. Then opening titles. Then a story, unrelated to Smiley, in London and Czechoslovakia six months ago. Then Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston) fails to find Smiley in the street. Instead Smiley has a long disagreeable drink with Roddy Martindale (Nigel Stock), a Whitehall gossip of no account. At last Peter does find Smiley, who refuses to come with him for a while. But at length they drive off. Oh boy, do they drive. They talk. The car breaks down. They talk some more. Finally, with the first 50 minutes gone, Smiley arrives at the house of Sir Oliver Lacon of the Cabinet Office and -- cue closing titles. In episode 2, Lacon decides not to say anything anyway until somebody else has told a story, in yet more flashbacks, concerning recent events in Spain whose relevance is unclear. As Clive James remarked acerbically in his Observer column -- he always championed low art, but despised middle-brow art which tried to be the real thing -- "forty minutes of screen time yielded about forty seconds of exposition" (30 September 1979). We are being fed background information all the while, but where is the foreground? If the production were any less well done it would have collapsed into incoherence: instead it became an instant masterpiece of British television. The BAFTAs for 1980 were a sweep for three programmes: Grange Hill, the innovative school soap; the long-delayed second series of Fawlty Towers, John Cleese's finest hour; and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which took all the drama trophies.
There are several reasons for this. It is ably directed and filmed, and has something of the French cinema tradition in which the existential predicament of the spy/detective is sympathetic even when the plot is baffling. And it musters an all-star cast. A great deal of the credit for this belongs to the producer, Jonathan Powell, who went on to senior BBC management and is reviled in some histories as a canceller of science fiction programmes (which tells you a lot about who writes the history of television). The plot conveniently delivers half a dozen chunky character-actor parts confined to long single scenes, so that not too much guest-star availability was needed. A casual phone-call here, an artful drop of Sir Alec's name there... This is where the likes of Beryl Reid and Patrick Stewart came in: those turning up in more than one episode are sturdier old reliables, such as the great Bernard Hepton. But even the bit-parts are given to people like Warren Clarke. Before getting to the acting, though, it is worth mentioning the appeal of Arthur Hopcraft's script, even though it really just copies out the book. Like today's best-loved American drama shows -- The West Wing, ER, Buffy -- Tinker Tailor invents its own dialect of English, which the cast rattle off with conviction, and which we must learn as we go along. This time it is not "a sunset clause", "a myocardial farcture" or "a vengeance demon": instead we enter a world of lamplighters, witchcraft, scalphunters, inquisitors, safehouses, pavement artists, dead letter boxes and spiked embassies. A whole generation of upper-bracket writers has been seduced by this patois, and not just rival spy writers like Anthony Price or Len Deighton, but also, for instance, Stephen Fry and Tom Stoppard. Le Carré, like P. G. Wodehouse, has added to the language of Englishness.
Like episode 1, though, I have been taking a long time to get to the point, which is this: that Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000) is hypnotic as Smiley, giving what may well be the best television performance of the age, and certainly his most important work between Star Wars (1977) and A Passage To India (1984). Increasingly used for grandiose roles -- Sigmund Freud, Adolf Hitler, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Pope Innocent III -- he was now, in his fifth decade in show-business, called on to play an iconic figure who was at the same time a quiet, unassuming man without ambition and with no public face. Not a spy, but a spymaster, and not even that but a retired one.
Guinness is surrounded by the finest small-screen actors of the day -- Joss Ackland, Beryl Reid, Patrick Stewart, Ian Richardson, Bernard Hepton, Michael Jayston, Siân Phillips, Hywel Bennett, Nigel Stock and a dozen others, all putting in flawless turns - but, and it is hard to say quite how, he towers over them. He has mastery where they are merely expert. Some of it, admittedly, is what Le Carré would call tradecraft. Guinness has absolute confidence in the smallness of the gesture needed, given direction which is close-up to the faces. He develops any number of Smiley mannerisms: sideways glances, minute flashes of cynical appraisal done fleetingly with the eyes. His most formidable tic is to look away, wipe his glasses on a scarf and put them back on to look hard at his interviewee. The story goes that Guinness based his performance on a lunch with Sir Maurice Oldfield, head of British counter-intelligence 1973-78, whom he observed habitually drinking as if "looking for the dregs of poison in his glass". Unproved rumours surround Oldfield: that he was the real Smiley, the real M (as in 007), the real C (as in ITV's late-70s show The Sandbaggers), that he was gay, that he was the fifth man, that he had confessed to Margaret Thatcher that he was a Soviet agent. In fact the television Smiley's mannerisms are not so much Oldfield's as Le Carré's own. Guinness was an excellent mimic: good enough that Le Carré took him to be a fellow spirit. Good enough, in fact, that Le Carré moulded the final Smiley novel ("Smiley's People") around Guinness's version of Smiley as the definitive article, much as P. D. James's policeman Adam Dalgliesh has long been reshaped in print by Roy Marsden's television portrayal. The result in both cases has been a delicious exaggeration of character traits.
Guinness never looks for humour in his lines, breaking tension instead by fractionally losing his rag ("You featherhead, Martindale!"): and yet, the scenes in which he calmly berates others for their shortcomings, pointing out where they have deceived themselves on a monumental scale, are very funny. Then, too, Guinness has a voice of honey and indulges it to the full when soliloquising one of Smiley's theories. "I would like to put a thesis to you, Toby." There are scenes in which he speaks continuously for five minutes. I have an old tape of Guinness reading the Four Quartets, made at about the same time, and the effect is oddly similar when Smiley talks evenly in Eliot-like phrases such as "each of us has known innumerable technical satisfactions".
Smiley is not meant to be clever, rather to have a monastic clarity of thought. His one ambition is for the Service to be an orderly devotion. He studies medieval German manuscripts, much as Le Carré's own work is littered with references giving great pleasure to professors of German literature. Perhaps this is why the closing titles of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" are of the Bodleian Library on a summer afternoon, to the sound of schoolboy trebles at evensong. In any case, the Germanic motifs are by no means all obscure. Smiley's Russian adversary, Karla, is known as "The Sandman" because he makes people disappear.
In Alec Guinness's famous two-hander scene with Patrick Stewart, a flashback to the 1950s, the younger Smiley makes a bid for the younger Karla to defect. Karla has been temporarily detained in India on trumped-up charges. It is a sweltering prison cell, and Smiley talks and talks, persuasive, reasonable, dabbing his brow with a handkerchief. Patrick Stewart, balding just enough to bear a passing resemblance to Lenin, speaks not one single line (but a lesser actor could not have done it). A chain-smoker, his sole act is to take -- or in some strange way, steal by consent - Smiley's lighter.
Thereafter Karla remains unseen in his dark tower deep in the land of shadows, though like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings his eye can be felt everywhere. From a tortured agent eventually traded back to the West, we hear an unmistakeable description of Karla, still chain-smoking, still using Smiley's lighter after all these years, just as Smiley has Karla's photograph on his office wall. The lighter was a gift from Smiley's wife Ann, inscribed with ALL HER LOVE. It is gratuitously symbolic, since Karla has not only stolen the lighter but has also used Ann's chronic infidelity to his advantage. As if all this were not enough, the lighter returns yet again in "Smiley's People", when Karla's sole gesture is to return it, except that Smiley refuses to consent to that either, so that it falls to the cobbled street. Symmetrically, he is leaving Ann for good just as she asks to be forgiven.
This is the sort of thing that makes readers uneasy with Le Carré's later Smiley books: the symbolism of Smiley has eclipsed the character. Of course Smiley, like any messiah-figure, is at pains to deny his own specialness. The lighter becomes famous within the Circus but Smiley cannot see what the fuss is about: "It was only an ordinary Ronson." But he was, some would say, more interesting as a junior civil servant, before he and Karla began to spend all their time propping up each other's legends. While "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is undoubtedly a richer book than, say, "Call For The Dead", this is chiefly for the elegance of the plot uncovered. ("It would be beautiful, in another context," Smiley remarks.) There is enough truth in what the literary critics said to make one feel that the television version is superior to the book, and this is largely because Smiley cannot be called a straw man when he is inhabited by Alec Guinness.
"I longed for the dignity which great secrecy affords", Le Carré himself confesses on the documentary "The Secret Centre" (58 minutes, 2000), a useful biographical film by Nigel Williams which was presumably made for BBC1's arts magazine Omnibus. It would have been more appropriate as a DVD extra for "The Perfect Spy" (1986), third and final of the Le Carré dramatisations by the BBC: a fictionalised autobiography in which Le Carré toys with the possibility that he might himself have been turned as a double agent. That he was at least a single agent is no longer denied. "It felt like betrayal, but it had a voluptuous quality... There is something delicious about being told, we're going to have to burgle that house tonight." There are excellent reasons to doubt that Le Carré is telling us the whole truth, but like Smiley he has a civil servant's ability to speak in whole, plausible sentences. The nearest Le Carré came to a Karla of his own was Markus Wolf, head of East German counter intelligence 1958-87, "the man without a face". Wolf ran four thousand foreign agents, and he had one big skill the KGB did not: an ability to plant moles high in Western governments. There are excellent reasons to doubt what he says now, too. Like Albert Speer, or Pik Botha, he has recast himself as urbane, cultured, always pleased to help television interviewers, striving for the truth of a historical tragedy not of his own making. Actually he'd be in jail now if an appeals court hadn't let him out on grounds of doubtful jurisdiction. When he says that interrogation of spies in the GDR was much like ordinary police questioning, he has forgotten a number of electrical appliances. Still, it is a jaw-dropping moment when he tells us that he was reading "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold" (1963) only months after Le Carré had written it, in the heat of the Berlin Wall crisis. No counter-intelligence by Wolf was needed to dislodge Le Carré from the Service, in the event. The book's critical and popular success made his cover untenable, his real name (David Cornwell) became known and he was forced out before he could become the "legend" that he had yearned to be since prep school.
So "Tinker, Tailor" was, to some extent, true to life. Two weeks after Smiley solved his case on BBC2, Sir Anthony Blunt was exposed as a genuine Russian mole, and you can't get much more topical than that. But in other ways it was a very old-fashioned piece, a decade after its time. Blunt's unmasking caused no real alarm because nobody believed, any longer, in a threat from communist ideology: Russian aggression, as in Afghanistan, might be a threat, but there was no danger of the English soul being up for grabs. The truth was that Le Carré had left the intelligence world at the effective end of the cold war, when we decided not to fight over Berlin or Cuba in the 1960s. And in any case human intelligence services had achieved little throughout. In "Tinker, Tailor", the gold standard in Russian secret documents is a technical report on a Black Sea submarine exercise. Impressed? In thirty years Markus Wolf's greatest coup was to place a mole in Chancellor Brandt's office, but the practical effect was that Willy Brandt had to resign, whereupon East Germany lost its only friend outside of the Warsaw Pact. As for our side, by 1979 British intelligence had long since shifted its focus from the USSR to Northern Ireland, where I doubt if any of its duties could be said to have "a voluptuous quality". Where the show really convinced was in conjuring up the atmosphere of the winter of discontent, the collapse of British institutions, the failure of self-belief within government. That was its realism.
Le Carré's great strength as a writer is in seeing through all of the flummery of intelligence work, the bogus sense of importance, while at the same time seeing that it is no joke to the little people caught up in it. The young, the naive and the idealistic were being murdered on the Berlin Wall right up to February 1989, ten years after Smiley's final retirement. For them, the secret world was as significant as anything can be. Le Carré never lost sight of what it is like to be somebody who will not be missed or avenged. His most affecting characters are always the ones roped in, the ones who fetch and carry, the ones who become personally involved in spite of their apparent cynicism. "He may feel compelled, Peter. Everybody has a loyalty somewhere."
At the end of episode 6, just such a person -- a scalphunter, one who signs up defectors -- takes the London-Paris train, crossing the quayside at Dover from the carriage and onto the ferry, in that heaving bustle of luggage and anticipation that anybody over a certain age will remember, the waves beating right up against the platform. The Channel tunnel made Dover Western Docks station and its twin Calais Maritime defunct in 1994, by which point they had outlived European communism by three years. Nobody could possibly want things back, but not the least pleasure of this superb television film is the glimpse of a time when foreign began at Dover, and terror at Berlin.
The DVD transfer is adequately done, with a few murky moments caused by the dark conditions. The menus are appealingly designed and, for a mercy, static and responsive. Happily the series is restored to episodic format, undoing the mutilation of the 1991 VHS release, which edited it into a seemingly endless morass. Sound is good, but the picture has frequent if minor damage. It is perfectly watchable, in the same way that an Old Master in sad need of restoration is still worth looking at. If only it had starred Colin Baker wrestling with walking cabbages, for the super-deluxe Doctor Who line, instead of Alec Guinness wrestling with the human condition... And there is no commentary track, very much a missed opportunity. (The set was originally advertised as having a commentary by producer and director, but no.) Disc 2 has a bug causing it to start up with subtitles on rather than off, which is pretty slapdash.
Against all that, the documentary is excellent and astutely chosen, making the whole package superior stuff for a budget release: the RRP £16 is discounted to £13 at various sites. In real terms half the price of the 1980s VHS release, it is absolutely a bargain.
It is very welcome that the BBC is finally taking seriously the idea of releasing its classics onto DVD, and adding value to them. A new line-up is appearing in the shops today, keenly priced and generally well done: we have already had "I, Claudius", and now we also get Mike Leigh's "Abigail's Party", Alan Bleasdale's "The Boys from the Blackstuff" and Troy Kennedy Martin's "Edge of Darkness". All are re-releases from VHS versions mostly out of print (though at least the messy VHS cuts have been undone). Let us hope that, valuable as these re-releases are, BBC Worldwide will also begin clearing permissions on archival material so far unseen. By all means let us have classics like "The Forsyte Saga" and "War and Peace" and "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" and the Francis Urquhart satires out on DVD, but let us also hope for new ground to be broken. It is time somebody started clearing rights on the best of what still sleeps untouched in the archive, from Dennis Potter's "Sextet" of plays (1972) to "Secret Army" and "The Aphrodite Inheritance", from "The Pallisers" to "The Omega Factor" and "The Fourth Arm".
But not before rushing out "Smiley's People", obviously.
Last updated: 31/05/2018 19:57:43