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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and other ephemera

September 18, 2011

Continuing down the Cold War track from the previous post, last night I went to see the film version of John Le Carré’s spy classic, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Gripping stuff it was.

I read the novel and watched the 1979 BBC serialisation. But beyond the central theme, the hunt for a mole in the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as M16, I had forgotten much of the plot. My two lasting memories of the series were the haunting theme music – a setting of Nunc Dimittis by Geoffrey Burgon – and the towering performance of Alec Guinness in the role of George Smiley, the mole hunter.

Looking back at the cast list from the original series, you wonder at the ability of the BBC to attract the cream of British theatrical talent of the time – Guinness, Ian Richardson, Sian Phillips, Joss Ackland and Patrick Stewart to name a few. In the novel, Le Carré described the central character as a seemingly anonymous, melancholy and yet authoritative figure. Few modern actors seem able to capture the stillness and economy of Guinness’s performance – so little said, so much revealed.

Gary Oldman, as Smiley in the movie, did so superbly. The main difference between the two performances was that you sensed that inside Oldman’s Smiley was a man with a compelling desire to rip your throat out, whereas Guinness would have sent you to your end with a look of sadness and mild distaste. Though he gave a different interpretation of the character, I kept hearing Guinness in Oldman’s intonation – particularly in the irony that was never far from the surface when dealing with his colleagues, and his quiet menace when closing in on the traitor.

The movie cast was as impressive as the BBC’s line-up – John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Mark Strong  and Kathy Burke, all solid performances. But perhaps because the seven episodes of the original series gave more scope for the slow unfolding of characters and events typical of most of Le Carré’s novels, I didn’t get a strong sense of an ensemble performance. Smiley apart, the characters didn’t flower.

But that’s a quibble. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a fine movie, and a great antidote to the crash-bang-wallop, CGI-enhanced steroidal crap that the film industry seems to think we all want to see.

 It was also great to be reminded of the ironic names the author gave to the institutions and denizens of the security service: The Circus, The Inquisitors, The Ferrets, and, best of all, The Reptile Fund – the source of money for covert operations. Book, series and movie reek of the cerebral, life’s-a-game Oxbridge culture that gave birth to the service and nurtured its greatest traitors – Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt.

The movie’s release roughly coincides with the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The BBC’s current long-running  spy series, Spooks, has, since its launch in 2002, dealt with modern issues with which MI6’s sister service, MI5 – the internal security service – has had to deal: terrorism, financial shenanigans, nuclear proliferation and so forth.

I am a bit of a Spooks addict. Each episode provides a strong element of the crash-bang-wallop I’ve just turned my nose up at. The spooks in question die spectacularly on a regular basis, and the world is regularly saved from catastrophe by Harry Pearce’s intrepid team. But the plots are well written, the actors are good and the characters believable.  If only we Brits could make that kind of difference in real life.

The series about to start is the last. John Le Carré, in an interview promoting Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, described Spooks as total balls. As a former spook himself, he speaks with authority. Smiley’s world – grey, grimy but rather posh – was his world, and no doubt the reality of MI5 is far from the high tech, visceral cliff-hanging we see in Spooks. But it’s been fun, and I’ll miss it.

Speaking of posh, I caught the last few minutes of one of the BBC’s annual Reith Lectures on the car radio driving back from the movie. The lecture, by coincidence, was none other than Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, talking about her and MI5’s conviction that the use of torture to gain intelligence was wrong. I caught ten minutes of the programme, in which she was fending off questions with an expert dead bat. “I’d love to answer that question, but…..”.

Now there is a character who must be Le Carré’s kind of person. Articulate, very posh and slightly scary. I imagine that if you were a young MI5 officer, an interview with her would have a brought about a sure and rapid cure for constipation. Very establishment, and possessing  the knack common to senior civil servants and politicians of making you feel that you have asked a stupid question, but  with language that suggests otherwise. Rather pompous in fact.

I reserve judgement on what she actually said, because I didn’t get the chance to hear her full lecture. I have probably got her completely wrong, but first impressions…  More on her thoughts when I get the time to listen to her properly.

From → Books, History, Media, Politics, UK

  1. Outstanding review of the film. Thank you. I totally agree with your assessment of the film.

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