‘Elevenses’ with Smiley – ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy…’

25 11 2011

‘Elevenses’ at Tewkesbury’s ‘Roses Theatre’, tea, coffee and a biscuit with a free movie thrown in – or perhaps it should it be the other way round?

To be honest it didn’t instantly appeal. ‘The Roses’ box office had billed it, one of a series of mid-morning offerings, ‘programmed with our senior audience in mind’. This immediately conjured up the vision of a foyer full of chattering blue rinse, free bus-pass veterans and zimmers – more than  a tad off-putting.  

But it was just £6.00 a throw, for a movie I was keen to see, so Chris encouraged me to shelve my prejudices, swallow my pride and give it a whirl!    

It wasn’t the full on ‘Vue’ experience at which I’d recently enjoyed ‘Tintindiana Jones’ but then the ‘70s style auditorium was perfectly well suited to the moody period visuals and eerie music of director Thomas Alfredson’s re-working of John Le Carré’s 1974 classic espionage novel , ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’.   

Set at the height of the Cold War, agent George Smiley is recalled from his recent enforced retirement from ‘the Circus’ when MI6 discover they have a ‘mole’ leaking secrets to the Russians.  

Gary Oldman plays middle-aged, bespectacled George Smiley, or perhaps I should say he plays Alec Guinness, admirably.

Oldman’s portrayal of Le Carré’s taciturn, ‘breath takingly ordinary’ MI6 agent, in fact Alfredson’s entire movie, owes at least as much to the late great Sir Alec and the 1979 seven part BBC adaptation than it does to the author’s original.  

It is rather more a movie of the TV series than of the book. But this is not intended as a criticism. It really was riveting stuff, beautifully crafted and acted, with an air of mystery and intrigue maintained throughout the full 2 hours 7 minutes. You could have heard a pension book drop!

Any attempted synopsis of the plot would fail to do it justice, but what I would say is that  to get the most out of this film version you probably need to have read the book and/or seen the BBC series.  

An action packed spy thriller this is not, but one of rare suspense, born of atmospheric filming, excellent characterisation and a cleverly woven, but, believable plot with a steady stream of illuminating flashbacks.    

A beginner’s A-Z of SIS tradecraft jargon might prove useful for Smiley virgins who want to get their heads around a bemusing ‘Circus’ of, ‘baby sitters’, ‘ferrets’, ‘lamplighters’, ‘mothers’, ‘pavement artists’, ‘scalp hunters’ – and more!

For my generation, when it comes to the portly, grey figure of Smiley in his ill-fitting clothes, it will always prove difficult to think beyond Alec Guinness, but now Gary Oldman will epitomise the role for a whole new audience.  

The production was extremely well cast. ‘Control’ was just up John Hurt’s street. Young guns, Tom Hardy, as renegade agent Ricki Tarr, and Benedict Cumberbatch, as Smiley’s gay ‘go-fer’ Peter Guillam, were particularly impressive, while the suave Colin Firth did what Colin Firth does, as Bill Haydon.      

 I was even convinced by Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs, picking up the baton from a fellow comedienne and actress, in the ’79 version, the late Beryl Reid – although with a very different style.    

The only thing I found  slightly disconcerting was ‘Grantly Budgen’ (sorry, Philip Martin Brown) of ‘Waterloo Rd’, turning up in a cameo role as our man in Istanbul, Tufty Thessinger  – that one didn’t quite ring true for me!

It is no mean task to do justice to such rich original source material and follow in the wake of a critically acclaimed seven hour TV serialisation. That this 2011 film version preserves the integrity of both, within a two-hour wide-screen format, and  that this grumpy old man came away without feeling the slightest need to utter, ‘It wasn’t as good as….’ says it all. In fact my actual words were, ‘That was excellent!’ In fact I wouldn’t hesitate to give it a 5* rating.   

And ‘the Roses’ seniors experience might grow on me!    

Like many, my first encounter with  John Le Carré was through ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.’ I’ve still got the well-thumbed paperback, a BBC series tie in, with Alec Guinness gazing, wistfully, from its creased cover.    

It was enough to get me hooked and I followed it up by dipping into his back catalogue, including the breakthrough 3rd novel, ‘The Spy Who Came In from the Cold’ (1963), which Graham Greene reviewed as, ‘the best spy story I have ever read.’

Next, I brought myself bang up to date with parts 2 and 3 of the Smiley trilogy, ‘the Honourable Schoolboy’(1977), set in the Far East, and ‘Smiley’s People’ (1979), George’s final confrontation with his nemesis, Soviet spy master, Karla.   

Thereafter I’ve avidly devoured every new Le Carré, pretty much as soon as it hit the bookshelves, right up to date with the current best-seller, ‘Our Kind of Traitor’, which Henning Mankel, highly acclaimed Swedish creator of  the Kurt Wallander detective series, praised as, ‘A remarkable book by the master…’

I’ve managed to locate seventeen of JLC’s twenty two novels on my bookshelves, mostly softbacks of course  but  a couple of first edition hard backs. One of these is a copy of ‘Single and Single’, signed by the author, ‘with my best, 25 ii ’99’. I also have a signed paperback copy of ‘A Perfect Spy (1986)’- ‘…universally acknowledged as a perfect work of fiction’ (Sunday Times).

I was fortunate enough to hear Le Carré speak, and meet him, at one of his rare public appearances, twelve years ago, at a Cheltenham Literature Festival event.

David Cornwell, ‘JLC’ is a nom du plume, is now in his 80th year and still writing. He studied at Bern and Oxford Universities, and taught at Eton for a while before spending five years in the British Foreign Office. The perfect background, it would seem for an author of spy fiction.      

In his own words, ‘I live on a Cornish cliff (he owns a miles worth near Land’s End) and hate cities. I write and walk and swim and drink’

‘Nothing that I write is authentic. It is the stuff of dreams, not reality. Yet I am treated by the media as if I wrote espionage handbooks.’ 

Beyond the Smiley books my two favourites are, ‘The Tailor of Panama’ (1996), inspired by Graham Greene’s classic,  ‘Our Man in Havana’,  and  ‘The Constant Gardner’(2001), a  tale of international conspiracy and corrupt bureaucracy surrounding pharmaceutical money,  based on a real life case in  Nigeria, which popularised in a half decent 2005 film starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz.

I was somewhat gratified, therefore, when, while doing a bit of research for this post, I found that in a 2008 interview given by the author he had listed his four best novels as:

  1. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
  2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy
  3. The Tailor of Panama
  4. The Constant Gardener

On his website he writes,‘Artists, in my experience, have very little centre. They are fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception.’

But John Le Carré is a fine writer, who like many others who work in a populist genre, has not always received the acknowledgement  he deserves from ‘serious’ literary critics.

However, in 2008 John Le Carré received due recognition from ‘The Times’, who listed him at 22nd in their top 50 greatest British writers since 1945.

Earlier this year, he also  received the prestigious ‘Goethe-Medaille’, an official decoration of the Federal German Republic, an annual award honouring non-Germans for meritorious work in the spirit of the Goethe Institute.      

Long may he continue to quench those that thirst for thought-provoking, suspense filled, and ingeniously plotted storylines, peopled with vividly imagined characters. I am already looking forward to next drop of vintage Le Carré    

I almost forgot to mention, there is a ‘Tinker Tailor…’ link with ‘the Shire.’ Back in ’79 while filming on location at the nearby ‘Bredon School’, Alec Guinness and other members of the cast stayed over at the ‘White Lion’ , ‘a house of exceedingly good repute’, in Upton on Severn.     







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