“Life’s Such a Puzzle to You, isn’t it?”

Ian Jones on John le Carré, George Smiley and the BBC

First published November 2003

Rarely does an author live long enough to see one of their creations receive the kind of “definitive” portrayal on screen that instantly strikes a chord around the world. Alec Guinness’ depiction of the ageing spymaster George Smiley in the BBC productions of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982) afforded the writer John le Carré that singular experience of witnessing a fictional character he dreamed up 20 years earlier suddenly take on a near-universally credible contemporary human form.

So convincing, so total was Guinness’ portrayal of Smiley, and so remarkable were the twin serials in which he starred, the BBC ended up with another couple of “landmarks” to add to its drama catalogue. Indeed, both efforts had, and still have, a scope, personality and atmosphere quite unique in the history of British television drama. Their unconventionality and individualism continues to single them out as something else – something different, eccentric, even alien, amongst the norms and benchmarks of TV fiction. It’s also unlikely we’ll ever see anything like them again.

“It’s your generation, after all”

The productions form two halves of one giant story. In Tinker, Tailor … George Smiley, recently retired from the secret service, is somewhat unwillingly called up by Whitehall to conduct a covert investigation into his erstwhile employers to ascertain the presence and identity of a double agent. Without wishing to alert the service, and therefore the mole, of his intentions, Smiley has to piece together the truth from his own memory and from evidence gathered personally from former friends and colleagues. His only help comes in the shape of his civil servant contact Oliver Lacon (Anthony Bate) and loyal lieutenant Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston), a younger agent still working inside the service. The mole, moreover, is being run by the Russians, specifically by a man known only as Karla, who is Smiley’s nemesis of old. His motives for successfully unearthing the traitor are therefore personal as well as professional. The second “half” of the tale, Smiley’s People, is set some years later and concerns the eponymous spy stumbling upon an opportunity to enact a suitable revenge on Karla.

The man chiefly responsible for turning both stories into TV serials was Jonathan Powell. Powell had cut his teeth as a drama producer at Granada in the early 1970s, serving his time on long-running series such as Crown Court. By the end of the decade he’d worked his way up through the ranks of the BBC drama department, and had already overseen production of a number of successful classical series including A Christmas Carol (1977), Wuthering Heights (1978) and Crime and Punishment (1979). Now had his eye on committing some of le Carré’s work to the small screen.

To realise a version of Tinker, Tailor … for the BBC, Powell decided to re-unite two people each acclaimed as a master of their field: the scriptwriter Arthur Hopcraft, and the director John Irvin. The pair had collaborated, along with Powell, on the notable 1974 Granada political drama The Nearly Man starring Tony Britten and Michael Elphick, and had quickly formed a strong working relationship. What Hopcraft now did to le Carré’s dense, often tortuous prose, coupled with Irvin’s self-conscious filmic, moody visual style, helped evolve the template for what turned out to be a kind of TV drama never really seen in Britain before.

The first thing that strikes you about Tinker, Tailor … is its idiosyncratic pace: a stubborn, unflinching, immense slowness from start to finish. Individual scenes stretch up to 15 or 20 minutes in length, and often feature as little as two people in stilted conversation. Then there are the countless pauses and silent expressions that cleverly invite you to listen for echoes of some significant remark or confession uttered seconds, minutes, even hours earlier. It’s quickly clear that, as a viewer, there’s no point trying to resist or fight against this sluggishness; to do so is to simply end up angry and impatient with something you can’t change. With scarce concessions to short attention spans, or those who have the misfortune to join the action mid-way through, this is a production that operates entirely on its own terms.

One immediate consequence of this is that Tinker, Tailor … feels somewhat antiquated, of belonging in some distant, unfamiliar time. But even if the story moves at the speed of a crawl at times, it does keep moving, and it’s always forwards. Episode one introduces the possibility of there being a mole somewhere near the top the British secret service – “the Circus” as it’s informally known – but only to us, the viewer; Smiley doesn’t even appear for the first 20 minutes. By the end of episode two, a whole 100 minutes in, Smiley has learned of the presence of the mole, codenamed Gerald, but still hasn’t done anything about it. On the contrary, he’s only just been assigned his mission – which is, in the ponderous words of Oliver Lacon, to “clean the stables, go backwards, go forwards; it’s your generation after all, your legacy.”

And so the investigation begins, one that involves ploughing through mountains of paperwork, a lot of sitting about in dingy hotel rooms and safe houses, and plenty of earnest reminiscence. That such a long exposition, followed by a plot of a similarly cumbersome, tangled and drawn-out quality, doesn’t lose momentum but instead contrives to methodically reel the viewer tighter and tighter into an exceptional espionage thriller is, on one level, entirely down to the production’s strikingly eerie, hypnotic atmosphere. You can’t help but become addicted to the plight of this lowly old man grappling with the vagaries of an institution he no longer has no time for but desperately wants to save from people he knows are doing immense damage. The added twist is that none of those under observation, apart from one, are aware of the danger themselves. For Smiley it is indeed, “the oldest question of all – who can spy on the spies?”

“One day that lack of moderation will be Karla’s downfall”

The sobering nature of Smiley’s quest adds to the production’s overwhelming languid feel and its solemn pace. But preventing the entire thing from sinking into complete inertia and, frankly, incomprehension is, of course, Alec Guinness’ definitive portrayal of the spy himself. What Guinness does with le Carré’s hero, someone apparently based upon a real intelligence chief whom the writer encountered during his own time within the services, is to interpose this representative of a half-fantasy world with the powerfully humanist and fallible core of the ordinary man in the street.

The George Smiley of Tinker, Tailor … is old, a bit doddery, resigned to the way things are and his inability, now, to ever change the bigger picture. He seems reconciled to his wife’s adultery, which is also common knowledge throughout the entire Circus community, but hates to be reminded of his former profession. The circumstances in which he departed the service, as number two to his beloved Control (Alexander Knox), were bitter and messy and involved, it turns out, his boss single-handedly botching an attempt to establish the existence of a mole himself.

Guinness’ genius is his ability to sum up all his character’s history and emotional baggage in a single static glance, or the ritual cleaning of his spectacles, or the dogged stately way he shuffles down the street. In fact, thanks to his sheer screen presence, lengthy sequences of narrative comprising Smiley and one other companion in formal conversation, or even a shot of the man alone steadily digesting endless anonymous-looking secret files, possess just as much impact as those scenes that do involve more obvious spy “action” – liaisons under cover of darkness, clandestine rendezvous in dangerous places, and so on. Moments when Guinness permits himself an outburst of anger, at the petty petitions of a former colleague or vigorously denouncing his Moscow rival as being “not fireproof, because he’s a fanatic, and one day that lack of moderation will be Karla’s downfall”, are all the more shocking for being so rare.

The degree to which Guinness committed himself to embracing every nuance and significance of Smiley’s personality is suggested by two incidents, both of which were latterly reported by le Carré, and both of which testify to a relationship between an actor and his profession that is both deeply personal and profoundly endearing. The first is when Guinness met up for a drink with his real-life equivalent, and watched the agent apparently purposefully run his finger around the rim of his wineglass before drinking. “Was that to check there was no poison?” Guinness asked. The second relates to the moment in the story when Smiley thinks he’s about to discover the identity of the mole, a scene which Guinness prepared for by sitting on set all by himself, cradling the prop gun and repeating quietly to himself, “I wonder who’s it going to be? I wonder?”

Though Guinness is the pivot around which Tinker, Tailor … so effortlessly rotates, there are moments when he’s the victim of factors beyond his control. Where Arthur Hopcraft’s script fails to overcome le Carré’s recurring preoccupation with characterisation and storyline at the expense of dialogue, Guinness is left to field some ludicrously unrealistic lines. Not even he can successfully deliver a stifled cry of “What’s … going … on?!”, appearing much more comfortable with monologues full of technical and political elucidation. All the same, those moments when he doesn’t have to say anything at all, merely look, deduce and foresee, retain both a particular force and a marked poignancy. The impression you take away from such mute sequences is that Guinness’ Smiley has lived his entire life anticipating the arrival of only bad news; the way he demonstrates his acceptance of the fact that, in life, things never go as planned, and that events happen to each and everyone one of us which are never as good as expected, gives him a dignity and depth far beyond any other fictional spy on TV or film.

“Halcyon days … trained to rule the waves”

It may be a lonely haul, but Smiley’s mission necessitates dealing with an array of fellow spies past and present, chief of which are the four possible mole suspects: the present head of the Circus Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge), and his three deputies: Roy Bland (Terence Rigby), Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson) and Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton) – or, as Smiley repeatedly intones, paraphrasing a mantra of Control’s, “There are three of them, and Alleline.” Ensemble scenes featuring this quartet of acting luminaries, especially when augmented by Guinness and Knox, are real tour de force displays, each participant being scrupulously careful not to upstage his fellow colleagues, and always filmed by John Irvin in imaginative ways: tension, or claustrophobia, or disloyalty hinted at through the billow of cigarette smoke, the chink of a tea cup, or the striking of a box of matches.

Then there are the cameos: a tearful Beryl Reid playing Connie Sachs, the former head of Circus research, who Smiley visits in Oxford and who just about manages to make le Carré epistles about “Halcyon days … poor loves, trained to rule the waves … my lovely lovely boys …” sound convincing. Hywel Bennett doesn’t do quite so well, appearing as a headstrong young scout who has to grapple with lines like, “I’ve got a story to tell you – it’s all about spies!” Elsewhere Joss Ackland shows up as an impressively obnoxious and gluttonous sports journalist, and Siân Phillips looks in for one subdued 10 minute scene as the notoriously unfaithful Ann Smiley.

Perhaps the biggest single contributor to the serial’s endlessly bleak and mournful mood, aside from Guinness himself, came about by accident rather than design. Powell and Irvin had slated Tinker, Tailor … to be shot during the last few months of 1978, no doubt hoping that the faded, grubby landscapes of a late autumn in London would provide a nicely austere backdrop to the story. They’d no idea that the ruthless cold spell which set in around October would turn into the third coldest winter in Britain since the World War II. Filming had to continue on schedule, however, and with just as much action taking place out of doors as inside, not least Smiley’s numerous pacings around Hampstead Heath and Chelsea, the result is one of the murkiest, desolate TV productions imaginable.

The sub-zero chill is so tangible and inescapable you can’t help but instinctively shiver as you watch. Rarely can such protracted scenes of unrelenting iciness have been committed to camera. Everywhere is grey, dirty and unforgiving. London’s streets are lashed with torrential rain, while endless bitter winds blow heaps of dead leaves around people’s feet. Most of episode two takes place in the middle of a freezing blizzard. Smiley navigates his gruff way through this barren environment with his coat, scarf, hat, gloves and umbrella forever to hand. At times he seems more at threat from battling the elements than Moscow, something that makes his vulnerability seem all the more pronounced.

The residual effect on-screen is of a profession, a city and even a way of life crumbling before your eyes – and crumbling from within. Even when Smiley ventures out into the countryside the landscape is completely washed out: pale, drained of all colour, with endless monochrome hills and valleys rolling into the horizon. It’s an immensely evocative yet desperately heart-rending picture of England, one that seems to forever match Smiley’s slow, stoic progress through his investigations. In the end you really can’t imagine the serial set in any other climate or at any other time of the year. It’s an extraordinary example of a production team finding the perfect mix of opportunism and artistic insight.

“The people who ruined England”

As Tinker, Tailor … coils its way towards its end, all its respective ingredients – pace, atmosphere, casting, characterisation – conspire together to deliver a perfectly timed, utterly thrilling resolution. The narrative reaches a definite full stop, with, it seems, business taken care of. At the time it wasn’t immediately clear the BBC intended to make a sequel, even though le Carré had penned a trilogy of Smiley books subsequently published in a single collection entitled The Quest for Karla. But then Jonathan Powell, perhaps taken by the serial’s near-unanimous critical acclaim, professed himself keen to re-assemble the same cast and crew to repeat the triumph. As it turned out he wouldn’t quite succeed in this wish, but pressed ahead and ordered the concluding part of the trilogy, Smiley’s People, into pre-production (he ignored the “middle” part, The Honourable Schoolboy, thanks to it being largely set in the Far East with Smiley very much as a secondary character).

What eventually emerged as Smiley’s People was not quite in the same league as its predecessor, but was no less of a fascinating and curious piece of work. Its central theme – Smiley out for revenge – manifests itself in a quite different kind of plot to Tinker, Tailor …, involving its titular hero as less of an ombudsman and more a private investigator. As a consequence the boundaries of Smiley’s participation in the nuts and bolts of the story, as opposed to its grand design, are more relaxed. There’s a nice bit of symmetry with Tinker, Tailor … by way of Smiley’s visits to see both Connie and Ann, but these crop up amidst a quite differently flavoured and structured tale that retains that same slowness of pace but loses some of that all important tone.

Aside from its opening exposition, Tinker, Tailor … restricts itself to one climate and, by and large, one location: London and the surrounding counties. This is Smiley’s patch, it is implied, and Guinness plays him as a man who’s become most comfortable meandering the perimeters of his own turf, old age turning him into someone a little unused to coming up against people and places of unfamiliar territory. In Smiley’s People, on the other hand, events pitch the titular loner into all sorts of foreign places and an ever-changing climate. Guinness doesn’t completely manage this jump from denizen of the Home Counties to intercontinental troubleshooter, and at times the demands of the story and what the viewer expects from Smiley’s characterisation set up awkward juxtapositions.

Seeing the now familiarly reserved and reticent Guinness fumble his way through a confrontation with an angry bunch of West German gypsies is one thing, but watching him visit a Hamburg strip club and sit through hours of red-light lesbian romps is quite another. It’s all in the name of the plot, of course, but it’s somehow not filmed or executed with the weight and conviction of Tinker, Tailor …, and as such you end up not quite taking it seriously. Sure, back in his past Smiley was just as much an action man as the rest of the Circus, and we know he’s on a desperate mission to get revenge on Karla, but all the travelling and grandstanding leaves Smiley’s People sometimes feeling too loose, even rambling. The fact the story jumps all over the place, from Paris to Switzerland to West Germany and back to London, doesn’t really help either, and you end up with a dissolution of the uniformity in atmosphere and temperament so successfully sustained in its predecessor.

Part of this is simply down to Smiley’s People‘s plot, which even in its original book form resembled a somewhat hectic travelogue and a confusing manipulation of half a dozen different storylines across a similar number of countries. Rendering this text into a piece of compelling TV entertainment feels at times to have been less of a straightforward process than otherwise intended. There’s evidence of a slightly lop-sided structure, with a couple of strangely anti-climatic episode endings and a bizarre deployment of supporting roles. Smiley himself makes his first appearance even later than he did in Tinker, Tailor … (this time a whopping 35 minutes into the story, which really is beyond a joke), and is handed scenes that accentuate his now even more infirm constitution (struggling through overgrown woodland, or exploring rickety houseboats).

By and large continuity with Tinker, Tailor … is excellently preserved, with Beryl Reid, Anthony Bate and Siân Lloyd all reprising their former roles. There are exceptions, however – the most glaring example being Peter Guillam, who changes from an effectively terse Michael Jayston to a rather weedy Michael Byrne. Still more peculiar is the decision to have Bernard Hepton return as Toby Esterhase with a totally different accent, leaving the viewer to wonder if this an intentional reflection of the character wishing to start a new life or simply a ghastly error of interpretation.

Worse of all, sadly, has to be the way that particular world with which le Carré is obsessed – the decaying formalities of the civil service upper class and archaic mannerisms of the Oxbridge élite – has changed from being the intriguingly secretive and cruelly forlorn existence rife with jealousies and snobberies laid bare in Tinker, Tailor … into a semi-serious, over-the-top, one-dimensional pantomime. Aside from Guinness and Hepton, all the representatives of the secret world in Smiley’s People are alternately portrayed as lunatics, naïve fops, perverts, effete armchair generals or, le Carré’s favourite, emotionally repressed colonialists. To an extent this is undoubtedly to reflect Smiley’s own perception of the Circus new breed, in his own words “the people who ruined England”; but to imply as the serial does there isn’t one competent person in the whole of the secret service is to rob proceedings of just too much credibility.

“Off we go again!”

That all these inconsistencies call attention to themselves in such an ungainly fashion, rather than dwell safely into shadow of what is actually a very powerful storyline, can mostly be put down to problems behind the scenes. Problems with BBC internal politics had led Jonathan Powell to assign Smiley’s People a director and two scriptwriters who had not been involved in Tinker, Tailor … John Irvin was replaced with Simon Langton, a far more pedestrian and conventional director who’d served his time on Upstairs, Downstairs, The Duchess of Duke Street and Tales of the Unexpected. But despite having exotic locations and plenty of suspenseful scenes to play with, Langton fails to quite conjure up the same all-pervading melancholy as Irvin, nor fully exploit the gravity of Smiley’s predicament.

Langton also sanctions some pretty basic errors of casting. He knew Eileen Atkins from Upstairs, Downstairs – which the actress had co-created with Jean Marsh – but for Smiley’s People he has her playing the rather unflattering and one note role of a persecuted Russian exile hiding away in her Paris penthouse. Maureen Lipman has a predictable cameo as a misunderstood mother, Alan Rickman turns up as a camp hotelier, and there’s even Michael Lonsdale – fresh from hamming it up as Hugo Drax in Moonraker – as a indecisive consulate official in fear of his over-dominant wife.

Chief offender, however, has to be Barry Foster, who appears as Sir Saul Enderby, the new head of the Circus. With his exaggerated gestures, fondness for over-egging every line and an obsession with topping up people’s whisky glasses, his is the most unconvincing secret agent of them all. Foster blasts his dreadful dialogue – “Meanwhile, back at the ranch!” “And off we go again!” – beyond the point where it retains any plausibility. His characterisation renders the most senior intelligence officer in Britain a dopey, sexist buffoon, someone we’d previously been led to believe was doing “marvels” for the Circus.

Finally there’s the script itself. Gone is the inspired and playful use of colloquialisms, the taut economy of language and loaded, portentous epithets of Arthur Hopcraft. Instead, courtesy of an uncomfortable collaboration between John Hopkins (a graduate of such diverse projects as Z Cars and Thunderball) and none other than le Carré himself, the narrative veers once too often towards the laboured and the clumsy. Even the jargon, the references to “lamplights,” “scalphunters” and “ju-ju men”, seems out of place.

The end result is a production that repeatedly wrenches your attention away from complex and clever intricacies of plot and characterisation to a collection of ignoble deficiencies. And it’s a terrible shame, because Smiley’s People does boast Alec Guinness still at the peak of his powers, plus enormously high production values. It’s got a fantastically haunting musical score by Patrick Gowers (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Whoops Apocalypse, Forever Green), every bit as evocative as that produced for Tinker, Tailor … by Geoffrey Burgon (Brideshead Revisited, Chronicles of Narnia, Longitude). It also has that devastatingly effective central premise of whether Smiley will finally be able to get his revenge upon Karla. Indeed, the conclusion is a wonderfully enigmatic one, perfectly executed on camera, with Guinness’ maintaining his trademark ambiguity of attitude to the very final frame.

“It was a hundred years ago.”

“I don’t know what I thought,” a jaded Smiley mutters to his wife in one scene on being reminded of some obscure utterance from his past. “It was a hundred years ago.” If they fail to share the same standards of acting, dialogue and ambience, what both Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People do possess in equal measure is a timelessness and ethereal quality, channelled principally through Guinness’ depiction of the central character, which envelopes the TV screen like little else before or since. To commit yourself to watching one or both of these serials is to dive into a highly stylised, often bemusing, sometimes unsatisfactory but always magical world. It’s also the opportunity to experience one of the greatest actors of his generation taking someone else’s creation, stripping away all the artifice and pretension, and leaving us with one of the most humble, selfless and affecting crusaders of modern times.

As Ann Smiley taunts her husband, half in jest, half in pity: “Poor George. Life’s such a puzzle to you, isn’t it?”