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Let’s Smile

Hmm, my first attempt at a post to Big Other, and my first use of WordPress. Me and technology: what could possibly go wrong?

Back in my teens I was addicted to spy stories. I read everything I could get my hands on, non-fiction (The Penkovsky Papers, Kim Philby’s Memoir) and fiction (Adam Hall, Len Deighton).

An aside: when they got round to filming Deighton’s The Ipcress File, why on earth did they call the hero ‘Harry Palmer’? After all, the only personal detail we are told about the character in the novel is: ‘My name is not Harry.’? And while I’m drifting away on asides within asides, I note that this novel contains what is still one of my favourite lines: ‘You bastard!’ ‘Yes, but with me it’s an accident of birth, you are a self-made man.’

Anyway, let me drag this back to my original theme: I was addicted to spy stories. I think a lot of people were in the 1960s, it went with the zeitgeist. I can identify the origin of my addiction though, quite precisely, it was The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. I could no longer say whether I saw the film first or read the novel, they both occurred at pretty much the same time, but I can say that the bleak landscape of perpetual betrayal was far more in tune with the high and lonely calling of teenage alienation than, say, Ian Fleming’s soft porn.

So I started to pick up anything and everything I could by John Le Carre. Now I can’t honestly say that when I first encountered The Spy Who Came In From The Cold I actually noticed George Smiley. (I’ve just checked the IMDb, and discovered that Smiley was played by Rupert Davies, which does my head in because Davies is perpetually fixed in my mind as the television version of Maigret, and Maigret and Smiley … hmm, now you come to mention it.) But of course you can’t go on reading Le Carre for long without becoming fascinated by this character who is an eternal outsider, even of the organisation he runs at one point. It got to the stage that when Le Carre stopped writing about Smiley, I started to lose interest in his books.

Then came the BBC dramatisations of, first, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, then Smiley’s People, with Alec Guinness absolutely perfect in the role of Smiley. (Another double-take moment: the year after the film of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Guinness played the Smiley-like character Pol in the film of The Quiller Memorandum.) Both of these (I’ve watched them frequently) seem to run counter to everything we are told makes good television: they are slow, cerebral, complex. But watching a man think on television proves to be absolutely compelling.

So I was understandably a little nervous when BBC Radio 4 announced The Complete Smiley, a sequence of dramatisations across roughly one full year of all eight of Le Carre’s Smiley novels, with Simon Russell Beale in the title role. Now Simon Russell Beale is a great actor, I’ve seen him do some wonderful stuff on stage from Brecht’s Galileo to Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, but round, cuddly Beale taking the place of thin, austere Guinness? It just couldn’t work. Except I had forgotten the obvious, that radio is all about the voice. When I heard Beale’s voice in the first of the dramatisations, hushed, measured, thoughtful, I found myself seeing Guinness’s mannerisms. The real test came just before Christmas when the radio sequence got around to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Now I don’t think the radio producers were trying to emulate the TV programme, the voices of Percy Alleline and Roy Bland in particular were very different from their television incarnations. Nevertheless, there was a sort of synergy between the two that allows one to serve as a visual cue for the other. When the radio Connie Sachs talks about ‘My lovely, lovely boys’, you immediately see the incomparable Beryl Reid reaching for a drink with her arthritis-twisted hands. (And why is Beryl Reid missing from the cast list of both programmes in IMDB?)

All of which is a long winded way of saying that The Honourable Schoolboy starts this afternoon. Do not disturb!

9 thoughts on “Let’s Smile

  1. I once set a spies quiz where the question was “Rupert Davies, James Mason (under another name), Alec Guinness, Peter Vaughn, Bernard Hepton and Denholm Elliot – the role?” I’d have to revise that, to add George Cole and Simon Russell Beale, and whoever played Smiley in the 1990s radio The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which I haven’t been able to find out yet.

    I can’t picture Beale as Guinness – he manages to escape the legacy of his predecessor. But nor can I quite buy him as Smiley. He doesn’t seem enough of an outsider – Beale’s Smiley is oppressed by the weight of the world, but you get the feeling that a couple of pints down the pub will cheer him up.

    Some of the other cast did seem under the shadow of previous actors in the roles – Michael Feast as Bill Haydon and Anthony Calf as Jim Prideaux don’t escape Ian Richardson and Ian Bannen, nor does John Rowe’s Control get away from Cyril Cusack’s.

    Some of the things they’ve done seem a bit odd – a crucial scene of The Looking-Glass War is edited so as no longer to make it clear that Control has been manipulating matters to bring about the closure of LeClerc’s department (though at least it doesn’t omit that plot line entirely, as the film does), and Ann as voice in his head seems a bit strange.

    But I appreciate the ambition of doing the entire canon (though it does omit the two novels that share characters but don’t feature Smiley himself – one wonders if an imaginative scheduler might dig out the Tom Baker-starring adaptation of The Russia House). And The Honourable Schoolby will be interesting, as it’s one of the two I haven’t read, and I haven’t heard the previous radio adaptation.

    1. Guinness may always be Smiley for some, but for me he’ll always be Wormold, in OUR MAN IN HAVANA. Playing checkers with rum…

      And Noel Coward will always be lurking in the shadows…

      (Maureen O’Hara, too.)

    2. Surely it was Alexander Knox as Control?

      I disagree with you about Beale’s Smiley, he may not sound like Guinness but I think he has the same affect. There is the way the voice is held as if deliberately refusing to raise it, the sense of suppressed exasperation with everyone who is slower (but the same little bit of warmth when with Connie). And surely a couple of pints down the pub wouldn’t cheer him up because he’d never allow himself to go down the pub for those pints.

      I do agree, however, that despite admiring the ambition of doing them all, I was a little taken aback that even the most complex of them, Tinker Tailor, was only extended over three one-hour programmes. I don’t think they did serious damage to the plot but it did mean a sense of rush at certain points when it was the slowness that made the TV version so memorable. But I actually liked the device of using Ann’s voice as a way of providing the commentary that we need.

      1. Alexander Knox was Control in Tinker Tailor, but Cusack was Control in Spy Who Came From the Cold, and it is Cusack’s performance that casts its shadow over John Rowe, rather than Knox.

  2. re: your Deighton aside, and IPCRESS: actually the line is, “Now my name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it ever had been.” (I had to look it up myself.)

    It’s been a while since I read my Deighton, but those books were one of my first introductions to the malleability of identity. I love how you can’t tell whether they’re all told by the same “Harry”—I really seized on that idea when younger, fascinated by how each Harry might just be one in a long string of Harry’s, each one identically malcontent and idiosyncratic. Part of me always thought they should have played the same trick with the films, casting similar-looking actors in each one, even changing from scene to scene (not unlike what Bunuel did in OBSCURE OBJECT—although having Caine play the part throughout is nothing to object to!).

    Supposedly Caine came up with the name “Harry Palmer” himself, because Saltzman didn’t think they could get away with the character not having a name throughout the film. He asked Caine to think of the most boring name he could, and Caine said “Harry Palmer.”

    And did you know that, in addition to being a spy, Harry Palmer invented HP Sauce? …Well, he was a great cook.

    BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN forever! I love Western Cold War spy films that draw so much inspiration from Russian film and music. There’s a dissertation lurking in there somewhere…

    1. It must be getting on for 40 years since I last read The Ipcress File, so I’m just pleased I managed to remember that much.

      My own favourite was always Horse Under Water, probably for the perverse reason that it was the one they didn’t film.

  3. I just put this together — you’re Maureen Kincaid Speller’s husband, yes? I’ve been LJ friends with her ever since she moderated a reading/panel at Wiscon that I was involved with, along with a couple of other authors from Farah Mendlesohn’s _Glorifying Terrorism.”

    I liked the post on genre you linked recently. I meant to comment on it, but was subsequently distracted, as I often am.

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