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!