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Spy stories

I’m going to tell you a story. It’s about spies. And if it’s true … you people are going to need a whole new organisation.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre was published in 1974. It was adapted for television by Arthur Hopcraft, directed by John Irvin and first shown on the BBC in 1979 with Alec Guinness in the role of George Smiley. It has now been made into a film written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, directed by Tomas Alfredson, with Gary Oldman taking on the role of Smiley. I’ve now had a chance to see the film, and I’ve watched the TV adaptation again (for the umpteenth time); both adaptations are good, both are faithful to the novel, I enjoyed both. Actually, I went to the film expecting to be disappointed in comparison to the BBC adaptation, and came out having enjoyed it more than I expected. But comparisons are inevitable, so I just want to talk about a few of the ways in which they echoed each other, and a few in which they differed. One thing to be said is that both are supposed to be adaptations of the novel; the film, we are told, is emphatically not a remake of the television drama, but the one echoes the other in far too many ways for this to be entirely coincidental.

And yes, the BBC adaptation consisted of seven 45-minute episodes, 315 minutes in total, giving time for the slowness and complexity of the story to develop. The film is 127 minutes, less than half the length of the television drama; inevitably this leads to cuts, elisions and abbreviations. This doesn’t necessarily make the film worse, but I noticed several points during the film when it relied on our prior knowledge of the story to understand what was happening and why. I cannot see the film from the perspective of someone totally unfamiliar with the story, so I have no way of knowing whether this might affect our appreciation of the film.

But, to the comparisons:

Glasses: It’s a story about sight, about perception, so it is hardly a surprise that both Guinness and Oldman wear heavily framed glasses for the character, and both of them use the glasses to point up aspects of the characterisation. Guinness is forever taking his glasses off and cleaning them. It might seem that this is signalling clarity of vision, but I don’t think that is entirely the case. Whenever Guinness removes his glasses the camera swoops in on his face and we see him peering from a suddenly naked face, and there is a sense that he is actually seeing more, seeing more deeply at that moment.

Oldman, on the other hand, never takes his glasses off. Even when we see him swimming in the Hampstead Ponds (he is a much more physical, more active Smiley than Guinness), he is still wearing the glasses. It is significant that one of the first things he does during his enforced retirement is go to an optician and get new glasses. And though nothing is said about them, when we see his face in close-up we realise that his glasses are bifocals: he is looking at things near and far at the same time, seeing different perspectives.

Ricki Tarr: In many ways, the key character in the story, because it is through him that Karla’s whole scheme begins to come unravelled. On the surface, this is one instance where the film echoes the television. Hywel Bennett’s Ricki Tarr on TV was bearded during his questioning by Smiley and clean shaven in the flashback in Lisbon; Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr on film was bearded during his questioning by Smiley and clean shaven in the flashback in Istanbul. Hardy even adopts some of the manner and costume of Bennett.

But I found Hardy far less satisfactory in this role. On TV, Ricki is a fallen angel, the son of a preacher gone to the bad, slightly seedy, more than a little amoral, and surprised by his own sense of guilt over Irina. All the time he is courting her, in that Lisbon cemetery, you can see his calculation, see the experienced spy guiding everything he does and says. Hardy is rather too pretty for the role, there is no sense of the amoral about him. Moreover, Hardy’s Ricki Tarr is far more straightforwardly in love with Irina, and his subsequent actions are guided far more by his desire for her than by his guilt over the way he behaved.

Places: On TV, Tarr meets Irina in Lisbon, and she is flown back to Moscow; on film, he meets her in Istanbul, and she is taken back to Russia by boat. On TV, Jim Prideaux is sent to Czechoslovakia and is shot at night in a remote forest; on film, he is sent to Budapest and is shot in broad daylight in the middle of the city. The first change of location seems sensible; the second less so.

The Circus: The headquarters of British Intelligence is known as the Circus because it occupies an anonymous office block just off Cambridge Circus. This is acknowledged on TV where we keep getting long shots of the Circus, and the interior of the building suits that location. There’s a rickety lift that needs oiling and never gets it; and on his first visit to the building Peter Guillam comments on a new photocopier.

On film, the Circus is a very different place, a vast complex of very different interiors (vast, warehouse-like rooms and narrow staircases), and on the outside we see it surrounded by barbed wire. It could not be anywhere close to Cambridge Circus, or indeed any other popular part of central London, it would attract too much attention.  The set is huge and unlikely, and I have the sense that it is there simply because that is the kind of set that film makers can afford to build.

Connie Sachs: For me, the film’s major failing was in the characterisation of Connie Sachs. It is not that Kathy Burke is a worse actress than Beryl Reid, it is that she gets the part completely wrong. We aren’t told an awful lot of back story about Connie, but we don’t need to be told. We know, without having to be told, that she was probably one of the young girls brought in to Bletchley Park during the war, and has stayed in the service ever since. She hasn’t married, not because she is a lesbian (though this is hinted at in Reid’s characterisation) but because the Service takes up her whole emotional life. Her constant talk of ‘my lovely, lovely boys’ tells us all of this and more. She is old, now, her hands are crippled by arthritis, she is an alcoholic, and she should probably have been removed from the service long before, but she was just too good at the job; her mind contains as much as any computer might do. When she is forced out by the new regime (because what she knows is actually a threat to Gerald the mole), her life is ended. There is an immense tragedy to Connie that is one of the underlying themes of the whole work. And every scrap of this is in Beryl Reid’s performance, and not a jot of it is in Kathy Burke’s. Kathy Burke loves her job and is good at it, but it is not her entire reason for living; there is no sense of the tragedy and the damage of the character. On TV, Connie asks Smiley to kiss her, and that kiss speaks volumes; on film, Smiley and Connie sit silently side by side on a settee without touching and watch two young students kissing in the next room. That emptiness is the failure of the portrayal of Connie in the film.

Peter Guillam: On the other hand, I think the character of Peter Guillam is one of the strengths of the film, and it is not just because I have admired Benedict Cumberbach  in everything I’ve seen him in; nor is it because there is anything wrong with Michael Jayston’s performance on TV because there isn’t. Jayston’s performance was one of the great strengths of the TV adaptation, every bit a match for Guinness, as he needed to be. Jayston’s Guillam is an old hand, damaged as most of the Circus old hands are, resourceful, rather stolid, and primarily there as a foil for Smiley, a partner for talking over the issues. Cumberbatch plays a rather different Guillam, slightly lower down the pecking order, perhaps less damaged (though he is damaged in the course of the film, having to dismiss his homosexual partner, an incident that plays no part in the TV adaptation).  But he is as good a foil to Oldman’s Smiley as Jayston was to Guinness’s, and the scene where the two get drunk and Oldman/Smiley recounts his meeting with Karla is a tour de force, a scene as electric as anything in the TV series.

Incidentally, the scene in which Percy Alleline accuses Guillam of fraternising with the traitor Ricki Tarr is almost word-for-word the same in both versions.

Colour: The TV series came just five years after the book and didn’t have to make a big thing about when it was set. The film, coming not far short of 40 years after the book, is a different enterprise altogether. The TV adaptation was more or less contemporary with the events of the story; or, at least, viewers would not have to make too much effort to appreciate the references and the background to what is going on. But now it is a different world, so we need to make it clear that this is in the past. We see a document dated 1973; we see people in the clothes and haircuts of that hangover from the 60s that was the early 70s. Above all, we get a rather washed-out, grey-toned palette of colours. This is not because those were the colours of the time, colours were as various, as bright and if anything more garish than they are now. But those are the colours that we see when we look back now on the television of the day, and indeed putting on the DVD of the television version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy you see exactly the same palette of colours.

Other Characters: The television series, largely because of the involvement of Alec Guinness in his first major television role, was able to attract an incredibly strong cast. I don’t think the film has been quite as fortunate, though there are some really good performances. On the plus side, I think Mark Strong is rather better as Jim Prideaux than Ian Bannen, even though Strong doesn’t quite get across that Prideaux was always too old for the Operation Testify assignment. And Ciaran Hinds makes rather more of Roy Bland than Terence Rigby was able to do.

John Hurt is excellent as Control, though I think Alexander Knox is rather better at getting across that this is a very sick man.

I was less happy with some of the other roles. Toby Jones really doesn’t convey the blinkered, public school hauteur of Percy Alleline the way that Michael Aldridge does; and Simon McBurney is just wrong as Lacon and certainly no match for Anthony Bate at conveying the fact that he is out of his depth and terrified of the repercussions of what is about to happen. (As we came out of the film, I did rather wonder whether Jones and McBurney ought not has swapped roles, though I am less convinced of that now.) And the hapless David Dencik really is no match for the wonderful Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase.

And finally there’s Mendel, played on TV by George Sewell who had the marvellous ability to draw your eye even when he is not doing very much. He was an under-appreciated actor, but I think here he found the right role. On film he is played by Roger Lloyd Pack, another example of exactly the right actor making the most of a relatively small role. He is also central to two of the best comic moments in the film (the TV adaptation doesn’t go in much for comic moments): when there is a bee loose in the car; and when he makes the call to Guillam at the Circus that provides cover for Guillam to swap files. Mendel is calling from a garage where George Formby is playing on the radio ­ ‘if you could see what I can see’ ­ we see the girl who is monitoring phone calls tapping her feet, and then as Guillam leaves the Circus Roy Bland passes him humming the same tune.

Bill Hayden: Which brings us to the last major character, played on television by Ian Richardson, and on film by Colin Firth. And again I think the film fails in this instance. Firth is a good actor, but he only gets part of Hayden’s character. There’s the easy charm, which he does rather too well, but not the veneer of world-weariness that turns out to run much deeper than anyone, even Hayden, had realised. There’s a scene where Smiley first learns about Witchcraft. As originally written, apparently, Hayden said nothing in this scene, but Firth thought he really should say something so he and Le Carre improvised a line in which he says something to the effect that ‘it looks fake, so it might just be real’. That line is wrong, it interrupts the flow of the scene, and it really does not fit with Firth’s character. In contrast, I could imagine Richardson’s Bill Hayden saying that line and it would make perfect sense. And therein lies the difference between the two performances. Firth is all charm, who is made to seem slightly endearing when Smiley gets home earlier than anticipated and finds him desperately and awkwardly trying to squirm his feet into his shoes. Richardson didn’t have to try to be charming and he certainly didn’t try to be endearing, so you could sense beneath the surface the contrasts of honour and loyalty and ennui that make up both his complex character and the entire theme of the work.

9 thoughts on “Spy stories

  1. I don’t remember the television series nearly as well as you do, but I can’t argue with a single word of this. I was hugely disappointed with Kathy Burke’s performance – there was so much missing from this tiny part of the story – but then nobody could replace Beryl Reid. I thought nobody could replace Alec Guinness either, but actually I think Oldman deserves an Oscar nomoination; he was splendid, and made the role his own.

  2. Have just queued up the series on Netflix. But my question is…

    what about the book?

    I ask because one of the things I noticed when watching the Coen brothers’ version (also not a remake) of True Grit was that some of the lines are exactly the same. But this is, I’ve more recently found, because they are taken directly from the novel.

    1. It is so long since I read the book that I could not say for sure. I’m sure that some of the dialogue in both is lifted straight from the book, but it is a long book and even the 5 hours + of the tv series had to cut things out and elide to fit things in.

  3. It was a coffee machine, not a photocopier. Haven’t seen the movie yet but seems like a fair review based on your comments of the Tv series, which I can almost recite verbatim
    One other thing though, in. Smiley’s People, Guilliam is married and expecting a child so not sure where the movie gets him being gay from.

    1. Are you sure it’s a coffee machine? My memory must be playing tricks.
      Yes, making Guillam gay is an odd decision. At the time, it would probably have meant he wouldn’t get the clearance to work at the Circus. And, as you say, in the TV series (and, I’m sure, the book) Guillam is clearly and happily married. I suppose making him gay is shorthand for making him vulnerable. But it doesn’t take away from Cumberbatch’s performance. I do, by the way, strongly recommend that you see the movie.

      1. Just double checked and Guilliam arrives, criticises creaking lift and goes to meet Lauder. There are a few people with polystyrene cups in hand, and more cups on top, in the hall. “My god, how long have you had that monster?” If that’s the part you mean, deffo a coffee machine.
        I will get around to seeing the film but I’m a stickler for the good old days ( although I’m only mid 30s) and am fanatical about the original series, Smiley’s People too, so I’d hate to taint my memory if the film isn’t as good.

        1. The film is different, and there are some parts that are really poor (Connie), but all in all it’s a very decent attempt to film the novel and has some really good bits. Though I did immediately rewatch the series after seeing the film.
          And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Big Other is a Lacanian reference, though I wasn’t involved in naming it so I couldn’t swear.

  4. Hit send accidentally there. Cheers for the reply. Also, big other, not a Lacanian reference by any chance?

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