Sunday 31 July 2022

An overlooked Australian film (3) - AYA (Solrun Hoaas, 1990)

Solrun Hoaas

Solrun Hoaas was a good friend. She made one dramatic feature film Aya in 1990. This film followed on from a medium-length documentary Green Tea and Cherry Ripe  produced by Solrun and Karen Foley in 1989.  Both films examined the life and times of Japanese war brides who came to Australia after World War 2

Following Aya  Solrun unsuccessfully sought funding for other feature projects. Her last films were two insightful documentaries about North Korea, Pyongyang Diaries  and Rushing to Sunshine. Solrun died after a short illness in 2004. Green Tea and Cherry Ripe  and many of her short films has been remastered by Ronin Films and are available for purchase on DVD or via Video on Demand  IF YOU CLICK HERE.

Aya  is available on DVD but needs remastering. Screening materials held by the NFSA are not in the best condition and are unsuitable for public screening. No DCP is available to allow the film to screen in theatres and festivals. The NFSA, however, holds the original negatives from which the film could be remastered.

When the film was first released Amree Hewitt wrote a very positive review for Film News (cover above). A couple of extracts follow:

"Aya (1990), the debut feature for writer/director Solrun Hoaas, is a richly textured portrait of a young Japanese woman (played by Eri Ishida) in the Australia of the fifties and sixties. Constructed around a series of vignettes from her life (spanning two decades and starting with Aya newly arrived and recently married), the film – which follows her, her husband Frank (Nicholas Eadie), and ex-army member of the Australian forces deployed in postwar Japan and their mutual friend Mac (Chris Haywood) – is an engaging, complex exploration of persona strength and cultural differences....

"For me Aya is Solrun Hoaas’ tour-de-force filmmaking achievement, taking pride of place in a body of work, which includes experimental and documentary forms, that is a consistently rewarding cinematic experience."

Nicholas Eadie, Eri Ishida, Aya

Amree Hewitt revisited the film in 2010 as a contribution to a Dossier on Solrun compiled by Senses of Cinema:

"What was compelling for me on my first viewing of Aya – its challenging formal qualities (episodic and narratively elliptical), distillation of the image, and embrace of intimate detail – is still striking, and despite what grates (performances from some of the minor cast members, uneven tone and dated musical underpinning of scenes) the film, at its core, now feels like an even more complex emotional journey. Much of this feeling emanates from the casual, veiled intensity of the wonderful Nicholas Eadie, the quiet isolation captured by Eri Ishida as Aya, and the understated élan of Chris Haywood. Yet this feeling also arises from a resolute directorial style that eschews the lures of melodrama.

Chris Haywood, Aya

"Aya won the CICAE prize at the Torino International Film Festival, garnered the Asia Pacific Film Festival’s Best Actress award for Ishida, screened in over 14 international festivals, and was nominated for six AFI Awards including Best Actress. Writer-director Hoaas never got the opportunity to make another fiction feature film. The difficult paths of both commercial and government funding that need to come together to support creative feature projects never converged again for this filmmaker despite her hard work, passion and strong script ideas. It feels like a lost opportunity not to be able to have seen this director build and refine her craft in the form of feature film storytelling, however Aya still stands as her cinematic touchstone and a keenly felt indicator of what might have been.

Eri Ishida, Aya

When Solrun died Karen  and I wrote the following tribute which is now on the Ronin Films website.

Solrun was born on 15 August 1943 in Trondheim, Norway to missionary parents who had been in China before the war. She was the only girl and had three brothers. After the war the Hoaas family returned to China, but the revolution in 1949 saw them move to Hong Kong for a year, then to Kobe, Japan, where they lived throughout the '50s and part of the '60s. The home was a Lutheran church school in the Aotani district of the city. After attending the Norwegian primary school in Shiotaki near Kobe Solrun went to the Canadian Academy, an international school in that city. Upon graduation from its high school she spent a year in the United States, then travelled to Norway where she enrolled at the University of Oslo, majoring in social anthropology. In 1969 she received a Japanese Ministry of Education scholarship to do graduate studies at Kyoto University and that is where she met Roger Pulvers. They were married in February 1970 in Kyoto and divorced in 1982.

Karen and I met Solrun and Roger when they arrived in Canberra in the early 70s. They both threw themselves enthusiastically into the local theatre scene, Roger as a writer and director, Solrun as a designer. We knew that they had met and married in Japan, a country where Solrun had also spent much of her childhood and adolescence as the daughter of Christian missionaries.

As it happened Karen and I came back to Melbourne in 1980, the same year that Roger was appointed to a job with the Playbox Theatre. When Solrun arrived she was admitted to the post-graduate course in film production at Swinburne College. We kept in touch. Solrun was a prolific film-maker and one of her films went on at my 1981 Melbourne Film Festival. It was her graduation film for Swinburne In Search of the Japanese, a satiric study of Australian incomprehension of Japanese/Australian relations.

We came back to Canberra in 1985 but we were close friends by this stage and our years in Melbourne saw us sharing each other's company frequently, especially at Christmas. In one memorable Christmas a boat load of Solrun's relatives were visiting. Her niece Guro-Marte was doing a part of her medical degree at an Australian hospital and the family descended to join her. All told another ten people or so from Norway joined us around the Christmas table for an especially festive occasion.

Her films, which she continued to make prolifically, by now were being distributed by Andrew Pike's Canberra company Ronin Films and she had ambitions to make dramatic features. Before that could happen she with Karen as co-producer and some funds from Andrew Pike had got funding from Film Victoria, for an hour long documentary on Japanese war brides. This was to become Green Tea and Cherry Ripe. It was filmed in Melbourne and post-produced in Canberra. For six months or so Solrun lived in Canberra again, the office next to mine in the deepest reaches of the backstage of the Canberra Theatre became an editing suite, the editor Stewart Young lived in our house in Narrabundah (Heights), and the film took shape. It's a touching documentary about a group of women that Solrun located and with whom she maintained friendships thereafter.

Solrun then got funding for a script she had written for a dramatic feature about a Japanese War bride living in Australia in the 50s. At that stage Karen had to decide whether to join the film production or stay with the Electric Shadows Bookshop she had opened. She stayed with the bookshop and Denise Patience came on board as Producer. Aya starred Nicholas Eadie and the Japanese actress Eri Ishida. Regrettably it didn't click with the Australian public and Solrun never got another chance to do another feature film.

This wasn't for lack of trying or lack of enthusiasm. She wrote a large number of scripts, many of them dealing with themes involving Australia and Japan, but they were not received sympathetically. Undeterred she continued to travel to Japan and also accepted invitations to visit South Korea. As was Solrun's wont, she pushed the authorities until she got a visa to North Korea as well and, seizing the moment and using the new digital technology, put together a remarkable little film about her travels. This was Pyongyang Diaries one of the first films to show anything of what life is like in this odd and very secretive society. It earned her more than a little money, some festival screenings and an ASIO interview. She followed this film with another documentary about North and South Korean relations, 00 which also had some international success.

In recent years Solrun had devoted much of her time to studying and practising print making. She was an inveterate student, constantly enrolling in classes to study new technologies, and latterly getting herself very involved in print-making classes. Much of the visual material she used for her prints derived from stills of her own films which she reworked and recoloured into quite remarkable pieces of art. In the last year or so she had been represented in a number of group shows and had solo exhibitions at Gasworks Arts Precinct, the Joshua McClelland Print Room, the Benalla Gallery and the Albion Street Gallery in Sydney.

It's only a couple of weeks ago that Solrun rang to say that she had been diagnosed with a cancer. There was some hope that it might be operated upon but further tests would determine that. Last Friday she went to hospital for a scan, suffered a heart attack and went into a coma. Only a matter of hours later it was decided that the life support systems should be turned off. It was shockingly sudden.

We are left with extraordinary memories of a wonderful person. Our walls at home are decorated with a number of her prints and they will serve as a constant reminder of the life and work of a great and loyal friend with whom, for the first time in a couple of decades, we wont be sharing Christmas. We will miss her."

We still do...

Saturday 30 July 2022

"This is not how it looks" - Tom Ryan talks to Michael Winterbottom at the time of the release of NINE SONGS (UK, 2004)

Michael Winterbottom

The funniest moment in Michael Winterbottom’s
 24 Hour Party People  (2002) has impresario Tony Wilson (played by British comedian Steve Coogan) being caught with his pants down, literally. He’s sitting inside an OB van, a prostitute exuberantly fellating him, when his wife (Shirley Henderson) flings open the door and catches him red-handed, as it were. Usually quick on his feet, this time he’s very much on the back one. And all he can come up with is a vehement but totally unconvincing “This is not how it looks”.

Winterbottom might have adopted the same line in regard to the sex scenes that turned 9 Songs into tabloid fodder, but it wouldn’t have been any more persuasive than Wilson’s desperate blurting. It’s clear that it’s exactly how it looks: the actors, Kieran O’Brien (who’d previously had a small part in 24 Hour Party People and worked with Winterbottom on Cracker) and first-timer Margo Stilley are having sex.

Most of the commentary about the film suggested that this is all they do, and that it’s all the film is about. But while it’s true that Winterbottom has said that he wanted to depict in explicit detail the side of relationships that is routinely elided with a cut or a tasteful dissolve, or simulated, 9 Songs creates a context for the interactions between his lovers that makes the suggestion extremely misleading.


As the film begins, the relationship is over, Matt musing about it in voice-over as he flies over the Antarctic in his new assignment as a geologist. He also ponders the vast white mystery of the landscape beneath, noting that it’s a place where “you can suffer claustrophobia and agrophobia at the same time, like two people in a bed”. The Antarctic remains a key reference point throughout the film.


The title alludes to the number of concerts Matt and Lisa attend, together or separately, after they first meet at a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club gig at the Brixton Academy. As the film tracks the course of their relationship, sex scenes and musical performances (including Michael Nyman’s for his 60th birthday) make up most of the brief running-time. 


They’re an ordinary-looking couple, unglamorous, anonymous, like people you might pass in the street and forget an instant later. Which is part of the point: this is not a glossy Hollywood delve into the disreputable, nor does it invite the kind of voyeuristic engagement or titillation that one might encounter with porn. Shot digitally, it’s intentionally grungy, the camera spending at least as much time gazing at the characters’ faces as they register ecstasy, amusement or displeasure as it does watching their sexual couplings. Rather than simply sight-seeing, it seems to be grappling with the mysterious links between action and response, pointing, like Jonathan Glazer’s camera in Birth (2004) to the unfathomable that lies within.


The exploration of unknown terrain is central to the film. It’s not by chance that Winterbottom has Lisa give Matt a book about the Antarctic for his birthday, reading from it a passage about how icebergs are like a microcosm of the Antarctic as a whole, doomed to disintegration. Central to the film is a reminder of the transience of things: sexual arousal, the excitement of a concert, the pleasure of a relationship. If the icebergs and Antarctica melt to nothing, then what chance do Matt and Lisa have?


The use of Michael Nyman’s score, borrowed from Winterbottom’s earlier Wonderland (1999), leaves traces of melancholy on everything that happens. And they’re there from the start, just as they are whenever Nyman’s music turns up in Winterbottom’s work (as, for example, in the various versions of his films and TV series developed from The Trip).


The above is a slightly revised version of my review of 9 Songs originally written for The Sunday Age. I interviewed Winterbottom about it in May, 2005, in a public Q&A at ACMI immediately following the film’s Melbourne’s premiere. 



Margo Stilley, Kieran O'Brien, 9 Songs


Tom Ryan: Are you disappointed at the way that the critical response to 9 Songs has dealt only with the sex scenes and not the context that you’ve created for them?


Michael Winterbottom: Critical response is always very varied. You get good reviews and bad reviews and interesting reviews and boring reviews. To be fair, the starting point for that strand of the story was: why can’t you show two people making love in the cinema? If you’re going to make a love story, why isn’t it possible to try to deal with the most intimate physical aspects? Not that that’s the whole love story at all, but that’s part of it. So why is it excluded? So I wasn’t really surprised that that was picked up on by the press.


OK. But, to explore the context a bit, why the Antarctic as the point from which William narrates the story?


At the most basic level, it was just a place for him to look back from. When we began the story, we didn’t know exactly what the boundaries between the different strands would be. I didn’t know that there were going to be nine songs, I wasn’t sure how much would be Matt looking back on the love affair in the Antarctic and how much would be the love affair itself. So, to be honest, that’s always been somewhere that’s interested me as a place and I’ve always wanted to go down there. And it just seemed that it would be an interesting context for him.


When we started making the film, we started with the things between the two of them at the concerts and I thought the Antarctic was going to be for a different film. But it became the bookends, the starting point for the film, although I still hope to make a proper film in the Antarctic at some point. This was just a warm-up.


But you do make extensive use of it in the film. You keep coming back to it.


Well, I think the idea of the film was to try to look at the love affair more in the way a song or a poem might do rather than a normal film. And not to worry too much about the detailed life of the people outside of their making love. To not worry about the story or the plot, but to try to have a more lyrical approach. So, yeah, in a sense there are elements of the Antarctic that kind of correspond in some sort of way to the affair. But it sounds a bit pretentious to be stuck here talking about that. So really it was just a starting point…


How did you decide on these particular character types? 


Really it was the casting, which is always obviously very important, but especially for this film. If you’re working with actors who’re improvising, it’s bound to be more important because there’s going to be more of them in the characters. So it was really just a question of finding two people who wanted to do the film and two people I thought would be interesting to film. So once I chose them, it was a question of two people making love and seeing what would come from that.


But you weren’t looking for George Clooney and Nicole Kidman. You were looking for particular character types here, weren’t you?


Well, two particular individuals. If we’d found two different people, obviously it would have been a different film. Really, there was very little prescribed before we chose them. 


What about the structure that you decided on: the scenes between the couple punctuated by the songs? At what point in the process did that emerge?


Well, ever since 24 Hour Party People I’ve wanted to do a concert movie. Because when we did that film we spent a lot of time recreating bands’ concerts and it just seemed like it would be very simple and enjoyable to get the real bands and film them. So I think we did about four or five days with just the two of them in the flat and then we went to see… I think the first couple of concerts we went to see were Super Furry Animals and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and it just seemed actually that that rhythm for the filming was very good. 


We went from the two of them alone together to this big crowd and the energy and the music. And so really it was probably through us filming like this that it became the shape of the film as well. It developed as we were making it. It wasn’t a sort of blueprint before we started. It was more a case of let’s start and see what happens.


To what extent then is the film an exploration for you of what might result from providing actors with general directions, switching on the camera and seeing what happens?


For me it’s always enjoyable when you’re filming if you’re looking for something to happen that day. For me, it’s not as if you’ve got four pages of the script to get through and then you’re finished. You have a situation and you have characters and you hope that something might happen.


What’s been your response to the hostility that’s been directed at you because of the film’s sexual explicitness?


When we started making the film, everyone said it was pointless making it because it wouldn’t be allowed to be shown in the cinemas. It would be classed as pornography, and so why bother making it? The good thing is that when we finally finished the film and showed it to the censors in Britain, they passed it without any cuts at all. So it’s been interesting…


In some quarters, the actress’s retrospective regrets about doing the sex scenes, or at least about not being able to remain anonymous, has turned into an ethical challenge against your use of her? That is, that you’re more experienced and should have known how she’d feel… Is this fair criticism, do you think?


Well, I think you should talk to Margo Stilley. On the basis of all the times I’ve met her since shooting the film, she doesn’t regret doing the film at all. What happened was: when we first showed the film, it was at the market in Cannes to try to get the money to finish it. She decided at the last minute not to come down, that she didn’t want to do press. As soon as the British press found out that she didn’t want to be interviewed by newspapers, they immediately sent journalists half way around the world to talk to her mother and her grandmother, and ran endless stories about her. But it wasn’t a big decision on her part that she didn’t want to do press at that point. 


She’s done a lot since and she doesn’t regret being in the film at all. 

On the subject, what’s interesting is that a lot of journalists, in Britain anyway, have assumed somehow that Kieran must be very happy to have been in the film. Because he’s a man, therefore he must be very pleased to be having sex in the film, whereas Margo, the woman, must be being exploited. Actually, having worked with them over the whole period, I think it’s a very intimate thing to do, a difficult thing in some ways, but something they wanted to do. And it was a very similar experience, I think, for both of them. Just because one is a man and one is a woman doesn’t mean to say it was completely different experience for them.


I have to ask this question: why was it necessary for them to have real sex as distinct from simulated sex?


Well that was the whole starting point for the film, in a way. I was trying to create a situation that’s as natural and relaxed and as real as possible, and then when you get to a sex scene in a normal context, it’s very awkward. It’s not as if actors don’t have to do intimate things on film: they might be in bed together, they might be kissing, they might be stroking each other’s bodies, they might be naked. There’s a whole set of rules, and boundaries, about how to do it. So it’s very hard to get any feeling of honesty or feel like you’re capturing anything that could be equivalent to the intimacy involved in making love to someone you love. 


Obviously there are thousands of films and love stories that succeed in making you feel that way, but I thought it was interesting to try to capture the intimacy of having them really making love in bed rather than pretending to do it. And when we made the film, when we started I didn’t know whether I would like it or whether the actors would like it, or whether the crew would like it. But actually, after a few days, it became very normal and actually more relaxed than it would have been on a set where they were actually faking it.


Question from audience: Do you feel a camaraderie with other directors, say Catherine Breillat, who perhaps have something daring or original to say and who’ve made films about sex in recent years?


I’m not sure I’d call it camaraderie. Obviously a lot of films deal with sex in some form or other, but, in starting this, the idea was really very simple: not to use sex as a metaphor for anything, not to try to make a film about sex as a problem. But just to make a very, very simple film about two people in bed together, one person remembering the woman he’s had a relationship with and just trying to capture something of what his memories of this woman might be. 


Other films that do sex are interesting. I’m just trying to deal with it very naturally and very simply. Of course, they happen to make love, but as part of a love affair, it seems to me that it’s very natural. I think that it’s not really such a big issue that there’s sex in it. I don’t really get what the problem is, of seeing two people making love. It’s what most people want to have as part of their lives. And it’s sort of odd that there’s some taboo about it.


Question from audienceEverybody seems to be focused on the sex in the film, but if the sex is real what about the drug use? Was that also real?


I think no comment is my response to that. I’ve got enough problems as it is.


Question from audience: How do you get the money to make the films you want to make?


We really only make one film a year and you probably only need two or three people to finance it. Some films take a long time, or never happen, other films happen straight away. It’s a bit like a lottery…


Question from audience: Why did you choose that muddy brown film stock?


We shot the film digitally, on DV. It’s more lightweight, which means you can film for about 40 minutes. So it lets you get the camera right up close to people, and it’s very quiet as well. When you get that close and hand-held, it’s always a bit of an issue with sound… just trying to capture fragments of memories… 


From my point of view, it’s enjoyable not to always make the same kind of film. 


Michael Nyman

TR: I can’t interview Michael Winterbottom and not ask how important to you is Michael Nyman’s music?


I love Michael Nyman’s music... In fact, we’re just working on the score for Tristam Shandy [released as A Cock and Bull Story]. He’s re-recorded some of The Draughtsman’s Contract music for us and also other pieces as well. For 9 Songs, I’d been using the Wonderland score to play with in the editing and I liked the way it combined with some of the scenes, so I called him up to ask him if we could use the Wonderland music in the film and he said he was doing his 60th birthday concert and playing the Wonderland music. It was the very last thing we shot for the film. One of the great things about Mike is that he loved the idea of being with people like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Primal Scream.

Friday 29 July 2022

GEORGE SMILEY novels and screen - Part Seven - Rod Bishop continues his series - SMILEY'S PEOPLE (1982)

The Sandman is making a legend for a girl…for this story I should go to Hamburg, unofficial, no cover, no baby-sitter. Know where the East German border is up there? From Lübeck two kilometres? Less? Remember? In Travemünde you got to stay on the left side of the street or you’ve defected by mistake.”

-       Toby Esterhase


“…[George Smiley] was toiling at his habitual desk in the London Library in St James’s Square…in the Parnassian field of German baroque poetry, for at that time he was composing a monograph on the bard Opitz…

…The summons came to Smiley that same night…he had come home straight from the library, then dined poorly at an Italian restaurant in Kings Road, taking Voyages of Olearius with him for protection. He had returned to his house on Bywater Street and resumed work on his monograph with the devotion of a man who had nothing else to do.”

Alec Guinness, Smiley's People

And then fallen asleep.

Once again, it was Oliver Lacon who summons Smiley from retirement. One of Smiley’s old Russian defectors, General Vladimir, has been found murdered on Hampstead Heath.

Shot dead. This evening. George, for Heaven’s sake wake up, we need you…someone from his past, George. Someone who knew his little ways, can identify him, damp down potential scandal…Now. We need you George, wake up

“‘I need you’ thought Smiley…‘I love you, I hate you, I need you’. Such apocalyptic statements reminded him of Ann when she had run out of money or love. The heart of the sentence is the subject, he thought. It is not the verb, least of all the object. It is the ego, demanding its feed.

Lacon’s summons eventually leads to Karla…once again. Ann tells Smiley that Bill Haydon called Karla “the black Grail”. General Vladimir, now hiding in London, had realized the Russian spy boss set up Maria Ostrakova, a Russian expat in Paris, with fake citizenship papers for her daughter. 

As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear the fake citizenship papers for Maria’s daughter have been secretly used by The Sandman (Karla) as cover for his own schizophrenic daughter, now confined under a false name in the West at a Swiss sanatorium. For Smiley, it’s the chance he’s been waiting for; he can blackmail Karla and force him to defect to the West.

For the television adaptation of Smiley’s People (1982), there was a chance to get the band back together. Or what was left of it. 

Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton)

Alec Guinness as Smiley; Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase; Anthony Bate as Oliver Lacon; Beryl Reed as Connie Sachs, Patrick Stewart as Karla; Siân Phillips as Ann. The only unavailable cast member was Michael Jayston to play Peter Guillam. Jayston was committed to playing von Trapp in the London stage revival of The Sound of Music, of all things, so Michael Byrne filled in as Guillam.

Connie Sachs (Beryl Reid)

Adhering to the “when you’re on a good thing, stick to it” axiom, scriptwriters John Hopkins and le Carré rely heavily on dialogue and structure from the novel (1979) and director Simon Langton takes the same measured and clear-eyed direction John Irvin achieved in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The often over-written and lengthy prose of The Honorable Schoolboy- 156,000 words compared with 92,000 for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and 104,000 for Smiley’s People- and its exotic locations, probably made any screen adaptation of the second novel in The Karla Trilogy unfeasible. 

But here, in the third, le Carré returns to the sparce, lean pacing of Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy and the television series unfolds with an unerring fidelity to the novel. 

Watching Alec Guinness return to the site of Vladimir’s murder, for instance, where Vladimir was to bring “two proofs” implicating The Sandman (“anyone who comes too close to him has a way of falling asleep”), is to watch a commensurate artist at work. Smiley follows Vladimir’s insistence on “Moscow Rules” and stalks the scene at Hampstead Heath, finding the tradecraft chalk mark and the new drawing pin on a park pavilion and pokes about in the bushes with his umbrella. 

He carefully steps along the Russian’s probable footmarks, trying not to over-balance:

Smiley peered sharply behind him and saw two small boys in blazers who had paused to watch this little round man in spectacles performing strange antics with his feet.”

He trawls through the park detritus - broken kites, Coca-Cola cans, torn-up porno mags, old shoes, a burnt blanket, beer bottles and cigarette packets - while other walkers, including a couple of typists and some Buddhist monks (a Hari Krishna in the television series), now watch on intently as the odd Homburg-hatted man finally stretches up to find his quarry hidden between branches in a tree. 

A similar set-piece takes place in Smiley’s Chelsea home, a near wordless sequence as he develops the photographic negative so carefully left by General Vladimir in the tree on Hampstead Health. There’s something reminiscent of Antonioni’s Blow-Up in these sequences and Guinness is riveting in both.

In the novel, but not its adaptation, the silence is broken by Ann. 

Smiley is waiting in an armchair for the photographic print to dry when he:

“…addressed himself to a pretty marquetry writing-desk in which Ann kept her ‘things’ with embarrassing openness. Such as a sheet of writing paper on which she had written the one word ‘Darling’ and not continued, perhaps uncertain which darling to write to.”

And then…

Ann rang. Once again, perhaps he had dozed off…‘George, George’ as if she had been crying for him a long time, and he had only now summoned the energy or the caring to answer her. They began their conversation as strangers, much as they began their love-making.

‘How are you?’ she asked.

‘Very well, thank you. How are you? What can I do for you?’

‘I meant it’ Ann insisted. ‘How are you? I want to know”.

To forget the hurts, the list of lovers; to forget Bill Haydon, the Circus traitor, whose shadow still fell across her face each time he reached for her…Bill the born deceiver, whose quest for the ultimate betrayal led him into the Russians’ bed, and Ann’s…

…but as he spoke he heard her whisper ‘George’…

‘You mustn’t’ he said. ‘Ann? Listen. You mustn’t come here…’

‘Then come here’, she said.

He rang off. He imagined her crying, then getting out her address book to see who from her First Eleven, as she called them, might console her in his place.”

When Smiley is forced into the dreaded dinner with Oliver Lacon to discuss each other’s marriage problems and as Lacon is seeing him off in a cab, Lacon actually says something quite funny:

If Ann had been your agent instead of your wife, you probably would have run her pretty well.”

To the plethora of spy-speak from Tinker Tailor Solder Spy, le Carré adds: the vicars, the postmen, the Neighbours, bromide jobs, Oddbins, the suitors, the babysitters, the pickets, the Cousins, lifelines, the whisperers, burning (blackmail), tradesmen and the loser’s corner.

Anton Grigoriev (Michel Lonsdale)

The trail for Karla leads through several European counties, to strip-clubs, French safe-houses, Berne, feral German water camps and Soviet diplomats (Michael Lonsdale is superlative as the hapless diplomat Anton Grigoriev). 

Finally, Karla is forced to defect. Meeting Smiley at a Berlin Wall crossing at Oberbaumbrücke, he holds a cigarette lighter that once belonged to the British spy, engraved with a message from Ann: “To George from Ann, with all my love”. 

Decades before, Karla had taken the lighter from George in a Delhi jail cell.

As he crosses into the West, Karla drops the lighter at Smiley’s feet. Smiley glances at it, leaves it on the road and walks away with a barely concealed expression of disgust.

“‘There is no loyalty without betrayal’, Ann liked to tell him in their youth when he ventured to protest at her infidelities”.

Both series follow labyrinthine plots and Alec Guinness holds them together with a vice-like grip. His Smiley, continually swaps from contrived meekness to the distinctly bland to the fiercely determined; from the mild and reserved to the wounded, put-upon lover; and from the contemptuous to the very essence of British politeness.

Ten years ago, The New Yorker described Alec Guinness’s work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People, the two-television series that made him an icon, as:

“…almost Shakespearian…one of the great literary-cinematic creations of the post-war era, an actor’s masterpiece.”

 Previous: Click on title

Next: The Secret Pilgrim, A Legacy of Spies, and the feature film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tuesday 26 July 2022

GEORGE SMILEY novels and screen - Part Six - Rod Bishop examines THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY (1977)


Cover of the 1st edition

“It was remembered that Bill Haydon had not merely been George Smiley’s colleague, but Ann’s cousin and something more besides.

Smiley’s fury against him, they said, had not stopped at Haydon’s death: he was positively dancing on Bill’s grave. George had personally supervised the clearing of Haydon’s fabled pepper-pot room overlooking Charing Cross Road, and the destruction of every last sign of himfrom his indifferent oil-paintings by his own hand to the left-over oddments in the drawers of his desk; even the desk itself, which he ordered sawn up, and burned.And when that was done, he had called in the Circus workmen to tear down the partition walls.”

“[Smiley] gave a studious frown, and blinked, then whipped off his spectacles and, to the secret delight of everyone, unconsciously subscribed to his own legend by polishing them on the fat end of his tie.”


This second part of The Karla Trilogy, published in 1977, opens with a group of rowdy, drunken, cartoonish journalists at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club in 1974. They have discovered one of their drinking crowd, the British diplomat Tufty Thesinger, and all who sail in him, have disappeared overnight and are thought to have scuttled home to the Old Dart.

It's part of the dismantling and rolling up of British spy networks around the world - a necessity brought about by Bill Haydon’s betrayal and his years of passing on security information to Karla and Moscow Centre, including the names of British spies. An event now known in spy circles as “the Fall” – as in the Circus before the Fall and the Circus after The Fall.

Immediately after Hayden’s capture, all nine Soviet and East European networks went dead and in the Far East, it’s not just Hong Kong, but also Bangkok, Singapore, Saigon, Tokyo, Manila and Djakarta that are rolled up.

Richard Hughes

Journalist/spy Craw, a character based on the fabled Australian Richard (Dick) Hughes, called it:

A hoods’ Dunkirk…in which Charter DC8s replaced the Kent fishing fleets.”

Smiley, meanwhile, has the ‘ferrets’ completely rewiring the Circus after the discovery of surveillance bugs planted by Haydon for the Russians:

…Smiley now staged a modest piece of theatre. He ordered the ferrets to reactivate [Haydon’s] radio-microphones in the conference room and to modify the receiver on one of the Circus’s few remaining surveillance cars. He then invited three of the least bending Whitehall desk-jockeys…to drive in a half-mile radius round the building while they listened to a pre-scripted discussion…Word for word. Not a syllable out of place. After which Smiley swore them to absolute secrecy and for good measure made them sign a declaration…Peter Guillam reckoned it would keep them quiet for about a month. ‘Or less if it rains’, he added sourly.”

Smiley also aims to scrap all the UK outstations – the safe houses “now totally unsafe”; the holding and training centre known as the Sarratt Nursery; audio labs in Harlow; the Argyll “stink and bangs school”; the water school in Helford Estuary; the radio transmission base at Canterbury; and the wranglers’ headquarters in Bath.

“‘Scrap the lot’ he told Lacon.”

The Circus is now run by a hand-picked Group of Five:

Smiley himself; Peter Guillam, his cupbearer; big, flowing Connie Sachs; Fawn, the dark-eyed factotum who wore black gym-shoes and manned the Russian-style copper samovar and gave out biscuits; and lastly Doc di Salis, known as the mad Jesuit, the Circus’s head China-watcher…to have been one of them, said di Salis was like ‘holding a Communist Party card with a single-figure membership number.’”

“‘George Smiley isn’t just cleaning the stable’…Roddy Martindale remarked…he’s carrying the horse up the hill as well. Haw haw.’”

The reinstated Head of Research, Connie Sachs, has discovered “a goldseam” in Hong Kong and in the words of another British literary figure: “the game’s afoot”. 

In Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, Jerry Westerby, the journalist who called the newspaper he works for “the comic”, was fired from his part-time job as a spy at the Circus for daring to pass on information about a mole at the top. Smiley now calls him out of retirement from Lucca, Tuscany and sends him to Hong Kong.

Most of this very long novel is based around the pursuit of two brothers, Drake and Nelson Ko, whose deceased parents were Chiu Chow boat people. The brothers were raised by the Reverend and Liese Hibbert and Drake escapes from Mainland China to Hong Kong where he becomes extremely wealthy from smuggling and prostitution. He also gets an OBE.

“[Drake Ko is]a Chiu Chow poor-boy who becomes a Jockey Club Steward with an OBE and hoses down his horse before a race. A Hakka water-gypsy who gives his child a Baptist funeral and an English effigy. A capitalist who hates politics. A failed lawyer, a gang boss, a builder of hospitals who runs an opium airline, a supporter of spirit temples who plays croquet and rides about in a Rolls-Royce. An American bar in his Chinese garden, and Russian gold in his bank account.”

His brother Nelson, a dedicated communist, was studying marine engineering in Leningrad when Karla recruited him to spy on China for Moscow Centre. Drake is fixated on having his brother Nelson join him in Hong Kong.

The ‘goldseam’ Connie Sachs discovers is $US25,000 a month ($US500,000 in all) from Moscow Centre transferred to Drake Ko who is to hand it over to his brother, in payment for Nelson’s spying activities in China. 

Nelson Ko is believed to have high quality intelligence on both the Soviet Union and China and Smiley’s pursuit of Nelson is another opportunity to take revenge on Karla and Moscow Centre.

There are assassinations; botched assassinations; opium smuggling into China; blackmail; territorial tussles between the Circus and the CIA; and even Jerry Westerby getting engaged in some Hunter S Thompson-style escapades in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

In North East Thailand, Westerby:

“…passed a village and a cinema. Even the latest films up here are silents, Jerry recalled. He had once done a story about them. Local actors made the voices, and invented whatever plots came into their heads. He remembered John Wayne with a squeaky Thai voice, and the audience ecstatic, and the interpreter explaining to him they were hearing an imitation of the local mayor who was a famous queen.” 

And Ann?

“‘…don’t ask him about his wife,’ Guillam warned in a fast, soft murmur.”

With Haydon dead and the past buried, the Smileys had made up their differences and together, with some small ceremony, the united couple had moved back into their little Chelsea house. They even made a stab at being in society…had even for a few weeks made a modestly exotic couple around the higher bureaucratic circuit. Till overnight, to his wife’s unmistakable discomfort, George Smiley had removed himself from her sight, and set up camp in the meagre attics behind his throne-room in the Circus…while in Chelsea, Ann Smiley pined, taking very hardly to her unaccustomed role of wife abandoned.”

News that brought another bellow from Roddy Martindale:

The gall! Him a complete nobody and her half a Sawley!..After years of putting up with her perfectly healthy peccadillos…what does the little man do?...kicks her in the teeth…Smiley has gone too far.” 

No feature film or television series has been made of The Honourable Schoolboy. In 1983, the BBC adapted the novel for radio.

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