Wednesday 20 July 2022

GEORGE SMILEY novels and screen - Part Four - Rod Bishop delves into THE LOOKING GLASS WAR


“I’ve arranged for you to have a short talk with George Smiley at the Circus…he used to be one of their best men. Typical of the Circus in some ways, of the better kind. He resigns, you know, and he comes back. His conscience. One never knows whether he’s there or not. He’s a bit past it now. They say he drinks a good deal…They’re a curious crowd. Some good, of course. Smiley was good. But they’re cheats. That’s an odd word to use about a sister service. Lying is second nature to them. Half of them don’t know any longer when they’re telling the truth.”

For le Carré, his fourth novel was prompted by the acclaim bestowed on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In the new novel, he set out to show how incompetent the intelligence agencies really were. He also disapproved of readers who regarded spies as glamorous, and who celebrated Alec Leamas as some sort of a tragic hero. 

For The Looking Glass War (1965)le Carré creates ‘The Department’, a left-over WW2 Intelligence group, once adept at wartime aerial reconnaissance, but now a depleted group of misfits virtually inept at the business of spying. Their bête noir is their sister agency, the Circus, particularly Smiley and Control, whom they keep out of the loop by lying to them about their mission to find Russian missile bases on the East German border. 

In the novel, Smiley and Control play book-ending roles, kept in the dark by The Department but reluctantly asked for help when things go pear-shaped:

“…suppose I ask you to find, field and train the agent. Would you do it?”

“Without telling the Circus?”

“Why not?”

Haldane shook his head. “Because it isn’t our work. We’re just not equipped. Give it to the Circus and help them out with the military stuff. Give it to an old hand, someone like Smiley or Leamas.”

“Leamas is dead.”

“All right then – Smiley.”

“Smiley is blown.”

“Haldane coloured. ‘Then Guillam or one of the others. One of the pros. They’ve got a big enough stable these days. Go and see Control, let him have the case.’” 

Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Jones
The Looking Glass War

In the film version of The Looking Glass War (1969) written and directed by Frank Pierson, Smiley, Control and the Circus are completely omitted. It’s left to ‘The Ministry’, not the Circus, to clean up the botched mission. 

While this omission leaves Pierson more scope to ‘grubby-up’ The Department’s operational shortcomings, it does do away with another level to the British secret services – a level somewhat more sophisticated than The Department’s impotent modus operandi

Le Carre’s scathing prose, however, leaves no doubt as to his views on those who were once his secret service colleagues. Here’s his description of the club known as The Alias to which The Department members belonged:

Its members are an odd selection. Some of a military kind, some in the teaching profession, others clerical; others again from the no-man’s-land of London society which lies between the bookmaker and the gentleman, presenting to those around them, and perhaps to themselves, an image of vacuous courage; conversing in codes and phrases which a man with a sense of language can only listen to at a distance.”

By contrast, Smiley’s club is described:

Leclerc [from The Department] thought Smiley’s club a very strange place; not the kind of thing he had expected. Two half-basement rooms and a dozen people dining at separate tables before a large fire. Some of them were vaguely familiar. He suspected they were connected with the Circus…Leclerc noticed that the claret was very good. He wished he had joined a smaller club; his had gone off terribly. They have such difficulty with staff.”

Previous: Click on title

Call for the Dead/A Deadly Affair  

A Murder of Quality

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Next: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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