Saturday 23 July 2022

GEORGE SMILEY novels and screen - Part Five - Rod Bishop continues his series with TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

To Guillam, Haydon was of that unrepeatable, fading Circus generation, to which his parents, and George Smiley also belonged – exclusive and in Haydon’s case blue-blooded – which had lived a dozen leisured lives to his own hasty one, and still, thirty years later, gave the Circus its dying flavour of adventure.”

George is like a swift…he cuts down his body temperature ‘till it’s the same as the environment. Then he doesn’t lose energy adjusting.” - 

Ann to Bill Haydon


Le Carré’s most accomplished work, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) fleshes out the secret intelligence world of the Circus and its tradecraft - previously only sketched in Call for the Dead and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

In this, le Carré’s seventh novel, the tradecraft spy-speak arrives in abundance.

There are the lamplighters, the forgers, the listeners, the wranglers, the ju-ju men, Nuts and Bolts, the networks, the safe houses, the surveillance teams, the silk-shirt agents, the talent spotters, the couriers, the reptile fund, the mothers, the scalphunters, the legmen, the Funnies, the cut-outs, the translators, the inquisitors, the janitors, the housekeepers, the dead-letter boxes, the codists, the pavement artists, the evaluators, transcribers and cypher clerks.

The first chapter is devoted to Jim Prideaux, the agent shot twice in the back in Czechoslovakia during Operation Testify. Prideaux goes into hiding (“relocation”) as a teacher at the Thursgood prep school in Taunton. Smiley suspects the shooting was caused by a mole in the Circus. 

Smiley was centre stage in le Carré’s first two novels and then a peripheral background presence in novels three and four. He did not appear in the fifth and sixth novels (A Small Town in GermanyThe Naïve and Sentimental Lover). His return in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes as a fully-formed, commanding and complex presence. 

In the second chapter, Smiley is introduced as: 

Small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting and extremely wet.”

On his way to his favourite Curzon Street bookseller, clutching an early edition of Grimmelshausen, he unfortunately runs into the blustering Roddy Martindale, a Foreign Office representative on the Intelligence Steering Committee:

If it isn’t the maestro himself! They told me you were locked up with the monks in St Gallen or somewhere, poring over manuscripts! Confess to me at once. I want to know all you’ve been doing, every little bit. Are you well? Do you love England still? How’s the delicious Ann?”

In this novel, it's the first of many barely veiled references to Smiley’s wayward wife and her affair with his colleague, Circus heavy-weight Bill Haydon. 

Martindale gossips heavily, including who might have replaced the now deceased Control at the Circus:

So who’s the cleverboots? Not Percy that’s for sure. And don’t tell me the Americans are trusting us again either…Dashing Bill Haydon, our latter-day Lawrence of Arabia, bless him; there you are, it’s Bill, your old rival…I’m told that you and Bill shared everything once upon a time…still he never was orthodox, was he? Genius never is.”

The novel doesn’t take a false step. Tight, funny, absorbing, exquisitely detailed and intriguingly plotted, it follows Smiley, brought out of retirement, to uncover the Russian mole in the higher echelon of the Circus.

When still alive, Control gave the echelon code-names. Is the mole Alleline? (Tinker). Haydon? (Tailor). Bland? (Soldier). Esterhase? (Poorman). Or even Smiley (Beggarman).

Smiley takes Control’s same route of discovery:

“[Control’s] way of dealing with them was to literally close the door: to withdraw into the dingy solitude of his upper rooms, receive no visitors and have all his phone calls fed to him by the mothers. The same quiet ladies fed him jasmine tea and the countless office files which he sent for and returned in heaps. Smiley would see them piled before the door as he went about his own business trying to keep the Circus afloat…But Smiley – as he now patiently leafed through file after file – knew, and in a real way took comfort from the knowledge, that he was not after all the first to take this journey of exploration; that Control’s ghost was his companion.”


Title for the BBC-TV series

A great deal of dialogue in John le Carré and Arthur Hopcraft’s script for the 1979 television series, is lifted directly from the book, but there are additions. After Ricki Tarr has spent all night at Lacon’s country house laying out the evidence for a mole, Lacon looks to George: “Fit George?…Natter?..Garden?”. Smiley mutters “Super” under his breath before joining Lacon in the greenhouse and the neighbouring golf course to hear Lacon apologize for not believing there was a mole when Smiley was still at the Circus. He then presses Smiley to take the job and “clean the stables”.

Another addition is the final scene of the series when Smiley visits Ann at her country pile to tell her of Bill Haydon’s fate. In a peerless exchange between the two, Ann says she is actually glad Haydon is dead and that he had “loved being a traitor”. Smiley asks her if she loved Haydon. She replies: “No, George. Poor George. Life’s such a puzzle to you, isn’t it?”

Including Ann for this final scene also takes full advantage of that screen-and-stage trick: talk about someone continuously without them appearing until late in the story. When they do, audience expectation greatly compounds the impact of their presence and charisma. 

Ann appears only once in the novel. Smiley is hoping she will pick him up at the train station. She is late. He waits in a taxi queue and watches from a distance as she drives down a bus lane, parks and goes into the station to find him. And that’s it, but the continuous “How’s Ann?”How’s the lovely Ann?” has chased Smiley around in the novel from beginning to end.

Ian Bannen as Jim Prideaux

The other major alteration in the television series is the opening twenty-minute sequence (brought forward from much later in the novel) to show Jim Prideaux’s enlistment by Control to bring Stevcek, a defecting Czech general of artillery to England. Control, duped by Karla, Moscow Centre and Bill Haydon, believes Stevcek knows the identity of the Circus mole.

After the struggling attempts by James Mason, Denholm Elliot and Rupert Davies, casting Alec Guinness as Smiley proved to be a master-stoke.

Alec Guinness as Smiley

Guinness looks nothing like le Carré’s various descriptions of Smiley; he is nearly six feet tall when Smiley is always described as short; he is slim and certainly not overweight when the novels always describe him as fat and podgy; and he is conservatively well-dressed where le Carré sometimes described only cheap suits hanging off a squat frame.

But like Richard Burton before him, he nails his character from his very first scene and doesn’t let up for the 11 hours running time of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. And like Burton, his strongest moments are silent facial expressions and eye-movements that virtually convey plot developments in themselves.

Director John Irvin has said Guinness needed considerable persuasion to take the role - three lunches with Irvin, one with David Cornwell (le Carré) and one with the Head of MI6. It all paid off and it’s arguably the greatest spy television series to have emerged from the Cold War.

The opening meeting at the Circus. Bill Haydon
(Ian Richardson) second from left

As the novel draws to its conclusion with the imminent capture of the mole, le Carré is still building the sort of character development that screen adaptations simply don’t have time for. The taciturn Mendel, for instance, a retired police inspector, who appears in Call for the DeadA Murder of Quality, Tinker Tailor Solder SpySmiley’s People and A Legacy of Spies is hidden in a building opposite the Circus waiting for the mole to be flushed out:

Funnies, Mendel mused. A lifetime of chasing villains and how do I end up? Breaking and entering, standing in the dark and spying on the Funnies. He’d never held with the Funnies til he met Smiley. Thought they were an interfering lot of amateurs and college boys; thought they were unconstitutional; thought the best thing the Branch could do, for its own sake and the public’s was say ‘yes, sir, no, sir’ and lose the correspondence.”

Mrs McCraig, housekeeper at the safe house where the mole meets the Russian Polyakov, is barely glimpsed in the television series, but in the novel:

She was a wiry Scottish widow with brown stockings and bobbed hair and the polished, wrinkled skin of an old man. In the interest of God and the Circus she had run Bible Schools in Mozambique and a seaman’s mission in Hamburg and although she had been a professional eavesdropper for twenty years since then, she was still inclined to treat all men as transgressors. Smiley had no way of telling what she thought.”

And Smiley, hiding in the dark in Mrs McCraig’s safe house, awaiting the arrival of the mole and unconvincingly fiddling with a gun:

He thought again about the day he buried Control. He thought about treason and whether there was mindless treason in the same way, supposedly, as there was mindless violence. It worried him…that whatever intellectual or philosophical precepts he clung to broke down entirely now that he was faced with the human situation.

…a fat, barefooted spy, as Ann would say, deceived in love and impotent in hate, clutching a gun in one hand, a bit of string in the other, as he waited in the darkness.”

"...clutching a gun in one hand,a bit of
string in the other..."

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