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.”

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

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