Tinker, Tailor, Guinness, Oldman?

Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor

Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor

For those of my generation, Alec Guinness will always be George Smiley.  I’ve seen the 1979 BBC adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, twice now and, like many, rank it as among the best TV of the seventies.  So it was with some trepidation that I went to see the new film adaptation from director Tomas Alfredson.  Could Gary Oldman’s Smiley stand up to Alec Guinness’s iconic BAFTA award-winning portrayal?

Of course, Alec Guinness didn’t exactly match Le Carre’s description of Smiley in the book as ‘small, podgy and at best middle-aged … by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth’.   And in fact, at one stage Guinness was concerned that he wasn’t the right type to play the podgy Smiley. But what Guinness succeeded in doing was to capture the melancholy of an intelligent man humiliated by enforced retirement and his wife’s infidelity with one of the men who forced him out of the service.

John Le Carre was so impressed by Alec Guinness’s performance that in later novels he adapted the Smiley character to be in keeping with Guinness’s performance. He said that Guinness had played Smiley so well that, in a sense, he had ‘stolen’ the character from him.  Recently, though, Le Carre (an executive producer on the Alfredson film) said, ‘Oldman is a Smiley waiting patiently to explode and the air of frustration and solitude he’s able to convey is something that takes me back to the novel I wrote 30-something years ago’.

Oldman is slimmer and less plummy than Guinness, tight-lipped and possessing the air of someone who has been hurt very badly, but has a steely determination to uncover the truth.  Oldman’s expression in the final shot – of him seating himself at the head of the table as the new head of the service – captures this perfectly.  The rest of the cast are superb, too – notably, Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, John Hurt as Control, Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam.

Betrayal is the central theme of the novel and one of the successes of the film is the manner in which it explores betrayal – of one’s country, colleagues, partner.  In his Tinker-Tailor A-Z in The Guardian last weekend, William Boyd claimed that ‘among the few things we British are very good at … is betraying our country – our traitors are world-class and numerous, particularly since the second world war’. The Cambridge spy ring, headed by Sir Anthony Blunt still haunts the popular imagination.  The first broadcast of the TV series coincided with the revelation that Anthony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, was one of the Cambridge ring of spies who passed information to the Soviet Union during the Cold War (the known others being Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby, the latter being Le Carre’s model for Bill Haydon).

Alfredson’s film is very good, and manages to escape from the shadow of the TV series.  It’s bleak, dark and almost devoid of the kind of action that an American  espionage thriller would contain – which is how it should be.  There is violence, and it is more overt here than in the novel or the TV series, but these scenes shock all the more because of the subdued nature of the rest of the film.  It only reinforces the notion that we’re looking at a dirty business that both sides practised equally ruthlessly during the Cold War years (another of Le Carre’s perennial themes).

In general, the film is remarkably good at capturing the feel of the 1970s, sometimes by deliberate placing of iconic features of the decade – a teleprinter (remember the footie results coming in on a Saturday afternoon?), a Wimpey bar, a Citroen CX, a glass of Skol.  One aspect that seemed a bit odd was the set for the Circus, portrayed a vast, impersonal space, something between a factory and an aircraft hangar, in which the offices and meeting rooms are distributed,  looking like portakabins. Le Carre always said how the BBC portrayal of the Circus ( filmed in the offices of the BBC) reminded him of the look of the place during his own days in MI6.

Alec Guiness as George Smiley

Alfredson has to compress the story, of course.  The seven-part TV series, scripted by Arthur Hopcraft and directed by John Irvin, ran some 290 minutes. Still, with less than half that running time at their disposal, Alfredson and his screenwriters have managed to keep all the essentials of the original.

During production, Alec Guinness complained that George Smiley’s characteristic habit, polishing his glasses with the fat end of his tie, could not be done naturally since Smiley wore three-piece suits. So a handkerchief was used as a substitute. In the sequel, Smiley’s People, Le Carre made reference to this issue:

‘From long habit, Smiley had taken off his spectacles and was absently polishing them on the fat end of his tie, even though he had to delve for it among the folds of his tweed coat.’

Le Carré with Alec Guinness during the making of the 1979 BBC adaptation

Here are the first few minutes from the first episode of the BBC series.  This scene does not appear in the novel, but in it screenwriter Peter Straughan cleverly and concisely introduces the main characters and suspects. It is played silently, with great precision and wit. Note great actors, Bernard Hepton as the punctilious and elegant Toby Esterhase (in the truly outrageous 1970s orange shirt), Terence Rigby as Roy Bland (smoking, coughing), Michael Aldridge as Percy Alleline, and Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon (balancing coffee cup).

The opening and closing credits for the BBC series were classics of their kind. The Russian doll idea for the opening titles were inspired by a passage towards the end of the novel where Smiley, considering what had driven the mole and ‘distrustful as ever of the standard shapes of human motive’ settles instead for ‘a picture of one of those wooden Russian dolls that open up, revealing one person inside the other, and another inside him.  Of all men living, only Karla had seen the last little doll inside Bill Haydon’.  The BFI website notes:

The opening and closing credit sequences of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) tell different stories. To begin each episode a glum-faced wooden Russian doll is disembowelled. Inside it are further dolls: one sullen, another glowering and a final one with only a blank where its face should be. A suspenseful oboe adds to the atmosphere of intrigue. But at the end the credits roll over a still photograph of Oxford. A boy soprano sings the Nunc dimittis (‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’). On the one hand, espionage and investigation, the hunt for a double agent; on the other, an elegiac drama of remembrance and departure: a time past, an ideal recalled, a love lost, perhaps. These bookends signal contradictory concerns, but one of the most compelling aspects of Tinker, Tailor is precisely its melding of thriller conventions with intricate melodrama.

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