Archive for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

R.I.P. John le Carré (1931-2020)

Posted in Biographical, Literature with tags , , , , on December 14, 2020 by telescoper

I was very sad to hear the news last night of the death at the age of 89 of author John le Carré. I’m sure I’m not the only person who discovered his novels as a result of watching the 1979 TV series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which I watched while still a schoolboy. I loved so many things about that series, including the Circus jargon (tradecraft, lamplighters, honey-traps, etc) and the code-names (Gerald the Mole, Source Merlin, Operation Testify). When I got around to reading the novel I realized that there was much greater depth to le Carré’s writing than I’d imagined. I was particularly impressed with the sympathetic way he handled the character of the traitor Bill Haydon who, after he is revealed as the mole says to George Smiley:

Do you know what’s killing Western democracy, George? Greed. And constipation. Moral, political, aesthetic.

I’m with him on that one. “Half-Devils against Half-Angels” is another phrase I remember as a description of the “wretched Cold War” the protagonists found themselves fighting.

I also remember this, from Smiley’s People:

In my time, Peter Guillam, I’ve seen Whitehall skirts go up and come down again. I’ve listened to all the excellent argument for doing nothing, and reaped the consequent frightful harvest. I’ve watched people hop up and down and call it progress. I’ve seen good men go to the wall and the idiots get promoted with a dazzling regularity. All I’m left with is me and thirty-odd years of Cold War without the option.

That’s true in fields other than espionage.

Anyway, having read Tinker Tailor I bought everything I could by John le Carré and devoured all the books avidly. Not all his early books were great, but The Spy who came in from the Cold is excellent as are Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People – the so-called Karla trilogy.

Most obituaries circulating today describe John le Carré as a “spy novelist” but I see him as a writer whose excellence as a writer transcended that genre. I think the same way of many great crime novelists, such as Dashiell Hammett, who wrote great novels that happened to be about crime.

The last John le Carré book I bought was A Legacy of Spies (2017), which I haven’t yet got around to reading. I’ll put that on the list of Christmas reading, and drink a toast to an author who has given me so much to enjoy and to think about over so many years.

Rest in peace John le Carré (David Cornwell, 1931-2020).



Working for the Yankee Dollar

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , on January 27, 2017 by telescoper

While bracing myself to endure the nauseating spectacle of a British Prime Minister grovelling to the abominable Donald Trump in a desperate attempt to interest him in a trade deal, and sacrifice the National Health Service in the process, I suddenly had two flashbacks to the days of my youth (specifically 1979).

The first was to the TV series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Near the end, Bill Haydon, who has been revealed as a Russian “mole” and traitor to his country laments his country’s abject willingness to prostitute itself on behalf of the United States of America and explains that he decided to become a Soviet agent when he realised that “Britain had become America’s streetwalker”.

Coincidentally (?), this record by Scottish punk band The Skids was was also released in 1979:

Given the recent antics of the UK government I feel more confident than ever that Scottish independence will be a reality very soon.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted in Television with tags , , , , on May 7, 2012 by telescoper

Well it’s a Bank Holiday (hooray!) so naturally it’s raining (boo!). Nice to have a lie-in on a Monday morning for a change, but will probably spend the afternoon working anyway. We’ve just finished formal teaching term, and now we have a “Guided Study Week” of revision lectures etc before examinations start next week.

By way of a diversion I thought I’d mention that on my recent trip to South Africa I got a chance the see the film version of  John le Carré’s superb novel Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy. It was much as I’d expected, actually. Well acted and directed  in itself, but rather difficult to enjoy if you’ve either read the book or seen the seven-part 1979 BBC TV dramatisation which, centred around a flawlessly understated performance by Alec Guinness as George Smiley, is surely one of the finest TV drama series ever made, although the sequel Smiley’s People is perhaps even better.

The point is that the original plot by John le Carré is just too complicated to fit in the usual duration of a feature film, so if one knows the full story one can’t fail but be conscious of the alterations and huge chunks completely missing from the movie. Nevertheless, given the constraints, it’s a good film in its own right. I’m glad I watched it, though that was mainly because it reminded me how good the TV version was.

Incidentally, parts of the film were apparently shot at Imperial College. I didn’t actually spot this when watching it, but was told about it afterwards.

Anyway I found this clip on Youtube of the very start of the TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy , a scene placed before the opening titles rolled. Although it doesn’t correspond to anything in the book, I think it epitomizes what was so good about the television version. It features the four characters who belong to the Witchraft “Magic Circle” responsible for running Source Merlin, a Soviet agent who is supposed to be working as double-agent for British Intelligence (called “The Circus” because of its headquarters in Cambridge Circus). Of course it turns out everything is actually the other way round, and Source Merlin is Moscow Centre’s contact with a mole inside the Circus (codename “Gerald”) who is handing over British secrets. Gerald must be one of the four who have regular contact with Source Merlin, but which one?

I think this scene is brilliant because nobody says a word for most of it, but it immediately establishes the different characters of the respective protagonists. The pompous and punctilious pipe-smoking Percy Alleline (“Tinker”) brings a huge dossier of papers to the meeting, evidently enjoying his role as Head Boy. Flamboyant Bill Haydon (“Tailor”) displays his studied eccentricity by bringing only a cup of tea, with the saucer on top, and a biscuit. Haydon’s expression as Percy starts the meeting is priceless. Dishevelled chain-smoking Roy Bland (“Soldier”) seems entirely preoccupied with other things. Snappily dressed Toby Esterhase (“Poor Man”) betrays his status as a junior member of the club by arriving early – no doubt to impress – and closing the door that Haydon carelessly left open.