It’s said that nothing can earn you enemies faster than being right. It seems like most people would prefer the status quo be preserved no matter what the consequences. In the televised adaptation of John Le Carre’s (the pseudonym for british writer David Cornwall) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy we saw how retired spy George Smiley, played by Alec Guinness, uncovered the deeply planted Russian spy, a mole, in British intelligence. In one of the final scenes of the series he tells the upper echelon of the agency, also known as The Circus, that he has been appointed the new head of the service. So it comes as something of a surprise to find out in the sequel series, Smiley’s People, now reissued in a new three disc DVD set by Acorn Media Group, as of October 25 2011, that he is once more on the outside looking in.
What you don’t know if you hadn’t been following Le Carre’s books, was another book, The Honourable Schoolboy continued the story of the Circus in the days immediately following the uncovering of the mole. With all his agents known, or blown in the terminology, Smiley was forced to recall everyone in the field and close down every outpost in the Circus’ empire. However, after months of pulling in their horns they were finally able to launch one caper in an attempt to recoup some of their lost glory and regain a measure of credibility with the only ones who matter, The Cousins, American intelligence. Even as Smiley is putting his pieces into careful motion, manoeuvring in the corridors of power have started to have him replaced by someone less old school and untarnished by any associations with the betrayer. By the end of the book, in spite of scoring a huge intelligence coup for the Circus, Smiley is out and the new order has taken over.
Of course as both Smiley and us now realize, there’s only so far you can retire from the secret life. In Smiley’s People he’s once again he’s called out of retirement by the Ministry responsible for The Circus. However, this time they don’t want him leading an investigation, they want him to cover up something that might be potentially embarrassing; something that doesn’t quite mesh with the new urbane image the service has been at great pains to cultivate. An ex Russian military officer, known simply as The General, who had formally spied for them has been murdered. Unfortunately just prior to having his face blown away by a high calibre bullet he had called The Circus requesting an emergency meeting with Max, his code name for Smiley. He told the agent who answered the phone to tell Max he had proof.
Only Smiley is willing to believe there is something behind his former agent’s phone call. Everybody else dismisses it as an old man’s desire for attention. Instead of following orders and merely making sure that nothing about the man’s life can be traced back to The Circus, Smiley decides to investigate and discover whether the proof is what he thinks it might be. As we discover in a flashback years earlier the agent had approached Smiley with information they believed could bring about the downfall of the head of Moscow Centre, Karla, the very man who had recruited the mole in British Intelligence. At the time Smiley had told him that he needed more proof. Was this the urgent message The General was trying to deliver when he was shot, the proof required to bring Karla down?
Smiley uncovers two pieces of seemingly unrelated evidence. The first is a letter from a Russian emigrant , Madame Ostrakova ( played by the remarkable Eileen Atkins) living in Paris, containing the story of how an obvious Russian spy has approached her with an offer to let her illegitimate daughter, who she hasn’t seen in nearly twenty years, leave Russia and join her in the West. All she has to do is fill in an application at the Russian Embassy in Paris requesting she be allowed to immigrate, and the papers will issued. However after months of hearing nothing from either the Russian government or her daughter she is wondering what has happened. Her late husband had always told her if she ever needed any help with anything she should contact The General. The second piece of evidence is a negative that when developed shows two men and two women in bed together.
Watching Guinness make the rounds as George Smiley again, first trying to piece together the two pieces of the puzzle he’s been left behind by dead men and then setting an operation in motion in order to snare the biggest prize of his career, is a joy. He’s a different person from the rather self-effacing civil servant we met in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. There’s a layer of anger to him that wasn’t there before. Anger at the mole who betrayed the Circus, but also anger at the Circus for what he sees as their betrayal of all his generation stood for. If they had only taken the General seriously he wouldn’t have been killed. Even worse, if Smiley hadn’t disobeyed orders by investigating, nobody would have followed up and they would have missed out on the biggest intelligence coup of the Cold War.
Somehow Guinness is able to convey all of that within his performance. The slight edge you hear in his voice, the bite of impatience that creeps in when he’s dealing with petty officials and the air of overall fatigue he seems to exude at times when he thinks nobody is looking. Everything seems to be weighing on him now; the people he’s known who have died and the moral ambiguity of his own work. At the end when he’s congratulated by another character -“You’ve won George” – his half questioning response of “Have I?” makes you wonder what it must be like to have dedicated the majority of your life to something, only to find yourself questioning its validity as your career winds down.
While Guinness is giving another tour de force as Smiley, the supporting cast is once again universally strong. Aside from Atkins my personal favourite was one of the returning actors from the previous series, Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase, ex Circus agent, now dodgy art dealer. In “Tinker Tailor” his character had affected a British accent in an attempt to climb the ladder in the service, but now he’s allowed his Hungarian roots to show through in his speaking voice. At first Smiley goes to him for help in tracking down information, then they work together to implement the operation. His character is a delight first as the dubious art dealer he’s become after leaving the service and then as the field agent called back in for one last hurrah. He has some of the best lines in the series as far as I’m concerned: “There’s Degas and there’s Degas, George, it’s sort of a grey area” he responds when questioned about a statue’s provenance and “When dealing with creeps like that you need a creep like Toby Esterhase guarding your back George” is how he words his request to be included as part of operation. It’s the way he says the latter with a note of pride in his voice that makes him so wonderful.
First aired back in 1982 Smiley’s People is just as potent a piece of television today as it was back then. It not only features fine performances and a great script which brings the book it was based on to life wonderfully, it does a fine job of showing just how little separated one side was from the other during the Cold War in the world of espionage. Special features on this three DVD disc set are again limited to filmographies of the cast members and an interview with Le Carre about the series. However, nothing can detract from the fact this is another fine example of how to adapt a book to the small screen and somebody fully realizing television’s potential.