The best spy story

4 Dec


I am just listening to the third hour long episode of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’. This was produced for BBC Radio 4 a few years ago, and forms part of the ‘Complete Smiley’ set of radio plays. George Smiley is the retired spymaster who is called upon to discover who the Mole (traitor) at the top of British Intelligence is. John le Carre wrote the book, which is regarded as his best. This is not the world of James Bond but a branch of society in which all sorts of dirty tricks are employed to gain advantage over the rival services. All this is set in the Cold War. In many ways this is a classic whodunit, but with treachery rather than crime the revelation. The characters are vividly drawn, and subject to the human failures we can all recognise, sympathise, even empathise with. There is ambition and pettiness and jealousy. The unmasking of the Mole is slow and deliberate and Machiavellian. The identity of the villain is in many ways quite obvious, but, due to personal issues, Smiley has to make entirely sure of his suspicions.

This story was released last year as a feature film, with Gary Oldman as George Smiley, and this is a worthy effort. It suffers slightly in being forced into a tight timeframe. The classic adaptation remains the 1979 BBC Television adaptation starring Alec Guiness. This explores the story over six episodes, giving 315 minutes to the story. This luxury of time allows for character development as well as plot details lost in the film. It is quite possibly the greatest TV film ever made. The radio adaptation I have just finished listening to stars Simon Russell Beale and is pretty good, apart from an invented device of giving Smiley an inner dialogue with his errant wife, Anne. The book and TV version never reveal Smiley’s inner self. He is completely self-contained and horribly controlled. It takes an acting masterclass performance to show deep emotion where none is overtly expressed. The story never talks down to the reader/viewer/listener, and all the actions are in shades of grey. Smiley is small, plump, and wears glasses. He is a donnish, intellectual introvert in late middle age.

If you have read any of my other blog entries on espionage you will know that I prefer the cock-up theory of history to great heroes and villains, diabolical plots and masterminds. It helps to have fallible characters operating on a scale of grey shades. James Bond is deeply misogynistic, casually racist and homophobic and glorifies derring-do above patient and quiet research. There is too much gloss and too many gadgets. I will not allow my hero, Walter Mansell-Lacey, to perform impossible feats. He will have no hardware to help him. He may look the hero, but he is a bit of a cad. Check out the stories published so far, ‘Most Secret’ and ‘Down in the Flood’. This is set at the time the British security services, later to become MI5 and MI6, were set up. Both are available as both Kindle books and in print. Look for them on Amazon. I write as Jon Wakeham, but that is not my real name.


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