Something Good #1: A Good Spy
I had a friend who prized anonymity and used his unremarkable appearance to do wonderful things. I thought of him this week as I watched the topic of this week’s instalment of Something Good, the BBC mini-series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
John Le Carré died on December 12. After the death of Ursula K. LeGuin in 2018, he had assumed the mantle of my favourite living writer (I guess I need to find a new one now). Famously a former intelligence officer, he wrote spy fiction that was deeply layered and internal, recognizing that the espionage trade of the Cold War, the the deception, doubt and endless storytelling of the “wilderness of mirrors,” was as literary as it was political.
His work has been adapted for the screen about a million times—I’m having a hard time thinking of another contemporary author who can boast so many actually good adaptations, of works that were originally of very high quality as well. But the 1979 mini-series adaptation of what might be his masterpiece, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, may be the best of them all. (I think the 2011 Tomas Alfredson film adaptation is brilliant, too—but while it is an exercise in beautifully aestheticized brutalism, the BBC version has a worn shabbiness, all nicotine-stained offices and empty beer cans, that better suits the miserablism of the source material.)
Le Carré’s most enduring character is George Smiley, an undistinguished-appearing career officer for “The Circus,” aka MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence agency. He’s quiet, introverted, soft—he appears to be “a man hardly worth mentioning.” He is frequently underestimated by his enemies—but nearly never outmatched. Much like the friend I mentioned up top, (or, say, Columbo, another fave of mine), his apparent insignificance is his strength. Not typically a quality you see in leading performances, which is one reason Alec Guinness is so flipping good in the role.
Tinker Tailor is the story of Smiley’s search for a spy hidden high in the ranks of British intelligence—someone who almost certainly is one of his intimates. It’s a search conducted secretly almost entirely indirectly: through conversations, sifting through documents, and deep, compelling thinking. The best actors, I think, are the ones who can demonstrate those interior processes with just a look, and I would be hard-pressed to choose a better example than the little half-smiles that Guinness lets slip through Smiley’s hangdog expression that show he’s on to something.
This was just a couple of years after Guinness became a global mega-star thanks to his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (which apparently really annoyed him). And while Smiley is, like old Ben Kenobi, a retired master brought back into the field to combat an implacable ex-friend and foe, the only duels fought here are with an invisible combatant on the other side of the Iron Curtain. (Speaking of duelling, there are also many wonderful scenes of bickering between ruling-class men and the particularly British vaguely concealed hostility I could watch forever. That said, I should also note the almost-overwhelming absence of women in this story—an element not faithful to the real-life stories on which Tinker Tailor is based.)
Last year, curious about the man, I decided to read My Name Escapes Me, a book of Alec Guinness’s diaries from the years 1995-1996. They are… startlingly boring, mostly concerning various dinners he attended, the weather, etc., and yet I couldn’t stop reading them—one or two a day, as if I were experiencing his genteel retirement myself, 25 years late.
Monday 4 September
Merula, in an inexplicable ethnic mood, bought a loaf of bread which advertised itself as ‘Made from an old Spanish receipt.’ [sic] It was unbelievably disgusting.
Where to watch the BBC Tinker Tailor? You could order the original seven-episode series, as I did, from the U.K., only to realize when it arrived that region-locking was still a thing and it wouldn’t play on my PlayStation. The six-episode version seems to be available at the usual places, on DVD and Blu-Ray. (I would also recommend the book, which may make the mysteries of the series a little less opaque.)
You probably don’t need to enjoy watching crabby British people carp at each other as much as I do to dig it (but as the sign says… it helps!) Watching it again this week, I felt the rare, pure pleasure of perfectly-executed visual storytelling, where every moment feels vital and alive.
Tinker Tailor was inspired by the very insane true-life story of MI6 turncoat Kim Philby. Recruited by the Soviets in the 1930s, he ascended through the ranks of British intelligence until he was head of Soviet counter-intelligence; in other words, he was the man in charge of rooting out spies like himself. All the while, he was passing along the most vital secrets to the other side.
I’m going to recommend one more thing this week: Ben Macintyre’s book A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, an absolutely riveting account of Philby and the havoc he wreaked, not only at home, but in the U.S., where his protégé, CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, stung by his betrayal, spiralled into a destructive paranoia that nearly destroyed the agency from within. Good stuff!
Philby defected to the U.S.S.R. in 1963, where he lived until his death in 1988. Two years later, they put him on a stamp; in 2018, a square in Moscow was named after him. He is still considered a national hero.