16 April 2013

Smiley's Series

As part of its Pioneers of Television, PBS did a segment on the miniseries, a dramatic form that was extremely popular in the late seventies and all through the eighties. It's a shame that it isn't more popular today. Some of the failed Lost clones, like FlashForward and The Event, might have succeeded as miniseries. Viewers might have been more willing to invest their time if they'd known that the big questions posed by these shows' high-concept premises were going to be resolved in a reasonable amount of time and without endless (and increasingly crazy) plot complications.
During its heyday, the miniseries usually focused on sweeping, multigenerational sagas, but mystery novels were occasionally included. I remember a late seventies adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Dane Curse starring James Colburn. And there were the two BBC productions I revisited this past winter, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, which were both based on novels by John le Carré. The inspiration for my video trip down memory lane was the much more recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, which starred Gary Oldman. I enjoyed the movie, but it left me nostalgic for the 1979 miniseries, in which Alec Guinness played George Smiley, "retired" spy.

If that reference to Smiley's profession (or your own knowledge of le Carré's works) has you thinking that these books are espionage stories and not mysteries, you're half right. They're espionage stories and mysteries. In fact, Tinker, Tailor is a whodunit, as were le Carré's two earlier Smiley books, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. I still remember the suspense that slowly built during the original broadcast of Tinker, Tailor (which didn't occur in the U.S. until 1980) over the true identity of Gerald, the Russian mole inside British Intelligence. Reviewing the miniseries courtesy of Netflix, I felt that old suspense again. (Netflix did its best to encourage this by only entrusting me with one of the series' three discs at a time.)

Smiley's People is somewhat less satisfying as a story but just as well adapted. (Both series were scripted by le Carré himself.) There is a murder to be solved, but Smiley is more interested in why it happened than in who did it. Though made three years after Tinker, Tailor, Smiley's People reunites many members of the original cast. In fact, the casts of both miniseries are uniformly excellent. They include future stars Alan Rickman, doing a bit as a desk clerk, and Patrick Stewart, in the nonspeaking (!) role of Russian master spy Karla. Two of the strengths of Smiley's People are some great location shooting and an increased amount of screen time for Alec Guinness, who functions like a loner P.I., warned off the case by the authorities and hunted by the bad guys.

It would be hard to overpraise Alec Guinness's two performances as George Smiley. Guinness was an actor who could play broadly if the role called for it, but his real forte was underplaying. His talent for quiet was put to good use here, as George Smiley is one of the great listeners of popular literature. Both miniseries feature powerful scenes in which some other, more flamboyant character wanders far from the point of the conversation while Smiley sits quietly, waiting to draw him or her back. Depending on the situation, he might cajole or flatter or wheedle or simply will the wanderer to focus. I've written that sort of interaction many times, as has any writer of detective fiction, and it's a pleasure to see it done this well. And Guinness/Smiley's reactions to the constant references to his wife's infidelities--tiny winces or a slight narrowing of his eyes or just blank resignation--are equally wonderful.

I'll mention one last point of interest, at least for the writer of historical fiction. There are only two types of films and television shows: those done as period pieces and those that become period pieces over time. Smiley's miniseries are in the second group. I'd forgotten that the three-year gap between the two series marked a sea change in men's fashions. In Tinker, Tailor, wide, loud ties and wider lapels predominate. By Smiley's People, styles (or should I say widths?) had returned to a more classic look.

The late seventies might have been a bad time for clothes, but it was a really good time for long-form dramatic television. If you haven't seen these two examples recently, check them out.


  1. You are "spot on" as Smiley might say about these wonderful series, Terence. Oddly, not so long ago I took the same stroll that you did, and enjoyed the videos even more the second time around.

  2. How true about TV shows becoming period pieces over time--and ever more quickly nowadays. I've been watching the original Prime Suspect (1991) with Helen Mirren on Netflix, and it's fascinating to see how many details are now history, eg rotary-dial phones and the nonstop smoking. It also must have been one of the first detective shows to include a fair amount of forensic detail.

  3. I loved those series, and the books. I was frustrated by the movie because, in order to fit the story into two hours they left out the cleverest bit - as Smiley said, the way Karla turned the Circus inside out. (For those who have seen the movie but not the series or book: why did the non-traitors in the Circus protect the traitor? There is an excellent reason...)

    My favorite part of TTSS is the last line, delivered by Sian (sp?) Phillips as Lady Anne in a scene that did not appear in the book. And by the way, it is a sign of the quality of the series that they hired Phillips and Stewart for sign tiny (but vital) roles.

    LeCarre says he decided to resolve the Karla story with SP and stop writing about Smiley because watching Guinness film TTSS had actually changed his mental view of Smiley, and he wanted to keep it pure, so to speak.

    One final beloved moment. Smiley is waiting to meet the mole and talking to his assistant on the phone. The assistant hears a noise. It's Smiley checking his gun.

    "What are you doing?"

  4. Rob, I hadn't heard before about le Carre's reaction to Guinness's performance. It reminded me of Peter Lovesey "losing" his character Sergeant Cribb after that series of novels was dramatized (around the time of Tinker Tailor). If I'm remembering right, the Cribb adaptaions were one of the early jewels of the PBS Mystery show.

  5. I have these on my Netflix queue. (Back when they came out, I didn't have a TV set)
    By the way, another excellent miniseries that I recently watched via Netflix was "Fortunes of War" with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, based on the novels by Olivia Manning. How do you survive as an alien resident overseas in wartime? Not much mystery, but lots of suspense - and excellent acting, locations, costumes... Worth it for Ronald Pickup as Prince Yakimov alone.

  6. The CRIBB series was on in the US the same year as the godawful NERO WOLFE series with William Conrad. It drove me crazy to watch the British do so well what the Americans couldn't do worth a damn.


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