A friend of mine is shortly to publish the biography of John Le Carre. We recently met and I confessed to him that I found Le Carre’s novels hard to follow, which is a bit like admitting you find the Economist dull. He said this was not uncommon given the complexity of the plots, but suggested the series Smiley’s People was worth revisiting. I had seen – and not much liked – the more recent film with Gary Oldman.
These days it’s so easy to download things that it was soon on my tablet. I found all six episodes compulsive viewing. Alec Guinness was masterly in the lead role. I asked my friend whether, as was rumoured, it was modelled on Dick White, the only man to head up both M15 and M16. It was more based on John Bingham, a friend of Le Carre, but to add confusion Alec Guinness had several lunches with spymaster Maurice Oldfield and had gained inspiration for the part from him. Whoever the source, there is no doubting the quality of the acting and we are indeed fortunate that whilst Alec Guinness was enriching myself with Star Wars (he was on 2% of the box office) we have this series to preserve and showcase his peerless talent. In fact, it was his first ever television role and he brought so much to it, not least his mannerisms. He managed to make the shutting of his Rover door compelling.
There was some fine acting alongside him. Eileen Atkins was excellent as the Russian Madame Ostrakova, who has a deranged daughter ; Michael Lonsdale played Grogoriev with considerable aplomb; in lesser roles, I noted young actors that went on to have eminent careers: Alan Rickman, Maureen Lipman and Patrick Stewart.
Although I must admit that some of the plot lines baffled me, I was carried along by the quality of the acting. BBC’s production values have dropped so much since then – and fallen behind HBO and the Scandinavians – which is ridiculous as we have such a resource of acting talent still. So much of Smiley’s People was shot on outside, and often foreign, locations that the BBC was not shy of a high budget production. The recent drama production of Jamaica Inn, in which the diction was indecipherable, shows how easily they can murder a decent story.