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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: An elegy for England

John le Carré’s classic novel, now adapted for the big screen, is much more than a cold war whodunni

John le Carré has said that Tomas Alfredson's absorbing adaptation of his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not the "film of the book" but the "film of the film", not a means to an end but an end in itself. You could equally say that it is the film of the television series - the BBC dramatisation, adapted by Arthur Hopcraft (author of The Football Man), directed by John Irvin and starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, the disenchanted spymaster who is drawn out of retirement to spy on the spies and lead the search for a double agent at the heart of the "Circus", le Carré's name for MI6. The film faithfully follows several of the reworkings of the television series - it begins urgently with the shooting of a British agent behind the Iron Curtain, rather than more prosaically with his arrival at a prep school, as in the novel.

First broadcast in September 1979, when our cold war paranoia and anxieties were, perhaps, most acute, the BBC series attracted 11 million viewers at its peak, at a time when we had only three channels and something resembling a common culture. Back then, you could be assured that your friends and neighbours were likely to be watching the same television programmes and listening to the same radio shows as you, and were probably also reading the same newspapers and magazines. They would certainly have been watching and talking about the BBC's Tinker, Tailor, so seductively did it seem to capture a period of darkness and disquiet in British culture.

In this first film adaptation of le Carré's 1974 novel, Gary Oldman seems less to be playing Smiley than Guinness-as-Smiley, in all his mellow, low-voiced inscrutability. Smiley in the novel is "small, podgy and at best middle aged . . . His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting and extremely wet". He has "plump hands linked across his generous stomach".

Oldman is taller, much leaner, with blond-grey hair swept back from a smooth, pale forehead. He always moves slowly, as Guinness did in the role, and conveys well through mannerism, tone of voice and posture what le Carré describes as Smiley's "spiritual exhaustion". Like Guinness, Oldman wears thick-framed and thick-lensed spectacles, which are just as they should be: Smiley may have poor eyesight but he can often see what others cannot and is never wilfully blind. Oldman purses his lips like a disapproving headmaster and seems often to be sucking on a boiled sweet. Like Guinness, Oldman's Smiley is always watchful and seems to be mourning something of which nothing can be spoken. When he does speak, it is with exaggerated deliberation, after Guinness.

Smiley, le Carré writes, "had that art, from miles and miles of secret life, of listening at the front of his mind; of letting the primary incidents unroll directly before him while another, quite separate faculty wrestled with their historical connection". Guinness and Oldman, in their studied pensiveness and distraction, seem able to show just how it is and what it means to listen at the front of your mind.

Smiley is le Carré's most resonant and resilient creation. He appears in eight novels yet will always be most associated with Tinker, Tailor and Smiley's People, BBC series both. As a result, for most of us, Guinness has become Smiley, as John Thaw is Inspector Morse and Anthony Hopkins is Hannibal Lecter; the character is inextricable from the actor playing him. You can no longer think of one without thinking of the other.
Colin Dexter has said that for the duration of the copyright of his novels, he will allow no other actor to play Morse. Thomas Harris has made no such stipulation about Lecter; indeed, the most convincing Lecter so far is surely not Hopkins but Brian Cox, who played the serial killer, gourmand and snob in Michael Mann's visually ravishing Manhunter, an adaptation of Red Dragon, the first novel in the Lecter series. Cox's Lecter was far less a camp pantomime act than a sadistic misanthrope, who offers no motive or explanation for his crimes. When he appears on camera for the first time, he freezes the room and his eyes radiate no warmth or light.

Le Carré has given his approval to Oldman-as-Smiley, suggesting that he and Alfredson have captured something previously unnoticed about Smiley - his cruelty, "which is something that comes with solitude". Smiley is a cuckold. His marriage to the "beautiful", aristocratic Ann is childless and, one suspects, sexless, too. Everyone seems to know that Ann, whose face irritatingly is never shown in the film, is serially unfaithful. In le Carré, the personal and political are one and the same; each of us betrays those we purport to love in our duplicitous way.

I remember how thrilled my father was by the BBC's Tinker, Tailor. He had read the book on his travels to the subcontinent and elsewhere and recommended it to me. I did not watch the series until the early 1990s, long after I'd read the novel, when it was repeated on BBC2, and although after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the paranoid, monotone world it depicted seemed already to be retreating into the past, I understood that what I was watching was more than a routine cold war spy thriller featuring distinguished British character actors. It was a drama about Englishness and English decline, at once an elegy and an interrogation into what had gone wrong in the present - after all, Tinker, Tailor was first broadcast at the end of the 1970s, soon after the fall of the Callaghan government and the election of Margaret Thatcher.

Geoffrey Burgon's theme music, especially his beautiful setting of the prayer "Nunc Dimittis" that closed each episode, did much to establish the overall mood and feel. And one episode, set at an undistinguished prep school in the Quantock Hills, where a betrayed MI6 operative is now working incognito as a teacher, ends with the boys singing "Jerusalem" on a cold, late-autumn afternoon. There are scenes in Oxford, where Smiley went to university and to which he returns often in his thoughts, and the motif of the dreaming spires recurs throughout.

Le Carré's novel, like much of his work, is extraordinarily static and airless. Many scenes take place between only a few people, sometimes just two, in closed rooms. The archi­tecture of the novel is constructed from blocks of talk (Tinker, Tailor is both a spy novel and a whodunnit, glistening with leading questions and evasive answers). There are long retrospectives and condensed histories and biographical sketches. Le Carré invents his own elliptical language of "lamplighters" and "scalphunters", of Moscow Central and the Circus. Smiley moves through this cold and colourless world with knowing fascination, waiting, listening.

The defining encounter that alerts the Cabinet Office to the possibility of treachery within the Circus is between a female, Russian agent and a British spook and occurs in Hong Kong. The scene is related, however, entirely in retrospect, bleaching it of much of its drama. (In the BBC series, Hong Kong becomes Lisbon; in the film, it is Istanbul. Both television and film versions heighten and enhance the drama of the two agents' dangerous liaisons by showing and not merely telling.)

Alfredson's film is at its best as a study in minimalist aesthetics and cool, sombre, low-tech interiors. His Circus has a clinical, Scandinavian starkness and his London is a city of shadows and smoke-filled rooms, permanently autumnal, photographed in shades of blue-grey. The film is long at two hours but the book is much longer, densely allusive and labyrinthine. The BBC series unfolded gracefully over seven 50-minute episodes. Each of the main suspects was given space and time enough to enlarge and to show his hand. In the film, they have no such opportunity and the necessary compression and quickening mean that they can seem like mere bit players in the larger melodrama of Smiley's return to the Circus and redemption.

Salman Rushdie, in a review of The Russia House, once mocked le Carré, a genre writer, for wanting to be taken far too seriously and later denounced him as an "illiterate, pompous ass". But it is Rushdie's novels that now seem suddenly the more dated, with their hysterically overblown style and verbal flatulence. By contrast, le Carré has written three novels - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Tinker, Tailor and A Perfect Spy (1986) - that are among the most politically complex in postwar British fiction and people keep returning to them. You read him not for the richness and subtleties of his language but for the insights he offers into the psychology, snobberies, disappointments and codes of a well-schooled, English elite who were, as one of Smiley's former colleagues puts it to him, on a visit to see her in Oxford: "Trained to empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away."

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (15) is on general release from 16 September
Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.