Saturday, 4 February 2012

Tinker, Tailor,*Richman *, Soldier, Spy.....

In another stunning demonstration of  how far I’m ahead of the cultural curve, I finally watched last year’s Tinker, Tailor, Solider Spy last night. (Yes, I know: just call me Mr.Zeitgeist). And very good it was too. Or very good ‘in its own way’, at least - I’ll explain my caveat below. Basically: it’s 1973 and there may be a mole in the British Secret Service. 

But it’s not the content of the film I primarily want to talk about: it’s the 'framing' of the story. Let's start with the cinematography:“..this is a sad, shabby, drably grey-green world of obsessives, misfits, misdirection, disillusionment, self-delusion and treachery”, said Empire at the time of release. The Guardian review expanded on this theme,
“ It is a tatty, nasty, shabby and stiflingly male world of beige and grey, seen through a dreary particulate haze – fag-ash and dandruff. The interiors and government offices are lit with a pallid, headachey glow. Every room looks like a morgue, and the corpses are walking around, filling out chits, wearing ill-fitting suits, having whispered conversations, giving and receiving bollockings and worrying about loyalty. “
This is indeed a shabby world, without redeeming splashes of colour anywhere. It is the received vision of how the 1970s were, but with the dial turned up to 11 to emphasis the especial shabbiness of the secret world and the compromised characters that inhabit it. It’s the received vision because the 1970s are commonly remembered as the low point of national decline. It's like a visual polar opposite to that would-be-funny  25th anniversary Virgin Airlines ad where sexy  hostess babes in red uniforms and high heels create havoc in a dull, grey 'hung-over-from the-1970s' Heathrow.

Co-incidentally, I’ve also just unpacked the DVD box set of the 1979 TV series of the same book. The one with Alec Guinness, rather than Gary Oldman, playing Smiley.  Guess what? London buses are bright red and the sun sometimes shines even in pre-Thatcherite Britain. Who knew? 

Let me try to explain why that is important. 

 I’m a bit obsessive about the TV series - I’ve long recalled it as one of the highpoints of TV culture, up there with Boys from the Blackstuff, The Wire or West Wing. A single episode in to a re-viewing and I’ve seen nothing to shake me in this conviction. To my mind it is infinitely better than the film.  I don’t insist you agree. If you prefer the film, that’s fine by me.

But if you’re too young to have seen the TV series the first time round you should at least be told that the film is a kind of historical costume drama.  It presents a certain vision of the secret world, but it’s our world really in fancy dress. It’s a representation of not only how we think British intelligence works – Smiley, after all, was  an icon of the British spy novel genre for decades before this film was made – but how  we think living through the Cold War, and living through the 1970s specifically, actually felt. It felt grey, uncertain, always teetering on the edge of hopelessness & defeat: these are the subliminal messages we’re supposed to pick up.

In 1979 it was possible to treat a script set only six years earlier as a contemporary drama. Characters gave contemporary reactions to events and the actions of others. It is very striking how much obviously posher most of the senior figures in the Secret Service are in the TV series to the film. The common, assumed background in public school and Oxbridge Senior Common Rooms is never far from the surface.  It's shabby-genteel poshness, of course - but its unmistakable. By contrast the equivalent characters in the film might well be wearing dreadfully cut 1970s suits but they're straight outta of a set of (superficially) declasse executive management offices with a nice view of the atrium. They have those declasse accents one now finds everywhere in positions of power not directly colonised by Old Etonians.  
What's more age matters: the people are the top of the Secret Service are men in their late forties and middle fifties. In 1973 that meant one very, very basic thing - The Cold War was their second war. As young men they fought the Axis. This is especially clear in the books, where Smiley is a frustrated scholar of German literature diverted from his academic path by the events of the mid C20th. It also meant that, as posh children  of the 1920s and 30s, they grew up expecting  to be functionaries of a great Empire.

The book and the TV series are suffused with a sense of the secret life as a morally compromised, and compromising,  fog - but part of that comes from the fact that as young men the protagonists won a war in alliance with their now enemy. Furthermore, they felt that, in some intangible way, the fruits of victory had slipped through their hands. Even the Great Power status their predecessor generations of Whitehall-Military servants had successfully nutured for 200 years or more was little more than a fig leaf by the early 1970s.

All of this is invisible in the film. Yet without a perspective on these matters I don't see how anyone can get an emotional 'hook' on why anyone of that generation - be they characters in a Le Carre novel, Burgess, McLean or Anthony Blunt - might foresake the advantages of a secure  slot in the upper reaches of Britain's class bound society for a life as a Soviet mole.

&, for me, that makes the film two dimensional compared to the TV series. The greyness of the characters' world was not everyone's experience of the 1970s, it was very specifically that of a particular sub section of society with a very specific  cultural formation.

For some of us the 1970s was the time when we 'never had it so good' -  employment was much higher, the new tertiary education opportunities were really opening up, the abortion & homosexual law reforms of the 1960s were taking firmer root. New legislation around women's right and racial equality came into force. Wages have never claimed such a big percentage of GDP as they did in 1974

What has any of this got to do with the film? Well, it's simple: the world that was slipping out of the control of the senior Circus executives was a world that was opening up new possibilities for many other people. By visually implying the 1970s were grey and sullen and unhappy times the film ellides this. It’s Cranford dressed up as Life on Mars.


  1. Shamefully, I haven't seen the film yet. Even more shamefully, I'm a stranger to the TV series. I'll put that right soon.

    Your analysis reminds me of an essay by Raphael Samuel on screen adaptations of Dickens. He draws attention to the significance of what a film looks like and makes the case that this is as important as what happens, something I have singularly failed to impress upon my students.

    Anyway, i was wondering, with you having seen the film and everything, how a cold war, spy thriller resonates with a contemporary audience reared on Spooks?

  2. Great post, thanks. I nearly went to see the film, but then didn't. The question that was in my mind about the film was, why remake it now? And although I'll happily accept the premise that the TV series is "infinitely better than the film", the question remains in my mind, what's in it of interest to us now? I mean, what of use can we learn now from cold war intricacies or from OEs robbed of their inheritance by the loss of empire?
    Or are eternal themes brilliantly explored - not least the essential despair of being a compromised pen-pushing male heading into his fifties...?

  3. Hullo Rab and Strategist. Thanks once again for your comments; sometimes I think you two are this blog's equivalent of Neasdon FC's Sid and Doris Bonkers....

    what of use can we learn now from cold war intricacies or from OEs robbed of their inheritance by the loss of empire? asks Strategist, and Rab makes a related point in wondering what all this means to a audience reared on the shiny technological superficalities and wooden plots of Spooks.

    I'd say Le Carre's Cold War books - and the two TV series (TTSS and Smiley's People) - are unsurpassed as studies in the individual psychology and bureaucratic venality associated with a sense of national decline. During 'the Great Moderation' when everything was new, History was finished and the Masters of the Universe strode the world stage solving problems everywhere (aka the period of 'Capitalist Realism') this sense of decline was noticeable by its absence in both this country and the United States. So le Carre and Cold war themes were very passe.

    But post Credit Crunch, I think, those themes once again have some resonance. I just think the film bottled dealing with them properly.

  4. Strategist,
    I'm happy to be either Sid or Dorris, whatever you prefer.

    Must go and watch both TV and Film versions now.

    On a different but related not... Angels in America (Sky Atlantic, I regret) was magnificent TV

  5. >>> I'd say Le Carre's Cold War books ...are unsurpassed as studies in the individual psychology and bureaucratic venality associated with a sense of national decline

    ...said an ashen-faced Ron Knee, 59.

  6. Fantastic post Charlie. Read a few weeks back and forgot to comment how much I liked it.

  7. Tom,
    When you get home tonight, look out out of your front window just before sundown, towards the west bound S.Circular. That reddening in the sky? That's me blushing at your compliment, a couple of miles away...


  8. Very good post, and good points. Interesting too how well that graph matches my recollection of how well-off I felt at any given time.

  9. Thanks Ken.

    I've always felt a strong affinity with that chart as well.

    I'm sticking to the line that this affinity has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that I lost my virginity in 1974, the high point of the chart. No siree. Nothing at all.

  10. We just got round to watching the film last night, a year or so after having sat up late a few evenings in a row watching 'just one more episode' of the TV series.

    All of what you say above, yes. Spot on. The palette. The ages. Connie, in particular, is shown as far too young to be a WW2 veteran in 1973. But there's more!

    I can understand the need for compression, but replacing a forest in Czechoslovakia with a cafe in Budapest as the scene of Jim's shooting (let alone his intended meet-up) makes several kinds of no sense. The reference later to 'Hungarian Army movements' just rubs that in. The Witchcraft set-up as presented is far too transparent. And did the Americans have Karla tortured in the book and the series? (I don't have the book handy, but I don't recall that.)

    But mostly, the colours. 50 shades of brown.