This is a real achievement – radio adaptations of all the John Le Carre novels that feature his character George Smiley… Excellent for me, as I have only read one of the books. Here we go:
Call for the Dead / A Murder of Quality
Both good stories, but hardly great. You get some hints to Smiley’s background and some characters that return in later stories, but these are who-dunnits, pure and simple.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
A real step up in the quality stakes, and the creation of a great character in Alec Leamas, a laconic, likable, wearied agent. You start to wonder where Smiley will appear, but it soon becomes clear that he is in the background directing the affair.
The Looking Glass War
Dour and dry, this is the story of a little known, insular intelligence agency called The Department that has a chip on its shoulder about not being as recognised as Smiley’s MI6. Trying to recapture some of its previous wartime glory it launches a mission into East Germany with ultimately sad results. The powers-that-be believe that they are all-knowing, but there is always the stench of forthcoming failure, and Smiley is willing to let The Department go through the motions with minimal assistance. Employing obsolete equipment and out-of-date ideas, they do not want to face the fact that they may be being duped – rendering everything else that follows meaningless, despite the sacrifices that some characters are making. More straight-laced than other Smiley stories, it is still riveting listening.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The production on this is excellent, with the BBC well in its stride now. It is easier to follow than the film, with the extra hour giving this version greater room to breathe. It’s interesting to recognise the differences between the film and the radio versions.
The Honourable Schoolboy
A great wedge of story to tell, even if you do have three hours to do it. This is Smiley’s first attempt at repairing the damage caused by the events of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The production is a success simply because despite the main character calling almost everyone “sport”, it doesn’t get immensely annoying.
Smiley manages an unsatisfying victory over his arch-enemy Karla, in a complex story that is hard to follow.
The Secret Pilgrim
I’d not heard of this one, but it was actually very interesting. This is a number of stories about the Cold War told by a character called Ned after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Smiley’s presence creates a framework for what is to follow. The stories concentrate on the personal impact that spying has on those who get involved. They are life defining, often devastating for the characters. Hardly a testament to the intelligence community…
Compared to other spy books I have read (mainly Len Deighton), I find these stories in the main overcomplicated, and rather dry – and I like an intelligent read. These radio dramas are an excellent way to get a taste of what le Carre is about. My favourite is The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (see my reviews of the audiobook and the film). However, I do not think that I will be going back and reading the other full books in the near future. Then again, they’re not going anywhere, so I’ll be back one day… If I tackle another le Carre it will be A Perfect Spy – George Smiley can rest easy, as I won’t be disturbing his retirement any time soon.
The main reason that I don’t feel attracted to the stories is perhaps why they are generally held in such high regard – the hollowness of the intelligence service is laid bare. There is a lack of humanity, the people ultimately feel nothing and there is no sense of achievement. Any sense of duty they felt at the beginning of their careers seems to evaporate over time as they corrupt themselves – their actions seemingly no better than those of the people they are fighting against. Their main motivation in the end is to hold on long enough to qualify for a pension – even then, they may retire but they can never totally escape.
After everything, I can appreciate George Smiley and his ability to survive (although he certainly has picked up his fair share of scars along the way), but I don’t particularly like him.