Why John Le Carré beats Ian Fleming hands down
Eight John le CarrÃ© novels are currently being dramatised on BBC Radio 4, bringing to life his thoroughly British and comical anti-hero George Smiley - writes Robert Hanks in The Telegraph
One of my favourite moments in film comes at the end of Ill Met by Moonlight, one of Powell and Pressburgerâs less well-regarded efforts, when a German general is forced to admit that the scruffy, disorganised band of British commandos and Cretan partisans who have kidnapped him are rather better at their jobs than his own polished, disciplined troops. âGentlemen,â he says, âyou are not amateurs. You are professionals!â
This is a myth with which the English love to flatter ourselves, or certainly have since it dawned on us, in the aftermath of the Second World War, that the big money and power had gone elsewhere: we may look rubbish, but thatâs just a cover for our cunning.
If this idea has a representative figure, a patron saint, itâs George Smiley, the chubby, bespectacled and devastatingly effective spy-master who features, in greater or lesser roles, in eight of John le CarrÃ©âs novels â all now being dramatised on Radio 4, beginning today with the first story in which he appeared, Call for the Dead.
There may be readers who identify with James Bond. For me, though, the brand of escapism Ian Fleming offers is too glib and flash to have more than an ironic, half-hearted appeal: far more satisfying to escape into a dream of Smiley.
In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold â in which Smiley has a walk-on role â le CarrÃ© laid down the rules for getting the enemy to swallow your misinformation: tell him what he wants to hear, but make him work for it and donât make it too enticing. He applied the same rules to his fiction.
Smileyâs world is dreary by comparison with Bondâs, inhabited by petty bureaucrats and men too willing to let ends justify means, a world painted in shades of grey. But le CarrÃ©âs great gift was to make the dreary glamorous, with his invented jargon of âlamplightersâ and âscalphuntersâ, and the sometimes insistent hint that beneath all the shabbiness lay a core of decency, which Smiley personified.
Introducing him at the start of Call for the Dead, Le CarrÃ© sets out Georgeâs anti-Bond credentials: âShort, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.â Or, as a character in the sequel, A Murder of Quality, puts it: âLooks like a frog, dresses like a bookie.â The frogginess goes further, with references to his âwet handsâ and occasionally âmoistâ face. His glasses are notably thick, and he has a habit, frequently noted, of wiping them with the end of his tie. He has no success with women â he does land the improbably beautiful Lady Ann Sercomb, but she ditches him for a succession of unsuitable men, including the traitor who brings the Circus (le CarrÃ©âs secret service) to the brink of destruction. And yet, as someone says, Smiley has âa brain Iâd give my eyes for.â
It helped that on TV Smiley was played by Alec Guinness, bringing a touch of Jedi star quality. His appearances, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smileyâs People, cemented the notion that Smiley embodied a peculiarly British set of virtues, since that was exactly what the TV series did, with their ostentatiously low budgets (as evidenced by the relocation of key scenes from Hong Kong to Lisbon), and their defiantly unAmerican pace and solemnity.
On the DVD of Tinker Tailor, I like replaying the scene where the secret service departmental heads convene a meeting â a good minute of throats being cleared, papers fiddled with, and the late Terence Rigby making great play of balancing a saucer on top of his cup of tea. Every time, the sheer willingness to subject the viewer to boredom gives me a little thrill of patriotic pride: cry God for Harry, England and St George! And you know which St George Iâm talking about.
* 'Call for the Deadâ is on BBC Radio 4 today at 2.30pm. All eight Smiley novels are being reissued in paperback by Hodder
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