The BBC mini-series did great justice to the novel and of course Alec Guinness’ portrayal of George Smiley is so impeccable that even Le Carre conceded that he is the man personified. Le Carre even incorporated elements of his style in his future Smiley novels i.e. ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’, ‘Smiley’s People’ and ‘The Secret Pilgrim’.
It was during the prime time of the Cold War and in the backdrop of the infamous episode of discovery of a double agent right at the top of the Service, that Le Carre has set up this rather cerebral drama. In fashion of Maugham and Greene, Le Carre doesn’t glorify spies nor does he portray a spy to lead a glamorous life a.la. James Bond. It is a cold and grimy world that lacks sunshine and warmth – you need a lot of grit to survive the constant grime of lies, betrayal and malevolence.
The episode is well set up to recall the self-effacing George Smiley from retirement. He was known to be the right hand man of the top boss – ‘Control’ – who headed the Circus (the redoubtable British spy service MI6). Control discovered the presence of a mole right at the top in the organization and he arranged for a mission to unmask the traitor. The mission was a public failure and his opposite number in the Russian services, won the battle hands down. Control paid the price of the humiliating failure and eventually passed away. George Smiley too was banished into early retirement.
Yet the battle lost, the war had just begun. And finally the British top-brass realized that they need Smiley’s services to do exactly what Control had wanted to accomplish – unmask the ‘mole’ and restore some order in the Circus that had run to seed. (“It’s the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?”).
A viewer who is familiar with Le Carre’s novels and Smiley territory will be very comfortable with the mini-series and its slow pace in setting the scene. For the uninitiated and those fed the staple diet of mindless action in our spy movies, this will prove to be slow-burn. Well if they have the patience they will gradually start to appreciate the subtle game of chess that unfolds between Smiley and Karla.
The action is deeply cerebral, Smiley sits and pores over piles of back papers. He is looking for the signs of betrayal that would inevitably leave a trace as the ‘mole’ went about the task of betraying British intelligence and sabotaging critical missions. It wouldn’t be blatant and given the nature of the work there are real instances of bad luck or incompetence that can wreck the best laid plans. To sift the grain from the chaff needs a calm and patient hand and Smiley is the sort of efficient bloke capable of playing it.
Smiley characteristically focuses of the last mission that doomed Control. He learns that it was a frame up wherein the operative was betrayed well in advance. And he gradually unravels the threads that lead to point hands against some of the top shots in the service. The music score, an arrangement of “Nunc dimittis” (“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”) from the Book of Common Prayer (1662), was composed by Geoffrey Burgon for organ, trumpet, and treble sets the perfect tone of melancholy that characterizes the mission.
The list of the prime suspects is narrow – Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase, Bill Haydon and Percy Alleline – and Smiley knows their operating rhythm. In particular Alleline was a staunch rival who won a lot of credit for an operating a spy in the Russian set-up (Operation Witchcraft) and this helped in dethrone Control in the aftermath of failure of Operation Testify featuring seasoned spy, Jim Prideaux. With Bill Haydon, Smiley has to deal with the humiliation that it was common knowledge in the Circus circles that Bill was having an affair with Smiley’s wife, Lady Ann Sercomb. So in the setup of old professional rivalries and personal scores, Smiley needs to apply a unique brand of nonchalance to avoid being misled on a false trail.
There isn’t much of legwork involved and Smiley’s old-hand Guillam is there to help him. They also get a lucky lead from Ricky Tarr, a British spy from Portugal, who has a narrow escape as he has learnt about the existence of a Russian mole in the top echelons of the service.
Eventually Smiley decodes the signals that bring focus on Operation Witchcraft being a double-bluff. Instead of facilitating the British getting hand on vital Russian intelligence it actually cripples the Circus on several counts. The intelligence received is credible enough to appear valuable but it seeks to misguide the Circus and their US pals on precisely the terms that suit the Russians. Further it is a perfect blind to help the mole operate and pass-on vital British intelligence to the Russians. Invariably all the 4 suspects are involved in handling the project so Smiley baits the mole by using Tarr as a pawn. The case is cracked and the mole is identified. Sadly it leads to no hurrahs or celebrations.
Le Carre delivers a scathing criticism of the waning British influence on the world stage and the futility of all that MI6 seeks to achieve. In true cynical fashion even Smiley advises that the mole be traded with the Russians to secure release of some of their own resources trapped on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Well Smiley had known about the rot in the System right from his early days. He even mentioned about it when he happened to get a chance to meet Karla over a layover in India. Wanting to entice him to cross over to his side he had acknowledged the futility of the East v/s West debate. (“Look, we are getting to be old men, and we’ve spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems… Don’t you think it’s time to recognise that there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?”).
Though there is a sense of betrayal of personal friendship and loyalties, at the end of it the denouement is like a Pyrrhic victory. The old glory days are lost forever and it is left for Smiley to take charge again and try to rebuild the Circus from its magnificent ruins.