I have been fascinated and enthralled by the world of Intelligence, homeland and foreign, factual and fictional since first becoming the subject of investigation in 1960 and 1961 but have so far resisted the temptation to seek access to my file under Freedom of Information now that 50 years has passed by. I went full circle signing the Official Secrets Act in the mid 1980’s and being briefed when undertaking work under secondment for the Department of Health.
I have always had a soft spot for the Home Office whose Cabinet Minister commands Homeland security in association with Number 10 and the Ministry of Defence and one of the great joys and sense of achievement was to be allocated a car parking space at the former building at Green Park when visiting as a member of a national sub committee. It was the Home Office that fixed my child care place and provided the funds and where one of its regional officers took me out to lunch and advised on the best approach if I wanted to become a local authority chief officer, although in fairness I do not think telling Sir Keith Joseph where I stood politically in terms of national commitments and international politics when he was my dinner guest at the first BASW national family and child care conference did any harm when it came to confirming my appointment as a Director of Social Services three years later.
(The Security Service, commonly known as MI5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5), is the United Kingdom's counter-intelligence and security agency and is part of the intelligence machinery alongside the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS). All come under the direction of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). The service has a statutory basis in the Security Service Act 1989 and the Intelligence Services Act 1994. Its remit includes the protection of British parliamentary democracy and economic interests, counter-terrorism and counter-espionage within the UK. Although mainly concerned with internal security, it does have an overseas role in support of its mission. Conversely, to ensure that the Home Secretary is responsible for intelligence operations within the UK, the Service may act on behalf of SIS and GCHQ even if the operation is outside its own functions (SIS and GCHQ report to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) ref Wikipedia.
The headquarters of the services has been at Millbank on the North side of the Thames and became familiar to me on my lunch time walks along the bank of the Thames when on leaving school at sixteen I became a junior clerk at the seven story office building of Middlesex County Council now occupied by Random House Publishers at Vauxhall Bridge and within metres of the iconic purpose designed building of the British Secret Intelligence Service, more commonly known as M16 situated on the Southside of the Thames across the Bridge.
My fascination and therefore knowledge has been restricted to fiction writing, films and television and this piece is sparked by seeing the film Tinker Tailor and not agreeing with the rave notices and predictions of awards. I decided to re read the novel and see the film again later in the morning after listening to the Mark Kermode appraisal on the BBC 5 live pod cast yesterday evening and recommendation that to appreciate its value a second visit is worthwhile. I agree there are several excellent performances but I know where the film fails, for me, that is, I am not emotionally engaged. In part because of familiarity but the film fails to make me care.
I can still watch the film of the Le Carré book which brought him success, The Spy who came in from the Cold and still be as moved as I was when I saw the film in theatre and understood the decision of Richard Burton as Lomas not to walk away from his girl friend of a short while, knowing that she was already dead at his feet. I saw the film again about a year ago and yesterday. I still enjoy seeing the Tailor of Panama another Le Carré film which was inspired by another master writer of the intelligence world Graham Green’s Our Man in Havana and where I have ten of his works. Michael Caine also continues to engage with the Ipcress file, Funeral in Berlin and the Million Dollar Brian, Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St Petersburg, all films and more recently the BBC production with Bill Nighy in Page Eight (recently reviewed). There is also Callan with Edward Woodward.
My other moan is that the film is shot in 1940’s and 1950’s Brown although my memory is that there was as much green as brown with my main point being that Le Carré set the trilogy in the 1970’s.
I have six John Le Carré novels including the three Karla works, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smile’s People with the first and last made into brilliant TV series with Sir Alec Guiness and Smiley and a radio production of the Honourable Schoolboy because the cost of TV series shot in the Far East was considered too great. There are eight works involving Smiley and in 2009/10 the BBC created new plays and serials featuring all 8 of his works and where the series is available on CD’s as a package around £65 from the original cost of £100.
I also have the Russia House, The Constant Gardiner and Mission Song. I have video tapes of the two great BBC TV series which featured Sir Alec Guiness in the role of George Smiley, Tinker Tailor and Smile’s people. I have found the TV Tape of Smile’s people but not that of Tinker Tailor.
I have always liked George Smiley although he has a very different personality to my own. George is old school in every sense, public school and Oxford but not from one those grand schools or colleges which turn out individuals who seek to become Presidents of the Union, enter the House and do a spell as Prime Minister, become a leading Judge, run a City Bank or major international corporation. We do not know anything about the relationship with his parents, except they were middle class from the South of England and therefore if his personality and approach to life followed them or was in reaction to one or both of them.
George likes to be in the background, methodical and with an academic insistence on establishing facts and proofs. He is not without ambition and the psychological management profiling he comes out as a traditional chairman, sitting back listening, overseeing, reflecting and then calmly announcing what is to be done and why. He has one obvious weakness, his wife Anne and in which instance he reminds of C P Snow’s Lewis Elliot in his sequence of novels, of which I have nine, featuring academic life in Oxford and work for the Government in the time of War. Smiley would have done well as the Master of an Oxford College or as a senior Don doing interesting jobs for the Government.
Smiley and Lewis Elliot bear their wives as if a cross with Smile’s wife, inexplicably in someone ways, standing out, beautiful, high maintenance she would be described these days and prone to great sexual passions but returning to George for comfort when these go awry. Her full name is Lady Ann Sercombe, aristocratic and confident working as a secretary with the Circus which she decided that George would provide her with the security she needed from which to enjoy her libido. With more self control she would have become a femme fatale Mata Hari field agent or Scalphunter used by Le Carré for his special agents.
There are only a dozen of these based at a former school in Brixton. They work alone, are trained to try and survive interrogation and will what is required to complete he task they are set whatever their personal misgivings.
We know that George was recruited to MI6 by his tutor in the later 1920’s although given his personality I speculate he would have been more comfortable with the separate homeland security people, the guardians of the guardians for the Home Secretary and Number 10.
In the days of Smiley, Graham Green and Ian Fleming the location and identities of the Service was kept confidential although the London HQ was not at Cambridge Circus as in the Le Carré work hence the references to the Circus. I imagine those now working at today’s actual location will refer to the Cross, the Bridge or the Centre just as the chief was known as the Controller. Although as with MI5 the name of the chief is published these days. The Service is officially under the control of the Foreign Secretary with agents of all countries rationally placed in Embassy’s because Diplomatic privileges including immunity. There will be someone with appropriate clearance working at the Cabinet Office acting as a bridge between all the pasts of the security and intelligence services and the PM as well as Individual Ministers with the need to know.
There 3200 individuals listed as employees of MI5 but as with all aspects of MI5 work, such information will only be disclosed to those with the highest security clearances, possibly not even the Parliamentary Security Committee. Le Carré has 600 agents recruit from within the countries where they operate with 120 in Russia which suggests that pro rata he should have assumed several times more operating within the UK and her territories although much of the rest of the world misguidedly believes that the power of the UK is overrated, although not by the Chinese who according to a published quote from my local Member of Parliament when Foreign Secretary they are impressed by our ability to punch above our weight.
We know that George learned his job working South America and central Europe and that his knowledge of German led him to establishing networks in the country before the declaration of the War posing as a lecturer and also working in Switzerland and Sweden described by his superiors as having the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin.
In 1943, he was recalled to England to work at MI6 headquarters, and married Anne after the war when because of the problem which followed he left the service but was recalled with the establishment of the Cold War with the Soviets. In the 1950’s his job was counter intelligence which included trying to turn individuals working for the enemy and it was then that he met Karla his Russian nemesis who took his lighter, a gift from Anne to prove his machismo but also out of respect.
According to Wikipedia Smiley first appears in a Call for the Dead, le Carré's debut novel. At the start of the novel, set around 1960, Smiley has fallen from grace and is working in a relatively menial intelligence job, including security-clearing civil servants. He spends much of the story bemoaning the loss of the talented agents who were his mentors and their replacement by talentless civil-service bureaucrats, such as the current head of service, Maston, who refers to himself as the "Minister's Advisor for Intelligence" and is widely, if secretly, mocked. During this book, Smiley retires to unravel an East German spy ring but remains retired and investigates a murder at a fictional public school in le Carré's next novel, A Murder of Quality.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, his third novel, propelled le Carré to international renown. Smiley is a minor character in the story, but a pivotal one. He is supposedly still retired but is revealed during the story to be back in the Circus as one of the top aides to "Control". The book is set against the background of the Berlin Wall It is book which also introduced Peter Guillam as loyal to Control and to Smiley in a plot which results in the head of East German Intelligence being dethroned by his deputy, a double agent, with the help of Lomas.
Smiley is said to have only a brief involvement in the Looking Glass War, a work I know little about.
He then becomes the right hand man of Control incurring the resentment of the ambitious Percy Alleline and his main support the ‘playboy’ Bill Haydon both with a similar background to Control and Smiley, with Brand having been in the field in the Soviets because of his Community working class father, but who had nevertheless got to Grammar school and Oxford from where Smiley had recruited him. Finally there is Easterhase, again recruited by Smiley working in a Museum in central Europe with the kind of loyalty that serves the masters who ever they are, right or left. This is the situation in which the Karla trilogy begins with Tinker Tailor.
The book and the latest film, and from memory the TV series all cover the same basic plot with variations and different approaches.
It all begins in 1972 when Jim Prideaux a Scalphunter (licence to kill) is sent on a secret mission into a Soviet controlled territory, in the book to Czechoslovakia (Checko) and in the film to Budapest- Hungary, where a general wants to defect. It is however a trap arranged by the Spymaster Karla to kidnap the field agent to try and established if anything is known about his double agent at the top of the Circus and to finish the position of Control and replace him by someone more easily manipulated. Jim was recruited from Oxford by Bill Haydon because his childhood had been central European and his capacity to speak several of the languages. He was sent by Control on the understanding that he did not mention the mission to anyone else at the Centre. The asylum seeking contact offered military and political information and more significantly, the name of the traitor within the inner circle of Control- codename Merlin.
In the book and the film Jim is shot twice but the circumstances are very different and in this respect the film does well. The evidence is that his visit was anticipated. He is held and interrogated over several months but then repatriated. Smiley had been unaware of the mission and learned only what had happened after returning home and then going to the Centre. However because of the closeness to Control and the threat he poses to Merlin, he is forced out with Control.
On his return to England Toby Easterhase gives Prideaux an immediate £1000 until his official pension came through and told him to become a Lotus Easter. He joins a minor public school with a caravan drawn by an Alvis car also given to him as parting gift on behalf of the Circus. What happened to him and why is crucial to plot and in several ways this is in fact the story of him and also Ricki Tarr.
Ricki Tarr is also a Scalphunter sent to Turkey on a mission to bring back the head of trade mission but quickly determines that this is not a prospect but his emotional and vulnerable wife is, especially after Ricki beds her. Again there are different accounts between book and film and in the order of the revelations. She also says she has information which will affect the future of the Circus which Ricky passes to the centre who presses him for more. The girl then disappears and Tarr finds that she has been secreted back to Moscow. He finds her diary in one version which discloses about the Mole at the centre and he goes on the run to where he has a woman and child. It is Tarr that spurs Oliver Lacon the Cabinet office security coordinator and his Minister to ask Smiley to come out of his enforced retirement and investigate using Peter Guillam the trusted organiser of the Scalphunters at the Brixton former school house (since the reorganisation) to bring Smiley to see them and find out what is what.
It is in this book carried foreword to the TV and film that Le Carré makes Smiley a generation younger in order to prolong his working life and makes Guillam a young man when before this he had joined the Circus with Smiley.
Smiley sets up a base at a private hotel with self contained flatlets, a short distance from Paddington Station, and asks Peter to obtain readily available information for him from the Circus but then more secure records, warning that if caught Peter has to deny any involvement. He wants Peter to first provide him with information on all those who left service following the resignation and death of control, who was dying prior to the failed mission to learn the identity of the Mole.
This leads him Smiley finding that Jim Prideaux survived, was repatriated and then sent to become a Lotus Easter, He also finds that the Control research assistant Connie Sachs was also sent away because it was claimed she had become too fanciful and needed to go back to the real world. It is through Tarr, Prideaux and Sachs that Smiley is able to work out the mystery of who is the Mole and the whys and whats. He visits the home of Control and finds the chess pieces which had carried the small photos of the senior members of the Circus -, Alleline, Haydon, Bland Easterhase and Smiley and which excluding himself narrow the number to four -Tinker, Tailor Soldier etc.
As with all such situations the Russian spy plan is long ranged determined once the Mole has been established, in this instance a willing recruit who disliked that happened to the UK following the end of World War II and the giving up of the Empire. He and others have argued that Britain was finished as a world power and the Traitor decided he could make a difference to the future by working for the Soviets.
One of the better features of the film is the decision to use a Christmas party at Circus to provide flashbacks. It id a cinematic device showing that with hindsight all the indications of what was to come were there. Someone in face mask of Stalin (Brand I think) arrives in Santa clothing and a sack of present giving, and leads everyone in a Chorus of the Russian National Anthem, one of the great stirring anthems in the world and of which their are 30 recordings available on the Internet Russian Anthem Museum to listen too including that of the Moscow’s Children’s choir and a Rock version. While it is playing Smiley discovers the relationship between his wife and Bill Haydon and we the audience note that there is a special relationship between Bill and Prideaux played by King’s Speech Academy award winner Colin Firth and also the excellent Mark Strong.
Given that Le Carré based his British double agent on Guy Burgess who was part of a homosexual ring it is interesting that the book only makes veiled references noting towards the end that Prideaux is in love with Haydon and young Guillam who in the book is a notorious womaniser is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbach as a homosexual who when Smiley becomes worried that the Mole will react as the net closes persuades him to give up his live in relationship with a school master who is sent packing, for the man’s protection rather than his own.
The plan involved placing a contact on the staff of the Soviet Embassy in London, officially a Cultural attaché who becomes exceptional at his job. He is spotted by Connie Sachs when she sees film of a parade in which the attaché is saluted by a General which meant that he must have held an important and senior role in the Military and is in fact a wartime hero. It is when Connie played by Kathy Burke, in the film, spots this discrepancy and reports to her new superiors that she is quickly pensioned off. The character of Connie is based on Millicent Bagot 1907-2006 who as Soviet expert working for MI5 advised that Kim Philby (MI6) had been a member of the Communist Party. She was awarded the MBE and CBE.
In order to ensure that someone suitable replaces Control, played by John Hurt in the film, and to further the plan to gain access to USA intelligence, they arrange for the attaché, Polyakov, to offer to provide high level intelligence information in exchange for British information. Both sides in effect start to officially provide low level information to each other “chicken feed” mixed in with some more important stuff, with the Soviet information sufficient to attract the interest of the USA who had become hesitant about too close involvement because of early double spy scandals. However in addition to this the Merlin continues to provide any information which is useful to Moscow as he has been doing throughout most of his time at the Circus.
The exchange of information is called “Witchcraft” and is put to Lacon and the appropriate government Minister by Alleline, Haydon and co during the time that Control has become ill.
Percy Alleline his official number 2 has always carried a resentment since he was a undergraduate pupil of Control and was not rated by his tutor and once put in charge he pressed the Minister via Lacon to approve sharing the info with the Cousins- the USA.
What emerges is that Prideaux had warned Haydon of his secret mission although Karla-Polyakov- Haydon had picked the Czech General to defect knowing that this would ensure that Czech background and speaking Prideaux would be sent. In the film his shooting is not planned hence the efforts of the new Director of Operations- Haydon to gain his release home. Haydon learns of the development when staying with Anne while Smiley is returning from Berlin. The Wrangler - wireless operator and cryptographer on duty had advised Control who had become frozen and unwilling to advise how the situation should be dealt with. The Wrangler had then rang Smiley’s home and Ann had answered and then advised her lover who had gone to get things organised at the Circus, but then returned to greet Smiley pretending to have brought a painting for Anne which he said she liked but also as additional cover for his position.
The unexpected development which stops the Russian play from being effective is the relationship with Ricki Tarr established with the wife of the Trade Mission leader to Turkey and his finding out about the existence of the traitor.
Smiley asks Guillam to risk his position by getting hold of a copy of the Diary record of urgent calls (flash) which shows the missing pages deleted, and during the successful attempt he is called to the top floor to be cross examined by the new regime over his recent contact with Ricki Tarr. He makes light of the request without knowing that Tarr is in the UK and it is his evidence which has created the current investigation. When he finds Tarr with Smiley he has come to believe that Tarr is the renegade and that the story of the Mole is a fabrication created to try and save his own skin. He is disabused of this by Smiley.
It is Tarr that is asked to spring the trap by going to Paris where the local man was responsible for his training. He sends a message saying that he has information important about the future of the Circus. He gets a message back requiring more information which is the anticipated reaction. In London Toby Easterhase has been confronted with the reality of his position that he has become a willing pawn to a Russian inspired double agent plot. He readily yields the location of the secret safe house approved by the Minister and this enables the placed to be examined and prepared for Smiley to wait inside with his team first keeping watch on the Circus and see the assembling of the trio, Alleline, Haydon and Bland, Easterhase having been told to take the time off in advance of the trap. Those unaware of what happens in the book or TV series have to wait before finding out which of the three is the traitor, who we are told is arriving at the Safe House.
We overhear a conversation in which Polyakov reminds of his protected status as a member of the Embassy staff adding however that on recall he will be sent to Siberia because of the failure of the mission while Haydon can be expected to be treated with honour on his expulsion to Moscow.
Smiley enjoys putting the boot in on the Minister who sacked him and in turn is asked to take over on an interim basis in order to sort out the mess.
Alleline is sent on permanent gardening leave.
Tarr goes off to meet up with his son and the child’s mother, but he had also wanted Smiley to negotiate the return of Irina the woman who revealed the existence of a Mole to him. However we know she had been killed along with her husband.
Prideaux reveals to Smiley who visits the school what happened to him after his capture and how he had held out for as long a she could before revealing the concern of Control about a Mole. He is shocked to learn that all the operatives in Hungry/Checko were rounded up and executed but in the book it is explained that this was arranged in advance, He seeks revenge after learning that the traitor was Haydon who he had told of his secret mission when ordered not to do so
Connie returns to help Smiley and Guillam is advanced to the top floor.
I leave till last the meeting of Smiley with Bill at the Training centre in Yorkshire where he is held. This was at Haydon’s request before going to Russia. He asked Smiley to pass on money for his current woman who has a baby. He will provide for them but Smiley is asked to emphasise that the break will be a final one. It is at this point Haydon admits his bi-sexuality asking Smiley to pass on a couple of hundred pounds from the Reptile fund to keep his mouth shut! I forget why the fund is called as it is.
The Housekeepers are the Internal auditors; the Inquisitors- the interrogations, that is an easy one; the Janitors - the Operation staff at the Circus; the Lamplighters - not easy, those who provide surveillance and act as couriers; Mothers- secretaries and trusted typists serving senior officers at the Circus and who are regarded as good bed mates by the Scalphunters and those of similar personality at the centre; Nuts and Bolts, the technology providers of the day; Pavement Artists- those who follow targets in the street; Shoemakers- Forgers of documents; Babysitters, easy one - Bodyguards and Burowers- Researchers recruited direct from University with Gold and Treasure- high quality intelligence offered or gained.
And then there is Ann and where Haydon admits it was Karla’s idea for him to seduce because he regarded Smiley as the main threat to plan and that by having the affair it would help to keep Smiley from seeing Bill as he was. He admits he has seduced many Ann’s to gain information and further his position.
Bill then argues that at least he made his mark on the world which Smiley find contemptible.
Hating the situation more by the minute Smiley leaves and drives fast to Oxford for lunch. He then goes to the pictures and has a meal out on his own arriving home a little drunk at midnight only to find Lacon together with the Minister Miles Sercombe--yes related to Ann, Smiley’s wife but I cannot remember how, and they drive off all the way back to Sarratt because the body of Bill has been found there. His neck Broken. We are left to assume it is Prideaux because for the rest of the term he is in bad spirits cheered up by Bill Roach the boy loner he takes up after his arrival as a newboy. Prideaux cheers up as the term ends with the help of Roach. In the film Prideaux cuts the strings with Roach telling him to become normal and play with other boys. We then see Prideaux shoot Haydon dead at a distance with a riffle with the two looking intently at each other and the expression on Haydon’s face inviting him to get on with it.