Spoiler warning: I will discuss the ending!
Dispatching the last of the guards, George Smiley climbed onto the rooftop of the Fortress of Evil. The wind ruffled his hair as a familiar figure turned to greet him.
“So, we meet again, Mr Smiley,” drawled Karla, taking a drag from his cigarette. “I thought I warned you not to come after me.”
“This ends now, Karla!” exclaimed Smiley. “I’ve come to put a stop to your evil schemes.”
“Oh George, George,” laughed Karla, shaking his head. “You always were so naive. All this time, I’ve been watching your every move. And now you’re too late to stop me. With this one remote control, I can launch the warheads and start a nuclear war. What can you do to stop me?”
With a mighty roar, George Smiley hurled himself at Karla, despite to wrest the remote out of the other man’s hand. Smiley was no stranger to martial arts, but his opponent’s strength was superhuman. Only the thought of what would happen if Karla succeeded in his plan spurred Smiley on to keep fighting.
The above scene is in no way drawn from anything that happens in John Le Carre’s Smiley’s People – neither the original book, nor the TV adaptation which is the subject of this review. The only reason I wrote it is to drive home a point – how delightful and refreshing it is that such a scene is completely absent.
Smiley’s People is third in the ‘Karla trilogy’ of George Smiley novels, which began with the much better known Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Wikipedia describes the plot thusly: “George Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate the death of one of his old agents: a former Soviet general, the head of an Estonian émigré organisation based in London. Smiley learns the general had discovered information that will lead to a final confrontation with Smiley’s nemesis, the Soviet spymaster Karla.”
Thrilling stuff, eh? If this were a Hollywood blockbuster, you would only have to read those two sentences to know exactly what would happen. Spurred on by the death of General Vladimir, Smiley would reunite an eclectic band of heroes to track down Karla. Along the way, they would fight off Karla’s minions, perhaps even discovering a traitor in their midst. After overcoming his doubts and fears, Smiley would reunite with his allies to storm Karla’s Fortress of Evil. Thanks to the sacrifice of those selfsame allies, Smiley alone would make it to the final boss – Karla himself – where a tense battle would ensue. Fortunately, the forces of righteousness would prevail, and the world would at last be safe again.
It’s a story we’ve all watched, read and played many times – I myself last experienced it whilst watching Wonder Woman on the plane back from the States. And because it’s such a regimented and inevitable progression of events, I find myself regarding it with a sense of creeping dread. A knowledge that, having embarked on whatever film or media item I chose, I must now inevitably sit through yet another on-the-rails story that will culminate in a tiresomely dull final battle. And yes, I could stop watching and walk away, but long-time readers will know that my commitment to finishing what I started runs deep.
Then along came Smiley’s People, a six episode series which first aired in the very year I was born. Three years previously, the BBC had turned Tinker, Tailor into a TV series, but then had to skip The Honourable Schoolboy (perhaps for the best) due to lack of budget for on-location filiming in Hong Kong. As stated above, George Smiley has retired (again) from his life as a spy at MI6-a-like The Circus, but when a chance arises to finally capture his old Russian nemesis Karla, he cannot help but take it.
What follows is largely absent of cliché, and completely devoid of chase scenes, big budget explosions, cheesy dialogue and absurd confrontations. Instead, what mostly happens is that Smiley sets his plans in motion by visiting and talking to people -a lot of people. And while this may not sound like the most enthralling thing to watch, it really is. The dialogue is thoughtful and meticulously crafted, bringing to life the complex world of politics and Cold War espionage. Alec Guinness is of course superb as Smiley, and pretty much everyone else brings their A-game to the acting. Normally, I would be a fan of ‘show, don’t tell’, but in this series, exposition is so well done that even lengthy explanations are absorbing to watch.
In the final episode, there is no grand showdown, no explosive takedown of all of Moscow Central. Instead, in a very understated but nonetheless fulfilling scene, Smiley’s work pays off when Karla -ably played by a pre Jean-Luc Picard Patrick Stewart – has no choice but to give himself up. Late at night, he silently crosses over the West Berlin to be taken into custody. He stands face-to-face with Smiley, neither uttering a word. Karla drops the cigarette lighter he took from Smiley years before and walks away, leaving Smiley not to savour his victory, but to contemplate what he had to do to attain it.
I have to admit that I was initially reluctant to watch both Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People, for fear that they would be too dry and impenetrable to be truly enjoyable. I’m delighted to admit that I was wrong. This is brilliant television, and I can’t wait to watch it all again.