In thrillers, exposition is a necessary challenge; even the tightest of them (Escape from New York, Spartan) have to take some time to set up the rules of the game. Without that, there’s no risk and therefore no thrill. (A lot of contemporary thrillers manage to fuck up in both directions: wasting time on explaining the rules and then ignoring them and thus generating two kinds of boredom.) The more complex the work, the more needs to be explained, and the greater the challenge of doing so without derailing the action. Two scenes in the 1982 BBC TV miniseries of John le Carré’s Smiley’s People don’t entirely beat the challenges of exposition, but they get damn close, and showcase both the power of le Carré as a storyteller but even more, Alec Guinness’ talents as an actor.
Smiley’s People, over thirty-five years after publication, remains le Carré’s best book, with his best character, spymaster George Smiley, engaged in his best action, the final hunt of his opposite number in Moscow Centre, Karla. Smiley appeared in his first novel Call for the Dead and plays a supporting role in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the first book of the Quest for Karla trilogy, though, moved him to the protagonist’s seat and marked a necessary shift in le Carré’s style as well. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a taut, stripped thriller, film-ready (and Martin Ritt made a great film out of it), about almost nothing but the action; each short chapter has a title that’s either setting or action. Beginning with Tinker and continuing to now, le Carré’s style became more discursive, more concerned with setting and character than with action, and Smiley was the perfect embodiment of this style. His great talent, almost an unconscious one, is observation: Smiley forever sees more than anyone else, isn’t always aware he’s doing it, and would probably be happier if he didn’t. His observational compulsion (it goes far beyond talent) means that having pages of description places us in his mind for all of it; it makes for great reading but becomes a problem for filming. The miniseries often goes for the obvious solution by taking Smiley’s interior monologue and having him speak it to someone; it works, barely, because it makes Smiley a more outgoing character than he is.
So it makes sense that the most successful scenes of exposition in the Smiley’s People miniseries come when Smiley says almost nothing at all. This may be apocryphal, but I’ve heard that Guinness considered Smiley the favorite of all his roles in his long career. He plays him in two miniseries, Tinker, Tailor. . . and Smiley’s People; the middle novel, The Honourable Schoolboy, was considered for production after the success of Tinker, Tailor. . .and dropped because it would have been too expensive. (It remains unproduced among le Carré’s works.) No one better defined Guinness’ talents than Pauline Kael, who called him “a peerless miniaturist; the eyelids droop a millimeter, and the meaning changes.” In both these scenes, that talent makes all the difference, turning conventionally written speeches into real drama.
Smiley’s People comes in at six hourlong episodes, and that allows for some of the relaxed tempo of a novel to come through. This means that we don’t get to the first scene of exposition until the end of hour one. Most of this episode centers on Vladimir, aka the General, a Russian defector from some time back. He has come into information that may bring down Karla, he’s trying to get it to Smiley, and he’s shot dead in a London park before that happens. (One of the best and most consistent things about le Carré: killing is always an act of desperation, and it usually gives you away.) Like another Guinness character, Smiley has retired and gets called into a larger story. Here, he has to identify the body, and at the end of the episode, he ends up in the safe house meant to welcome the General, and hears the story of what happened from Mostyn (Stephen Riddle), Lacon (Anthony Bate), and Strickland (Bill Paterson, a near dead ringer for David Thewlis fifteen years younger), and gets instructed by Lacon to clean up loose ends.
This scene is partially a mistake, not for what it is but for what comes before. It’s nearly an exact performance of what’s in the novel, but there, we come into the story with Smiley. In the miniseries, le Carré and co-writer John Hopkins include the entire sequence of the General trying to make contact with British Intelligence, his journey to the park, and we only break off watching him just before he’s killed. So, when Mostyn spends minutes recounting his conversation with the General, that’s time spent telling us what we already know. le Carré’s novels always move at a slow pace, but he never wastes the reader’s time like this.
It’s shot, too, in a nondescript way, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. Director Simon Langton follows the old television rule of “every shot must be a medium shot of someone talking or reacting” for the entire scene; he also, inexplicably, cuts briefly away at the end to another character in Paris, derailing whatever momentum this scene has. (There’s no dramatic or thematic justification for this; it only seems to have been done to include that beat of the story in the first hour.) One good touch, though: Smiley stays seated for almost the entire scene, and the other characters are often shot from his perspective, slightly below. The safe house is as boring as the visual grammar, placing the characters against blank walls like an overlit photo booth. It’s not visually interesting, but that works to the scene’s advantage in one way: it plays down the drama of it and makes this seem like everyday activity. Part of what defined television in 1982 in opposition to cinema is that very ordinariness, the limitations of its visual grammar, the cheapness of its sets, and this is a moment when two characters (Lacon and Strickland) are trying very hard to make things ordinary. (The British TV series The Sandbaggers had a lot of this aesthetic and attitude, and remains the best version of le Carré that isn’t le Carré yet.)
The acting, for the most part, stays within its era of television; these are performers who indicate emotion rather than inhabit it. Paterson’s Strickland comes off as genuinely abrasive, annoying, and Scottish (somehow I think this miniseries was a favorite of the future Malcolm Tucker, Peter Capaldi); Riddle’s Mostyn feels like a case where the inexperience of the actor merges with the inexperience of the character; and as Lacon, Bate just plain overacts. It feels like the kind of performance where the actor wants to make sure we don’t identify him with his character.
That’s never been a problem with Alec Guinness, always an actor who sank completely into his roles, so much so that you would never suspect Col. Nicholson or Obi-Wan Kenobi or Feisal from seeing Smiley. Permanently shy, permanently alienated, slow, kinda chubby, an inheritor of hundreds of years of English tradition: Guinness just becomes all these things, and they’re necessary for who Smiley is. So much of the conflict in Smiley’s People will be over whether or not Smiley can make himself do what’s necessary to bring down Karla; like all great heroes, he has a weakness that he needs to overcome, and Guinness has no problem letting himself look weak.
That heightens even more what he does in this scene. Seated and quiet, Guinness makes the scene work almost entirely on his reactions. He lets them go across his face and disappear; we see the quickest anger, the quickest curiosity, the quickest loss, and they’re gone. The isolated frame on him makes these moments almost private, like we know about them but the other characters don’t. Lauder and especially Lacon almost ignore Smiley; they simply want this cleaned up and forgotten as quickly as possible. Mostyn tells the story of the General; Smiley tells them and us of his background, but the real drama of the scene comes with how Smiley reacts to all of this, letting us know without words that a good and loyal man got killed, and Smiley isn’t going to let him be forgotten.
All of Guinness’ talent and even the indifferent direction plays into the sucker punch at scene’s end. Langton cares so little about this moment that he even starts the music that closes each episode over it. (Or, to be generous, he wants to fake us out.) Mostyn gets Smiley’s coat and the two of them are briefly alone, and without any inflection or cadence, Smiley asks “what else did Vladimir tell you on the telephone?” In the novel, le Carré has had pages to record Smiley’s rising curve of awareness; here, nothing sets the moment up except the brief beat earlier of Mostyn saying “Tell Max this–” and stopping himself. (Max is Smiley’s “workname,” or code name.) Here, the flat surface of entire scene makes this a real shock, and real drama: Mostyn now reveals what he withheld. He replies “He said, tell Max it concerns the Sandman. Tell him I have two proofs and can bring them with me. It was on the tape but Strickland erased it.” Almost immediately, Smiley comes back with “two proofs. Did you know what Vladimir meant by that? Keep your voice down.” Those last four words come out as a command, entirely through Guinness’ presence. Mostyn replies that he doesn’t but Strickland might have.
“The Sandman” is a code name for Karla, and after a slow, novelistic hour, Smiley’s People launches the story with a jolt. Smiley now has a target and he has a clue–the “two proofs,” and the knowledge that Vladimir was carrying them when he was killed. It’s a moment of pure ownage, the weakest man suddenly revealing himself as the strongest, the still man going into action, the guy everyone assumed was under their control starting his own mission. That last one plays so well into one of le Carré’s great themes, and what made him so good: his understanding that in spying, everyone plays everyone else, it’s only a question of degree. (Earlier, the General said “enemies, I do not fear. But friends I fear greatly.”) It’s not just agents betraying governments, it’s people using espionage as a way to settle old scores, government officials not supporting their own agents, or, here, Smiley assigned to do a job and deciding to do something entirely else; later he says “I have invested my life in institutions, and I am left only with myself.” That kind of ambiguity, that way of everyone trying to play at least two sides at once, defined le Carré’s best work, and he’s sadly lost that since The Secret Pilgrim and the end of the Cold War. The final chapter of that book shows le Carré moving into a new world of terrorists and arms dealers, and my reading is that he finds them too unambiguously evil to write good fiction about them.
This scene gets bookended just over three hours later, starting the fifth episode with another expositional scene. Since the earlier scene, we’ve tracked Smiley going from London to Germany to Paris, gathering information, finding both “proofs,” and building the means to take down Karla. Now he puts it all together for the new head of British Intelligence, Saul Enderby (not mentioned in the miniseries is how Enderby took Smiley’s job from him at the end of The Honourable Schoolboy) and for us in the audience. Although this scene plays out almost exactly as it does in the novel, it’s more necessary in television or film, where there is no “reveal flip-back”; it helps us (certainly it helped me) understand the complex master story Smiley has uncovered. Since it’s so straightforward, there’s less emotion for Guinness to play. The first scene largely worked because of the turn at the end, but this one has no twist and it’s great all the way through, because here Guinness has someone who can act on his level.
Barry Foster plays Enderby as one of le Carré’s occasional outsize characters. With a full head of almost-white hair, he looks more than a little like Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor and he has some of the style too: imperious and aristocratic but not mean about either one. More than anything, and in contrast to Smiley, dude’s having fun with this. (OK, that would make him Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor.) He’s like Steve Coogan showing up in Hot Fuzz or Steven Bauer in Breaking Bad, inherently funny just by his presence and a little puzzled why anyone else wouldn’t be enjoying this. (“Didn’t hear me, never mind” is his reaction to Smiley ignoring a double-entendre.) Foster lets his voice go all over the place, keeps changing position in the room, does little one-act plays with his glasses, largely ignores Strickland (back in this scene) and Smiley’s old right-hand man Peter Guillam, treats his secretary (Lucy Fleming; this character doesn’t appear in the novel at all and is actually from The Honourable Schoolboy) in a very 1982 (or even 1952) way, and generally behaves like running an intelligence service and knowing all the secrets is just a fabulous pastime for a proper English gentleman. Foster or even Enderby seems to have decided that if you’re stuck with reading a few pages of exposition, you might as well sing them. I’ve read a description of this scene that claims Enderby is mocking Smiley all through it, but I’ve never seen that; Foster gives Enderby a respect for Smiley that he doesn’t have for anyone else. The scene finishes with Enderby giving Smiley the final go-ahead to capture Karla, as long as he’s discreet, and Foster nails the near-goodbye line, perfectly gentlemanly, British, and self-amused: “Sorry you’ve become an instrument of the imperial hypocrisy but there’s rrrrather a lot of it about.”
Foster’s energy allows Guinness to play down, and by doing that he owns the scene. His small but definite changes of expression in the earlier scene are gone and he’s almost completely still here as Enderby explains everything Smiley found out; at one point, Guinness lets himself slightly smile (it’s the header image) and that makes the difference between this and the first scene: that ended in an act of ownage, but here Smiley already owns. This knowledge belongs to him from beginning to end and Enderby’s just catching up, so the scene belongs to him too. In the novel, le Carré says that Enderby and his assistants “had removed themselves to a higher order of human conduct for which they were unfit,” and that’s what Guinness gives all through this scene, and it’s what links it to the earlier one. Smiley has been playing his own game all along, and Enderby recognizes that. The miniseries presents le Carré’s sense of different levels and different agendas, without moral judgment (as, say, 24 would have) but with the simple understanding that this is how the “wilderness of mirrors” works.
Smiley’s People remains my favorite le Carré adaptation, although I need to see some more of them. Presenting expositional scenes was necessary to make it: although I’ve only discussed two of them, really it’s almost all exposition, as Smiley finds out one detail after another until he can finally bring down Karla. (Without giving anything away, Patrick Stewart returns from the earlier Tinker, Tailor miniseries to play Karla and both times, he plays one scene with no dialogue and plays it on the same level as Guinness.) You’d never mistake it for a Second Golden Age work of television, but it’s damn involving and essential viewing for fans of espionage fiction or great acting.