The recent repeat of their 1979 adaptation of the John Le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the BBC’s season about the Cold War recalled a period long gone, not just of espionage drama, but of when the male workplace was a staple of TV drama.
In the 1960s and 1970s, most TV drama centred around male characters in different jobs and professions. In banking, in the legal profession, in the police, in journalism, in other commercial environments. Astonishing to think, there was once even a prime-time drama, Hine, in which the lead character was an arms dealer.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was famously well written and acted, and highly publicised, but I was probably drawn to it firstly due to a familiarity with that dramatic sub-genre. Le Carré’s MI6 Circus, full of jargon and acronyms and code words and confidentiality and urgent trips out of the office to other work locations, bore not a little similarity to the business world of industrial manufacturing which I had just entered. In drama too as in life, women were in the minority and in positions which were more junior and less well paid.
The weakness of the recent film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for me is the fact that we the audience have moved too far away from that time. The film does have an attractively bleak cinematography which emphasises correctly how the Cold War period of the 1970s was still closely linked to its 1940s origins, and its characterisation of Toby Esterhase does present more deeply than did Arthur Hopcraft in the first dramatisation how a poor Eastern European background lay beneath Esterhase’s middle-class English establishment success. However, most of its actors do not convince as men of their period. Colin Firth has clearly been cast for his crowd-pulling qualities and Benedict Cumberbatch’s youthful androgyny makes him look completely out of place. Gary Oldman is a reasonable age for George Smiley, but, perhaps because he is of my own generation and I know about our shared 1970s/1980s heritage, he doesn’t bring to the role the correct gravitas and mystery which Alec Guinness conveyed so elegantly.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was screened just after the arrival of a less prestigious ITV series, The Sandbaggers, written by Ian Mackintosh. It is instructive to watch the agents and officials in their old-fashioned smart suits, trilbies and bowler hats while they enact stories which are now also part of past history : about the Soviet concentration in the Kola peninsula adjoining Scandinavia, assassinations of African dictators, politicians open to blackmail because of alleged homosexual relationships, tensions in Cyprus, Palestinian terrorist groups who are funded by Libya, fears about whether Malta under the left-wing government of Dom Mintoff would become too-pro Soviet, how being out of NATO was seen to weaken French intelligence capability.
The special relationship between the British and the Americans was a constant theme in the series, just as it continued in the wider media during the concurrent leadership periods of Thatcher and Reagan. CIA London agent Jeff Ross is a regular character and we frequently see him in discreet walks in parks and city streets with MI6 (although always referred to as SIS in the programme) Director of Operations Neil Burnside. There are constant moans about British defence spending cuts and how these compare unfavourably to the generous budgets enjoyed by the CIA, and story-lines refer to how operational plans are often thwarted by changing government priorities.
Like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Sandbaggers portrayed a male-dominated world of endless debates over minutiae and responsibilities, career progress and competition, established practices changed by individual whim, late nights, heavy smoking, barked phone conversations, food seen as secondary to the ever-changing business of the day, scant regard for domestic life outside the workplace castle.
I am always struck by occasions in such dramas where scriptwriters do acknowledge life outside. There are a couple of scenes in The Sandbaggers where Matthew Peele, the older Deputy Chief who still remembers life outside work, refers ruefully to his untended garden and missed bridge club, much to the scorn of the obsessive Neil Burnside.
Later, Paul Dalgetty, the new Director of Intelligence who is seen as similarly clubbable and therefore promotable, is shown telling another character that he has booked a squash court – squash in this era being a popular male action sport in TV characterisation as in real life.
Equally, I love the sequence in the original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which encapsulates the opposite obsession. George Smiley has returned late from an evening out and has been chauffeured away with little explanation by Peter Guillam. He is brought to an all-night meeting in a rural retreat to hear the damning allegations of MI6 leadership corruption from Ricky Tarr – which end with the curtains being pulled open and the morning sunlight of the world outside pouring in, and the distant sounds of a young girl’s music practice.