George Smiley: a primer

Monday, September 4, 2017 - 12:54

John le Carré’s long and prolific career means he has introduced his readers to numerous memorable characters, but George Smiley, who appeared in le Carré’s first novel Call for the Dead (1961), is the most famous of them all.

So it was with great excitement that fans greeted the news that Smiley is back after a hiatus of nearly 40 years in the novel A Legacy of Spies, published this week by Viking/Penguin Random House.

To launch the book, John le Carré makes a very rare public appearance at Royal Festival Hall, in an event called An Evening With George Smiley. It gives you the chance to hear all about the inspiration behind Smiley and why le Carré has decided to revisit the subject of the Cold War now.

So you can brush up on your Smiley knowledge ahead of the event, we’ve put together a short primer for you.

What’s Smiley’s game then?

George Smiley is a career spy, having joined the British government’s overseas intelligence service, dubbed The Circus, in his twenties. He saw active service in the Second World War but when he first appears in 1961’s Call for the Dead, we discover that he has been sidelined to a desk job as The Circus is increasingly run by bureaucrats. In fact [SPOILER ALERT], Smiley quits the service midway through Call for the Dead. He is not involved in the service throughout le Carré’s second novel A Murder of Quality; instead Smiley investigates the death of a student.

It was in the ‘Karla’ trilogy – comprising Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People – that Smiley really shot to fame. He makes cameos in plenty of other le Carré books too.

So he’s a bit like James Bond

Nope, not at all. Smiley made his debut three years after Ian Fleming’s James Bond had his first outing in Dr No, and it is no coincidence that he is in almost every way Bond’s antithesis. Although both are loyal servants of the Crown and on the same side in the Cold War, Smiley is as far away from the suavely handsome 007 as you can imagine.

The first time we meet him, Smiley is described as ‘breathtakingly ordinary . . . short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes’. And where James Bond lives in a world of action in exotic locations, Smiley often works in an office, armed with impressive powers of perception (hinted at by the thick spectacles he sometimes cleans with the end of his tie).

Unlike ladykiller James Bond, Smiley is devoted to his wife Lady Ann Sercomb. Too bad for him that she has no interest in monogamy.

Another major difference is that le Carré takes us behind the scenes of the British intelligence service, exposing the politics of its operations, the bureaucracy that makes it inefficient and, of course, its infiltration by Soviet spies. This contrasts with the intelligence service of Fleming’s novels, which is shown as a reassuringly well-oiled machine, unhampered by moral ambiguity.

Sounds like John le Carré knows quite a bit about this spy game. . .

That’s because le Carré (whose real name is David Cornwell) did actually work for the British intelligence service for a short time during the Cold War.

He talks about this, and gives other insights into his inspirations and sources, in his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life. It reveals that former MI6 colleagues accused him of disloyalty for exposing so much detail about the service’s operations.

But like Bond, Smiley has made the leap from page to screen

That is true: television and film producers love Smiley almost as much as le Carré’s readers.

If you’re of a certain age then George Smiley is Sir Alec Guinness. This amazingly versatile actor portrayed the spy to huge acclaim in two BBC television series – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 1979 and Smiley’s People in 1982. More recently, the character has been portrayed by Gary Oldman in the 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The London-born actor received his first Oscar nomination for the film.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Official Trailer

You might be less familiar with other portrayals: George Cole, famous for playing cheeky chappy Arthur Daley in Minder, has given voice to Smiley in two BBC radio adaptations, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality; while Simon Russell Beale appeared as the spymaster in a 2009 series of radio plays.

He was also portrayed on screen by Denholm Elliot, and Hollywood legend James Mason appeared in an adaption of Call for the Dead called The Deadly Affair, where Smiley’s character was renamed Charles Dobbs. Le Carré worked on the script for this film.

The Deadly Affair - Trailer

The Two Ronnies’ memorable mash up of The Professionals and Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy featured Ronnie Barker sending up Smiley’s stuffed shirt ways to Ronnie Corbett’s hapless Doyle.

John le Carré appeared at Royal Festival Hall in September 2017, to deliver An Evening With George Smiley.

watch an excerpt from the talk