Saturday 8 October 2011

Bowler Hat or Raincoat? Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - Celia Rees

I have my own reasons for a renewed interest in spy fiction (of which more at another time) but even if it was not one of my current pre-occupations, I would be looking forward to seeing the movie version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

I remember when John Le Carre's book was first published. I was a big fan then and I still am. I have my original hardback copy, a little battered with the paper beginning to brown around the edges, and I have my copies of his other spy novels, the paperbacks faring less well, I fear, but I would not part with them, because they are of their time.

John Le Carre is one of those novelists who write within a genre but transcend it. His name is always high on the list of writers who should have won the Booker but who were denied the prize through literary snobbery. I admire his style and his inventiveness, his consummate plotting and his characterisation, his knowledge and insight into the workings of the particular world he depicts. What interests me now are the perspectives involved. This is not a historical novel but in some ways it reads like one.

Kim Philby's defection happened ten years or so before the book was published, so the novel is already dealing with events that slightly precede the writing of it, but shift the perspective to now and the world Le Carre is writing about, although it is within many people's memory, has all but disappeared. The contrast between Alec Guiness's bowler hatted Smiley and the rumpled raincoated Gary Oldman is an interesting one and tell us much about the perception of times past, even recent times past, from the point of view of a different present.

The BBC series starring Guiness was broadcast in 1979, far closer to the period described in the book, and is therefore likely to be a more accurate depiction, although paradoxically, it seems dated to our eyes. This is a world of Cambridge spies, gentlemen's clubs, Civil Service mandarins and old school ties. To really appreciate the shift to the present, we only have to look at a contemporary series like Spooks. It is not just the electronic gadgetry, which would have seemed like science fiction in the 1970's, and the unimaginably different threats, but the position of women in senior posts, the racial mix of the operatives, their social origins, the casual way that they are dressed, all of these things show us the distance that we have travelled.

These changing depictions offer interesting perspectives and insights to anyone wanting to write about the recent past. Society has changed since John le Carre wrote Tinker, Tailor, the period he depicts has receded into history. Post Glasnost, his novels looked hopelessly dated, now they can be appreciated as accurate depictions of the Cold War period of the middle to late 20th Century.


Nicola Morgan said...

Really interesting post, Celia. I saw the film last weekend and thought it was brilliant. And it certainly does tick the boxes of historical now. I saw it with my 22-year-old daughter, who was seeing it for the second time. She's an aspiring film-maker and is always interested in the technical side. But we had to give her a history lesson about the cold war because (leaving aside the aspects of period you mentioned) the plot can't be understood without understanding something of the ideology of the east-west divide at the time (even to the extent that the very term east-west meant something different then from what it means now) and the whole thing of spy-swapping and defection. So, yes, absolutely a historical film!

catdownunder said...

At "the end of the Cold War" someone said there would be no more spy stories - how horribly wrong they were! There are still plenty of spy stories but, although they may be dated, it is going to be hard to better LeCarre's writing.

Caroline Lawrence said...

I've never read the book or seen the TV series, but I LOVED the movie.

The director Tomas Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema have made 1973 feel like "a foreign country". I love the mood they paint and the clues they give us the viewers so that we can try to work out what's happening: a drop of sweat, a raised eyebrow, etc.

I can't wait to see what YOU are going to do with the spy genre, Celia!

Celia Rees said...

Aha! At the momnent, Caroline, that is 'Classified'!I am embarking on a mission in the next couple of days, though, in my mac with spy camera in hand. It just might be the subject of a future blog, so you will have to wait and see...

Celia Rees said...

Or even 'moment' - oops!

Linda B-A said...

My son has just come home from uni and tells me I would love this film - though I loved Alec Guiness's performance so much there's a bit of me that is reluctant to risk it. You are absolutely right to talk about it in the context of this blog: as Nicola comments, the Cold War and East-West relations now need explaining to the young. I am already curious about Celia's take on the spy story...

Catherine Johnson said...

I liked the film but I can't remember seeing as film that had so few women in it. (Kathy Burke was good but blink and you'll miss her) also all the middle aged white men lookd the same found it hard to remember which was which - bald small one, bow tie one, Mr darcy one and other one....

Linda Newbery said...

Interesting post, Celia - enjoy your mission! I never saw the earlier version, but have seen the film, which felt like peering into gloom for two hours - a vast relief to come out of the cinema and find that there was daylight. Agree with Catherine - it took me almost the whole film to work out everyone's names. I wouldn't say I didn't enjoy it, but would be hard-pushed to give a coherent plot summary ...

Penny Dolan said...

Alan Cliff read about Celia's History Girls post via the Scattered Authors Society chat group. He isn't able to get HG on his computer, but did pass on this interesting information in response to Celia's question as to whether people preferred the original bowler hat version of Smiley:

"I prefer the bowler hat simply because my great great grandfather,
James Benning, was involved in creating same at the end of the

He was at the time foreman ( he later became a partner) at
Lock's the hatters of 6 St James's Street, London. The business is
still still going strong. It originally opened its doors in 1676.

Lock's created the bowler for the Coke family the famous agricultural reformers of Norfolk. It was in effect an early hard hat and according to one source was meant originally to be used by
gamekeepers to protect their heads from poachers' cudgels.

Now Lock's are hatters not hat makers and the making of the basic hat was entrusted to Bowler's of Southwark. The hat became popular
very quickly and the name Bowler stuck to it. However at Lock's it
was and still is called a Coke after the family for whom it was

The popularity of the bowler crossed to America where it
became known as a derby after the Earl of Derby, a Lock
customer, who commended it to our transatlantic cousins.

Detectives and special agents both official and amateur in Britain
and America regularly wore bowlers right up to modern times to
protect their heads from their enemies. So the use by Le Carre in
Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy was spot on.

For some reason I could not access the History Girls blog spot but
I thought this info might be of interest. By the way the
great great great grandson of James Benning my younger son
Nigel, who illustrates my Jack the Station Cat books, is a non-
executive director of Lock's. Alan Cliff

Thank you Alan!

Stroppy Author said...

I haven't seen the movie yet, but both my bints did the Cold War in GCSE history, so quite a lot of the young folks are au fait with what it all means. Maybe your daughter was very slightly too old for that to be on the syllabus, Nicola?

adele said...

Coming late to this...I rely on spy movies to clarify stuff I can't understand in spy novels! I think I'll wait to see this on dvd and then I can pause and go back. Celia, if you're doing a SPY STORY I hope I can follow it okay!

Celia Rees said...

Thank Alan for that, Penny. History Girl blogs do throw up some fascinating comments! I can see how if you haven't read the book or seen the previous TV series it could all get a bit confusing. I loved Catherine's 'Mr Darcy one' and I was disappointed that Kathy Burke was not in it longer - Connie is my favourite character.

Eve Edwards said...

Great film and I got the plot only because I guessed fairly early on that the most famous actor did it... Nit picking detail - I wondered about the breast-feeding woman in the cafe scene. Was this right for Hungary in 1973? Also they didn't open and close the secure cupboards properly (this is from my experience as a diplomat where I had to deal with those wretched dials) - tedious but in a film about secrets I got sidetracked by this. BUT I liked the not over the top version of 70s fashions; Life on Mars went for all the cliches; this seemed closer to reality by contrast.