John le Carre - A Perfect Spy
I missed this novel when it was published in 1986, feeling rather sated with the whole spy genre; after the fall of the Berlin Wall it seemed somehow irrelevant. Then I watched the first part of the television adaptation and didn’t enjoy it so never got round to the book at all. But it has recently been re-issued in paperback and I regret the lapse. Carre is an amazing writer, if (like John Fowles) rather wordy and slow-paced for contemporary taste.
A Perfect Spy is the story of a boy born to an aristocratic mother and a con-man father in the spectactular style of Bernard Madoff. When his mother has a nervous breakdown and sectioned, the child is brought up in the context of his father’s criminal associates, assorted mistresses and the cheaper end of the public school system. Carre builds the character of the young spy carefully and credibly. After reading the book I really can understand why people might betray their countries.
Stimulated by the novel, I have also re-watched the original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy BBC adaptation. The cast list is a roll-call of British acting - Alec Guinness, Ian Richardson, Bernard Hepton, Hywel Bennett and Ian Bannen. It was adapted by the great Arthur Hopcraft, most famous for writing about football. Jonathon Powell, who commissioned the script, believed Tinker Tailor to be Hopcraft’s best work. "Everybody says how complicated a book it is, but also it is very simple; a man tracking down one of four people. One of the things Arthur was so marvellous at was in giving you a crystal clear line through things, honing it down to diamond-like clarity. Arthur became a king of that kind of work. The only other one in his class was Dennis Potter."
Hopcraft went on to write adaptations of Bleak House and Hard Times and won a Bafta, but apparently became disillusioned about the state of contemporary TV - what he called "being alternately patronised and bullied by girls called Fiona flourishing clipboards."
Another reason for Tinker Tailor’s quality is that it was directed by one of Britain’s finest film directors, John Irvin (still making films). It took me a while to settle into the slow, meditative style, but I found myself so gripped I watched all the episodes one after the other into the early hours of the morning. Financial constraints and ignorance (or contempt for) the intelligence of the viewing public mean that no one these days would allow such an profound exploration of a novel’s characters and themes, and I think that is a great loss to television.