With the sad passing of the great John le Carré, I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect upon the role booze plays in the lives of his characters. This is a brief and personal survey, based on the books featuring George Smiley; to be more specific, on the books featuring Smiley that I have actually read; to be more specific, as I am away from home and my books at present, on the film and TV adaptations of same that I can remember. Alongside that Alan Partridge-like disclaimer, I should add that what follows contains spoilers: so read on at your peril.
The 1979 broadcast of BBC TV’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was my own introduction to le Carre’s world. I hardly need add that Smiley was played by the great Alec Guinness: a suitably autumnal performance, allegedly based on le Carré’s former boss Maurice Oldfield (the story goes that Guinness met Oldfield for lunch at the author’s suggestion and borrowed his mannerisms wholesale). As a 17-year old who was looking for a way of being an adult, it seemed to me that the life of a 60-ish, semi-retired intelligence operative with a full pension and a house in Chelsea was the one for me. I had no interest in working for the intelligence services in any capacity whatsoever, I just liked the idea of spending my days wandering about the West End in a crombie and a trilby, buying rare books and paintings from dealers in St. James’s, and drinking in private clubs with other old farts who felt they’d been passed over. I know that Smiley was supposed to be the anti-Bond but his life seemed impossibly glamorous to me: melancholy, yes, but quietly hedonistic all the same. And the exotic jargon of this world, all that stuff about lamplighters and scalp hunters and moles and so on, was a magical counterpoint to all the wintry afternoon drinking (it is always winter in Smiley’s world).
And there is a lot of drinking. Drink trays on office credenzas, cut glass tumblers, decanters, super-sized measures of pub gin, slowly poured vintages carefully consumed in discreet restaurants, and so on. (There is also a lot of smoking but that is outside my remit.) In Tinker Tailor one of the techniques Smiley employs to encourage his old Circus colleagues to open up is to bribe them with booze; this is not unlike the method Philip Marlowe uses to prise information out of reluctant witnesses in the great Chandler novels. For example, Jim Prideaux, the agent who was set up and exiled from ‘the firm’, was a Czech specialist keen on vodka. His decline, from the crisp operative being briefed by Control in the fusty office at ‘The Circus’ (Cambridge Circus, of course) to the broken schoolteacher living in a caravan parked by the playing fields, is emphasised by the way he drinks the bottle of vodka Smiley produces when he goes to see him. Likewise, heartbroken Circus operative Connie Sachs is forthcoming when Smiley turns up on her doorstep bearing a bottle of scotch. And Smiley finds Jerry Westerby in a Fleet Street wine bar, and he is is thrilled to reminisce to old George over a boozy lunch. The difference between Marlowe and Smiley is that the latter does not really indulge in these episodes, although he relaxes and drinks freely in the company of his trusted accomplice Peter Guillam. All this is neatly contrasted with the severe life of the Circus itself, the Holy of Holies from whence the likes of Smiley and Guillam have been exiled, yet which amounts to little more than a collection of drab offices connected by dingy linoleum corridors. (There is some excellent ‘office and corridor’ acting on show; it’s very hard to make office environments interesting on film, or to show people inhabiting such spaces in a convincing manner). At the summit of power, Control himself only drinks ‘filthy’ jasmine tea, although he offers Jim Prideaux scotch at the start of the series, during the fateful briefing that is to lead to Prideaux’s capture by the Soviets. Meanwhile, in pre-credit sequence to the same episode, suave Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson) displays elaborate fastidiousness with his cup of tea, a stylish bit of prop business that we recall in the finale, when he is revealed to be the spy ‘Gerald’. Discovered in flagrante with his Soviet handler, Haydon is given a split lip by an enraged Guillam; Haydon then asks for permission to finish his scotch and winces slightly as he sips it, rakish self-confidence evaporating as his exposure sinks in. Haydon was, of course, based on Kim Philby, narcissist, alcoholic and double agent. I am told by an impeccable source that Ian Richardson drew on his own Royal Shakespeare Company portrayal of Richard II as his model for Bill Haydon in disgrace. (I find it impossible to separate the character from Ian Richardson; fine as he is on his own terms, Colin Firth couldn’t match him in Tomas Alfredson’s 2012 feature film version of Tinker Tailor, although Gary Oldman was an impressive Smiley.)
Smiley, of course, has his own reasons to drink: he is married to a serially unfaithful wife, Ann, who has been knocking around with other men right from the start, and who ends up in bed with the traitor Haydon. Smiley was introduced in Call For The Dead, 1961, which was later filmed as The Deadly Affair, starring James Mason as Smiley (renamed Dobbs) and Swedish siren Harriet Andersson as a badly-lip-synced Ann. This is worth a look as it is directed by the esteemed Sidney Lumet, has a catchy score by Quincy Jones, great cinematography by Freddie Young, and makes mid-60s London look believably dowdy (check out the interior of James Mason’s house). But this film betrays Smiley a little: the film is just too exciting, James Mason is too heroic for the part, and, despite Lumet’s and Young’s best efforts (fogging the film to dull Technicolor, etc.), all those grimy bits of London look terrific, and make this viewer achingly nostalgic for a vanished city. It is not so far from the world of Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer. But it does attempt to investigate the misery of Smiley’s marriage, even if it does not really convince on that score either. There’s real misery on show in Martin Ritt’s 1965 film of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, where Richard Burton plays the title role: a bitter spook asked to play a bitter spook so he can get recruited by the KGB. To this end he drinks a lot, beats up a shopkeeper, gets locked up, gets involved with naive fellow traveller Claire Bloom, and is invited to defect to east Germany. No laughs there. But Smiley only gets a walk-on part in the film, it isn’t his show; but he is memorably played by Rupert Davies, who had played Inspector Maigret on TV, and who feels like perfect casting for le Carré’s signature hero.
Ironically, something came back to me as I was writing this piece, a memory of an incident almost thirty years ago when I was working on a journalistic assignment in Eastern Europe. I was with the resident staff at a British embassy in an eastern capital; they were holding a garden party for a visiting dignitary and I found myself chatting to a very charming young woman who was married to one of the diplomats. The young woman was slightly but endearingly tipsy and I had spent all of five minutes in her company when her husband appeared. I had encountered this man earlier the same day, at an ambassadorial briefing during which he had displayed impressive command of his department whilst reporting to the chief (a meeting held in one of those bug-proof rooms I’d only heard about in, well, John le Carré novels). But when he saw me in the company of his wife a look of tragic dismay came over his face. Looking back, there is something le Carré-ish about that encounter, and something of a young George Smiley about that junior diplomat. As for myself, at the age of 58 I fear my own transformation into Smiley is nearly complete. I have the right wardrobe, the right tastes, even some of the right regrets, I just wish I had the same pension and a house in Chelsea.