Remember when TV was intelligent? I just finished watching the 1979 TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the BBC’s masterful adaptation of John le Carré’s best spy novel. Such brilliant TV. Slow, deliberate. I particularly like how none of the ensemble cast are particularly attractive or pleasant, a bunch of middle aged doughy miserable men. Who are all fantastic actors playing nuanced roles, a real joy to watch. While the 2011 film was good, the TV show is great, and I highly recommend watching it if you can get your hands on it.
Naturally, Alec Guinness starring as Smiley owns the show. Hell of a performance, so much so that the actor somewhat stole character away from the author. But what a richly written character. A central conceit is that Smiley’s wife Ann sleeps around with other men, and all his colleagues know it, and he’s by turns humiliated, resigned, and accepting of his fate as a cuckold. Such misery! It’s delicious.
All of le Carré’s spy novels have misery at the center. They’re documents from the end of the British Empire, from when noble men with good intentions are plagued by bureaucracy, indecision, doubt, ambiguity. It all reminds me of a brilliant analysis on Bond and Bourne a Metafilter commenter made. James Bond was the product of the optimistic 50s and 60s, Jason Bourne is a product of the pessimistic individualistic 80s and 90s. Tinker, Tailor is another thing, the decrepit outcome of a crumbling English foreign service. It is well suited to a long, careful BBC treatment.