BBC Radio 4, 13-27 June 2010
What to make of this final novel in Le Carre's eight-novel sequence, all of which have been dramatized on Radio 4? There was much to admire in Patrick Rayner's production: Patrick Malahide's moody characterization of Ned, a decent, loyal soldier of the Cold War, who has been in British intelligence all of his life, and is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about his work, once he has retired. Simon Russell Beale returned once more as George Smiley, that enigmatic, rather shadowy figure with an encyclopedic knowledge of the spy game, who nonetheless appears perpetually dissatisfied with his work. Many of the actors who had appeared in earlier adaptations in the sequence returned here: Anna Chancellor as Smiley's wife, Sam Dale (Toby Esterhase), Saul Enderby (James Laurenson). Two other actors took major roles in parts two and three of this adaptation - Angus Wright as Hansen, the Dutch spy forced to work for British intelligence in Thailand, and Toby Jones as Cyril Frewin, a cypher clerk within the Intelligence Service who ended up working for the Russians. Their exchanges with Ned proved fascinating - a series of verbal battles in which the participants tried every single thrust and parry to expose one another's weaknesses.
I admired Le Carre's gift for detail; his minute portrayal of his characters' foibles, and the grey half-lives they lead. I also believed that all the agents - even the most successful such as Smiley - were in a sense lost souls. They had entered the service with idealistic dreams of serving their country, but had gradually become corrupted by cynicism, once they discovered that no one could really be trusted in the game of espionage. Now they were nearing retirement, they discovered to their cost that they had nothing left to offer; the best they could look forward to was a half-life in a coastal retirement, with occasional council meetings to break up the tedium (as in Ned's case), or simply to vanish into the woodwork altogether (as with Smiley).
But once we had got past the almost pervasive cynicism of the adaptation, there was really nothing left to contemplate. Ned might have begun his working life as a quasi-pilgrim, determined to seek after truth with an almost religious zeal, but by the end he understood how the need for secrecy removed any claims to truth. The book's title is an oxymoron; there is no such thing as a 'secret pilgrim.'