BBC Radio 4, 29 November - 13 December 2009
Famously adapted by Arthur Hopcraft for BBC Television in 1979, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy continues the story of George Smiley (Simon Russell Beale) and his efforts to root out the mole within The Organization who has been passing on secrets to the Russians. Compared to le Carre's other novels (all of which have been adapted in Radio 4's season during 2009), this one seems a lot more talky, with the characters playing verbal games with one another in a series of attempts to find chinks in their intellectual and/or political armour.
As I listened to Steven Canny's production, I began to understand that the story actually contains several thematic subtexts. Smiley's organization is stuffed full of ex-public school types accustomed to playing the Great Game. Although this involves questions of national security, each spy cannot really take his work really seriously as he repeatedly tries to outwit the opposition as if playing a game of chess. However the presence of a mole puts a completely different slant on the spies' gane; it actually represents a threat to their identity both as spies and as males. Everyone has been taught to behave in a certain way In The National Interest; now someone has decided to challenge this. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the mole turns out to be Bill Haydon (Michael Feast), who not only passes secrets on to the Russians but is actually revealed to be a homosexual - in other words, a deviant (at least for the other spies).
Another aspect of le Carre's novel that emerged quite tangibly from the production was the way in which words were used to obfuscate rather than communicate. The characters certainly talked to one another, but seldom passed on anything tangible for fear of being discovered. This rendered them particularly insecure; no one dared disclose their feelings. Smiley might have been good at his job; as a husband, however, he was completely inadequate. His wife Ann (Anna Chancellor) understood the reason for this, but nonetheless could never enjoy a satisfying relationship with him, either emotionally or sexually.
As with all spy novels, the story of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was brought to a satisfying close, with the mole discovered and Smiley emerging triumphant, in spite of the fact that he did not seem very happy about it. However I was left with the sense that everything we had heard throughout the three-part adaptation seemed rather pointless: did it really matter whether a British agent had chosen to pass on secrets to the Russians? The example of Kim Philby springs to mind; in the 1950s he was virtually ostracized by the Establishment, but now he is looked upon as someone with strong convictions who just happened to go off the political rails. Perhaps the same applied to Bill Haydon, whatever Smiley might think.