Alec Guinness Gets a Makeover

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One of the signature TV events of the 1980s comes out on Blu-ray this month. With Alec Guinness reprising his role as weary espionage panjandrum George Smiley, Smiley's People was the 1982 follow-up to the 1979 adaptation of John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—itself a television landmark, meaning the sequel had to live up to expectations of a type previously unknown in TV land.

Remember, this was the Stone Age. Educated folk weren't supposed to take TV seriously. From The Six Wives of Henry VIII to the original Forsyte Saga, the rare exceptions boasted reassuringly prestigious non-television pedigrees. Even I, Claudius—the Game of Thrones of its day—had the double-barreled cachet of ancient Rome and author Robert Graves to help the culturati rationalize tuning in for Peytonus Place. Because le Carré wasn't yet in that league and Cold War spy thrillers were still vaguely disreputable, Tinker, Tailor and then Smiley's People had no such insurance.

Hence my claim that lonesome, crabbed George Smiley did a lot to pioneer TV's metamorphosis from ignoble to chic. Though Tinker, Tailor broke the ice, the sequel provoked something akin to Smiley-mania in nattering-nabob circles. As I recall, even a then much more straitlaced New York Times printed glossaries of le Carré's invented spook terminology, the unrecognized precedent to J.K. Rowling's Muggle-speak. (She was an adolescent then, but the parallels—"Hogwarts" = le Carré's "The Circus," and so on—are proof there'll always be an England.)

Unlike Harry Potter, though, Smiley-mania remained very much a niche-audience phenomenon. Nary the wiser, the rest of America went on happily watching The Love Boat, an augury of the Balkanized demographics that define TV today. That boutique cable dramas with a relative handful of viewers now all but monopolize the cultural buzz—while a mass-audience warhorse like CBS's NCIS isn't even on most critics' radar, though it's been in the top ten for a decade—makes the populist in me grumpy. When it comes to democratic vistas, TV's old one-size-fits-all programming model had its upside.

Knowing that the whole country, not just whatever coterie I belonged to, was on tenterhooks to find out who shot J.R. on Dallas was fun at the time and retrospectively thrilling. Learning (or not learning) Tony Soprano's ultimate fate couldn't touch it. Still, I might as well eat media-elitist crow and admit that I've never watched NCIS in my life. If Tinker, Tailor and Smiley's People strike me as milestones, that's partly because they created the first coterie audience I ever wanted to join.

However, I hadn't seen Smiley's People in some time—unlike Tinker, Tailor, which got the Blu-ray treatment last year—and I'd hazily come to think of it as somewhat inferior to its predecessor. That's hardly the first time my memory has played me false. In some ways, it's better, especially for how Guinness's performance gets to stretch its legs. My reason for misremembering was simple, though: The novel isn't as good as its predecessor. Tinker, Tailor was le Carré at his taut peak, but by Smiley's People, he'd gotten a little florid. Not only had his propensity for rebus-style plotting turned into a vanity, but he'd begun to romanticize the gray man's Cold War burden almost as much as Kipling had the white one's back in Empire days.

The TV Smiley's People improves on its source by ignoring the maundering streak in le Carré's prose and making the most of the storyline's quiddities and deftly sketched (one gift the author has never lost) minor characters. Partly because the director, Simon Langton, can dawdle to less purpose than TT 's John Irvin ever did, viewers' patience may be tried at times by the corkscrewing setup—from Eileen Atkins, overacting just a hair as a Russian emigré accosted by a thuggish Soviet agent preying on her hopes of a reunion with the daughter she abandoned, to leonine Curt Jurgens, in his final performance, as a Red Army general turned anti-Bolshevik defector whose murder brings Smiley out of retirement to tie up any loose ends he's left behind. But once Smiley catches on that he's stumbled across his longtime KGB nemesis Karla's Achilles' heel at last and sets out to ruin him, the miniseries just hums along, whether we're being treated to bureaucratic dick-measuring contests in London, stepping into a sex club in Hamburg (as its owner—a perfect German bourgeois in his family life, naturally—Mario Adorf is spot-on), or heading to Switzerland and then Berlin as the trap is laid and then sprung.

True, viewers born after the Cold War's end—not to mention so bred on challenging, sophisticated TV fare that they'll have no idea of this stuff's unconventionality at the time—may wonder what there is to get excited about. The short answer is "Alec Guinness." Ultimately, Smiley's People is a chance to see one of the 20th century's loveliest actors—his finesse can leave Laurence Olivier looking like an unsubtle ham, even as his vulnerability leaves John Gielgud looking like an expertly crafted windup toy—in his most iconic role, not exempting The Bridge on The River Kwai. (Am I ignoring Star Wars? Yes, I'm ignoring Star Wars. Deal with it.)

As wonderful as Guinness was playing Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, his performance here is the definitive version. (Gary Oldman's excellent work in the recent feature-film remake of TT just doesn't have the same aura of a legend playing a legend.) In the first miniseries, audiences had to take Smiley's status as a renowned field operative mostly on faith. But in Smiley's People, we keep seeing him, as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" puts it, "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." He isn't inventing new identities from scratch so much as temporarily privileging a facet of his own that he's kept on short rations, from bonhomie to ruthlessness.

He can impersonate these other Smileys. But it wouldn't occur to him to be those Smileys unless obliged to by the job at hand. In other words, we're getting a master class in what great spies and great actors have in common. Guinness left us three volumes of ultra-civilized autobiography, but I like to think Smiley's People was as close as he came to dramatizing his memoirs for the camera.  

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