Monday, February 19, 2007

 

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Ten days after the death of one of Britain’s best actors, BBC4 will start reshowing one of his most famous roles. Though as with many people it must have been House of Cards in 1990 that really bowled me over, I remember having admired several of Ian Richardson’s earlier performances too, and tonight at 10.30 (just after Charlie Brooker) there’s the first episode of an outstanding adaptation from a decade earlier, John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Mr Richardson appeared alongside Alec Guinness and a host of British acting talent in this intricate and compelling drama. See it.

This is an absolutely gripping serial, though I have to admit that – despite doing fabulous work – Ian Richardson’s brilliant array of acting ‘business’ doesn’t quite steal the show; not when Alec Guinness’ implacable authority means he can steal the scene by underplaying (or simply by putting on his glasses). However, it is Mr Richardson who steals the very opening scene, two minutes of four men arriving for a meeting before the titles roll. His Bill Haydon is the last to arrive, and despite Michael Aldridge’s pipe and Bernard Hepton’s loud shirt, it’s the way he balances his tea cup and saucer, closes the door with his foot and does every other thing to make sure you keep looking at him that immediately grabs your attention. It’s a deceptively important scene for the story; while the only words spoken are, appropriately, “Right. We shall start,” it both sets the tone and displays the key figures in the plot. The tone is not that of 24 or James Bond – you won’t find the camera cutting to a different shot every five seconds, but superb actors delivering well-crafted lines that gradually reveal the story through their characters. And the plot is that of a mole in the British secret intelligence service, with the four men shown to us before we know who they are making up the suspects for the Soviet agent destroying ‘the Circus’ from within.

This is very of its time, beautifully shot but with Britain dispirited and losing its way at the end of the ’70s. I said this wasn’t like James Bond, but in many ways the first half of tonight’s opening episode is a James Bond pre-credits mini-adventure ‘for real’ and gone horribly wrong. ‘Control’, the ailing head of the Circus, sends an agent into Czechoslovakia in the desperate hope of pulling out a senior defector who can identify the mole he fears. He gives the suspects the code-names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poor Man and Beggar Man so any news of them can reach him without them understanding the reference, but the mole is ahead of him and the operation is so disastrous that it instead brings Control down. The bulk of the story takes place many months later, with Control dead and his deputy, ‘Beggar Man’ George Smiley (Alec Guinness) clearly no longer a suspect by virtue of being also out on his ear. If you watch carefully for who gets which identifier and then look at the way those characters behave, you might deduce that ‘Poor Man’ is also out of the running, which may be why he’s not in the title of the story – the three plausible suspects throughout are going to be Tinker, Tailor and Soldier, though as you come to know them in later episodes one will be such an ostentatious fool you might be tempted to discount him. As in many of the best thrillers, it’s intricate enough that the villain is not obvious all along, but seems as if he must have been when finally revealed…

The surprising thing about the first episode is not just how gripping it is, how brilliantly played or how much is packed in at such a deceptively leisurely pace, but that the final scene in effect makes clear that it’s just the prologue, as a character tells his audience – both in the room where he’s being interrogated and those of us at home – “I’ve got a story to tell you; it’s all about spies…” Watch carefully, though, as many of the clues are there early on, with the all-important little details established as Peter Guillam, one of the agents not sacked but pushed to the periphery by the new regime, is sent to find the ‘retired’ and rather crabby George Smiley, considered by a worried Cabinet Office mandarin to be the only figure capable of investigating from ‘outside’ how compromised the Circus has become. So if he’s so good, how did he manage to be pushed out in the first place? The character’s potential weaknesses are heralded from the beginning as well as his brilliance; he was unable or unwilling to play the internal politics necessary to fight his own corner, through faithfulness (to Control, to his wife) and fairness (not wanting to think badly of those who brought down Control or are sleeping with his wife). In subsequent weeks we’ll see how these qualities have been exploited. Alec Guinness is outstanding as Smiley, making small talk that protests a lack of interest while ferreting out information, praising Guillam’s character in terms that hide a mild accusation (“I’m surprised you didn’t get thrown out with all the rest of us. You had all the qualifications: good at your work, loyal, discreet…”), and, at the close of the episode, turning in a moment from genial old buffer to pitiless inquisitor merely by gazing through his glasses.

I remember seeing a documentary on the serial where Ian Richardson recounted how Alec Guinness had a similarly mild-mannered but terrifying professionalism to that of his character; on arriving for the first read-through of the script, most of the cast gave it the usual knock-about levity, but one sobered them by being already word-perfect. Mr Richardson recalls a panicked, sing-song aside of “Alec’s learnt it” to Michael Jayston (who gives a terrific performance himself as Guillam). Despite the obvious star, you’ll still notice Ian Richardson, as indeed the script demands – with the serial starting ‘outside’ the upper echelons of the Circus and only gradually working its way in, we hardly see him to begin with, but his character is so noticeable that everyone talks about him even in his absence. Bill Haydon has “star quality” and “glamour,” “very dashing. Very audacious.” So when he does show up, his fey brilliance is a treat. Look out in the third episode, for example, for the way he draws attention to himself by sliding his glasses up his head, or slouching in a doorway to frame himself; he’s also at that stage part of one of the story’s most compelling sequences, as Smiley visits each of those ‘next in line’ on behalf of the possibly demented and messianic Control, only to be rebuffed in a different way by all three. In Part Four, as the top men become aware that something is up, watch Haydon’s priceless reactions as Guillam is interrogated. And of course he’s outstanding at the end, though when BBC4 last showed this I observed that the most mesmerising scene in the whole thing is the turning point of Part Six, when Alec Guinness and Michael Jayston face off against Bernard Hepton’s Toby Esterhase. Doctor Who fans may also notice the Production Assistant on this who borrows two of its actors when directing a much-regarded Who adventure of the ’80s, as well as writing a bit of the story into one of his Who scripts. Connoisseurs of fine TV from the BBC in the 1970s might just note the similarities and differences with Secret Army and I, Claudius – equally compelling scripts, very much more filming on location for this one rather than the studio, and the fun in spotting just how many actors they all have in common.

Ian Richardson

Following so closely on Mr Richardson’s sad and unexpected death, I suspect there hasn’t been time for this to be a ‘BBC4 tribute’ showing; my guess it that it was already planned, simply because it’s so good. That means, if we’re lucky, that there may yet be other pieces of great TV to come in celebration of this remarkable actor. I can’t run through everything he did for television and never saw him on the stage, but I particularly remember him stern and then quite mad in Gormenghast, sinister in the never-fulfilled Strange, authoritative in Murder Rooms and querulous in Bleak House. He was a rather good Sherlock Holmes in a couple of adaptations, doomed in part by their slightly inferior production (the cheap and nasty ’80s montage title sequences stick in my memory) but mainly through their being made just as Jeremy Brett started out in his portrayal for Granada; like Basil Rathbone before him, Mr Brett seemed simply the ideal Holmes for a generation. I know at least one Doctor Who author rated Ian Richardson so highly that there is an ‘Ian Richardson part’ in all of his books (his son Miles Richardson has also played a number of roles in Doctor Who audio plays himself, most strikingly the urbane, ambiguous Irving Braxiatel in the adventures of Professor Bernice Summerfield, and my condolences to him and the rest of the family). But if there’s one thing he’s remembered for, it’s the character that first hit our screens in November 1990, that of scheming master politician Francis Urquhart in House of Cards, its nearly as impressive sequel To Play the King and the slightly off-key concluding chapter The Final Cut.

Unlike Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in House of Cards Ian Richardson is the undoubted star, and it was perfectly timed both for him and for political irony. In the previous decade, he’d matured from a fey, charismatic actor in middle age to a silver-haired figure with a commanding voice and real bottom. Several of my favourite actors really came into their own when older and suddenly hugely authoritative, but in parts with a hint of grand madness – William Hartnell and Graham Crowden also spring to mind – and F.U. became the ultimate in older politicians commanding absolute respect. One of my more infamous blog posts was during last year’s Lib Dem leadership election, urging Ming to be fearsome, to “put some stick about… as Francis Urquhart with a high moral tone.” You could see exactly why people might vote for Urquhart, just as you were drawn into siding with, well, a murderous Tory. Part of it was in the original books, but they serve as a lesson to anyone claiming that screen adaptations must inevitably cheapen their source material. Compared to Andrew Davies’ script (introducing the affair, the villain’s survival and even his best-known phrase), the book seems a little mediocre, and I suspect even Michael Dobbs would reply that I might very well think that, but he couldn’t possibly comment. The other vital ingredient to the creation of this sublime anti-hero came in Ian Richardson’s performance, sardonic, mercurial, and every word beautifully enunciated as he took us into his confidence and dared us not to root for him. Add to that the remarkable real-life irony in the serial being shown during the very weeks of Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power, yet dramatising the destruction of what to later viewers looks uncannily like her mild-mannered but useless successor. The only things House of Cards got wrong, in retrospect, were underestimating the stubbornness of John Major… And telling us there would be a Conservative Party politician of such brilliance on hand to succeed him. To this day, Ian Richardson’s greatest character looks more like a Prime Minister than Mrs Thatcher’s immediate successor ever did.

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Comments:
The funny thing about Francis Urquart, at least as conceived in the original book, was that he was an old hand in the Whips' office, grey and terribly loyal. In other words, he was John Wadham or John Major reimagined as Macbeth. I didn't get far with Edwina Currie's first novel, but at the time I assumed that the sexy chief whip was plagiarised from House of Cards. With hindsight, that was John Major too. I'd rather watch Ian Richardson any day.
 
Oh, absolutely! And thanks for the fascinating tip about Edwina Currie’s book – never touched it ;-)

With it in our minds today, Richard and I have just watched the first episode of House of Cards. I’d forgotten just how much talking to camera he does from the very beginning, almost the narrator in the first few minutes. Though the script is superb, I have a feeling it was the leading actor and the director who decided to return the soliloquy to modern TV drama. With the odd exception it had long been seen as unfashionably Jacobean, but it really makes the piece. The way he confides in us – so engagingly – not only gets us on his side but also makes us witnesses complicit in all his crimes.

The book is indeed Macbeth, reborn of a plodder, prodded along by rejection and his wife, but Urquhart’s star quality on TV is much more convincing… His eye for an opportunity is far too keen to have ever been so grey. Along with Macbeth, of course, there are other Shakespearean touches: the ill-fated young Prime Minister is Hal; the metre of lines like “I have hopes of high office, I must confess…” is straight from the theatre; and immediately after it’s first put to Francis that he might make a good Prime Minister he thinks of Glamis and Cawdor.

And after the original transmission coinciding with Mrs Thatcher’s defenestration, the John Major figure ending up with a majority of just 24, despite the aggressive backing of the Murdoch – I mean Landless – empire, so his government inevitably disintegrates as the weak Prime Minister complains of ‘bastards’… That’s really quite spooky.
 
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