Saturday 24 March 2018

Television Review: Original Smiley shows how great 70s were

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC Four)

I'm a Celebrity..... (ITV)I am opposed to BBC Four on principle. Not because it is lacking in quality, but because it probably has too much quality, that might better be deployed somewhere else.

It represents the degeneration of the BBC's idea of public service broadcasting, which could perhaps be summarised simply as this: at any time, on the main channel, viewers might accidentally stumble across some programme of extraordinary brilliance that could change their lives.

Once you set up a channel specifically for the high-class stuff, that idea is dead. You are cordoning off various sections of the culture. Which is fine for those who need no encouragement to watch the current re-run on BBC Four of the original series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but which is not fine for those who will just never go there, because it's the posh station.

Indeed Tinker, Tailor.., made in 1979, stands as a monument to the old system. It is a demanding piece of work which was made for a mass audience – at the time this was not considered a contradiction in terms.

It could be seen at prime time on Sunday nights on a mainstream channel and as a public service, I must tell you that the remaining five episodes can be seen on BBC Four on Tuesday nights.

Frankly, there are times when I have no idea what exactly is going on, but then somehow that is not a problem. Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley and the rest of the chaps at the "Circus" don't know what's going on either, most of the time, so it is a journey shared.

It is remarkable that something as fine and as nuanced and as magnificent as this was made for a "general" audience without it being dumbed down – without Smiley stopping every few minutes to say "right, let me get this straight", and re-counting the entire plot.

Even the most stupid documentaries of the present day have large chunks of them devoted to a re-cap of what has happened earlier in the show, yet in 1979 the common man was trusted with the task of staying with these labyrinthine tales of espionage fashioned by the master John le Carre.

Apparently the human species was more evolved back then because, as I recently explained, the 1970s in general can now be seen as arguably the most glorious period of western culture since the Renaissance. Or perhaps to be more precise, the most glorious period of culture experienced by the greatest number of people.

Certainly at the end of that decade of innumerable classic albums and singles and all-time great movies and television shows, the notion of a TV adaptation of a le Carre novel of mesmerising complexity must not have seemed like such a big ask.

And in a touch of that weird magic which the BBC could routinely command at that time, the music as the end credits roll is the hymn Nunc Dimittis, which one usually hears at the end of a religious service. It became a top ten hit.

The hymn works, too, as an indicator that what we have seen is a drama of the utmost profundity, all the more impressive for its understatement.

Even the incessant smoking of the spies seems to have layers of meaning, the smoke like clouds of incense at some sacred gathering of this black priesthood.

And as the movie version of Tinker, Tailor... showed, this Cold War story is by no means a museum piece. Those mad ideologies of East and West have just been replaced by other totalitarian systems, by corporatism and fundamentalism.

So the plight of the intelligent person as embodied by George Smiley is still a desperate one, the search for some battered kind of truth a lonely obsession – indeed as a study of obsession alone, Tinker, Tailor... is a definitive work.

And how is that long-term TV project of "giving-the-punters-what-they want" coming along? Well it's hard to measure these things, but it was also hard not to be moved by the sight of reality TV star Joey Essex on I'm A Celebrity..., explaining that he doesn't know how to tell the time. At least, not when he's looking at one of the old style clocks with a big hand a little hand.

But he can use the digital clock on his phone.

So that's fine.

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