Saturday 24 September 2016

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a 1979 BBC adaptation (made in association with Paramount) of John le Carré’s celebrated 1974 spy novel of the same name. Alec Guinness stars as the masterspy George Smiley.

Things are not going well for the Circus. The Circus (so-called because it has its headquarters in Cambridge Circus) is le Carré’s fictionalised version of Britain Secret Intelligence Service, sometimes known as MI6. An operation in Czechoslovakia went horribly wrong with a British spy ending up with to bullets in his back. Eighteen months later another disaster followed with the defection of two high-ranking KGB officers ending in another fiasco. The Circus officer involved, Ricki Tarr (Hywel Bennett), spent six months on the run but now he’s surfaced in London and he has a disturbing tale to tell. Tarr’s story makes it clear that there is a Soviet mole (code-named Gerald) in the Circus. Worse than that, the mole must be one of the five top-ranking men in the Circus. That means that an internal investigation would be completely pointless. The investigation will have to be carried out by someone who is both an insider and an outsider. Someone like George Smiley, formerly the number two man at the Circus and now retired.

The former chief of the Circus (known only as Control) had had strong suspicions and Smiley had shared those suspicions. Control had narrowed the field down to five suspects. The first is Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge), a man whose skills at political manoeuvring are vastly more impressive than his skills as an intelligence officer. For the purposes of his ow investigation Control has given Alleline the code name Tinker. The second is the brilliant and urbane Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson); Control has dubbed him Tailor. The third suspect is the boisterous and somewhat unstable Roy Bland (Terence Rigby); he has been given the code name Soldier. Number four is the ambitious Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton) - he is Poor Man. Control’s final suspect is George Smiley - Beggarman.

Control is now dead and the new chief is Alleline. George Smiley is no longer a possible suspect - he was forced into retirement and it is clear that the mole is still in the top echelons of the Circus. 

Smiley’s investigation is official but it has to be undertaken without the knowledge of any of the four remaining suspects or anyone else in the Circus who might alert the mole.

Smiley’s greatest assets are his patience and his thoroughness, and most of all his remarkable memory. His memories are crucial since his investigation is in fact a journey into the past. At times the distant past. The mole might well have been working for the KGB for decades. Smiley’s memories of Karla may be important as well, Karla (Patrick Stewart) being the KGB spymaster who recruited Gerald. Smiley had encountered Karla twenty years earlier - in fact he’d tried (with a striking lack of success) to recruit Karla as a double agent.

Memory is also important in the sense that the Circus is in a sense living in the past, trying to recapture the glory days of the Second World when Britain was a great power. Those glory days are long gone. To many in the Circus this seems like a kind of betrayal. They started their careers with high hopes and high ideals but now they are simply a rather unsuccessful intelligence agency of a third-rate power.

Betrayal is of course the other major theme. The original novel was obviously partly inspired by the spectacular real-life act of betrayal by Kim Philby, the senior MI6 officer who was a Soviet spy for the whole of his lengthy career. In fact one of the many MI6 operatives whose cover was blown by Philby was John le Carré, who worked as a real-life spy for MI5 and later MI6 until the early 1960s. Betrayal was something le Carré experienced at first hand and this doubtless goes a long way to explain George Smiley’s relentless pursuit of the mole in the novel. 

The book deals with betrayals on multiple levels - not just actual treason but betrayals of hopes and ideals and also personal betrayals. The TV adaptation is surprisingly successful in translating these complex interlocking themes to the small screen. This is a very cerebral spy drama with very little action. The lack of action could have been a problem in a seven-part TV serial but the psychological tension and the suspense are sufficient compensation and on the whole it works very well. The one criticism that could be made is that the final episode, much of which is a kind of epilogue, drags a little. This doesn’t matter so much in the novel but for TV I think it should have been tightened up a little. On the other hand it does offer the opportunity to make Gerald’s motivations much clearer.

The adaptation is remarkably faithful to the novel, both in terms of plot and characterisation. 

I was not entirely convinced by Terence Rigby’s slightly caricatured performance as Roy Bland and I thought that Bernard Hepton made Toby Esterhase much too English (he’s supposed to be Hungarian). On the whole though the acting is fine. Alec Guinness is physically not quite right as Smiley but he captures Smiley’s quirks of character so well that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Michael Aldridge (who was so delightful in the 60s spy series The Man in Room 17) is perfect as the rather oily Percy Alleline. Ian Richardson plays Haydon with an admirable sense of style and self-assurance. Anthony Bate is excellent as the Circus’s political master Sir Oliver Lacon, a typical politician  whose main concern is to limit the political damage to the government.

The co-production deal with Paramount meant that the BBC had plenty of money to throw around on location shooting and the result is a very handsome production.

The only real weaknesses are in fact reflections of weaknesses in the source novel - the identity of the mole is a little too obvious and the emphasis on Smiley’s train wreck of a private life is such that there is at times a danger that the viewer will start to regard with contempt rather than sympathy.

The DVD includes a fine documentary on John le Carré in which the author takes at length about his own experiences as a spy. The documentary also includes some fascinating comments from a former very senior KGB officer and also from the former head of the East German secret police (who spent his leisure hours in the 1960s reading John le Carré spy novels).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is engrossing television. Highly recommended.

Friday 16 September 2016

Alfred Hitchcock Presents - And So Died Riabouchinska (1956)

And So Died Riabouchinska was broadcast in 1956 as the twentieth episode of the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It’s based on a Ray Bradbury story and boasts an interesting cast headlined by Claude Rains and a young Charles Bronson.

I’m particularly fond of horror and mystery stories featuring ventriloquists’ dummies -they always make for lots of creepiness.

Claude Rains plays Fabian, a vaudeville performer at a time when vaudeville was not exactly booming. A man is found murdered in the theatre where he is appearing. The man had apparently been trying to get to see Fabian, for some important but unknown purpose.  Detective Krovitch (Charles Bronson) is the investigating officer and he finds that interviewing Fabian is a slightly odd process since Fabian’s doll Riabouchinska insists on being part of the conversation. Krovitch is doubtful as to whether Fabian is being entirely truthful but he suspects that the doll is telling the truth.

The doll was modeled after a real woman, a young and very beautiful woman with whom Fabian was acquainted. Possible quite well acquainted although this was more than twenty years earlier so what connection could it have with the murder of the stranger in the theatre?

Mel Dinelli adapted Bradbury’s story for the small screen. Dinelli was not a prolific screen writer but he did have a few rather impressive credits including the suspense classic The Spiral Staircase. As for Bradbury I’ve always had mixed feelings about him as a writer although I do admit that at his best he could be very atmospheric and very subtle. 

And So Died Riabouchinska is the kind of story that Bradbury did very well and the television adaptation works pretty effectively. It’s typical Bradbury in that it suggests something supernatural but it remains only a suggestion.

Claude Rains gives a very fine performance, managing to be quite disturbing without being too excessive about it. Charles Bronson hadn’t yet found his feet as an actor although there are signs of his later minimalist acting style. In this TV play he’s at his best when he tones his performance right down.

There are better television and movie ventriloquists’ dummy stories but And So Died Riabouchinska is still a worthy example of an odd little sub-genre. It’s certainly worth seeing for the terrific and surprisingly restrained performance by Claude Rains. Highly recommended.

The first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents is of course easily obtainable on DVD in all markets.

Friday 9 September 2016

The Sandbaggers, season two (1980)

The Sandbaggers, made by Britain’s Yorkshire Television, ran for three seasons from 1978 to 1980. This series took the gritty realistic and cynical spy drama further than it had ever been taken before, and in fact it took that approach about as far as it could be taken.

Ian Mackintosh created the series and wrote all of the episodes of the first two seasons and some season three episodes before his tragic death at the age of 39 in 1979. Mackintosh had earlier created the successful Warship series while still serving in the Royal Navy. There have been persistent rumours that Mackintosh had actually been a serving member of the Secret Intelligence Service or had at least been seconded to the SIS at some point during his naval career. The accuracy of his knowledge of the inner workings of the intelligence community has fueled these rumours although it’s also possible that he simply did his research very very thoroughly. Mackintosh himself was non-committal on the subject.

Either way the series presents a remarkably accurate picture of how real-life spies actually operate and how the intelligence community interacts, sometimes catastrophically, with government. Of course some liberties were taken for dramatic effect - even a hyper-realistic spy series has to have a bit more action than a real-life spy would normally encounter.

Mackintosh wanted the series to be accurate but with the focus largely on the internal politics of the SIS and its interactions with its political masters and with the CIA.

The result is a series that is fascinating but also unremittingly bleak and horrifyingly cynical. I watched the first season a while back and at times I found it to be just a little too nihilistic and despairing. You really have to be in the mood to watch this series. If you do happen to be in the mood it can be riveting television.

The Sandbaggers are a very small and specialised team department of the SIS. They handle the really dirty and dangerous jobs. There are never more than three Sandbaggers, working under Neil Burnside (Roy Marden). Burnside had been a Sandbagger and is now  the SIS Director of Operations, responsible for all operations involving field agents. His relations with his superiors are uneasy.

Season two opens with At All Costs. A year after a disastrous operation in Berlin the SIS receives an offer that is almost too good to be true. The head of the Bulgarian secret service has offered to provide the SIS with extraordinarily valuable information. The offer is so good that it surely has to be a set-up. And yet it could be real, and if it is real it’s an offer that cannot be passed up. The Bulgarian secret service chief will only had the information over to Sandbagger Two. This in itself is suspicious, but then again there could be a valid reason. Burnside is full of misgivings but “C” (the head of the SIS, played by the wonderful Richard Vernon) is keen. The SIS is about to have its already meagre budget slashed and they need a major success. The operation goes ahead. 

This episode encapsulates most of the major themes of the series - the impossibility of knowing whether you’re going to be double-crossed or not, the necessity to go ahead with insanely high-risk operations for political reasons, and most of all the all-pervasive sense of fear when operating alone in a hostile country knowing you may be walking straight into a trap. 

In Enough of Ghosts the Sandbaggers have to deal with terrorism and they find out that not all the fanatics are on the terrorists’ side.

In Decision by Committee an aircraft is hijacked. Two very senior British military men are aboard and they are the principal targets of the terrorists. What the terrorists don’t know is that there are two other notable passengers - a Sandbagger and a CIA operative. The British government in the manner one would expect from a government - they do a great deal of discussing but are desperate to avoid making any actual decision. Neil Burnside however is determined to do something. It is an unwritten law in the Secret Intelligence Service that if a Sandbagger is in trouble some attempt must be made to get him out of it. This puts Burnside at odds with his superiors. A very tense episode and a very good one.

A Question of Loyalty presents Burnside with multiple problems - a failed operation in Warsaw and a possible double agent in Stockholm. It’s a complex web of deceptions in which, as so often in this series, the biggest problems are posed by friends and allies rather than enemies. 

It Couldn't Happen Here is an exceptionally provocative episode. A Cabinet Minister is involved in a car accident in Germany. A woman is killed and she happens to have been a Secret Intelligence Service officer. The Cabinet Minister’s behaviour after the accident was questionable to say the least and Burnside decides to do some digging. The results are alarming. MI5 and the CIA have been digging into the Minister’s past as well, with equally alarming results. While this is happening the American Secret Service has borrowed both Sandbaggers to protect an American senator. Neil finds out that his old friend at the CIA, Jeff Ross, has some rather colourful conspiracy theories about political assassinations. Of course such things could never happen in Britain, except that maybe they could if the circumstances were extraordinary enough. And those extraordinary circumstances may have already arisen.

Lots of fascinating and breathtakingly cynical political machinations in this excellent episode. 

Operation Kingmaker has something you definitely don’t expect in an episode of The Sandbaggers - humour. Low-key understated cynical humour but moments of humour nonetheless. Neil Burnside is playing a dangerous internal political game for very high stakes.

I’m not sure whether the second season was actually better than the first or whether I’m just a bit more in tune with the intentions behind it but I did enjoy season two. It’s still pretty bleak although the good guys do sometimes win. That of course is assuming we’re meant to see the SIS as the good guys. In fact we really don’t see much of the KGB at all. They’re more like a constant background noise but there’s very little focus on actual active KGB operations.

The acting is a major strength. Roy Marsden is terrific as Neil Burnside, a man for who we feel some sympathy and some admiration while at the same time his personal flaws, his recklessness, his cold-blooded cynicism and his often poor judgment appall us. He’s a very flawed hero indeed. He combines ruthless ambition with an extraordinary ability to sabotage his own career.

Richard Vernon (who happens to be one of my favourite English actors of this era) is superb as “C” - a bit crusty and pompous but shrewd and flexible and very confident.

Ray Lonnen has one of the more sympathetic roles this series has to offer as Sandbagger One Willie Caine. Willie is a complex man who detests violence but has spent six years in the Special Operations Section in which violence is all part of the job. He’s also the closest thing to a friend that Neil Burnside has.

Bob Sherman is the CIA’s station chief in London, a cheerful slightly amoral character who has established a very close and amicable working relationship with Burnside.

Each episode is basically a standalone drama although there is certainly some degree of character development (Burnside for example becomes steadily more obsessive and his judgment becomes increasingly erratic). While there are no real multi-episode story arcs actions do have consequences for the characters and those consequences are evident in later episodes.

The Sandbaggers is not exactly light entertainment. It’s an ambitious and very cerebral spy drama with the focus on motivations and political consequences rather than action. Highly recommended.

The Sandbaggers is available on DVD in both Regions 1 and 2.

Thursday 1 September 2016

Out of This World - Little Lost Robot (1962)

Out of This World is a science fiction anthology series made by Britain’s ABC Television in 1962, hosted by Boris Karloff. The series began with a one-off episode produced by the renowned Sydney Newman as part of the Armchair Theatre series. The series proper was produced by Leonard White with Irene Shubik as story editor. Irene Shubik went on to produce the rather similar BBC anthology series Out of the Unknown. Sadly only one episode of Out of This World has survived, Little Lost Robot, with a screenplay by Leo Lehmann based on an Isaac Asimov short story.

Perhaps unfortunately Little Lost Robot is a very atypical episode of the series, according to Leonard White, differing markedly in both tone and style from the other episodes.

Little Lost Robot deals with Asimov’s famous Laws of Robotics. The First Law of Robotics is that a robot cannot harm a human being, or allow any harm to come to a human being. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to themselves, the commanders of a space station in the vicinity have decided to alter the First Law slightly. They have modified several Nestor robots. These robots are still forbidden to do active harm to a human but they can allow a human to be harmed. Even more unfortunately one of the modified robots has become lost. The chief engineer, in a moment of irritation, rather unwisely lost his temper and told the robot to get lost. The robot, being very literal-minded and being compelled by one of the other Laws of Robotics to obey any order given by a human, proceeded to get lost.

The missing robot has not been found but it has been located. A shipment of twenty (unmodified) Nestors has just arrived from Earth but there are now twenty-one robots in the group rather than twenty. The lost robot has concealed itself among the other twenty. And there is absolutely no way of telling which of these robots is the modified version.

The top robot psychologist in the solar system, Dr Susan Calvin (Maxine Audley), has been sent from Earth to sort out the problem and identify the rogue robot. She devises a series of clever tests to fool the modified robot into revealing itself but the robot seems to be able to stay one jump ahead of her.

The situation is increasingly critical. The modified Nestor has been communicating with the twenty unmodified robots and there is a danger that all twenty may adopt the same changed version of the First Law. The end result may be a robot mutiny, or even a robot rebellion.

These are robots that are quite unlike anything we would think of today as robots. They are not mere machines. They have personalities and they have emotions. They are perhaps more like mechanical slaves (and indeed the slave analogy is made explicit at one point in the story).

If you are prepared to accept the idea of robots with feelings than can be hurt then the story is reasonably engaging and clever.

Maxine Audley as Dr Calvin and Clifford Evans as the space station commander Major-General Kallner both give fairly good performances. Gerald Flood plays the chief engineer and he’s the villain of the piece. He detests robots. Flood plays him as a sort of wicked slave-owner who both fears and hates his slaves.

The robots themselves are what you would expect from early 1960s television - they’re crude mechanical men and look much too obviously like guys in tin suits. A bigger problem is that it’s difficult to accept that these painfully slow-moving tin men could be potentially dangerous. The robots are as bad as anything you will find in 1960s Doctor Who.

Even worse the script really doesn’t do anything to make us feel any sense of potential menace. There are rare moments when we might feel some anxiety for the safety of one of the characters but these moments fall flat. 

Luckily things finally come together with the very effective ending.

Several Out of This World episodes were remade for the BBC’s Out of the Unknown series, the bad news being that most episodes of that series have been lost as well. 

The BFI have done an admirable job with their DVD release. The highlight is the audio commentary which features producer Leonard White. White makes some interesting and provocative points, noting that television drama as a distinctive format that took advantage of the unique characteristics of the medium (such as the fact that early 1960s television was done more or less live) is something that sadly no longer exists. The liner notes include a couple of essays on the production history of the series. Image quality is pretty good. The DVD also includes audio-only versions of two of the lost episodes.

Little Lost Robot has enormous historical interest and despite its flaws it’s worth a look.