Best meeting scene ever televised

Gene Garland, back during this discussion, mentioned the two wonderful BBC mini-series based on the first and third books in Le Carre’s Karla Trilogy.

Nothing better has ever been offered on the telly, in my view — with the possible exceptions of “Band of Brothers” and “The Sopranos.”

The amazing thing about them is that they are such good representations of books that are essentially about … meetings. Meetings and interviews. Sort of gives me hope that someone will see gripping drama in a story about an editorial page editor. (Guess I need to write the book first, though, huh?) All of the key action happens in meetings. By contrast, the middle book in the Trilogy — The Honourable Schoolboy — was all about action and exotic locales. Which is why the BBC didn’t do that one — too expensive. But it was also the most forgettable of the three. Smiley was in power in that one, whereas in the other two he was in exile, only the Circus couldn’t make do without him. (Perhaps you think, given my situation, I’m harboring fantasies of Oliver Lacon coming to my house one night and asking me to straighten out the newspaper, unofficially of course. Well, I’m not. But it’s an intriguing plot line…)

This could have fallen completely flat on the small screen, but it’s to the credit of all concerned that it positively glittered in the BBC version. And not just because of Alec Guinness as Smiley. The whole cast was fantastic.

For the best use of meeting dynamics ever on television, I invite you to watch the first two minutes and 8 seconds of the clip above, which in a beautifully understated manner, and only one very short line of dialogue, sketches the personae of the four major characters (other than Smiley). Entering the room on the clip are, respectively, the actors playing Toby Esterhase, Roy Bland, Percy Alleline and Bill Haydon. (As Control said, “There are three of them and Alleline,” the characters whose code names give the book its title.)

This is just so real. If you have, as I have, spent ridiculous amounts of time in meetings with a small group of people you knew almost as intimately as member of your own family, the little touches of how people establish their roles and characters in small ways will ring as true as anything you’ve ever seen. It feels, for me, exactly like the daily editorial board meeting, with each person wandering in in his own unique way and initiating wordless rituals that say so much.

Anyway, enjoy.

11 thoughts on “Best meeting scene ever televised

  1. kbfenner

    The season of The Wire set in the newsroom is must-see TV and the British version of State of Play is also rather up your alley….both are available on Netflix. I suppose you could be the American version of Bill Nighy.I guess it’s news and not editorial, though…

  2. Brad Warthen

    I saw State of Play over the weekend, and was thinking about posting something about it. I don’t think Bill Nighy was in it, though…. oh, wait, I just looked and saw you were talking about the British version. I saw the one with Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck.

  3. Burl Burlingame

    I saw state of play on an airliner last month. It’s always interesting when an actor plays a journalist and then still has no idea how the business works.

  4. Burl Burlingame

    One of the things that drove me crazy when we were trapped in the Gannett empire were the endless, useless planning meetings with mid-level functionarial drones whose primary job was holding meetings and putting off any actual decision-making.
    We no longer have these people. Guess what? The newspaper is still in business.

  5. Burl Burlingame

    The problem with the fifth season of The Wire in the newsroom is that it is so accurate — but accurate for about 1995.

  6. Brad Warthen

    “Halcyon days,” as Connie would have said in Tinker, Tailor (and DID say, of Bill Haydon and the other lads born to rule the waves, only to see the Empire crumbled all around them…)

    We still had some good days ahead of us in 95.

  7. Kathryn Fenner

    Well, it would be hard to stir up much drama in the news-closet today.

    It seems like someone just needs to turn out the lights and let John Monk, John O’Connor, Jeff Wilkinson and Adam Beam work from Starbucks.

  8. Bart Rogers

    Burl, have you read “Confessions of an S.O.B.”, the autobiography of Al Neuharth?

    When he was still active with the Gannett Foundation, I visited his private quarters in the foundation building. If his private quarters were an accurate reflection of the man, extravagance would be a correct description. Unbelievable.

    Anyway, might be interesting for a movie or documentary to be made, chronicling the development and growth of USA Today. The thinking and planning over where to place a coin operated stand, down to the design was interesting and did highlight the business side of the industry in a different light. He was able to tap into the changing habits of Americans when it involved news and television.

  9. Gene Garland

    I just thought I’d give you an FYI, in case you are interested, that AMC channel is broadcasting a 3 episode remake of The Prisoner series. The original series, starring Patrick McGoohan, ran in the summer of 1968, I believe. The series was well done at the time and had an interesting take on individual freedoms. It predated the movie A Clockwork Orange, though not the Burgess novel by any means. In the series, Patrick McGoohan was a secret agent, who was deemed to know too much to ever be allowed to retire and thus was a captive of the system he had helped to keep free. Anyway, I don’t know if you ever had seen the series or had ever heard of it. I have no idea if this remake is any good, however, I hope it has been updated to include all of our current events. We are all struggling with the concepts of Freedom now and how that squares with extraordinary rendition, terrorists who have never been tried and are kept in prison indefinitely, etc.

    Take Care,


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