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.