Once again we watched the old BBC adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. Once again we noticed little details we hadn’t noticed before, and also wondered about aspects that somehow didn’t make as much sense this time around. We also decided to watch some more recent adaptations of John Le Carre stories – ones that were published after 1990, when he had to move on from stories about the Cold War and the ethical problems of liberals getting their hands very dirty in their fight against communism.
The Night Manager (2016) has an ingenious title sequence making clear its main theme. We see a rocket grenade launching….
…but the explosion it sets off transforms into a glass of champagne.
There are a series of such transformations, showing high-grade munitions in correspondence with the lifestyles of the wealthy. An gold-plated tea service becomes a multi-barreled autocannon on a gunship, and the freefire it sets off transforms back in to a diamond necklace.
Gunships of this variety never appear in the plot, since the plot is concerned with unofficial arms shipments to minor states or non-state actors, and they would have no capacity to maintain or use gunships like this. Those are only weapons of the major world powers, who have more weapons than anyone else and are making and inventing more of them all the time. But that isn’t part of this story. The baddie we are to have in view appears at the start – Richard Onslow Roper, presenting himself as an international philanthropist and supporter of a “safe havens” scheme in the Middle East.
The story starts in the Middle East.
Here’s our man Jonathan Pine, the eponymous Night Manager at the Nefertiti Hotel, walking down the street in the middle of a riot because he’s a bloody Brit and he doesn’t give a damn about all that nonsense.
Have a wash and shave, get your suit on, get to work. Tell all these panicking American tourists to keep calm, carry on, and don’t stand near the windows.
Jonathan Pine tries to do his best by one of his guests who is in danger after she overhears her boyfriend – a big dangerous man in this city – is involved in a possible deal with the notorious figure Richard Roper.
Seeing the details she has of the deal that’s in the offing, he passes it to his old chum at the local British Embassy, and it ends up with some people in London who would like some more information to use against Roper. But things seem to be a bit leaky around Whitehall, and Pine’s new love gets beaten up as her other boyfriend thinks she’s the source. Pine gets told bluntly that there’s not going to be any deal to get her away to London because these big nasty men are actually very important investors who know lots of VIPs and its not going to be a good idea to tread on their toes nor will it be possible to get away from them.
In London, Angela Burr and her boss Rex Mayhew are pondering the ethics and practicality of the situation. Mayhew wonders aloud whether it might not be so bad to let Roper get on with supplying arms to someone who will prevent religious extremists taking over the power vacuum when the Mubarak regime falls.
In the end Pine can’t protect his friend and the local police don’t want to investigate her murder. So he quits and turns up again 4 years later, now night manager at a hotel in Switzerland. It’s here that he gets an unexpected important guest: Roper, with his consort and also private military unit of advisers and strong men, who all seem to be fall-out of the British Army or moneyed classes.
We don’t hear too much about these people’s backgrounds, though we can imagine Major Corkoran probably got asked to leave quietly due to his drinking and also being a bit of a stereotype Bad Gay. Roper himself says he was the son of an auctioneer in Oxfordshire and insists that all his success was built by his own hard work from nothing; he also mentions he went to Eton but isn’t properly posh as he was only the first generation from his family to do that, and there have to be three to establish real quality. Although he lets that out in dinner party banter, it’s clear that’s the personality flaw that’s the key to his compulsion to make bigger and bigger deals with zero compassion for everyone else. Like old Bill Haydon of the Circus, he is insecure in his achievements and needs to be on the team that is assured of beating all the others, even as he insists he is his own man and in control of his own destiny.
Pine is moved to use the phone number for Angela Burr he still has after these years, and she comes out for a meeting.
We get to hear the little we will ever know about Pine’s deeper motives. He was an Army officer who did 2 tours of Iraq.
PINE: I saw things in Iraq that didn’t line up with my ideas of what it means to be a soldier.
Yet he doesn’t say he had a problem with how he came to be there. Burr has a slightly Northern accent and is down-to-earth, no nonsense, doesn’t get on too well with all the public school boys in Whitehall etc etc. She puts the proposal to Pine that he could infiltrate Roper’s organisation, but to do so he needs to set up a credible background story of himself as a rogue male on the run. This is essentially Operation Rolling Stone, the plan that Alec Leamas was following in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – an agent apparently quitting the service in disgust, going off the rails, getting jailed, so that on release he is plausible as a renegade ready to defect to the East, when in fact he is on a mission to make trouble when he gets there.
Amongst Roper’s world, his girlfriend Jen hasn’t been honest about having another child that she left behind to be looked after by her mum. This detail immediately casts doubt on just how good the Roper organisation are at their due diligence.
Pine has an interlude in Devon, faking a murder scene that he will be prime suspect for (Leamas had to beat up a shopkeeper, for real. Fun fact: the shopkeeper was played by Bernard Lee, who was also M in all the good Bond films). He then gets to the island Roper is on and in position to heroically foil a kidnapping attempt on Roper’s son. He has to be beaten up thoroughly to make it convincing and be taken in by the team, although Major Corkoran isn’t fully convinced.
All this time Burr and her team of heroes are monitoring his progress nearby although she does have some more backup back in London. All her people aren’t the usual smart establishment types who dominate the service.
Pine does well enough to get brought in to the top circle of Roper’s world, replacing Corkoran after the latter was successfully smeared.
As Corkoran gets more drunk and disorderly he makes a terrible scene in a restaurant, causing Pine to apologise to another diner… played by John Le Carre himself.
But back in London Burr and her people are also in trouble as there are important people in the service who may be more than sympathetic to Roper. They may be simply crooked and earning on the deal.
The original novel was published in 1993 and knew nothing about wars in Iraq or revolution in Egypt, instead it focussed on private armies raised by drug cartels in South America. That was also one of the plots used by the James Bond franchise as it tried to find new enemies in the post Cold War. The climax of this adaptation has a similar feel to the films of the Timothy Dalton era, and has a lot in common with Licence To Kill: after all the earnest seriousness and purported realism, we still have a crash-bang-wallop chase and explosions at the secret base, with our hero suddenly able to set off devices planted by his mates just in time, even though no inkling of this capability was shown before. It’s also a bit obscure how they manage to get the lorry drivers to all know they have to run for safety, although that’s very convenient for avoiding getting any innocent blood on his hands.
That was a 6-part TV serial. Our Kind Of Traitor was made in to a single film in the same year. Its source novel came from 2010. We start with Russians furtively passing documents about in Moscow.
Important men are signing important deals.
The chap who signs the papers doesn’t get to enjoy the deal for long, as him and his other half are killed at a bogus roadblock.
Some time later, in Marrakesh a British university lecturer Perry and his wife Gail, who is a successful lawyer, are on a holiday to mend their relationship after he had a fling with someone else.
Perry notices a big Russian guy wants to talk to him.
The chap’s name is Dima and he takes him to a fancy party happening nearby.
Perry shows he’s honest and decent and doesn’t think much of some of the riffraff Dima hangs around with. This makes a good impression, and Dima gives him a USB stick with details on it of dodgy deals that important UK people are involved with. He’s involved in the admin side of things in the Russian Mafia and he knows these people are wrong’uns, so he wants Perry to take the facts to someone in London who could take action on it and give Dima and his family asylum in exchange.
In London the data soon reaches MI5 man Hector, who has a conference with his boss Billy Matlock. Matlock has a Northern accent, so he’s down-to-earth, no nonsense etc etc. Hector tried to convince him they should take action because one of the figures implicated is the politician Aubrey Longrigg, who they’ve already figured as being corrupt. Sure enough, they get hidden camera footage of him meeting the Russian Mafia bigwigs at a shindig at the grounds of Arsenal FC.
But Hector reaches an impasse – until he has solid details of bank accounts, no undertakings will be made for Dima, yet Dima won’t give anything until he knows his family are going to be safe in the UK. Perry and Gail are drawn in to play the role of messengers, which is very dangerous since it’s not very plausible for them to keep turning up in the same places as Dima. That sort of thing would be noticed by his suspicious colleagues.
Without authorisation, Hector moves ahead with a plan to grab Dima and his family when they are in Berne to conclude their latest deal. He gives us a little of his own motivation, explaining that he accepts the view of evil propounded by Leszek Kolakowski:
HECTOR: Evil is evil, not rooted in the social circumstance, not about being deprived, not even controlled by God, it’s an entirely separate human force.
He also explains that Longrigg made sure the police arrested his son for drugs offences, when he was getting close to working out his wrongdoings. Fun fact: it is stated that Longrigg is MP for Islington North… which was (and currently still is) the constituency of Jeremy Corbyn.
In Berne, the evil men are hiding in plain sight.
Also John Le Carre is working as the ticket inspector at the Einstein Museum when Dima’s family are visiting it, prior to getting hustled away.
What we learn from these productions is that the establishment is rank with traitors and turncoats, but they’re just in it for the money. There’s no pretence of any higher cause like dear old Bill Haydon talking about Lenin on the exploitation of the masses in America. It’s a bad thing if the firepower that western powers have developed should fall in the hands of uncontrollable minor forces, and there should be a big effort to stop that, but there’s no time to wonder about whether we need so much firepower in the first place or how we have been using it recently ourselves. Maybe that caused some of the problems.
However one thing clear above all is that this new generation of international bad men are absolute trash with no class whatever and not fit to lace the boots of either Karla or Smiley. Neither of those two would ever make a scene in a restaurant no matter how low the provocation went. But their world isn’t our world. The strangest thing about it now is the community of Baltic Cold War emigres in London, shown in the early episodes of Smiley’s People. Smiley himself calls them “princelings” and “fantasists”… and yet within 15 years of that story their aim was achieved. John Le Carre did very well to keep working when all his terms of reference had been turned upside down.