Should you mention Smiley’s People to television viewers of a certain age their eyes will mist over and they will stare into the distance, recalling halcyon moments at their tellyside. This is because Smiley’s People is considered not only a British television treasure, but a classic BBC production – and in terms of small screen credentials, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Mario Adorf and Alec Guinness
You can argue that it helps to have read the book of Smiley’s People before watching this production, but I would disagree. The measured and steady pace of Alec Guinness is enough to hook any viewer; and the mysteries are fascinating, as are the cast of characters that we meet along the way.
In structure, Smiley’s People approximates a road movie. I say that because there aren’t characters that develop alongside Smiley, so much as a series of encounters; three or four per episode. In this way, we walk through George Smiley’s world, enjoying his lines of questioning, confident that this small and self-possessed man will find out whatever truths are lurking in the shady world in which he lives.
Mario Adorf appears as Claus Kretzschmar at the close of Episode Three, brilliantly introduced in the previous scene by Beryl Reid, who plays retired Circus researcher Connie, crazily arthritic, vitriolic and alcohol hungry – who scornfully states that she doesn’t know why Claus Kretzschmar spells his Christian name with a C. It’s incredible, but one year after the shooting of Fassbinder’s Lola, Mario Adorf looks about a decade older, greyed up and speaking in the most impressive English – he doesn’t even sound German. How many British actors could pull something like that?
Also, considering Lola, it is funny that Mario Adorf again plays a brothel owner; but life is full of ironies. This is a very different character from the Herr Schuckert in Lola however; serious, suspicious and ultimately very warm. Mario Adorf is faultless, and it is a good role. He may have been hired for his hair alone, which is super slick in a way that says ‘don’t trust me’.
In Smiley’s People however, Mario Adorf turns out to be one of the good guys, and at the end of part three, when we have had nearly three hours of false leads, closed mouths, warnings and all but tiny scraps of information, we can only warm to a character that gives us so much in terms of story development, and clues for the remaining three hour crawl to finale.
Making it to the finale has its own rewards. Probably the most enjoyable of these will be seeing Alan Rickman, whom nobody had heard of in 1982, and Ingrid Pitt, everyone's favourite super-seductive 1970s vampire lover and much admried by myself at least in Doctor Zhivago 1965 / Where Eagles Dare 1968 / The Vampire Lovers 1970 / Countess Dracula 1971 / The House That Dripped Blood 1971 / The Wicker Man 1973 and Who Dares Wins 1982.
Do also look out for Patrick Stewart (Yes! he's in Episode One) and Michael Elphick and Bill Paterson, both of whom are less of a surprise.
Here are the opening credits for the BBC Smiley's People, should you need a refill of ther magic: