Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Gary Oldman's turn as the master spy.

HE IS the unlikeliest spy hero, this timid, short, portly, bespectacled man called George Smiley. In fact, he more shuffled than strode into the literary pantheon in the early 1960s in a first novel, Call for the Dead, whose very first sentence describes Smiley as ''breathtakingly ordinary''. Next paragraph, Smiley's wife, the promiscuous Lady Ann Sercomb, is said to be ''mated to a bullfrog in a sou'wester''.

The novel was scribbled in longhand in a series of lined red notebooks by its author on the weekday commuter train between Buckinghamshire and London, 90 minutes each way. The writer, a full-time MI5 officer called David Cornwell, used the nom de plume John le Carré. He told an interviewer years later that, contrary to his frequent explanation that he spotted the name on a tailor's shop from the top of a London bus and appropriated it, this was a lie and that he really didn't know where ''this ridiculous name'' came from.

"There's a fascination for me about this former empire that still lives with the idea that they are rulers of the world." 

Call for the Dead, written in what its author called a ''bald style … profound suspicion of adjectives and making the verb do the work'', owed its style more to the discipline of writing intelligence reports. But the style, the author and, indeed, George Smiley have unwaveringly and productively all become legends of espionage literature.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley.

John le Carré, with 22 novels behind him, is now 80. By reckoning, George Smiley (allowing for some readjustment in his age, made by his creator during writing of the Karla Trilogy) would be well into his dotage - ''certainly in his 90s … keeping bees somewhere'', le Carré´ said last year.

''I've never been able to write a book without one very strong character in my rucksack,'' le Carré´ would recall. ''The moment I had Smiley as a figure, with that past, that memory, that uncomfortable private life and that excellence in his profession, I knew I had something I could live with and work with.''

Indeed, on the second page of Call for the Dead, le Carré, the perfect spy-writer, provides this immaculate summary of his most famous character, Smiley, the perfect spy - or, as a reviewer wrote, a ''brilliant spy and totally inadequate man'': ''It was a profession he enjoyed, and which mercifully provided him with colleagues equally obscure in character and origin. It also provided him with what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behaviour, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions.''

Gary Oldman attends the premiere of the film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" in New York.

Gary Oldman at a special screening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Photo: Reuters

The Smiley character recurs in three of le Carré's early novels, including A Murder of Quality, and in a small but pivotal part in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - which some say is le Carré's greatest book. But Smiley's excursions and deductions were not employed to their fullest until Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the first novel in the Karla Trilogy, which was published in 1974. In this masterly and complex work, Smiley is brought back from retirement to spy on the spies: to rout out a ''mole'' (double agent) planted in the top echelons of the British Secret Service - or, in le Carré language, ''The Circus'' - who is passing on information to the Russians; moreover, directly to Karla, the wily and elusive head of Moscow Centre and Smiley's old ideological sparring partner.

In 1979, the BBC's landmark seven-part television adaptation transformed Smiley from literary cult hero to national hero. This was helped immeasurably by the fact Smiley was played by Alec Guinness: himself a master of anonymity and just as diffident as his fictitious counterpart.

Guinness, who had never done television drama, subsequently filmed Smiley's People, the third of the trilogy. But it was Tinker Tailor that brought into the common language le Carré´'s own invented vocabulary: moles and circuses were but two of a lexicon that also included ''lamplighters'' (surveillance and couriers), ''scalphunters'' (those who do the dirty work), ''babysitters'' (bodyguards), ''shoemakers'' (forgers), ''honey traps'' (sexual entrapment) and the ''cousins'' (the CIA).

Tinker Tailor is very much a work of its time: it would be impossible to update that crucial period of the Cold War, with Britain still reeling from the treacheries of the real-life moles Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean (the fourth man, Anthony Blunt, remained unexposed until 1979). It is as embedded in 1970s England, when it seemed to rain every day, as surely Graham Greene's The Third Man belongs in seedy, occupied, postwar Vienna. Bearing this in mind, can Tinker Tailor speak just as forcefully or effectively in 2012? Can George Smiley return from the grave to re-represent a part of history that crumbled at the same time as the Berlin Wall?

The Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, whose film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens in Melbourne this month, took on the challenge with gusto. As he told a London newspaper recently, le Carré's ''brilliant piece of literature [is] totally impossible to put into a film and that's something that also makes you want to do it''.

Certainly, Alfredson has had his challenges in reheating this old Cold War tale: not only respecting the novel but keeping faith with the period while maintaining dramatic relevance. He also achieved what some said was impossible: unravelling a skein of complexities told in flashback and flashforward by characters who seldom say what they mean in two hours, compared with the six hours of the BBC series. And even that was notoriously hard to comprehend.

Alfredson could also, as a foreigner, keep a certain distance. ''There's a fascination for me about this former empire that still lives with the idea that they are rulers of the world and about the endurance of the British 'code of behaviour' and how these people communicate with each other.''

There is also the significant, squat shadow of Alec Guinness' rueful, world-weary Smiley - something his successor, a British actor of another generation, Gary Oldman, must have realised meant more than shrugging on an overcoat and slipping on the spectacles. Certainly, Oldman's Smiley is younger and more vigorous; he even takes exercise, swimming in the Arctic reaches of the Hampstead Ponds in north London. Certainly, Oldman has made the role his own: the reviews have been ecstatic and there is talk of a best-actor Oscar.

In a Tinker Tailor scene that does not occur in the book or the television series, the spooks at the Circus have a Christmas get-together - a drunken free-for-all with Santa in a Lenin mask and seduction behind the trestle tables. Look extra carefully and there is a split-second shot of a stocky, white-haired gentleman joining in a rousing chorus of a pastiche Russian anthem: John le Carré in cameo. So poignant: the man who wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is, for just a moment, back in the freezer.

THE novelist William Boyd, writing on John le Carré recently , claims the spy novel as another great British achievement along with cricket, bespoke tailoring and dictionaries. Timothy Garton Ash, the British journalist and authority on eastern Europe, has said that ''reading about spying is a great British hobby. The sheer volume of books on the subject is matched only by those on sex and gardening''. Garton Ash, a long-time friend of John le Carré, has a serious point when he says, ''The trouble with all these shelves of stuff is: how can you ever really know what is fact, what [is] fiction and what still lies entirely hidden?''

In some cases, the division between fact and fiction is obvious. For example, Ian Fleming's James Bond is more a fantastical character, who long ago ceased his association with saving the world in favour of an endless series of car, boat and plane chases (the women, though, were always there to take to bed). Interesting, when you think that 007 and the man from the Circus would now be about the same age.

But then, even in Fleming's creative hands, Bond was always more a walking exercise in product placement than a spy making academic excursions into the mystery of human behaviour.

What is missing from the world of John le Carré and his great compatriot, the often-underrated Len Deighton, is the glitter and gadgetry of other spy novels. But what is there, in abundance, is the drudgery, the wet-weather feel of dull bureaucracy and damp deceit and the underlying acknowledgment that somewhere amid these secrets and lies, valuable work is being done.

Some years ago, Timothy Garton Ash interviewed John le Carré for The New Yorker magazine and asked him, ''How much of what matters in human experience can be found in the secret world?''

The author's reply is still cogent: ''The secret world … is also the national subconscious. It takes you to the 'secret centre' of a country. If you want to know the deepest longings and anxieties of any nation, then look at what its security and intelligence services are being asked to do.''

This explains not only the powerful rationale that lies behind le Carré's novels - and remember, even after the end of the Cold War betrayal remained their central theme - but why their popularity cannot and will not recede. Spying is a universal and timeless topic that will exist as long as there is treachery.

Someone has to do it.

After all, as Oliver Lacon, the civil servant responsible for MI6, says to Smiley while enlisting his help in Tinker Tailor: ''It's the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?''


A minor tinker with Alec's spy

What does Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy mean?

From the new film

Control: I know that Moscow has planted a mole, and I know it is one of five men.

[Starts placing out chess pieces with photos on them].

Control: Allenine: Tinker. Haydon: Tailor. Bland: Soldier. We leave out ''Sailor'', too much like ''Tailor''. Esterhase: Poorman.

Jim Prideaux: And the fifth?

Control: Smiley.

John le Carre on Gary Oldman and Alec Guinness as Smiley:

''[Oldman] pays full honour to the genius of Guinness. He evokes the same solitude, inwardness, pain and intelligence that his predecessor brought to the part - even the same elegance. But Oldman's Smiley, from the moment he appears, is a man waiting patiently to explode. If I were to meet the Smiley of Alec Guinness on a dark night, my instinct would be to go to his protection. If I met Oldman's I think I just might make a run for it.''


The people's Smiley

Smiley on film

■Rupert Davies, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965).

■James Mason, The Deadly Affair (1966) - character renamed Charles Dobbs.

■Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).

Smiley on television

■Alec Guinness, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), Smiley's People (1982).

■Denholm Elliott, A Murder of Quality (1991).

Smiley on radio

■George Cole, Call for the Dead (1978) and A Murder of Quality (1981).

■Peter Vaughan, The Honourable Schoolboy (1983).

■Bernard Hepton, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1988), Smiley's People (1990).

■Simon Russell Beale, BBC dramatisations of all le Carre's Smiley novels (2009-10).


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens on January 19.