Essays: West wins through |
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West wins through

BILLED as being ‘from an idea by Cedric Messina’, Churchill and the Generals (BBC2) was a whopping play by Ian Curteis dealing with Churchill’s role as our leader during the Second World War (from an idea by Adolf Hitler).

Also known as ‘the BBC’s largest-ever single drama production’, the play uncoiled its slow length through half the night. It had everything going against it. Actors had to come on, pretend to be someone extremely famous, and go off. To help them create these characters they were given dialogue so peppered with anachronistic words that the sense of the past evaporated every time it formed. With all that said, however, the thing still held your attention. Winnie brought it off.

Chosen for the mighty task of reincarnating our hero, Timothy West was the man responsible for ultimate victory. He started the war facing grave difficulties. He was critically short of proper scenes. Instead he had to make what he could out of a succession of quick exchanges in which actors pretending to be generals pointed at maps. But he won through. Reasonably speakable lines started to arrive in sufficient quantities. Some of these were authentically Churchillian, others were acceptable pastiche. They gave him the tools and he finished the job.

The resulting portrait, though it had large gaps within, was at least rounded. Churchill was shown to be a mean-minded bully as well as a great spirit. He was shown to have a romantic impracticality by which he frequently sabotaged his own historical sense. His famous ‘black dog’ depressions were here plausibly shown to be brought on by memories of his First World War Dardanelles disaster, which for some reason he tended to repeat at every opportunity during the Second World War as well, perhaps in the hope of laying the ghost.

Churchill was shown behaving shabbily towards Wavell, a more cultivated and judicious man than he was, although not as charismatic. Churchill was shown being a pain in the neck generally. This was probably already on the limit of what most British people who lived through the war can bear to hear at the present time about the man they believe — quite rightly, in my view — saved them from tyranny. There is no point carping too hard about what was left out, although a lot was. Area bombing, for example, was not even mentioned.

Churchill thought that a bombing offensive against the German cities was the only way of delaying a second front while still being seen to be making an effort. If his tactical imagination had been as good as he thought it was, he might have found a more effective and less barbaric alternative. As things were, he and Harris — whom he was later careful to repudiate, and who indeed was very hard to find in this play, unless he was one of the extras in blue uniforms — sent a generation of our best young men to a death which history will find it difficult to call honourable, since so many innocent men, women and children were burned in the fires.

But the fires are out, except as memories. By now the whole matter is a war of words. Instead of bombs dropping on German towns, we have Mr Curteis dropping on the English language. I get sick of hearing myself say in this column that there is no point spending thousands of pounds getting sets and costumes in period if the dialogue spends most of its time popping out of it. Everybody in the play said ‘massive’ to mean ‘large’ — a most unlikely usage for the 1940s.

Winston Churchill wrote and spoke English floridly, but with some precision. If he meant that things were tense, he would say ‘tense’ not ‘fraught’ — a slovenly usage which did not come in for another twenty years at least. Mr Curteis might be able to supply chapter and verse to show that Churchill committed all these solecisms and more, but from my own memories I doubt it.

Three instalments of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC2) have by now crawled past on their way to oblivion, and even the most dedicated fan must be starting to wonder. The second episode was set mainly in Lisbon and showed a young male spy (one of ours) and a young female something-or-other (one of theirs) engaged in a protracted exchange of cryptic dialogue. Forty minutes of screen-time yielded about forty seconds of exposition. The rest was atmospherics, which included a lady singer yodelling in profile, so that the lighting could bounce airily off her teeth. The boredom was paralysing. What would George Smiley make of all this?

George Smiley made a meal of it, as usual. In the third episode he was hot, or rather lukewarm, on the trail. In Oxford he picked the addled brains of the legendary Connie, queen of the filing cabinets. Connie is one of John le Carré’s most inspired creations, since she makes any secretary who buys his books think that there is something really dangerous and romantic about filing. Connie (Beryl Reid) and Smiley (Alec Guinness) wetly kissed each other. It was the heaviest piece of action in the whole episode.

Sir Alec’s performance is a triumph. For a man who has scaled all the heights of his profession, and who owns 2¼ per cent of ‘Star Wars’ into the bargain, it can’t be easy to play a mental defective. The constant temptation must be to go for cheap laughs. Instead, he finds a thousand ways per episode of looking puzzled but determined. He raises his left eyebrow. He purses his lips. He raises his right eyebrow. Now see the infinite subtlety with which he lowers the left eyebrow while keeping the right eyebrow raised. But wait! Isn’t there a smile playing on those pursed lips? (Smiling with pursed lips is not easy, but after fifty years in the business Sir Alec is the master of his instrument. He could probably even copy June Allyson’s trick of pouting and lisping simultaneously.) Hold it! He is going to say something. ‘What’s ... going ... on?’

What’s going on is a concerted attempt to inflate a thin book into a fat series. The first** le Carré novel, ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,’ had enough plot for a single film. The same applied to ‘Call for the Dead,’ filmed as ‘The Deadly Affair.’ ‘TTSS’ is bulkier than either of those two books, but has less plot. It might have made two mildly riveting episodes on television. Spread out over a whole series it grips you like a marshmallow. The characters just aren’t interesting enough to survive that much exposure. Smiley is Sherlock Holmes with a flighty wife. Somewhere out there over the curve of the world, Karla is imitating Moriarty. Dwell on them and they crumble.

Panorama (BBC1) caught spy fever too. Tom Mangold told us about ‘a superpower spy war stretching across two continents.’ Apparently a Soviet agent has been found dead in a Swiss bath. A filmed reconstruction showed us a close-up of his hairy knees. These, it seems, have caused ‘raised eyebrows across two continents.’ Sir Alec Guinness could raise his eyebrows across two continents, but I doubt if anybody else could.

The Observer, 30th September 1979
[ ** ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ was John le Carré’s third novel ]
[ An edited version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]