Archive for the ‘Television reviews and thoughts’ Category

It’s always nice when the rest of the world catches up with me.  That’s kind of a jerky thing to say, even for me, but it seems to be the case every decade or so.  In 1997 James Cameron made everyone a Titanic buff, a group that I was part of long before it was trendy- and when there were about nine books total about that fateful journey of a century ago.  Then again, I was behind the curve on Castle, Rush, Daniel Silva and the new Battlestar Galactica. But I don’t know where to place myself in the Sherlock Holmes community.  I mean, let’s face it: Sherlock Holmes was phenomenon 80 years before I was born.  His popularity has risen and fallen over that time and I was born into one of those fallow periods.

It was in 1979 that my dad came home from a business meeting in Kansas City.  Apparently there was a store in the airport there that sold Radio Rerun cassettes, old time radio shows from the 30s, 40s and 50s and he usually brought one home for me.  It was one of the John Gielgud/Ralph Richardson Sherlock Holmes dramas from 1954 titled “The Blackmailer,” based on what has become my favorite of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, The Bruce-Partington Plans.  I still have the tape, and I’m sure it’s worn pretty thin by this point, but I enjoy it as much today as I did 33 years ago.  It’s a great story and very well adapted.  It’s also a medium that I’m very fond of.  Dramatic radio or dramatic audio.  In fact, my first professional writing job was “Left Behind: The Kids Dramatic Audio.”   Yeah, blame that on my dad too.

Shortly after getting the tape I found a volume of the complete A.C. Doyle Sherlock Holmes books and short stories.  They gave me weeks and months of entertainment but eventually ran out.  So where was a fella to go at that point?

Fortunately there were plenty more books to read.  Sherlock Holmes pastiches existed in those days, but not in the volume they do now.  And many of them were limited to smaller print runs and quickly disappeared from the bookstore shelves.

The first Sherlock Holmes book I read was titled Exit Sherlock Holmes, written by Robert Lee Hall (and you can still find it on the Amazon marketplace).  The title might be off-putting for some people but I have to say: I enjoyed this book a  lot.  In fact, I reread it a few months ago and had the same reaction that I had 30 years ago: enjoyed the stuffing out of it.

There’s a couple reasons I liked it.  The first is that it’s one of the few books that gets Doyle’s/Watson’s voice right.  As I read it I thought that, if it weren’t for a wildly creative turn near the book’s end that Doyle couldn’t have imagined in a million years, this could have been written by Sir Arthur in 1930.  The second reason is that Hall did his research and wove elements into his story that make it fit into the official canon while still turning the whole thing on it’s ear.  Sherlock Holmes is exactly how we remember him yet completely different.  To say more would give away key plot points and I don’t want to ruin it for someone who might be looking for an arcane piece of Sherlockian fiction.

Not long after reading Exit Sherlock Holmes I saw the movie The Seven-Percent Solution on television (the only way to see older movies in those days) and thought it was a fun little romp as well.  When I found out there was a book as well I ordered it from a local bookstore.  A friend gave me a copy of The West End Horror as well and reading the two made me a fan of Nicholas Meyer as well. Or maybe it was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan- I don’t remember which came first.

Nick Meyer also wrote another Sherlock Holmes book called The Canary Trainer, which I enjoyed, but not as much as these two earlier books.  At the time I didn’t mind Sherlock Holmes meeting historical figures like Sigmund Freud, Bram Stoker or Oscar Wilde.  Nowadays I find that stuff gimmicky and don’t dig it at all.  It feels a little lazy to me.

If it sounds like I like everything in a deerstalker hat, let me assure you I don’t.  And that brings us to the next book: Michael Didbin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story.  As I was reading this book, which is usually highly regarded, I found myself wondering why I was continuing to read a book I wasn’t enjoying.  I was acutely aware, for the first time ever I believe, that the book I was reading was total rubbish.  The book has made me so angry that I’m going to do something I wouldn’t normally do: I’m going to spoil it for you.

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story is not the first story that pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper, and it sure hasn’t been the last. As far as I’m concerned it is by far the worst.  And here’s why.  You ready for this?

Jack the Ripper turns out to be….  Seriously? You ready for this?  Jack the Ripper turns out to be Sherlock Holmes.  Even as I typed those words my mind filled with language that I have chosen not to use anymore.  I hated the book before the dimwitted reveal.  Making the “foremost champion of justice” the most feared serial killer in history showed a lack of respect that the character doesn’t deserve.  I could tell you the hook of Exit Sherlock Holmes and you would like it better (at least I did), even as far out and fantastic as it is.

As much as I disliked The last Sherlock Holmes Story it still didn’t put me off the non-canonical stories.  It’s a good thing too.  There was a book on my Holmes-horizon that would give me much of the same entertainment value as the Conan Doyle stories and serve as an introduction to one of my favorite people in the world.

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George Smiley was described by his creator, John LeCarre’, as “one of the meek who do not inherit the earth.”  He’s old, short, fat, nearsighted, untitled, cuckolded and the ultimate spy.  You might see him on the street but you’ll never notice him.

These days you’re more likely to see George Smiley on your television, whether it’s the recent film release of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman or the 1979 miniseries starring Alec Guiness, both of which were recently released on bluray.

George Smiley started out in LeCarre’s book, Call For The Dead, and was little more than a detective for the intelligence service, referred to in his series as “The Circus.”  The first chapter is a history of the character, how he was recruited, used and eventually discarded by the service and his wife.  If you read the books backwards, as I did starting with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you’ll find fun little tidbits about Jebedee and Steed-Asprey, characters that are referenced but never appear in later books that give a wonderful continuity to Smiley’s world/universe.  The Smileyverse, as I call it.

Tinker is the 7th or 8th book LeCarre’ wrote (don’t remember exactly) but it’s the one that got me hooked, even more than The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

For those unfamiliar with the story: One of the operatives that the Circus uses occasionally for wet work (a “scalp-hunter” in their parlance) sneaks into the U.K. with a story that one of the people at the top of the British Secret Service is a spy. This comes about a year after the previous head of MI-6 was disgraced after sending an agent into Czechoslovakia where he was caught by Russians (?).  Percy Alleline is the new head of the service and building his reputation on intelligence from a source called “Merlin.”

And Percy is one of the people suspected of being a Russian mole.

Reenter George Smiley, who was put into forced retirement when the previous head of the service, Control, was handed the shoe.  Smiley needs to find the mole, preferably without getting himself or anyone else killed.  The book asks two questions: Who spies on the spies?  How far does a free and decent society go to protect itself and remain a free and decent society? Both of these questions have come up outside the Smileyverse in the last decade and I think are worth considering… somewhere else.

The illustration of George Smiley above is from my copy of the novel which I’ve read a couple times and listened to unabridged a couple more times.  The writing is wonderful and textured and the characters are fleshed out in rich detail.  It’s not an Ian Fleming styled action/thriller.  It’s more of a word puzzle that makes you dread putting in the final piece, not because the story will be over (it’s not), but because, like Smiley, you don’t want to admit you saw the final picture a long time ago.  It’s not an Agatha Christie style mystery where you slap your head and say, “Of course!”  Instead you close the book, shake your head and say, “How could we have fallen so far?”

In the late 1970s the BBC and Paramount Television produced the miniseries with Alec Guiness as George Smiley.  There’s lots of other familiar faces in the cast and the adaptation to 324 minutes is masterfully handled.  There are moments where it gets a bit fat, but overall it is very well done.  My only wish is that they had used better formats when they filmed it- my guess is they shot it 16mm, and the production just isn’t on par with recent BBC programs.Image

Guinness’s portrayal of George Smiley is nothing short of amazing.  That’s not surprising; Guinness is great in everything he’s done, but Smiley’s meekness and lack of physical strength makes his prodigious mental skills more interesting (and in the followup, Smiley’s People, more devious).  Guinness never chews the scenery, but he sure commands the room.  The miniseries succeeds in every possible way.

One of the actors in the series is Bernard Hepton.  He plays Toby Esterhase, a Hungarian discovered by Smiley in Viennese museum after the liberation from the Nazis.  Smiley recruits him and brings him back to England where he runs the “lamp-lighters,” the internal security force of the service.  Hepton’s performance is great, but I must say I preferred him in another role a few years later.

The role of George Smiley.

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Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy was made into a radio drama by the BBC in the late 1980s with Hepton in the role of George Smiley.  The adaptation makes the narrative chronological (the book and miniseries play with the timeline) and condenses some aspects, especially the ending, but it works very well.  This version is told in 3 hours but doesn’t miss any key point.  Some of the social commentary is more subtextual but it’s still there.

The BBC did another radio version of Tinker in 2010 starring Simon Russel Beale, a marvelous actor who never seems quite right for Smiley to me, but apparently I’m in the minority on this one.  Ultimately I think this adaptation was unnecessary, except to complete the whole Smiley series for the BBC.  Each of the radio dramatizations are well done but several of them are just superfluous, having been done before and better.

Which brings us to the newest version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the film starring Gary Oldman.

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The bad and then the good.

My wife was not familiar with the story when we went to see this film in the theater.  It was also a late show.  The film seemed to drag on and on, making the 6 hour miniseries look thrifty by comparison.  In addition to that several elements were missing or glossed over.  Mark Strong’s character is not firmly nailed down.  In the book and previous versions Jim Prideaux ad his mission are more clearly defined.  So is his fate and motivations.  One characters name was changed to another LeCarre character for no clear reason (Jerry Westerby was Sam Collins in the book.  Sam plays a big role in the next two books so I’m not sure why they dropped him).  Toby Esterhase is all wrong, in my opinion.  His history is not very clear either.  The movie was both too long and too short, if that makes any sense…

The good:

Gary Oldman.  The entire cast was fantastic.  The performances were all nice.  Visually it’s beautiful.  There is a nice mixture of humor and seriousness.  The mystery is maintained and built up to the right point, and the reveal is skillfully handled.  Great locations and production design.

So Smiley has existed through books, television, radio and cinema.  And he’s done fairly well in all of them.  If I were told that I had to give up all but one version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy I would hang on to the radio version starring Bernard Hepton.  Of course I’d try to hang onto a paperback copy as well but that radio show contains the voices I hear when I think of the character and this story.

I do think that Tinker Tailor is the ultimate spy story of the 20th century, and it’s themes are relevant to the 21st century as well.  But in the end I just like George Smiley, and I feel a certain kinship to him, not only because we share the same dislike of the telephone.  It’s easy to put ourselves in Smiley’s shoes.  We all see ourselves as pretty smart but we still can’t cultivate social skills the way we want.  We get caught wiping our glasses off on our tie and though we’re sure we can protect our country from an evil empire we can’t always make our spouses love us.

And yet, the secret world revolves around men just like him.