We have all been well entertained by the new revelations about the Russians spies in America who are about to be sent home in a swap arrangement for American spies in a scene which reminds me of the great espionage writer John le Carré. Maybe the bleakly glamourous days of Cold War espionage are well behind us but we all still love a good spy story especially now that the only real spying that I thought went on these days is shot through a telephoto lens directed at Hollywood stars on their holiday beaches.
I don’t know, but then I wouldn’t would I, what sort of thing modern Russian spies try to espy but somehow it doesn’t seem such a matter of life and death which it undoubtedly was in the dark Cold War days. Maybe they were told to find out the secrets of those bankers and sub-prime mortgage financiers and to try and find out how to get away with making money out of the poor – oh yes, the Russians know about that already.
John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a purer tale – a study in real darkness from the days when there really was a choice between political system that could divide a family and induce someone to sacrifice everything to further a passionate cause even if it led to murder and betrayal.
I have always been a bit of a sucker for the idea of being a spy but I am sure the reality of it would have been both boring and also unacceptably bloody-handed but, thinking of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy reminded me of my connection to possibly one of the best ever book dramatisations on British television, the series staring Alec Guinness and written by my old friend and one-time mentor Arthur Hopcraft.
I was a young television researcher at Granada Television in Manchester at the beginning of my career and Arthur, working for the BBC at the time was an old Granada luminary with a number of television plays and successful adaptations behind him as well as having written one of the great books on sport, The Football Men.
I used to have the odd drink or three with Arthur in a club/bar called The Film Exchange, now long gone, but then just down the road from the TV studios and the hangout for the great and good from TV in those days. My admiration was high for this experienced man who had succeeded as a writer in just the way I dreamt of in my idealistic youth. He went out of his way to encourage me so, over a lot of Boddingtons Beer, we discussed writing, television and, well, life.
He was a very private man who enjoyed a drink and bouts of sociability alternated with introverted grumpiness and he would use these visits to the bar as a way of staying in contact whilst in the grips of working on his script. He was writing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and, he said, he was stuck.
There were many sessions talking about spies and the minds of spies, mixed with what were probably naively innocent moments when I tried to fill him in on my ambitions and he was kind enough to listen without too many sign of irritability.
I forget when exactly this was but over a period of weeks, maybe a month or so, we met like this and he shared his anxieties over the Tinker Tailor script. Then one day, he invited me to dinner to “celebrate” – he had, he said cracked it. He certainly had, when it was televised, and still now on DVD, it was acclaimed as the great work that it is.
Over dinner, he thanked me. He said that he had been struggling to find the character of the guilty man, the double agent that is the pivotal point in the book. He understood the character at last, he said, by basing it on me.
This is, as far as I know, the only time that I have been the model for a television character and, now that Arthur has been dead for a few years, he died in 2004, I am proud to keep that connection.
I will never really know what it was he saw in me that worked for him and maybe I don’t want to find out but, if I did have some characteristics of a double agent, I don’t think I would ever have been brave enough to have put it into practice.
If you haven’t seen the series then I won’t spoil it for you by saying which character it was…..watch it if you can not for me but for a great moment in the history of television.
Here is the opening scene – no clues here – or are there?