A few days ago my cousin Ben Wittes devoted his podcast, In Lieu of Fun, to John le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell.
Ben and his podner, Kate Klonick, had as their guest Pete Strzok; this was a certifiably excellent trio to talk about Cornwell and spies. And I get to certify them as excellent because I am certifiable, as well.
I’ve mused in writing about my regular re-reading of Cornwell. I’ve literally worn out and had to replace one edition of Call For The Dead and eventually bought hardcover editions of Honourable School Boy and Smiley’s People. Soon I’ll have to upgrade to hardcover from my second paperback of Tinker, Tailor; some pages are indicating their interest in falling out, just like the first edition. Although since I have memorized great swaths of it, maybe I should just tell the story to myself and eschew the reading.
So I listened to and watched the podcast avidly. It was very entertaining.
Among the aspects of Cornwell under discussion was a debate about the best film or TV versions of Cornwell’s work, especially the trilogy. Oh, I said to my computer screen, no debate: it’s the perfect multi-hour British TV series of Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People.
I have the six DVD’s of that series, thanks to my erstwhile late video store, World of Video, because when it decided to close, it put all its stock on sale and I bought them, alone with the 6-hour Pride and Prejudice, as perfect a film representation of Austen as you’re likely ever to get. (I re-read Austen just as often as I re-read Cornwell.)
But then something funny happened.
Ben talked about Cornwell’s response to Alec Guinness as George Smiley. This has meaning for me. Guinness was for most of his life one of my favorite actors, but of all the cast in the TV series — as virtually flawless as imaginable — Guinness was not quite Smiley who, Cornwell described, as short, pudgy (or fat) and rather recessive in personality. Guinness as Smiley was more incisive, thinner and probably taller than the Cornwell George.
Ben mentioned an interview Cornwell had given in which he talked about that, about Guinness as Smiley and he had said Guinness had so become Smiley, even in Cornwell’s mind, he — Cornwell — could not write Smiley again as he had created him. (Indeed, when Smiley does return in Cornwell’s penultimate novel, A Legacy of Spies (2017), he is not the Smiley I knew.)
So everyone wandered off onto Alex Guinness, and Ben brought up how most people probably think of Guinness as Obi-Wan…and I said — “What? What?”
Because…Bridge On The River Kwai, The Lavender Hill Mob, Great Expectations (what my mom would have called Guinness’s bar mitzvah picture) — and Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which Guinness plays every member of an aristocratic Edwardian family including the women, all of whom get humorously murdered during the course of the film.
Guinness plays Gulley Jimson, an eccentric, often drunk artist, in 1958’s The Horse’s Mouth, for which he also wrote the screenplay. It is a comic masterpiece.
My favorite Guinness film, though, was Tunes of Glory. I first saw it in 1960 with my father at New Rochelle’s first and maybe only “art” theater. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it since but whenever it has been on TV, usually late at night, there I am watching it, swearing to myself that because I’ve seen it so many times it is unlikely I will cry again at the ending.
Then, at the end, Guinness, as a commanding officer of a Scottish post-war regiment, plans a funeral for a fellow officer. As pipes and drums play on the track, Guinness recites the name of bagpipe tunes, the tunes of glory he wants playing for the funeral.
He collapses and tears run down my cheeks. Every. Single. Time.