BBC Radio 4, 5-19 July 2009
Memorably filmed in the mid-1960s with Richard Burton in the title role
of Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is a classic Cold War thriller. No one knows who 'the enemy's -
suffice to say that the ostensible villain of the piece Mundt (Sam Dale) is not actually working for the Soviets, while Fiedler
(Henry Goodman), Leamas' presumed ally, should not be trusted at all costs. The plot twists and turns, creating its fair share
of surprises, leading to a climax where Leamas ends up a free man but without any sense of triumph. His girlfriend Liz (Ruth
Gemmell) ends up being shot by the Soviets as she tries to return from Soviet territory back to the 'free' west. Meanwhile
George Smiley (Simon Russell Beale) assumes a sinister role in the background, apparently looking after Leamas' interests
as a fellow British agent, but more interested in ensuring the future of the Great Game - that perpetual round of cat-and-mouse
that western intelligence agencies played with the KGB.
Like An Englishman Abroad - repeated recently on BBC Radio 7 - The Spy
Who Came In From the Cold looks at the psychology of those involved in the Great Game. Like Burgess, Leamas (Brian
Cox) has become disillusioned with his profession; he resembles Philip Marlowe in his generally jaundiced outlook on life.
To Smiley and Control (John Rowe), Leamas is a loose cannon, an expendable pawn to be shamelessly manipulated; Leamas
knows this is being done to him, but remains powerless to prevent it.
In the post-Cold War era Le Carré's book might seem an anachronism - a relic of a
period when glasnost was far from any politician's mind. What redeemed the book in Patrick Rayner's powerful adaptation was
Brian Cox's characterization of Leamas - at once strong and fiercely independent, et also the victim of circumstances beyond
his control. Imprisoned for three months for striking a grocer, he tries to re-establish himself, but eventually has to submit
to Smiley's orders. He forms a passing friendship with Liz, which could blossom into a full-blown love affair, if he was not
so frightened of making any commitments. This represents the downside of an agent's life - while participating in the Great
Game, Leamas has learned not to trust anyone, not even a naive member of the British communist party like Liz. Leamas has
no capacity to deal with powerful emotions, his only response is to meet them aggressively.
In the end Leamas' brand of aggressively masculine behaviour proves ineffective.
Although bravely resisting interrogation - even to the point of fainting through lack of sleep - Leamas becomes a victim of
the Great Game, just like Liz. Her idealism leads her into deep water as she becomes involved in Leamas' affairs, but she
soon realizes to her cost that her every move is being watched by the Soviets. When Leamas is brought to trial in the third
episode, Liz vanly tries to defend him, but discovers to her cost that no one really has any use for her: Smiley had already
decided what her fate would be. The title of the novel proves the ultimate irony: Liz and Leamas try to "come in from the
cold" - in other words, extricate themselves from the Cold War - but prove incapable of doing so.
Sometims Rayner's adaptation became a little confusing, particularly in the third
episode, when too much attention was devoted to the plot at the expense of characterization. However the production was redeemed
by Cox's towering central performance.