BBC Radio 4, 5-19 July 2009
Memorably filmed in the mid-1960s with Richard Burton in the role of
Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold might be described as a classic Cold War thriller, in which nothing
is quite what it seems. No one knows who their enemies are; the ostensible villain Mundt (Sam Dale) turns out to be working
for British intelligence, while Leamas' aide Fiedler (Henry Goodman) should not be trusted at all costs. The plot twists and
turns, leading to a dénouement where Leamas ends up a free man but without any sense of exhilaration, as his
girlfriend Liz (Ruth Gemmell) ends up being shot by the Soviets as she tries to return to the 'free" world. Meanwhile George
Smiley (Simon Russell Beale) assumes a sinister presence in the background, apparently looking after Leamas' interests as
a fellow British agent, but actually more interested in ensuring the future of the Great Game - the perpetual round of cat-and-mouse
that western intelligence agencies (CIA, MI6) used to play with the the KGB.
Like Alan Bennett's An Englishman Abroad - repeated earlier this year on
Radio 7 - The Spy Who Came in From the Cold focuses on the psychology of those involved in the Great Game. Like Guy
Burgess, Leamas (Brian Cox) has become disillusioned with his life as an agent, and chooses to drown his sorrows in whisky.
To Smiley and Control (John Rowe) he is a loose cannon, an expendable commodity to be shamelessly manipulated in the so-called
'national interest.' Leamas knows this is being done to him, but cannot prevent it.
In the post-Cold War era Le Carré's book might seem an anachronism - a relic of a
period during the early 1960s when glasnost was an alien concept. What redeemed the book in Patrick Rayner's
powerful three-part adaptation was Cox's powerful performance as Leamas - at once strong and fiercely independent, yet
also the victim of circumstances beyond his control. He formed a passing friendship with Liz, which could have blossomed
into a full-blown love-affair, if he has not been so frightened of commitment. While participating in the Great Game, he had
learned not to trust anyone - not even a naive, trusting member of the British communist party like Liz. Leamas had no capacity
to deal with powerful emotions; his only response was to reject them aggressively.
In the end, Leamas' particular brand of masculinity was found wanting. Unable
to prevent Liz's death, he had no further options in life other than to return to his life as an agent. He had tried to come
"in from the cold" by determining his own destiny, but ultimately proved unable to do so.
Sometimes Rayner's adaptation became a little confusing, particularly in the third
episode, when too much attention was paid to plot-development at the expense of characterization. However the production was
redeemed by Cox's towering central performance.