BBC Radio 4, 23 May 2009
Set in late 1950s London, a time of espresso bars, the Cold War and perpetual
fog, Call for the Dead told a complex tale of agents, double-agents and the mysterious murder of an MI5 sympathizer.
As with other examples of the spy thriller genre, the plot is too complicated to be discussed at length - suffice to say that
nothing can be taken at face value.
What was perhaps more interesting about Patrick Rayner's production was the characterization
of George Smiley (Simon Russell Beale) - a maverick figure, perpetually in conflict with his boss Marton (James Laurenson).
Relations between the two of them degenerated to such an extent that Smiley quit his job and branched out on his own (shades
of Philip Marlowe, perhaps?) Smiley was good at his job of uncovering secret spy-rings, but positively disliked it. His main
virtue lay in his ability to blend into his surroundings; to appear anonymous, almost nondescript. However this quality also
rendered him insecure about himself - did he really have a life of his own, or had he been transformed into a chameleon? This
sense of uneasiness became more pronounced as Smiley looked back on his past, focusing in particular on his friendship with
Dieter Frey (Henry Goodman), a fervent opponent of Nazism who collaborated with Smiley during the Second World War, but who
had since espoused the cause of communism. In the spy game it seemed that no one could be trusted, not even oneself.
Smiley's morale was buoyed up through association with Inspector Mandel (Kenneth
Cranham), an unusually aggressive personality who was determined to solve the mystery, even if it meant harming
himself. Although Mandel proved no match for Frey, the police officer retained an integrity that Smiley found enviable. In
the eyes of the law, right could be readily distinguished from wrong; this was certainly not the case in espionage.
Call for the Dead incorporated distinct Chandleresque echoes- for example, the
maverick central character disclosing his feelings of loneliness to his divorced wife Ann (Anna Chancellor), while describing
his state of mind to listeners. Le Carré also creates an amoral world similar to Chandler's Los Angeles, in which right and
wrong could no longer be distinguished. However Le Carré's London is not the world of bright lights and neon signs, but rather
a drab world dominated by conformity. No wonder spies like Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean wanted to escape; anything seemed
preferable to this kind of environment.