There are a lot of “good” TV shows in the world, and you can read about the “best” from the last decade here, but frankly they’re not good enough. It’s time for a really big change.
Let me take you back to the year 1810. Americans had just discovered oil in Texas, but there was a problem: There were two kinds of oil. The first was “crude oil,” which could be refined by machines into petroleum and car gasoline and oil for lawnmowers, and there was “paraffin oil,” which, whenever you tried to refine it, just turned into lumps of candle wax. People tried to make the best of paraffin oil by inventing candles and wax museums, but in the end, the industry had to decide which kind of oil would become the national standard. It was a no-brainer: They chose crude oil and became what the papers called “hootin’ rich.” Before long, paraffin oil was almost obsolete, only to be seen at antique oil shows, and once candles were replaced by chandeliers, it was all over for “Prince Paraffin.”
Now, I can already hear the skeptics: Shane, this example you just gave doesn’t relate to television. Isn’t this supposed to be about John LeCarre, or something? Also, the brief history you outlined is completely, outlandishly wrong, and every individual fact is provably false.
To which I say, maybe this piece isn’t meant for you. Maybe it’s meant for people who still believe in art, and who understand the point I’m making: Sometimes, there are two distinct options before us, and one option is so much better that we’d be fools not to make it our priority to the total exclusion of the lesser option. The way I see it, this is the situation facing television in 2020. The two options available to us are:
1. Keep making lots of different kinds of TV shows with different themes and plots, and once in a while make a miniseries adapted from a John LeCarre novel.
2. Make every single TV show a miniseries adapted from a John LeCarre novel.
To make the courageous choice, option no. 2, would require a complete shift in priorities and resources, and undoubtedly it would anger a few people with different agendas. But the fact remains that when you look at the TV minisieries that have been adapted from a John LeCarre novel in history, of which I believe there are five, all of them have been so much better than any other kind of show. It therefore follows that if we put all our energy into this very specific genre, we can guarantee a 100% success rate for all TV shows to come. After fixing climate change, it’s the most critical step we could take to improve our planet.
First, let’s talk about the five miniseries, starting with the oldest:
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1979, BBC
Along with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker is one of LeCarre’s two most famous novels, and the one that cemented his reputation as the foremost modern master of the spy genre. Five years after publication, the BBC made the choice to adapt it for the small screen, and landed Alec Guinness in the role of George Smiley. It was one of the most fortuitous pairings of actor and character in TV history, because while Guinness didn’t quite match the description of Smiley in the books, he absolutely became him—studious, calm, fatalistic, brilliant—to such an extent that LeCarre later admitted that in subsequent books he avoided writing as much about Smiley because he was doomed to imagine Guinness in his mind. The elegant direction of John Irvin is similarly masterful, and today seems almost radical for the its measured, unhurried pace that lets the story unfold in staggering revelation after staggering revelation. The seven episodes are artifacts of TV history, yes, but the true measure of this show is how it retains its narrative power 40 years later—proof that great storytelling, when honored with patience and superlative performance, never fades.
Smiley’s People, 1982, BBC
Smiley’s People is the third novel of the so-called “Karla Trilogy” that begins with Tinker, Tailor, and while the first book is about rooting out a mole in British intelligence, the finale finds Smiley pulled back from retirement to reel in the biggest fish of all, Karla himself—the shadowy master of Soviet intelligence who has eluded him, and indeed out-smarted him, in the past. The BBC adaptation was produced by the same team that made Tinker, Tailor, and despite a new director, the vision didn’t change…nor did Alec Guinness as Smiley. I’m one of the mavericks who contends that this series is actually slightly better than its predecessor, for both its atmosphere and the tragic humanity of the plot, not to mention the debauched magnetism of Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase. The final episode remains one of the most tense TV experiences of my life.
A Perfect Spy, 1987, BBC
A Perfect Spy is arguably LeCarre’s best novel, and inarguably his most autobiographical, dealing for the first time with a larger-than-life con of a father who spent most of his life on the wrong side of the law. I actually had no idea this miniseries existed before writing this article, and I have not seen it. But it’s almost definitely great. Trust me.
The Night Manager, 2016, BBC and AMC
After A Perfect Spy, the world took a 30-year hiatus from LeCarre miniseries adaptations, which was one of our biggest mistakes. Thankfully, the longstanding error was remedied in 2016 with the magnificent Night Manager. The best thing I can say about this series is that it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite performance between Tom Hiddleston as the title character, Hugh Laurie as the arms dealer Richard Roper, and the magnificent Tom Hollander as the tragic villain “Corky” Corkoran. Well, maybe my adjectives gave me away…maybe it’s Hollander. Or maybe it’s Laurie, whose aggressive performance maintains a hint of vulnerability that flowers in the disastrous end. Or maybe it’s Hiddleston, possessed of more sangfroid than any actor in history. Suffice it to say that all three are spectacular. The Night Manager is actually a minor novel, by LeCarre’s high standards, but there’s nothing minor about the BBC/AMC production spearheaded by his two sons, Simon and Stephen, whose company The Ink Factory was also responsible for the film A Most Wanted Man (which, despite not being a miniseries, was also very good, and produced this beautiful piece of writing by LeCarre on the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman). It’s the story of British intelligence attempting to take down a major international arms dealer via an unlikely mole, and once again the storytelling in the six-part series stands out for its patience, letting the actors shine and trusting the combustible plot to deliver all the unbearable tension any viewer could need.
The Little Drummer Girl, 2018, BBC and AMC
Travel back in time and pose the following question to the universe in 1982: “Which actor in a LeCarre adaptation can ever live up to the performance of Alec Guinness?” And hear the response: “It will take 36 years, but his like will be seen again in the form of a 22-year-old named Florence Pugh.” The Little Drummer Girl is LeCarre’s most underrated novel, the story of a struggling left-wing actor in England who is recruited by the Mossad to infiltrate and ultimately unravel a Palestinian terrorist cell. As with all of LeCarre’s work, the complexities shine through—unlike many writers of the genre, he treats the Palestinians as human beings, and in this Ink Factory adaptation we see them in their kindness and their suffering through the eyes of Pugh as Charlie Ross, who begins to question the nature of what’s true and right even as she proves to be a natural spy. Michael Shannon is a thundering success in his supporting role as Kurtz the Israeli spymaster, and though Alexander Skarsgard leaves a little to be desired as Charlie’s tutor Gadi Becker, I can’t tell if it’s his fault or the impossibility of shining next to Pugh. Her career will undoubtedly be long and glorious, but it’s also true that she was born to play this role.
There will be more to come, luckily, and rumor has it that the Ink Factory may even cast Jared Harris as Smiley in future productions, which would be like several dreams coming true at once.
But I believe there can be so much more. There’s only so much the Ink Factory can do, and as far as I can tell there is nobody else in the TV universe focused on making more John LeCarre TV miniseries adaptations. And so I ask again: What if all of them were? Does anything else really matter? I’ve looked at our list of the best shows from 2019, and sure, some of them are good, but when the rubber meets the road, I really don’t think we’re losing anything by just abandoning them all.
I mean, look at the top five from that list. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is strong in Fleabag, I grant you, but imagine her as Tessa Quayle in a miniseries adaptation of The Constant Garderner...she would put Rachel Weisz to shame! Or what about Succession, the brainchild of Jesse Armstrong and his team? Again, very solid, but what if they turned their energies to the nearly forgotten LeCarre novel The Looking Glass War, one of his few farces? The result would be a masterpiece of Cold War-era cynicism. Then there’s The Dark Crystal show, which my editor Allison Keene is always raving about and which I have never seen. I may not be able to evaluate the show on its merits, but I do know that everyone involved would be better served to take on The Russia House instead. Chernobyl was a near-masterpiece, but to be an actual masterpiece, they could have made An Honourable Schoolboy, my personal favorite of LeCarre’s work and the second novel of the Karla trilogy. And as for the underwhelming Barry, there are literally a dozen LeCarre novels with reluctant men living double lives as they seek meaning in a complicated world. In a pinch, I’d recommend the underrated Our Game, with Heder as the tortured protagonist Tim Cranmer.
As you see, there’s no show or performer that wouldn’t be better as a LeCarre miniseries adaptation. Many will read this and find my arguments extreme, but I’m not a complete fanatic. There is room, I think, for an occasional LeCarre film adaptation. But I do emphasize “occasional.” Mostly, we should put our energies where they belong, and guarantee that the next decade of television is, like LeCarre himself, infallible.