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The Complete Smiley

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Jeremy Howe Jeremy Howe 11:00, Saturday, 23 May 2009

Simon Russell Beale as Smiley

About 3 years ago, and very new to the job of Commissioning Editor for Drama for Radio 4, I was walking back from the bank to my office when my mobile rang. It was Patrick Rayner, the Head of Drama in Scotland.

"Jeremy, I know it stretches the definition of classic a bit and it is not Scottish, but what would you think of us doing one of the George Smiley trilogy as a Classic Serial?"

"It's a great idea, and it's classic enough for me." Pause "But why not do all three?" I said.

"Well we could, if you think the Network could stand that much Smiley."

"Yes I do. How many other Smiley novels are there?"

There was a comical interlude where from our collective memories we tried to remember all the other novels in which one of the smartest and most intriguing characters in twentieth century British fiction featured. It was like one of those games you played at drunken parties at university - we both knew there were a lot, we couldn't quite get all the titles in a sequence, but we reckoned we were talking about eight titles, which is about twenty hours of air time. Most Classic Serials run for between two and three hours; twenty hours is kind of uncharted territory.

Now commissioning programmes is quite a complicated process - given that I commission 400 hours of drama a year and am bombarded with programme ideas from every which way it takes a lot of administration, which involves systems and form filling-in, and box ticking and all the other gubbins associated with bureaucracy. But in the end you know it is a good idea or not almost instantly. And this was very definitely a Good Idea.

"Ok lets do the lot," I said.

Patrick, who has delivered over forty brilliant Sherlock Holmes, and was about to direct Paul Temple all for Radio 4, was absolutely the right person to do them, the television versions were ancient, the radio versions equally so (all with different actors playing Smiley), and it was exactly the kind of ambition we were looking for the drama output on the Network. I also thought it would be something of a treat for the audience, a Classic Serial to relish.

I needed to convince my boss (Mark Damazer, the Controller of Radio 4). I casually floated it past him one morning -

"Mark, what would you say to us doing the complete Smiley?"

He paused. His eyes lit up and he launched into a one sentence eulogy about Smiley - albeit a very long sentence, kind of ten minutes long. Well maybe fifteen. We had a deal.

So why has it taken nearly three years to get to air? After all one episode of a Classic Serial takes about five days to record, edit and dub.

I asked Patrick to make tentative soundings about the rights.

In principle they were available.

In practice they were not.

Months - where nothing much happened - passed.

Now I had never met John le Carré, but nothing ventured nothing gained I sent him a letter asking for his help in persuading his secretive American agent to grant us the radio rights. It is the kind of letter you send, and never expect to get an answer to, so when a few days later my assistant told me that John le Carré's wife was on the phone I was astonished. She told me her husband thought the Radio 4 plan was an excellent idea and they would look into securing the rights.

What the combined heft of the BBC Copyright Department, Controllers and commissioners had failed to unlock over months the author himself opened within days.

But that is only the start.

Believe me, turning 2000 odd pages of brilliant prose into twenty hours of compelling dramatisation is not a simple matter. We hired the best writers (Robert Forrest whose version of Resurrection by Tolstoy was peerless and whose Pillow Book rendered a book of ancient Japanese courtly lists into a superb murder mystery) and Shaun McKenna (his To Serve Them All My Days was compelling), had lengthy discussions about whether or not to use a narrator, on who should play George Smiley (well Simon Russell Beale of course, to the part born I say), spent ages working out how to play out the series (in one twenty hour block or threaded across the schedule for a year), on setting up a co-production between BBC Scotland and the London Radio Drama department, etc., etc.

All I had to do was encourage the team - Patrick and Marc Beeby (his co-producer), the two writers, the Broadcast Assistants, the sound engineers and the illustrious and brilliant cast who have done the real graft.

But I think you are in for a real treat.


  • Comment number 1.

    Ooh, so close! Not available on iPlayer, sheesh....

  • Comment number 2.

    @laptop_BazCall for the Dead is available on iPlayer and you can listen to it again here on the programme's web page too. Let me know if you're having trouble hearing it. The usual seven-day window applies.

    Steve Bowbrick is editor of the Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 3.

    The trail for the Front Row episode had some beautiful piano music - I'd love to know what. Brahms possibly?

    Steve I would be very obliged if you could pass this query on...

  • Comment number 4.

    For those of us who cannot listen on Saturday afternoons (especially in half-term!) and who have problems with using the IPlayer, is there any chance of a CD in due course? These seem to me to be really important recordings that one would like to listen to at leisure and more than once.

    Kate Brown

  • Comment number 5.

    @KateMB I'm told that all the Smiley dramatisations will be available on CD - from all the usual outlets.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 6.

    And dates for future transmissions?

  • Comment number 7.

    @ooergosh See my comment from earlier today and this special page for the Smiley season. The next programme in the season is the Classic Serial adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold starting on 5 July at 1500.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 8.

    Tinker Taylor, so looking forward to this one, but why change the actor playing Peter Guillam? Even though time has elasped since the last broadcast the lack of continuity is really annoying.

  • Comment number 9.

    Having listened again there's noticable differnce in style and tone in the production. Lacks the subtlety of some of the earlier broadcasts. Maybe a bit too pacy?

  • Comment number 10.

    I asked Patrick Rayner, head of radio drama at BBC Scotland and the man who produced the season, to respond to two comments from Phil Thompson (8 and 9). Patrick says:

    The Peter Guillam question is simple: to his disappointment and ours, Richard Dillane wasn't available for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He's back as Guillam in The Honourable Schoolboy (Sundays 24, 31 January, 7 February 2010), and I very much hope he'll be free next March for Smiley's People (Sundays 4, 11, 18 April 2010).

    As for change of tone: I suspect there'll always be slight differences of style and approach between different directors - Steve Canny did this one, Marc Beeby and I did the previous ones. This aside, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy seems to me pretty much of a piece with the previous. Plus there's continuity of casting - Guillam aside - and it's the same writer (Shaun McKenna) who did two of the four earlier books, A Murder of Quality and The Looking Glass War.

    Steve Bowbrick is editor of the Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 11.

    As a lifelong fan of John le Carré, I have been gobbling up The Complete Smiley with relish.

    One criticism - and it's nothing to do with the productions, which I can't pick a single hole in.

    Do we REALLY need wall-to-wall reminders on radio and TV that they're on? It's in danger of turning into what I always think of as the Twin Peaks Effect: so much hype, by the time it was broadcast I was so sick of it that wild horses couldn't have dragged me in front of a TV screen for the actual programme.

    Please ask the BBC marketing types to back off and give people credit for an attention span long enough to get the point the first time!

  • Comment number 12.

    Thanks for the reply. Great series so far. Building up nicely.

  • Comment number 13.

    Great drama, excellent production. Congrats to all involved.

  • Comment number 14.

    Is there any information on the soundtrack and/or sound design for this series? I can't find any on the BBC site.

  • Comment number 15.

    Would someone please let me know how I can listen to this program? I can access BBC Radio4 iplayer LIVE, I got as far as the page (archive) with the list of all three episodes of 'The Spy Who Came in From The Cold'; with options 'listen now'. But nothing happened when I clicked on them.
    I have Window XP; I use Firefox; and I have both window media and realplayer. Please help.

  • Comment number 16.

    CLillywhite We haven't published anything here about the sound design for Smiley. I'll see if I can find any information. In the meantime, we have published a couple of posts about sound design in other productions that you might find interesting: Colin Guthrie on sound design for Our Mutual Friend and three fascinating posts by John Dryden about recording Six Suspects in Mumbai.

    jj, I'm sad to have to tell you that none of the Smiley Season dramatisations is currently available to listen to. As you may know, a 'seven day window' applies to most BBC radio output and it's been more than seven days since the last transmission. The next dramatisation in the series is Smiley's People, starting on 11 April.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 17.

    Okay, for someone who only just discovered that the wonders of the whole Smiley season were there - isn't there anything I can do to listen to the series from the beginning? Or will it ever be published and sold in CD form, and if so how long do we have to wait?

    Productions like this will never, never be out of demand. The fiction itself is incredibly good, and everybody loves it. Just say 'Smiley' to anyone who was sentient in the 1980s and they will get a silly expression on their face.

    Please, please let there be a solution.

  • Comment number 18.

    This is the big one. One of the best. Oh I hope I'm not disappointed.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    Magnificent ! Just finished absorbing the first episode of Smiley's People. Have been listening and tremendously enjoying all of your Smiley Season thus far, yet this production made me want to immediately express my appreciation and amazement at the talent of all involved, including of course, never to forget, David Cornwell himself. I am a Le Carre connoisseur of many years, know the material quite well, and am very very impressed. Congratulations on a magnificent effort.

  • Comment number 21.

    Orientalist, as you probably know, the BBC Trust forbids the BBC from making most radio programmes available for longer than seven days on the web site (although this picture is complicated a bit by the fact that some of the Smiley adaptations have been made available for a bit longer by virtue of their participation in something called 'the series catchup trial').

    Happily, though, the whole series will be available on CD - the earlier adaptations are already in the shops. Visit your usual outlet.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 22.

    The May 2009 Front Row interview with John Le Carre shows up on IPlayer, but an error message comes up saying Try again later. Is it actually accessible? I have found an earlier, 2004 interview playable on RealMedia.

    I see that most of the Smiley series CDs are out on sale.

  • Comment number 23.

    Great series congrats all round. Quality via DAB outstanding.

    Thanks all


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