Susan Hill

Essential viewing

Essential viewing
Text settings

They don`t make them like this any more – they make them differently. Whatever, the 1982 BBC television version of John le Carré's great spy novel Smiley's People is a masterclass - in adaptation, script-writing, filming and acting - and in its re-origination for DVD it comes up fresh as paint, no detail or shading lost.

The first thing you notice is the extraordinary stillness and quietness of it. It takes you aback, takes ten minutes to get used to, and then enfolds you in total concentration. Contemporary television drama is noisy, loud and ubiquitous and, above all, especially in the thriller department, it caters for those with the attention span of a gnat. We are never allowed to linger. But Smiley's People moves at a measured, occasionally even a ponderous pace, which means the words come through, the actors are given time for every expression and gesture to register and the viewer time to grasp what is going on. There is some music at just the right moments, but otherwise we hear the sounds the world makes – the crunch of car wheels on gravel, the windscreen wipers sweeping away rain, footsteps on stone floors, the striking of a match. Those sounds are telling and often beautiful.

Alec Guinness is mesmerising. Was there ever a better British film and television actor, so subtle, so intelligent. Look at that face, listen to that voice. This IS George Smiley. But he is matched by the rest. Beryl Reid, who was always an underrated actress, gives one of her best performances as old, sad, dying, drunken Connie. Bernard Hepton is superb as Toby Esterhase ... there is not one weak link.

Le Carré is a fine stylist, a dense writer whose books cannot be read as fast food is eaten, and it shows that he co-wrote the screenplay, with the great John Hopkins, because those qualities are still there, though adapted perfectly for the dramatic medium. It is hard to convey the depth and intensity the experience of watching this again, after 27 years, gives. I viewed it episode by episode over several evenings  - it is not to be rushed, any more than the book. Do get it. You are in for a treat. Guaranteed.