George Smiley

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
George Smiley
Alec Guinness as Smiley on the DVD cover for Smiley's People
First appearance Call for the Dead
Last appearance The Secret Pilgrim
Created by John le Carré
Portrayed by Rupert Davies (1965)
James Mason (1966)
Alec Guinness (1979, 1982)
Denholm Elliott (1991)
Gary Oldman (2011)
Gender Male
Occupation Intelligence officer
Affiliation The Circus
Spouse(s) Lady Ann Sercomb
Nationality British

George Smiley is a fictional character created by John le Carré. Smiley is a career intelligence officer with "The Circus", the British overseas intelligence agency. He is a central character in the novels Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People, and a supporting character in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War and The Secret Pilgrim.

Early life[edit]

Although Smiley has no concrete biography beyond that offered briefly at the beginning of Call for the Dead, le Carré does leave clues in his novels.

Smiley was probably born around 1906 (or 1915 on the revised chronology) to middle class parents in the South of England, and attended a minor public school and an antiquated Oxford college of no real distinction (in the 1982 BBC television adaptation of Smiley's People, he refers to himself as a fellow of Lincoln College), studying modern languages with a particular focus on Baroque German literature. In July 1928, while considering post-graduate study in that field, he was recruited into the Circus by his tutor Jebedee.

He underwent training and probation in Central Europe and South America, and spent the period from 1935 until approximately 1938 in Germany recruiting networks under cover as a lecturer. In 1939, with the commencement of World War II, he saw active service not only in Germany, but also in Switzerland and Sweden. Smiley's wartime superiors described him as having "the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin".[1]

In 1943, he was recalled to England to work at Circus headquarters, and in 1945 successfully proposed marriage to Lady Ann Sercomb, a beautiful, aristocratic, and libidinous young lady working as a secretary there. Ann would prove a most unfaithful and rather condescending wife. In the same year, Smiley left the Service and returned to Oxford. However, in 1947, with the onset of the Cold War, Smiley was asked to return to the Service, and in early 1951 moved into counter-intelligence work, where he would remain for the next decade. During that period, Smiley first met his Soviet nemesis, Karla, in a Delhi prison. Karla proved impossible to crack, taking Smiley's lighter for good measure, a gift to Smiley from his wife.

In the novels[edit]

The early novels[edit]

Smiley first appeared in Call for the Dead, le Carré's debut novel. At the start of the novel, set around 1960, Smiley has fallen from grace and is working in a relatively menial intelligence job, including security-clearing civil servants. He spends much of the story bemoaning the loss of the talented agents who were his mentors and their replacement by such talentless civil-service bureaucrats as the current head of service, Maston, who refers to himself as the "Ministers' Adviser on Intelligence" and is widely, if secretly, mocked. Over the course of the story, Smiley resigns from the Circus in anger on the spur of the moment while unravelling an East German spy ring, clearing his own name in so doing, and restoring his reputation while remaining in retirement at tale's end, despite Maston's pleadings. It is while pursuing a sedate life of scholastic research in German literature at a university in the West Country (probably Exeter) that he is called upon to investigate a murder at a fictional public school in le Carré's next novel, A Murder of Quality.

Le Carré was propelled to international renown by The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, his third novel. Smiley, a minor but pivotal character in the story, still retired, but revealed during the story to be back in the Circus as one of the top aides to Control, Maston's mysterious successor as the Circus' chief. Smiley and his assistant Peter Guillam have actually turned the brutal head of East German intelligence into a British double agent. The events in this book take place around 1962, after the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Smiley appears again in The Looking Glass War, le Carré's fourth novel, though only in a peripheral role, occupying the "North European desk" at the Circus. His intervention drives the final twist in the plot, when he uses his position to force a competing British intelligence agency to abandon a mission and the agent conducting it.

Smiley does not appear in either of le Carré's next two works, only one of which dealt with espionage.

Prior to the Karla trilogy[edit]

Smiley subsequently rose up the ranks of intelligence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, eventually attaining the status of right-hand man to Control. When Control is eased out of the Circus in late 1972 after the capture of Jim Prideaux in Czechoslovakia, Smiley too is forced out. The Circus is taken over by Percy Alleline, with Bill Haydon running "London Station", a branch overseeing all of the service's spy networks.

Revised timeline[edit]

When le Carré wrote Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he drastically revised the timeline of Smiley's early life. According to this new account, Smiley was recruited into intelligence in 1937, not 1928. This was probably done so that Smiley's advancing age would not become an issue in the subsequent novels being planned by le Carré for his protagonist. His colleague Peter Guillam also had his personal history revised, from being a near-contemporary of Smiley's who had trained with the Circus during World War II in the early novels, to being his younger protégé and trusted deputy. (In the television adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Guillam, played by Michael Jayston, is portrayed as a relatively young man, a youthful forty-something, albeit in a senior position in "The Circus".)

The Karla trilogy[edit]

In September or October 1973, the events of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy take place, with Smiley successfully managing to expose the long-term Soviet agent, or "mole", codenamed "Gerald". The investigation revealed that Gerald, who was actually a senior member of the anti-Control faction that had taken over the Service the previous year, had passed an enormous quantity of high-grade intelligence to Moscow Centre while producing for the Service and its Whitehall customers a similar quantity of "chickenfeed", i.e., low-value or misleading intelligence on the USSR. The mole is found to be Smiley's colleague Bill Haydon, who was also at one time his wife's lover. At the end of this case Smiley became interim Chief of the Service in late November 1973 to clean up the resultant mess, rebuilding the organisation's headquarters staff by use of trusted old-timers like Guillam, Doc di Salis, and Connie Sachs.

In 1975 or 1976, after the conclusion of "Operation Dolphin", which was described at length in The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley retired again from the Service. In Smiley's People he was brought back in late 1977 to investigate the death of an elderly Estonian general, nationalist activist, and erstwhile Circus agent. A convoluted trail led Smiley to discover a human weakness in his nemesis Karla, whom he coerces to defect to the West in Berlin in December 1977. This triumph is the highlight of his career, although he reproaches himself over the methods used to achieve it.

Smiley in retirement[edit]

Smiley was absent in the three le Carré novels of the 1980s. He re-surfaced for a final time in 1990 when he appeared in The Secret Pilgrim chairing the "Fishing Rights Committee", a body set up to explore possible areas of co-operation between British and Russian intelligence services. Though he does not actually appear in 1989's The Russia House, that novel is connected to certain aspects of Smiley's timeline via Ned, who is also a major player in The Secret Pilgrim.


Le Carré introduced Smiley at about the same time as Len Deighton's unnamed anti-hero (Harry Palmer in the film versions). This was a time when critics and the public were welcoming more realistic versions of espionage fiction, in contrast to the glamorous world of Ian Fleming's James Bond.

Smiley is sometimes considered the anti-Bond in the sense that Bond is an unrealistic figure and is more a portrayal of a male fantasy than a realistic government agent. George Smiley, on the other hand, is quiet, mild-mannered and not at all athletic. He lives by his wits and, unlike Bond, is a master of quiet, disciplined intelligence work, rather than gunplay. In The Honourable Schoolboy it becomes clear that he is not as adept at bureaucratic manoeuvring as the duplicitous Sam Collins and Saul Enderby, who are able to use even a great success to force him into retirement. Also unlike Bond he is not a bed-hopper; in fact it is Smiley's wife Ann who is notorious for her affairs.

When Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was published, the reviewer of The Spectator described Smiley as a "brilliant spy and totally inadequate man." However, Smiley has his pride, and in the end, in Smiley's People, he refuses to take the beautiful Ann back, despite her pleadings.

Smiley is depicted as an exceptionally skilled spymaster, gifted with a prodigious memory and a talent for getting people to talk. His subtle interrogation methods, derived from psychology and experience, he imparts to his understudies, such as Jerry Westerby and Peter Guillam. These are depicted as far superior to the heavy-handed tactics of the Americans, who are called "the Cousins" in Circus jargon, and whose entry into a mission always ensures that things will get a lot rougher.

A student of espionage with a profound insight into human weakness and fallibility, highly sagacious and incredibly perceptive, he is very conscious of the immoral, grisly and unethical aspects of his profession. At the same time he works to inculcate loyalty and discipline into his pupils, and a sense of moral obligation to the espionage service, and to the country. Smiley has no patience with the political niceties of Whitehall and their distaste for classical espionage tactics, including bribery, blackmail, and turning enemy agents into British double agents. On the other hand, he is not one of the "hawks" who are given to the sharp, militaristic attitudes of "the Cousins" (clearly depicted during the climax of The Honourable Schoolboy).

Despite his series of retirements, Smiley's own unflinching loyalty to and support for his people inculcates loyalty in them. Thus, whether in or out of the Service he is able to maintain an extensive range of aides and support-staff, extending even to "retired" police officers, former and present Service members.

Le Carré describes him in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as a somewhat short and fat man, who always wears expensive but badly fitting clothes (he "dressed like a bookie"). He has a habit of cleaning his glasses on the "fat end" of his necktie. Also in that novel, le Carré wrote that his wife describes him as "a reptile that can regulate his body temperature". Gary Oldman, in an interview with Charlie Rose promoting the film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, said that this description is "the key" to Smiley.[2]

In March 2010, while giving a talk on his life and works at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, le Carré responded to a question concerning what became of Smiley by telling the audience that although he would like to think of Smiley as a Holmesian figure, never having really retired, he acknowledged that to his mind, the character would now be "very old and getting past—certainly in his nineties". This accords with the later chronology. Le Carré envisaged Smiley now to be "keeping bees somewhere", still alive but very much retired.


In 1995, le Carré said that the character of George Smiley was inspired by his one-time Lincoln College, Oxford tutor, the former Rev. Vivian Green—a renowned historian and author with an encyclopaedic knowledge.[3] However, other than the thick spectacles and Green's habit of disappearing into a crowd, there were too many dissimilarities between the loquacious Green and the reticent Smiley to make this a clear match, and so other sources for Smiley continued to be named.[3] It has been suggested that le Carré subconsciously took the name of his hero from special forces and intelligence officer Colonel David de Crespigny Smiley.[4] More commonly, it was rumoured that Smiley was modelled on Sir Maurice Oldfield, a former head of British Intelligence, who physically resembled him.[5] Le Carré denied the rumours, citing the fact that Oldfield and he were not contemporaries, although he and Alec Guinness did lunch with Oldfield while Guinness was researching the role, and Guinness adopted several of Oldfield's mannerisms of dress and behaviour for his performance.[6]

Oldfield himself believed that, although Green probably inspired le Carré, the character of Smiley was primarily based on John Bingham, 7th Baron Clanmorris, who had been le Carré's boss when he originally joined MI5 prior to his career in MI6.[6][7] In 1999, le Carré confirmed that Bingham was also an inspiration for Smiley,[3] and in 2000 went further, writing in an introduction to a reissue of one of Bingham's novels that "He had been one of two men who had gone into the making of George Smiley. Nobody who knew John and the work he was doing could have missed the description of Smiley in my first novel".[8]

Various le Carré works involve other characters resembling Bingham; the most notable is Jack Brotherhood in A Perfect Spy.[citation needed]

In an introductory essay dated March 1992, le Carré wrote:

"And it is no surprise to me that, when I came to invent my leading character, George Smiley, I should give him something of Vivian Green's unlikely wisdom, wrapped in academic learning, and something of Bingham's devious resourcefulness and simple patriotism also. All fictional characters are amalgams; all spring from much deeper wells than their apparent counterparts in life. All in the end, like the poor suspects in my files, are refitted and remoulded in the writer's imagination, until they are probably closer to his own nature than to anybody else's. But now that Bingham is seems only right that I should acknowledge my debt to him: not merely as a component of George Smiley, but as the man who first put the spark to my writing career."[9]


In other media[edit]






In the popular TV comedy series The Two Ronnies, Ronnie Barker played Smiley along the lines of Alec Guinness' portrayal in a sketch called Tinker Tailor Smiley Doyle. This was a joint send-up of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Professionals TV series, with Ronnie Corbett playing a bungling version of Martin Shaw's Doyle. Barker's Smiley provides the brains to the brawn of Corbett's Doyle and actually comes out the better. He is shown as something of an obsessive tea drinker. The sketch guest-starred Frank Williams from Dad's Army. The name of Smiley's enemy Karla can be seen on a secretary's computer screen. Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse performed a sketch in 2012 about there being two George Smileys: a reference to the vastly different portrayals in the filmed versions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.


  1. ^ A Murder of Quality p.91
  2. ^ "Gary Oldman talks about inhabiting the iconic character of George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Charlie Rose. PBS February 21, 2012.
  3. ^ a b c "Obituary: The Reverend Vivian Green". The Daily Telegraph. London. 26 January 2005. Retrieved 21 March 2010. 
  4. ^ "Obituary: 12 January 2009". The Daily Telegraph. London. 12 January 2009. Archived from the original on 11 November 2012. Retrieved 4 March 2011. 
  5. ^ "SIR MAURICE OLDFIELD DEAD AT 65; FAMED EX-CHIEF OF BRITAIN'S M.I.6". The New York Times. Reuters. 12 March 1981. Retrieved 20 March 2010. 
  6. ^ a b West, Nigel. At Her Majesty's Secret Service: The Chiefs of Britain's Intelligence Agency, MI6, Greenhill Books, London, 2006; pp. 18–19.
  7. ^ "Baron in search for Ascot house". Evening Press (York) 28 February 2004.
  8. ^ John le Carré, Introduction to John Bingham, My Name is Michael Sibley, London: Pan Classic Crime (2000)
  9. ^ John le Carré, "Introduction" (1992), in Call for the Dead. New York: Walker & Company, 2004 (ISBN 0-8027-1443-9). p. xv.
  10. ^ Patrick Hao. "15 Most Underrated Directors of All Time; No. 15, Martin Ritt". Archived from the original on 3 April 2013. Retrieved 25 March 2013. 
  11. ^ Gritten, David (5 September 2011). "Venice Film Festival: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – first review". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 6 September 2011. 
  12. ^ a b "Radio Plays 1945–1997: Serials, DIVERSITY website – radio drama, plays". Retrieved 12 July 2010. 
  13. ^ "radio plays,DIVERSITY WEBSITE,bbc,radio drama,saturday night theatre – Lost, 1988–1970". Retrieved 12 July 2010. 
  14. ^ "BBC – BBC Radio 4 Programmes – Saturday Play, Call for the Dead". Retrieved 18 May 2009. 

External links[edit]