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5.0 out of 5 stars The Complete George Smiley: Top Quality Radio Drama, 14 Oct. 2011
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This review is from: The Complete George Smiley Radio Dramas (BBC Radio 4 Dramatisations) (Audio CD)
This box set collects together the 2010 series of full cast radio dramatisations of all the John Le Carre novels to feature George Smiley. For those who (like me) were collecting them as they were individually released there is nothing here to warrant updating your collection. For those who want several hours of pure class radio drama and haven't got the individual releases then this is an incredibly worthwhile purchase.

Le Carre's work is full of tense, moody atmosphere, with paranoia and fear always in the foreground. His `realistic' portrayal of the spy world, largely made up of slippery, cunning public school boys and based around carefully assessing and weighing information, is a world away from the flashy James Bond style, an all the better for it. The Smiley stories are about the mystery, following the trail of evidence, uncovering the misinformation, learning who to trust and using other people's frailties to your advantage. The BBC, and Simon Russell Beale have recreated this world wonderfully. The productions are understated, with just the right sound effect and sparse music to conjure up a world of intense paranoia, and the listener is soon on the edge of the seat. I Have not read the books, but cuts and abridgements are inevitable to get this to a suitable running time. All I can say is that the stories flow well and hang together so where cuts have been made they do not show. Beale is excellent. He reminds us, inevitably, of Alec Guinness's fine TV portrayal, but he manages to put his own stamp on the role and really brings Smiley to life.

Call For The Dead - The story introduces us to George Smiley, the devious, cunning and ruthless spy who presents an image of bumbling donnish eccentricity to the world. The story centres around the fall out from the suicide of a man who was suspected of being a spy, but cleared by Smiley only hours before his death. An incendiary suicide note raises questions about Smiley's own conduct, he must investigate not only to get to the real truth, but also to clear his own name. Things soon get deep and dark, as layers of obfuscation are peeled back to reveal a conspiracy that has its roots in Smiley's own past activities in pre-war Germany.
A Murder Of Quality - This is a rather curious addition to the Smiley canon. The wife of a public school master is found murdered, and Smiley, seemingly retired from spy work, looks into it as a favour to an old friend. It's a straightforward murder mystery, set in the confines of a public school. It works towards a fitting conclusion, and features a fine performance from Geoffrey Palmer.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold - Smiley is a peripheral character here. Starring an impressive Brian Cox as Alec Leamas, this is a production that simply oozes atmosphere. After his Berlin network is dismantled by a member of the opposition named Mundt, Alec Leamas is asked to 'stay out in the cold' a little longer, in a fiendishly complicated plot to try and get back at Mundt. The bulk of the production is carried superbly by Brian Cox as Leamas, he translates the fears, loves and paranoia of the character superbly for us. The atmosphere is steeped in paranoia, as Leamas goes deeper and deeper undercover, and is more and more disconnected from his 'handlers', and finds that he can trust no-one.

In the supporting cast, Ruth Gemmell as Liz - a character introduced in a seemingly odd and unnecessary interlude in the first episode but has a huge significance later on, deserves special mention. She manages to portray the character's innocence of the nasty big wide world and gradual realisation of the horrors out there to a tee.

The Looking Glass War - Again Smiley is a peripheral character here, the story centres around a Military intelligence unit known as `The Department' and its attempts to relive their glory days of the war whilst simultaneously cocking a snook at their upstart rivals in British Intelligence, the Circus.

When some juicy intelligence suggesting Soviet missiles in East Germany falls into the lap of ageing department leader Leclerc, he is blind to all caution as he tries to resurrect his outfit as a live operational unit, and regain the status lost to the Circus during the cold war years. To get things going he does not need to worry about the Soviets or East Germans, it is the Circus, supposedly on the same side that he needs to outmanoeuvre. The Circus is represented by George Smiley, patiently and indulgently watching over the operation. There are several themes of trust and obedience running through the story, which leads to a tense, if ultimately demoralising, ending.

As with the other dramas in this series, this is a gripping listen. This is due in no small part to the actors - Ian McDiarmid as Leclerc, and Philip Jackson as old hand Haldane. Patrick Kennedy shines in the pivotal role of Avery. Ian McDiarmid is especially good as the ambitious Leclerc, remembering the glory days and wanting just another taste. The audio production is excellent, and generally manages to really set the scene, especially in the final tense few minutes with the operative being hunted in East Germany and his handlers waiting anxiously just over the border for any news.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - After a disastrous operation in Czechoslovakia, there has been a clear out of the top brass in British Intelligence, there is a new order and George Smiley is not part of it. But it becomes clear that there may be a Russian mole in the heart of the service, and Smiley is brought in to investigate form the outside, without the knowledge of anyone in the service.

The plot twists an turns as Smiley rakes over old files and missions in the search for evidence. Just what was it about the Czech mission that was so damaging to Control, the old head of the service? And is there a link with the solid gold intelligence source that has gifted the new head his position? Slowly Smiley gathers the evidence and pieces his case together, finally finding the weak links and setting a trap to uncover the mole.

The Honourable Schoolboy - Following the events of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the unveiling of the high level mole, the secret Government agency known as the Circus is in disarray. George Smiley, responsible for finding the mole is brought in, along with a select band of trusted others, to go through the old Circus records find out where the mole was burrowing and so find the gaps and weaknesses in Moscow Centre's own intelligence, and uncover what Moscow want kept secret.

Along the way they discover the mole had gone to a great deal of trouble to hide some financial transactions in the far east, and retired journalist, Jerry Westerby, is despatched to find out more. The trail leads to another high profile mole being run by Moscow, and conflict with the American secret services.

This is yet another tense and gripping thriller from the pen of Le Carre, brought to wonderful life by the BBC. Beale is pitch perfect as the by now disillusioned Smiley. Hugh Bonneville is excellent as the chivalrous Westerby, the Honourable Schoolboy of the title (and one of Le Carre's best creations). The audio production is really excellent, nicely evoking the seedy world of the far East in which Westerby finds himself. The plot twists and turns, and as usual there is a deep feeling of paranoia. But it's not the Russians Smiley has to worry about, but his own superiors, and their cosy relationship with the Americans.

Smiley's People - Following the events of `The Honourable Schoolboy', Smiley is now retired. But an old contact is brutally slain, and Smiley is asked by the powers that be to make sure there are no loose ends that could embarrass either the Circus or the British Government. As he trawls through the General's last days and slowly comes to realise just why he was killed, he finds an old adversary at the heart of things, and the opportunity to lay many old ghosts to rest.

The Secret Pilgrim - The final story in the Smiley saga. Smiley is invited by an old colleague to talk to some of his students at spy training school. Over brandy in the library Smiley discusses spy craft, ethics and the horrors that they will face. As he talks it sparks off a series of memories for his old friend Ned (an excellent Patrick Malahide), and we are taken on journey through the key moments in his own career.

The tales themselves are interesting little adventures, but they have a deeper level, as we explore the life of the spy, the things that must be seen and done in the line of duty, and the cost that it has on the person.

The final scene, where Smiley finally says goodbye, is a fitting end to the series, and powerfully delivered.
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Victor
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