I like spy stories, mysteries, caper plots, and thrillers, and a friend had strongly recommended this six-hour television mini-series from 1979. It stars Alec Guinness and Ian Richardson, and it looked great. I love those guys. Tonight I settled down to watch. The first hour: not much happened. We got some backstory that had one pretty exciting scene, but it was backstory. When the credits rolled at the end, I thought I had misunderstood how the disk was set up, and I was getting intro credits really late into the show. Really late. Like an hour late.
But no. I needed to click again to get the second hour to start. Okay, so the producers/directors like long set-ups. The mini-series has a lot of characters, and they’re all white British men who wear trenchcoats, so maybe the producers thought we needed a long intro to get everybody straight. The second hour started. And again…waiting for something to happen. Waiting. Waiting. Then I fell asleep. When I woke up, five minutes before the end, I learned that Alec Guinness has been called out of retirement to find a mole in Britain’s secret service. Okay.
I plan to watch this mini-series to the end: the disks are here, after all. I think what’s making me yawn is the way the story is unfolding, in way too leisurely a style for what we’re used to these days. This mini-series was filmed 35 years ago, and I don’t think this story would be scripted this way today, no matter how John Le Carre had written the book. These days, most spy films seem to lead with a car chase or a scene that leads to a car chase–something that is big, bold, noisy, and fast—something that producers think will hook the viewer and make them sit up and pay attention. Just think of the recent Bond films with Daniel Craig, for example. A slower build doesn’t work that well any more.
That’s true for books, too. We’re taught that contemporary fiction, especially genre fiction, should begin in medias res—the beginning of the action. And that usually means literally—like the middle of an argument or a fire or burglary or some other central problem for the characters. Then the beginning of the problem—like the why of the argument or the fire—is layered in later as backstory, and then, writers hope, the ending will take care of itself.
I’m a big fan of old movies and old TV—and by “old” I mean from the 1930s and 1940s for film and 1950s for TV—and a lot of technique from those days looks dated today, even though the stories might still be fun. So I’m willing to cut Tinker, Tailor a lot of slack for what I think is a style convention of 35 years ago. Even with not a single car chase, Ian Richardson is deliciously evil, and Alec Guinness carries off his part brilliantly. Now in the next episodes, I know we’ll start to get some action. Even if it’s not car chases. Or fires.