23/09/2011 06:49 BST | Updated 23/11/2011 05:12 GMT

What A Le Carre On - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Wearily predictable, but very necessary, the first thing I had to do after paying an extortionate West End £12.30 to see the much-feted film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was to nip into a nearby HMV to buy......Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a mere £7 if you're interested. You know the one.

The peerless Sir Alec as Smiley, shuffling along in overcoat and scarf; the Russian dolls; the choir boy at the end of every episode, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant" etc; dear, departed Beryl Reid snivelling her way to a BAFTA. One of the BBC's finest hours, we have forever been told, an adaptation that raised the bar for all others and did much to enhance John Le Carre's reputation, not just the master of the spy thriller, but a superb chronicler of human foibles. Where is that Booker, or even the Nobel?

The author himself gave his blessing to Gary Oldman, Colin Firth et al and even graces the film with a small cameo (I missed it). But I wonder what he makes of the broadsheet frenzy over TTSS (as we Le Carre lovers have long learned to call it). The reviews I have seen have been pretty pro (bar a splendidly vituperative kicking from Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail), but have also been accompanied by a slew of promotional material, extra supplements, Le Carre retrospectives, audio book discounts (anyone for The Honourable Schoolboy? it's TERRIBLY good).

For John (ne David), who normally hides out on the Cornish coast and recently gave a "last ever" interview to the redoubtable Jon Snow, I would find some of the hype a little embarrassing. I think George Smiley, at least the Alec Guinness version, would have been less than enthused.

It is probably unfair and pointless to make too many comparisons. If memory serves me correctly, the BBC's TTSS ran over seven weeks in the autumn of 1979, less than six years after the book came out, before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the Pink Floyd released The Wall. Was it before or after Sir Anthony Blunt's exposure as a one-time Soviet agent? Anyway, it was very much bound up with that era. Making a film on all this in 2011 is the equivalent of shooting something in 1979 based on 1947, the summer of Compton and Edrich, when the Cold War was just getting going.

Much has been made of the film version's Seventies references. The Circus team and their connections inhabit a London that is relentlessly down-at-heel, with lousy furniture, everybody smoking and no hints of the Thatcherite yuppification to come. A nice in-joke has one agent reading a copy of Jackie ("Dear Cathy and Claire, I think my best friend is a Soviet mole, what should I do?"), although it should probably have been a Mayfair. The defunct Wimpy hamburger chain also features. It's altogether less genteel than what we huddled around the TV in the last days of the 1970s. I even suspect that some of the chaps here didn't go to public school. I certainly wouldn't have messed with Oldman's Smiley, a man you could imagine sitting happily through torture sessions.

Oldman seems to have wowed the critics and will doubtless pick up some prizes a few months down the road. If you grew up on Gary as Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, or as (gulp) Sid Vicious, finding the middle-aged version turning the Circus inside out is a bit of a stretch. But he is pretty good. John Hurt makes a wonderful spy boss 'Control', Mark Strong a valiant, complex Prideaux, the book's most tragic figure. The younger generation, Stephens, Cumberbatch, Hardy, were all fine as far as it went.

Then again, you wouldn't expect duff performances from the top-line thespians assembled for this outing. Were Colin Firth not already so ubiquitous and praised to the skies (although I have never forgiven What a Girl Wants) I would probably have found his foppish Bill Haydon less irritating. At least we were spared Stephen Fry and Liam Neeson. The end result is fine, as far as it goes. But if this turns out to be one of the films of 2011, as the posters keep telling us, it's been a pretty thin year.

But time to re-renter the Cold War comfort zone. Rewind gently to 1979 and it all comes back so quickly. Here we are in Lacon's garden at dawn with daughter practising her violin. Here comes Hywel Bennett's sleazy, but righteous Ricki Tarr going AWOL again. Beryl really goes for it, in her cups, fresh from playing Matron in Rosie Dixon Night Nurse, castigating her "dunderheads" and wittering pointedly about treachery at the Circus.

Beryl is long gone. So too are most of the mole suspects, the potential "Geralds": Ian Richardson, the vain languid Haydon; Terence Rigby, who went from Z Cars to the Circus to become Roy Bland; Michael Aldridge, who featured implausibly alongside Madonna in Shanghai Surprise. Bernard Hepton, marvellously prissy, nervous and manipulative as Toby Esterhase, is still with us. Ian Bannen, my personal man of the match in a strong field as Prideaux, died in a car crash in Scotland. Your starter for 10: in which film did he turn up as a Soviet intelligence chief?

The BBC version was treated with rather sickly reverence at the time, bar some gentle lampoons from Private Eye. You do need quite a lot of patience and a rewind button. What did that raised eyebrow signify? Was that really Karla? A belting first episode, introducing Smiley as book-lover, spurned spy-master and stoical cuckold ("give my love to Anne"...) and showing Prideaux coming horribly unstuck in "Czecho" is a belter.

Then it's off to Lisbon with Ricki and the games of bluff and double-bluff begin. The dialogue is consistently arch and elliptical (none of these chaps would describe 'Witchcraft', the fake material supposedly coming from Moscow as 'shit', as they do in the film), but darlings, it's all about the nuances. Scriptwriter Arthur Hopcraft, the football writer's writer, does a frankly beautiful job. For many of us, this was our first entree into Le Carre's world and we are in no hurry to leave.

DVD extras are often a mixed bag, but here you get the author offering childhood reminiscences and Cold War afterthoughts (withering on Kim Philby). It remains magnificent. Best consumed along with tea and chocolate cake on an autumnal Sunday afternoon, with the rain pounding against the window pane.