Monday, 19 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, First World War Soldier, Butler

As I left the cinema on Saturday after seeing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy I heard two women behind me talking, one said to the other, "Sorry, I thought it was going to be more like Bond".

I am so glad she was wrong. And what did she need to be sorry about? This was so much more satisfying than any Bond film. But we know the depiction of spies on the big screen is usually one that owes more to comic book fantasy than reality.

Spies = fast cars, fast women, explosions. Just not in John Le Carre's world.

I first saw the 1979 BBC TV version when I was too young to appreciate it. The slow pace and the nation's fascination with Karla, passed me by.  A lot has happened in the intervening years and I the new film arrives at a time when I can fully appreciate the dense plotting and nuanced performances.

This latest movie has made me want to go back to both the book and the original screen version with Alec Guinness as George Smiley. I say this not because I believe either of the two will be in any way superior - the new film is in all respects magnificent - but because I want to look more closely at the structure of the two. How does Le Carre build the atmosphere in the book and what happened when it was adapted for television? And how does that compare to what we have here.

The pacing is not dissimilar to the Danish thriller The Killing. It is constantly pulling you in, never spoon feeding you plot points. To enjoy either you have to work hard at connecting the dots - and have the patience to wait until you have enough dots. For me, these are the most satisfying stories. As screenwriter Ernts Lubitsch said years ago "Let the audience add up two by two. They'll love you forever".

Compare this with the new series of Downton Abbey, which reached the UK TV screens on the same night that its creator and writer Julian Fellowes and his team were winning four Emmys for the first series.

If Bond is the comic book spy, Downton Abbey is surely the comic book story of Edwardian life. 

The new series opens two years on from where we left it, at the Battle of the Somme - the Great War was so much more than the Battle of the Somme but that's the one so often reached for. The heir to Downton Abbey races along the trenches - more about which later - to the comparative safety of his underground quarters which look remarkably like Blackadder's underground quarters. Having delivered a speech along the lines of war is hell, he then informed his batman he was off back to England for a few days. ?

Meanwhile the war has had an impact on life at the great house and everyone is doing their bit, including the butler who is cleaning the silver even though it's not strictly his job. He won't let the war with Germany  interfere with standards.

Downton Abbey is THE number one series on British TV - according to its publicity machine.  I suppose that would depend on what you think makes a number one drama. It could certainly lay claim to being the number one melodrama, the number one most often inaccurate period drama and the number one purveyor of the clunkiest lines on television.

Try this: "The war is reaching its long fingers into Downton and scattering our chicks".

The soap opera plotting and lines like that drove me away from the first series and having watched this opener I'm away to find other things to do.

Downton Abbey came in for stick during the first series for its inaccuracies. It didn't help this series opener that the scenes in the trenches were so obviously wrong. The trenches displayed here were barely deep enough to conceal a man, in fact they didn't. To walk along what was depicted here was to have your head on display for a sniper's  bullet - and one chap got just that, a bullet through the tin hat. For goodness sake, the trenches were twice as deep. They even had a man above the trench on 'lookout' - he would have lasted seconds!

But all the carping about inaccuracies is just dust because it will be swept away by the legion of fans who love this stuff. Fair enough. It's a comic book portrayal where Earls are friends with their valets and the trenches at the Somme were four feet deep. Pass the salt I feel in need of a bucket full. This isn't me swimming against the tide of infatuation for the programme just for the sake of it. Sorry, I may be in a very small minority but Downton Abbey is not for me, though I freely admit it is for millions of others. That's why the show is a Juggernaut for ITV.

Personally I can't wait to see the Heidi Thomas written Upstairs Downstairs which, for me, was far superior fare.

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