There are certain fictional characters who are simply too large – too vivid, outsized and wholly realised – not to take on a life of their own. Some such figures, meant initially as secondary players (Fosco in The Woman in White, Widmerpool in A Dance to the Music of Time), overwhelm the stories in which they figure. Others – Sherlock Holmes, Count Dracula – acquire a life beyond their own narratives, bursting the banks of the books that birthed them and achieving a kind of immortality in the wider culture.
John le Carré’s most famous creation, the owlish, implacable spymaster George Smiley, who appears in eight – now nine – novels, is a combination of both of these types. He can be an adumbral yet compelling presence (as in his brief appearances in The Looking Glass War and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), as well as a figure who lives on beyond the confines of the printed page. As with Holmes, no one has yet provided a definitive dramatic impersonation of Smiley on screen: Alec Guinness seems now a shade too actorly in the role, Gary Oldman too chiselled and vulpine. Furthermore, in all of his appearances, but especially in that ideally constructed novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley has come to define how we view the milieu of Cold War espionage – as a realm of punctilious tradecraft, ideological betrayal and civil service brinkmanship, one that stands in grey-hued rebuke to the garish fantasies of James Bond. More even than this, Smiley has become an emblem of a certain kind of Britishness: worldly, modest, empathetic, compassionate and astute.