Smiley’s People

I’ve been watching the 1982 adaptation of John le Carré’s Smiley’s People in the last week or so, and enjoying the soundtrack by the late Patrick Gowers.

It’s a wide-ranging beast. The main title theme (called Ostrakova), the recurring Smiley’s Solitude pieces, Tatiana and the three “Journey to” – of which Journey to Hamburg is the longest and most substantial – themes are scored for lonely trumpet and wintry strings, often built on rhythmic ostinatos and using dissonance to hint at the darkness surrounding Smiley. They feel like the end of something, a winding-down – even the restless Journey to Hamburg.

The series is six hours long, though, so the soundtrack takes as many trips as its main character. Mr J Lamb, Taxi Driver interfaces with reggae (in a later scene, Lamb the taxi driver is listening to UB40’s The Earth Dies Screaming – one of the few uses of diegetic music in the whole series, and it could hardly be more appropriate to the era or mood). The Turkish Cafe evocatively underscores the scene in which Smiley and Guillam wait anxiously for Karla, Smiley’s Russian counterpart and nemesis to cross the bridge.

The interlude in Germany, meanwhile, provides Gowers with the chance to depart furthest from the mood of his main themes. Frau Kretzschmar is an amalgam of parodic polka, elevator music and game show title theme; Kretzschmar’s Barbecue adds some jazz fusion soloing to the schlager; Schläfrig Küsst Du Mir Die Haare is a breathy Weimar torch ballad; while Der Blau Diamant is accidental Birthday Party – sleazy cabaret music built on distorted bass guitar, growl-moans that suggest sex but could hardly be called erotic, and some knowingly garish soloing by Judd Proctor (guitar) and Duncan Lamont (tenor saxophone).*

The soundtrack won Gowers a BAFTA in 1983, on the strength of its orchestral pieces, you suspect. And they are where the heart of the series resides; they are, too, where the music feels most like the book. Yet the whole thing works, and is worth hearing in its entirety.

*Unsurprisingly, it soundtracks a scene where Smiley goes to a Hamburg sex club to find out what its owner knows about the whereabouts of a German agent working for the Circus. “How did you like the show?” asks the owner, Kretzschmar. “It was very artistic,” replies Smiley, deadpan. The line is a cliche. It’s Alec Guinness’s delivery that makes it golden.

Smiley in Bern

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