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Master spy writer comes in from the cold with a chilling warning


An Evening With George Smiley, Royal Spa Centre, Leamington. September 7.

As the BBC pondered who might play George Smiley for their 1979 landmark series,

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the actor Arthur Lowe, of Dad's Army fame, was asked to screen test for the role.

He was given a tense scene to perform and handled it superbly, but as John Le Carre recalls, everybody simply fell about laughing.

Of course it sounds ridiculous now. Alec Guinness made the part so much his own that it is hard to imagine any real alternative. Yet Guinness himself harboured huge doubts about his ability to command a role he described as 'too many close-ups and not enough action' and offered to hand back his fee.

It's one of the more humorous recollections in what is truthfully an evening with John Le Carre, not George Smiley, screened live from the Royal Festival Hall.

At 85, the writer is still in robust shape, standing for more than an hour at the lectern, reading from his new novel, A Legacy of Spies, and talking, winsomely at times, about the direction his life has taken since he joined the 'espionage fairground' that was MI5 in 1958.

In his soft, slightly breathy voice, he recalls being sent to report on the Berlin Wall going up and completing his first novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, on the very day that the Cuban missile crisis came to a head, seemingly announcing the end of the world.

George Smiley, he confesses, was physically the embodiment of a colleague in The Service, but inside was a vessel in which Le Carre wanted to smuggle his own personal and generational unease at a time of Cold War.

That unease still burns. During the second half of the evening, in an on-stage conversation with Channel Four newscaster Jon Snow that at times borders on over-chummy, Le Carre is encouraged to share his view of the state of the world now. Immediately, the smiling anecdotes fall away. Something truly bad is happening, he declares, with fascism once more on the rise in Europe and America and a huge opportunity missed at the end of the Cold War to re-fashion the world in a more peaceful direction.

The spook turned literary giant is still capable of punching. And punching hard.

Winner!