Note: This article contains minor spoilers about the book A Murder of Quality (but not the movie).
John le Carré’s second Smiley novel, 1962’s A Murder of Quality (review here), wasn’t adapted for the screen until nearly thirty years after its publication. It must have come as a surprise to readers and viewers when the feature-length television adaptation popped up so long after the fact. It’s possible that the BBC had been brainstorming how best to bring Smiley back to the screen ever since Smiley’s People scored so well with audiences and critics alike in 1982. Was an adaptation of 1989’s The Secret Pilgrim considered as a vehicle for Alec Guinness to return to the role? It would be a problematic novel to adapt, but I can’t imagine the prospect wasn't at least bandied about. Perhaps it was and Guinness turned it down. Whatever the case, that wasn’t made and TV producers were probably wondering how they could possibly top the big budget international production of Smiley’s People… and realized that they couldn’t. But if they went back to that second novel, a rich little period mystery set at a prep school, then they wouldn’t have to compete with past Smiley TV adaptations. It was small enough—and different enough—that direct comparisons would be unlikely. Of course that’s all pure speculation. Perhaps the impetus came from le Carré himself. As it happened, A Murder of Quality didn't come from the BBC, but from Thames Television, and it's a far different animal from the sprawling miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People.
Codename: Kyril, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) is quite good in the role (and certainly looks the part), playing a more seemingly befuddled Smiley than Guinness. It’s almost as if every actor who’s ever tackled the role has chosen to focus on a different aspect of the literary Smiley’s personality. If you could assemble them all together into some avant garde production along the lines of Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic, I'm Not There (which featured multiple actors portraying separate aspects of the musician’s persona), you would have a complete representation of the character from the books. If James Mason is the Smiley the Lovelorn Cuckold and Alec Guinness is Smiley the Introvert and Gary Oldman is Smiley the Ruthless, then Elliott is Smiley the Fool. Of course, the fool is just a disguise for Smiley—a Lord Peter Wimseyish defense mechanism—and Elliott conveys that well. But it’s certainly a legitimate aspect of the literary Smiley. Elliott’s Smiley is Smiley as he’s perceived by people who don’t know better.
another crack at Call for the Dead. As a spy story, that one might have drawn more inevitable comparisons to the Guinness miniseries, but I have to wonder if there might have been plans to film it with Elliott after A Murder of Quality had the actor's health held up? (He died a year later.) As things stand, his sole contribution to the Smiley Files is limited to this rather insubstantial television movie.
Region 1 A&E DVD offers an adequate, if grainy (as expected for UK TV productions of that era) presentation, and is thankfully uncut. (There’s some surprising female nudity, which I can’t imagine made it into the original PBS broadcast.) Other than some text features on the author and the actors, there are no special features to speak of.
The Smiley Files
Part 1: George Smiley: An Introduction
Part 2: Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Part 3: Book Review: Call for the Dead (1961)
Part 4: Movie Review: The Deadly Affair (1966)
Part 5: Book Review: A Murder of Quality (1962)