George Smiley

George Smiley

George Smiley is a fictional character created by John le Carré. Smiley is an intelligence officer working for MI6 (often referred to as "the Circus" in the novels and films), the British overseas intelligence agency. He is a central character in the novels "Call for the Dead"; "A Murder of Quality"; "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"; "The Honourable Schoolboy"; and "Smiley's People", and a minor character in a number of others.

His address is 9 Bywater Street in Chelsea, London.

Early life

Although Smiley has no concrete biography beyond that offered briefly at the beginning of "Call for the Dead", Le Carré does leave clues in his novels.

Smiley was probably born around 1906 to middle-middle class parents in the South of England, and attended a minor public school and an antiquated Oxford college of no real distinction (in the adaptation of "Smiley's People", he refers to himself as a fellow of Lincoln College), studying modern languages with a particular focus on Baroque German literature. In July 1928, while considering post-graduate study in that field, he was recruited into the Secret Intelligence Service by his tutor Jebedee.

He underwent training and probation in Central Europe and South America, and spent the period from 1935 until approximately 1938 in Germany recruiting networks under cover as a lecturer. In 1939, with the commencement of World War II, he saw service not only in Germany, but also in Switzerland and Sweden. Smiley's wartime superiors described him as having 'the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin.' ["Murder of Quality" P.91]

In 1943, he was recalled to England to work at MI6 headquarters, and in 1945 successfully proposed marriage to Lady Ann Sercombe, a beautiful, aristocratic, and libidinous young lady working as a secretary there. Ann would prove a most unfaithful and rather condescending wife. In the same year, Smiley left the Service and returned to Oxford. However, in 1947, with the onset of the Cold War, Smiley was asked to return to the Service, and in early 1951 moved into counter-intelligence work, where he would remain for the next decade. During that period, Smiley first met his Soviet , Karla, in a Delhi prison. Karla proved impossible to crack and managed to steal Smiley's lighter, a gift from his wife.

In the Novels

The Early Novels

Smiley first appeared in "Call for the Dead", Le Carré's debut novel. At the start of the novel, set in the very early 1960s, Smiley has fallen from grace and is working in a relatively menial intelligence job, security-clearing civil servants. At the conclusion of this book, he retired from the "Circus". He was pursuing a sedate life of scholastic research in German literature at a university in the West Country (probably Exeter) when he investigated a murder at a famous public school (Carne, based closely on Sherborne School) in Le Carré's next novel, "A Murder of Quality".

"The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" propelled Le Carré to international renown. In this, his third novel, Smiley is back in the "Circus" and may already have become one of top aides of "Control", the mysterious chief of the Circus . His role was a very minor one however. The events in this book probably took place in 1962, although during this period Smiley's timeline became a little tangled.

Smiley appeared again in "The Looking-Glass War", but only in a peripheral role, occupying the "North European desk".

Events Prior To The 'Karla Trilogy', and Le Carré's Revision of Smiley's History

He subsequently rose up the ranks of MI6 in the late 1960s and early 1970s until he was the right-hand man of "Control", only to be eased out in November or December 1972 after the Prideaux fiasco in Czechoslovakia and "Control"'s death. The Circus was then run by Percy Alleline with Bill Haydon running 'London Station'.

When Le Carré wrote "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", he drastically revised the timeline of Smiley's early life. According to this new account, Smiley was recruited into MI6 in 1937, not 1928. This was probably done so that Smiley's advancing age would not become an issue in the subsequent novels Le Carré was planning for his protagonist. His colleague Peter Guillam also had his personal history revised, from being a near-contemporary of Smiley's who had trained with the Circus during World War II in the early novels to being his younger protégé and trusted deputy. (Ironically in the television adaptations of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" Guillam, played by Michael Jayston, is portrayed as a relatively young character; but in "Smiley's People" Michael Byrne has him nearer to being a contemporary of Smiley).

The Karla Trilogy

In September or October 1973, the events of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" take place, with Smiley successfully managing to expose the long-term Soviet agent, or, as the books have it, "mole", codenamed "Gerald". The investigation revealed that Gerald, who was actually a senior member of the anti-Control faction that had taken over the Service the previous year, had passed an enormous quantity of high-grade intelligence to the USSR. The anti-Control faction was discredited; and the mole is found to be Smiley's colleague Bill Haydon, who is also his wife's lover. At the end of this case Smiley became interim Chief of the Service in late November 1974 to clean up the resultant mess, rebuilding the organisation's headquarters staff by use of trusted old-timers like Guillam, Doc de Salis, and Connie Sachs.

In 1975 or 1976, after the conclusion of "Operation Dolphin", which was described lengthily in "The Honourable Schoolboy", Smiley retired again from the Service. In "Smiley's People" he was brought back in late 1977 to investigate the death of an elderly Estonian general, nationalist activist, and erstwhile MI6 agent. A convoluted trail led Smiley to discover a human weakness in his nemesis Karla, whom he persuaded to defect to the West in Berlin in December 1977. This triumph is the highlight of his career. Parenthetically, the fictional Karla is based on the real-life long-time head of KGB counterintelligence, Rem Krassilnikov.

miley In Retirement

Smiley was absent in the three Le Carré novels of the 1980s, (although "The Russia House" is connected to certain aspects of his timeline). He re-surfaced for a final time in 1990 when he appeared in "The Secret Pilgrim" chairing the "Fishing Rights Committee," a body set up to explore possible areas of cooperation between British and Soviet intelligence services.


Le Carré introduced Smiley at about the same time as Len Deighton's unnamed anti-hero (Harry Palmer in the movie versions). This was a time when the critics and the public were welcoming more realistic versions of espionage fiction, in contrast to the glamorous world of Ian Fleming's James Bond.

Smiley is sometimes considered the anti-Bond in the sense that Bond is an unrealistic figure and is more a portrayal of a male fantasy than a realistic government agent. George Smiley, on the other hand, is quiet, mild-mannered and middle-aged. He lives by his wits and, unlike Bond, is a master of bureaucratic manoeuvring rather than gunplay. Also unlike Bond he is not a bed-hopper; in fact it is Smiley's wife Ann who is notorious for her affairs.

When "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" was published, the reviewer of the "Spectator" described Smiley as a "brilliant spy and totally inadequate man".

Smiley is depicted as an exceptionally skilled spymaster gifted with a prodigious memory, a student of espionage with a profound insight into the weaknesses and fallibilities of humans. Though he has a strong moral conscience, he also understands the grisly and unethical aspects of his profession.

Despite his series of retirements, Smiley maintains an extensive range of aides and support-staff, both inside and outside the Service, extending even to "retired" police officers and former Service members. His fidelity to them and his strong character appears to promote genuine respect and loyalty to him.

Le Carré describes him as a somewhat short and fat man, who always wears expensive but badly fitting clothes (he "dressed like a bookie"). He also has a peculiar habit of cleaning his glasses on his necktie.

It is reported that Le Carré based the character George Smiley on his one-time Lincoln College, Oxford tutor, the former Rev. Vivian Green — a renowned historian and author with an encyclopaedic knowledge.

There were rumors that Le Carré modeled the character on Sir Maurice Oldfield, a former head of British Intelligence. Le Carré denied the rumors, citing the fact that Oldfield and he were not contemporaries. However, he and Alec Guiness lunched with Oldfield when Guinness was researching his role, and several of Oldfield's mannerisms of dress and behaviour were adopted by the actor for his performance.

In other media

Rupert Davies, of Maigret fame, played Smiley as a minor although important character in the film version of "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold", made in 1965, and which starred Richard Burton.

James Mason played Smiley in all but name in "The Deadly Affair", a film version of "Call for the Dead", made in 1966 and directed by Sidney Lumet. The character was renamed Charles Dobbs.

Smiley's most famous portrayal, however, must be that made by Sir Alec Guinness in two highly successful BBC TV series: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", made in 1979, and "Smiley's People", made in 1982. For cost reasons (much of the story was set in Indochina against the background of wars there) the BBC did not film "The Honourable Schoolboy", the middle novel of the Quest for Karla trilogy — even the Far Eastern parts of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" were relocated to Portugal for the television adaptation.

Denholm Elliott took the part in a 1991 version of "A Murder of Quality".

Bernard Hepton, who played the part of Toby Esterhase in the BBC television series, played Smiley in the BBC Radio series of both "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's People", with Charles Kay taking the part of Esterhase.George Cole later played Smiley in Radio versions of both "Call for the Dead" and "A Murder of Quality".

Smiley appears as Harry Lime's assistant in Alan Moore's graphic novel "".


In the popular TV comedy series "The Two Ronnies", Ronnie Barker played Smiley along the lines of Alec Guinness' portrayal in a sketch called "Tinker Tailor Smiley Doyle". This was a joint send-up of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "The Professionals" TV show, with Ronnie Corbett playing a bungling version of Martin Shaw's Doyle. Barker's Smiley provides the brains to the brawn of Corbett's Doyle and actually comes out the better. He is shown as something of an obsessive tea drinker. The sketch guest-starred Nicholas Smith from "Are You Being Served?". The name of Smiley's enemy Karla can be seen on a secretary's computer screen.


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