Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Alec Guiness and Me

The premier of the new movie version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, starring Gary Oldman as Smiley, but - more to the point - Colin Firth as the baddie, brings back memories. In 1979, I let my house in Paultons Square, Chelsea to the BBC to allow a bedroom scene for the John le Carre spy series to be filmed. Alec Guiness sat in my office chair on the ground floor at the back of the house and in my garden in between takes. The 'bedroom' was in fact my first floor drawing room - the bedroom on the floor above wasn't big enough to accommodate Alec, the director and the camera crew. I thought of that yesterday as I walked down Bywater St where Smiley was supposed to live - there are shots of him and others going in and out of one of the front doors in the original BBCTV version. Some months later, as the series was being aired, there was a piece in the London Evening Standard, commenting on how life imitates art, when I became engaged to my second husband who worked for MI5. Some years later, we came to know David Cornwell aka John le Carre because of a chance remark I made at an official lunch in Moscow. Our Russian host suddenly proposed to my husband, whose job was to organise cultural exchanges between the UK and the then USSR that he stage a tribute to 'the patriot, Kim Philby'. I was inspired to butt in and say 'Yes! And you could do the same for the patriot Oleg Penkovsky (who had just been shot by the Russians for spying for us)'. We told this anecdote to our ambassador before we left, and he said that he had just received a letter from John le Carre/David Cornwell, with whom he had done National Service, asking if a visit could be arranged now that his security status allowed him to be in Russia. The research David C/John le C conducted as a result became 'the Russia House' with its setting of the Moscow Book Fair and publishers.

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