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Gramophone, telephone, radio, spy: mediation and espionage

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Publication date31/05/2023
Host publicationHistories, Adaptations, and Legacies of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
EditorsRandal Rogers
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages16
ISBN (electronic)9781003252047
ISBN (print)9781032171517
<mark>Original language</mark>English

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in Cultural History


About half-way through Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), George Smiley confesses that ‘We all have our prejudices and radio men are mine. They’re a thoroughly tiresome lot in my experience, bad fieldmen and overstrung, and disgracefully unreliable when it comes down to doing the job.’ This is part of a conversation Smiley has with Peter Guillam about Karla’s experience with using radio with a cell in San Francisco: once the network was blown, ‘Karla had never once touched illegal radio. He cut it right out of his handwriting.’

Smiley’s and Karla’s repudiation of radio (and radio men), a testament to its seeming insecurity (broadcast for anyone to hear), instead emphasises other forms of communication: the interview, the archive file, and the telephone conversation. This chapter will analyse the specific connection of Tinker Tailor and the BBC tv and 2011 film adaptation with the networks of the last period of analogue communications. Using the media theory of Avital Ronell (The Telephone Book) and Friedrich Kittler (Gramophone, Film, Typewriter), and the essays of Tom McCarthy (The Mattering of Matter; Transmission and the Individual Remix), this chapter will investigate the connection between espionage and transmissions, in the use of coded radio broadcasts, but also in terms of two analogue audio recording formats which make key appearances in the novel. In one scene, where Smiley returns home unexpectedly to find Anne and Bill Haydon together, the adulterous couple sit around listening to a gramophone, in a kind of parodic tableau of the romantic couple, a key moment in Karla’s strategy to divert Smiley away from state ‘betrayal’ with personal betrayal. In another, at the London safe-house, Smiley and Guillam use surveillance equipment and tape recorders to finally entrap (and record) the Circus mole Gerald (Haydon), while deceiving him that the recorders were turned off. The tapes then act as evidence of Haydon’s operation as a double-agent or mole. Haydon is caught in a web of analogue communications technologies, even as his operator Karla had repudiated one mode of those communications.

Radio espionage networks, and especially the phenomenon of numbers stations, have become part of spycraft’s culturally visible (or hearable) presence, but also has drawn this kind of clandestine communication into the realm of the uncanny. Ghost signals, still broadcast on analogue radio bands (collected in such commercially-available collections as The Conet Project (1997)), attest to the effectiveness and longevity of such techniques, in spite of Smiley’s and Karla’s repudiation. This chapter will extend its analysis to the BBC tv series and to the 2011 screen adaptation, where telephones and tape machines are key elements of the mise-en-scène. Following McCarthy’s arguments in the essay ‘Calling All Agents’, this chapter will trace the deep implication of espionage and mediation in Le Carré’s novel and its own intermedial adaptations.