This mailing to a cold list got 19% response. Here’s how I did it.

It might not look much. But this one-page letter to a cold list (part of my 100 Days, 100 Grand project) returned an incredible response rate… between ten and twenty times what a snail mail campaign usually delivers. (And hundreds of times what you’d expect from anything beginning with “e-“.)

One director called it “the best piece of direct mail [he’d] received since starting the agency“.

As an exercise in navel-gazing, here’s the text of the letter… with my notes on why I think it worked.

Chris's letter to a self-built database of inbound marketing agencies.

The letter itself. Note extreme mailmerge fields.

Opening para: making friends

Nobody writes proper letters any more, do they? The kind you open without a click. Scribble notes in the margins. And delete with a crumple. When you do get a proper letter, you notice it.

Ah, the kick-off. It breaks most of today’s rules: no upfront offer, no call-to-action. It’s a preamble.

But… it interests you, doesn’t it? A straightforward truth: you don’t get personal letters any more. A real person wrote this, thinks the reader. And I’m guessing most of them got past this para without aiming it into the circular file. Takeout: before establishing your offer, first establish you’re human.

Body copy: setting the scene

I noticed «COMPANY». Because you're sky-high in SEO for "«CUSTOMPARA1»". (As I am for "London copywriter".) I'm writing in the hope you'll notice me. Because your "«CUSTOMPARA2»" approach syncs with what I do: custom copy for content marketers.

This para’s where I swing in the big guns: extreme personalisation in the mailmerge fields. (With a parenthetical riff on my own SEO rank.)

«CUSTOMPARA1» is the search phrase I used to build my list: the first few pages of Google results are, by definition, hot prospects. While «CUSTOMPARA2» is the agency’s (they were all agencies) approach to its work lifted from its website. (It’s usually a punchy portmanteau term like attract-convert-repeat.) So we’ve established rapport: I know what they do, and I took some effort to find out.

Callout 1

Add chrisdoescontent.com to your list of freelancers...

Now here’s the first part of the offer, centred and highlighted as if with a yellow pen. It only took two paras to get here, and it jumps off the page – most importantly, it tells the reader what they’ve got to do. Something a surprising number of mailings forget.

The support act…

Why use me? Because I've done a lot of what you want. My stuff combines fresh ideas (I'm an indie novelist on the side) with experience gained at top-10 ad agencies (200+ campaigns and 1000+ articles across Asia and Europe.) All backstopped by research methods from a top-1% MBA that keep the insights solid. That's why clients use me for years and stay friends forever. More at chrisdoescontent.com/what.

Once your reader’s interested you need to give them a reason to stick around, so I added the backup. Hard numbers and facts are what work here; your readers are getting down to business, and the touchy-feeliness of the intro is over. (Well, almost.) Yes, I do what it says on the tin. Now questions are forming, it’s also time for a link.

… with backing dancers

While I haven't worked for clients on your roster, like «CUSTOMPARA3» or «CUSTOMPARA4», I have created campaigns and programmes for big names like «CUSTOMPARA5». I'm mostly B2B, in tech /media /telecoms, finance, healthcare, automotive and aerospace. Know-how that may be of use to you: hit the ground running and all that...

Into the mailmerge forest again. The data here took ages to extract. <<3>> and <<4>> are the names of actual clients on the prospect’s roster. There’s no fast way to build metadata like this; until The Semantic Web hits its stride (at least another decade) trawling through websites by hand is the only option.

And <<CUSTOMPARA5>> is a handpicked selection of my clients – clients which match as closely as possible the sectors the prospect operates in. I’m moving in closer with every sentence.

...but it's pricey, right? Nope. Try £450 for a 1,000wd+ research paper or consideration content, less for snacks and snippets elsewhere on the nurturing pathway. Or £225 for a 500wd listicle with metadata. And turnaround times that can drop to 24 hours if your deadline's hot.

It’s time for go in for the kill. Content marketing – the point of this mailing – is price-sensitive, and while I try not to compete on price, it’s a reality of this space. I simply worked out what I need to work up a killer article (half a day min) and priced it in.

You can lean on me for teasers, pages, posts, blogs... Buzzfeeds, featurettes, infographics, and newsletters... microsites and Case Studies and White Papers. The whole kit and caboodle, with metas, tags and links whomped up and ready to go. I've worked on platforms from WordPress to HubSpot to Uberflip to SlideShare, in formats as diverse as PPC, ePub, and XML. I'm also conversant with 12 CMSs, HTML5 and CSS. See chrisdoescontent.com/portfolio for the exhibit.

Notice I used a couple of buzzwords in the previous para – listicle, metadata – to show I’ve got a grip on social and content marketing? They were warmups.

In this most verbose paragraph in the letter, I list the applications and formats I think they work with, and will expect me to know. It’s filler, but solid filler.

Callout 2

...and get your first content marketing brief answered for FREE

Again highlighted, the second of the 2 callouts communicates my offer without anyone needing to read the body copy. (As any good piece of marketing should.)

Closing para and call-to-action

But there's one thing you don't get: hassle. Contact me with a brief; I'll write you a sample you can use at no cost. I'm on 07876 635340 or chris@chrisworth.com; current availability's about 9 days/mth. Let's talk.

It’s time to sign off. All the boxes are ticked here: offer front and centre, with a note that subtly communicates further proofs (I’m available, but not too available, ‘cos that’d mean I’m no good.) Hammered home with a homily.

Do I need to mention the letter was personally signed? My wrist’s still sore.

Footer block

PS. You can download a PDF of this letter from chrisdoescontent.com/?attachment_id=«xxxx». (All right, proper letters don't work for everything. Let me know if you went all TL;DR on me.)

Every sales letter needs a PS. This one adds a neat trick: I uploaded each individual letter (not the template) to my site, and the reader can download the exact letter he received by clicking a unique URL. I finish the way all sales letters should: with a chuckle that gets the reader’s head nodding.

How could it be improved?

envelopesBeing self-critical is a good trait for any copywriter, so here’s what I think I did wrong.

First, I should have put the offer in the postscript somehow. People still scan down to a PS before they get into the body copy. And using the too long; didn’t read euphemism was borderline; while agency bosses are web-savvy, they don’t always speak geek.

Second, the transition between the opening and second paras doesn’t quite hit the mark. I talk about letters being noticed, yet when “I notice them” it’s not because I got a letter. Small stuff, but it’s lapses like these that make tears in a piece of copy’s overall fabric.

Third, the backup in the middle. Lengthwise it works, but I’m divided as to its density. Too much jargon? Am I sounding clever rather than intelligent? On the edge.

But ultimately, this letter worked for me, so you be your own judge. And if you’d like me to do some content marketing for you – or just write you a sales letter or two – contact me here.

Hundred days, hundred grand: a fun work goal

Hey there, marketers! I’ve had an idea today, and I’d like one thousand of you to listen. Broader upside is that it delivers £10,000 to charity, but let’s get the self-indulgent stuff out first…

…since turning indie novelist I’ve led a dreamy life. A cycle of eat-sleep-create, true to myself and answerable to no-one. I’m a solitary type who spends a lot of time inside his own head, so the last year – teaching myself the principles of narrative fiction then writing my first stories – has been one of the most enjoyable.

Only problem: your income takes one hell of a whack.

00_2birds_100px700,000 books are published each year. But worldwide, I’d bet fewer than a thousand authors scratch a living wage from fiction. And perhaps only 200 earn more than a top-tier copywriter in a major market. (That’d be me.) Writing the commercial prose used in a single campaign typically earns its creator more than Britain’s median earner makes in a week… while 99% of books sell fewer than 100 copies, making the author less money than would fold. (Er, that’d be me, too.)

So it’s been a great year, but with the principles of fiction now baked into my brainpan, every thriller novel and sci-fi short from now on – and there’ll be many – just counts as practice. (I can’t call myself “good” until I’ve got a million words out.) I need a fresh goal to rebuild my cashflow. And since this is me here – the guy who combines touchy-feely words and hard-quant numbers – every goal needs numbers attached.

Starting 01 April, I’m aiming for 100 days to reach an annualised income of £100,000.

It sounds a lot. But in a market like my hometown, the thing about a six-figure income is how small it is. A hundred grand could be just three clients. But it takes work. This isn’t get-rich-quick, folks.

Here’s how I plan to do it. And how you could do it, too.

Looking for clear market space? Take a walk with Chris.Any sales exec knows selling is a numbers game. There’s a mountain of skill involved in closing a deal, but most of the time, the guy with the best sales figures is the guy who made the most calls. To get the small number of retainer clients it’ll take to rebuild my roster, I’m counting on approaching 1,000. And since I can’t count on my scintillating personality getting me over the hump (I am the world’s worst networker) this means a campaign.

I’m not talking about a bought-in list; strike rates for cold names are below 0.01%. I’m talking about 1,000 individuals with a marketing budget, each connected to me by someone I know who’s consented to be used as a reference. That’s the In that gets me in their Inbox. So where to start?

It means work. And the place to start is LinkedIn. That’s 434 connections, roughly half in my native UK, connecting me to most of the companies I want to approach. And there’ll be an individually worded letter to each one, in my own voice.

This is where the resource costs start. Even the cheapest content mill I write for pays 20p a word, and these letters top out around 500 words a throw. So that’s £100,000 of effort going in. Which dwarfs the cost of printing and posting, even given some won’t go out on a proper sheet of paper.

I’m counting on averaging ten letters a day. More on weekdays to take weekends off. And they’ll be personal letters. There are some common paragraphs, but there are three or four paras that aren’t replicable page to page. Stuff like:

  1. A para on who you are, and what you want to do for them (THEM.)
  2. A para on how you heard of them – your contact, their job ad, whatever.
  3. A para showing you understand their business or sector, with proof.
  4. The separate email to your contact, telling them what you’ve done. It’s only polite.

That’s four custom paras, of maybe six or seven in total. (Not much space for anything else save the sig.) And I need perhaps a 1% strike rate. That’s all.

To see why, let’s look at clients I’ve had in the past. One paying £1000/mth for a 3,000 word article for their website. One of which pays an occasional £1500 for a small research project. Two paying over £2,500/mth for a programme of activity around a monthly marketing campaign. Two others paying £1,750 each to have 3-5 days/month reserved for them.

And with my max day rate of £600 – top tier, but not over-the-top by London standards – it doesn’t take too many of those to hit an £8k/mth run rate.

(When I was an agency creative clients paid upwards of two thousand Euros, and that was a decade-plus ago. (One or two advertising celebs charge two grand today, but you could probably count them without taking your socks off.)

And to add punch, I’m making a commitment: if I get there, 10% of that income for one year will be donated to charity.

Works starts today. If you’d like to support me – or do it yourself! – share this post on Twitter, with the hashtag #100days100grand. Here’s my Tweet to retweet.

Oh, Tesco: where did it all go wrong?

After yet another fruitless lunchtime sandwich-search in perhaps the most depressing supermarket I’ve ever been in, I asked the office “Does anyone else think Tesco is going downhill?”

Cue more nodding faces than a dubstep concert. (Or wherever the kids are going this year. I dunno, yesterday a 22 year-old said my “sex was on fire” and I didn’t get the ref.)

Tesco used to be my favourite supermarket, but it’s out in the open now: something’s gone badly wrong at the Big T, and I’m not sure it’s recoverable.

My fallen hero, there’s a simple problem: your food is crap.

Which hurts, because I know how difficult it is to do retail and Tesco is awesome at it. If I accidentally enter an Asda or Lidl, with their hunched masses of shuffling slackjaws – or worse, that TV woman slapping her bottom – I jerk backwards and grab the nearest blunt and heavy instrument*, thinking the zombie apocalypse has begun. Tesco has always felt like my supermarket, the place I’m happiest to invite into my kitchen.

(Waitrose is great, too, but the feeling I need to break out my tux and give my shoes a polish before entering is always a drawback. I mean, have you been to the Canary Wharf one on a Sunday morning? It’s more a dating club than a supermarket. They’ve got a wine bar and oyster restaurant right there among the aisles!)

Plus: Tesco does great credit cards. And of course it has ClubCard, probably the most worthwhile pointsback programme anywhere: some quarters I get thirty or forty quid in no-hassle vouchers in the post. (As a copywriter I’ve even written a few of their brochures, and enjoyed the experience.)

I think the chain started ossifying around the time it launched that ad campaign featuring talking trolleys. (You see two shopping trolleys in a park and what do you think? Blighted environment, that’s what.) But I think the real rot got a grip some years later, around 2009.

The shelves are well-stocked. The prices remain competitive.

But every dinner that began its relationship with you in Tesco is, today, a huge disappointment, isn’t it.

(Note the lack of question mark ending that last sentence.)

Tesco, oh Tesco. Did you really think we wouldn’t notice?

At the moment I’m working in cities a hundred and fifty km apart, and the limitations of a weekday rental make me more dependent than usual on stuff that’s top-oven-friendly. But the misses these days aren’t just outnumbering the hits; they are totally eclipsing them. Here are a few examples – and they weren’t hard to find.

Case Study #1: The not-so-Finest Pizzas. Has anyone in the Tesco boardroom actually eaten one of these things? If you drench one in olive oil and fresh herbs before cooking, it’ll be, at a stretch, just about edible… IF you also obliterate your palate with Dave’s Insane Sauce or something first. I mean, they cost up to £7 and they’re as blandly unsatisfying as Moshi Rox to a death metal fanatic. Appalling, especially when next to them on the shelf is Pizza Express at 2 for a fiver.

Case Study #2: A bunch of tasteless jerks. What on earth are those “Jerk [insert meat]” cartons that appeared around Q3? A box of lonely bones with a grain or two or rice spooned in? Trust me, the Carribbean contains few people who would recognise that ill-hidden strip of flesh under the jerk as chicken – and nobody at all who’d identify another dish as goat. What a shame; goat’s such an underrated meat and you’re turning off consumers at their first go. It’s an insult to goats (as well as to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a proper Jerk sauce.) I suppose I could make gelatine, but…

Case Study #3: The “Yes, We Mystery Shop in Marks and Spencer” Finest Meal for £10. The idea’s sound: main course, side dish, dessert and wine for a tenner. (I will make an allowance for the common supermarket lie “Serves 2”; everyone tells that whopper.) But my meatballs were like leftovers from a leather tannery. My potatoes had the generic consistency of yellowed lard. I don’t know what Gu thought it was doing, throwing that gritty white cake-like substance into the ring (I forget its name, but it doesn’t deserve to share space with their great chocolate puds.) And the wine? Come on folks, you wouldn’t sell that for £7 in real life.

Case Study #4: The Appalling Mr Hom. Tesco, this “Ken Hom” guy is widely known as a guy who can’t cook for toffee (including cooking toffee) – in America, a nation where half the population eats a minivan wrapped in carpet for breakfast. What’s your fascination with him? You’re not shy about pulling outside suppliers up by their bootstraps. Yet there, in the “Ethnic Food That Doesn’t Come In Jars And Isn’t Polish” section (okay, you call it “Chinese”) you give prime shelf space to a range of fried rice, spring rolls etc that are just appalling. Have. You. Ever. Actually. Tried. One? If your local Tesco isn’t open, go round the back and chew on a cardboard box retrieved from a dumpster to get an idea.

Case Study #5: I won’t rip you a new one over the takeaway sushi; supermarket onigiri are just too easy a target. But: if Lidl did sushi…

Case Study #6: A troubled relationship with alcohol. Now, most supermarkets are bad at wine (Waitrose excepted) but you’ve got noticeably worse since 2010. The white wine aisle is an endless acreage of Chardonnay, Chardonnay, and more bloody Chardonnay. If you’re really lucky, on the end of the aisle will be a chenin blanc, which is of course [Chardonnay]. There are other grapes, you know. I won’t go into here how alike the wines are – there’s barely one under £20 with any personality – because that’s just the market; most people like what they know. But c’mon, a little smoke or spiciness wouldn’t go amiss.

With great regret, it’s time to short Tesco. Could my future be that supermarket you never really notice… Sainsbury’s?

* Unless it’s the bottom. I mean, you can get arrested for that sort of thing.

The Slow People

Sunshine smiles over a spring-infused London, and the West End is warm and bright for the first time this year. I wander the streets freely, buying a T-shirt here, an Americano there; I am satisfied with life. But one thing mars this perfect scene.

A writhing, weaving, suffocating mass of organic matter infests the ancient streets of our capital. Like a Wellsian red weed, they enfold and engulf the cityscape, living prophylactics reducing its diverse qualities to a generic mulch.

I call them The Slow People.

They are everywhere. Moving with all the pace and alacrity of a Jamaican snail with some heavy shopping. When there’s clear paving ahead, they stay Slow, never seizing the opportunity to be Fast. When the crossing man lights up green, they hesitate. Often, groups of Slow People stop dead to engage in discussions concerning  matters pertaining to Slowness, preventing decent citizens from progressing. Families composed of Slow People tend to walk four abreast, blocking entire sections of pavement and turning Saturday’s vitality into mere Throng.

What defines The Slow People? Simply: they DO NOT WALK FAST ENOUGH. Their pace befits a Sunday ramble, not the world’s premier city. They move among us, but they do not belong with us.

Slow People come in all shapes and sizes; no group stands out. The old and infirm are excused my reasoned scorn; their membership of this group was not their choice. But the obese are not. Obesity, after all, is Your Own Problem. And while not all Slow People are fatties, all fatties are Slow People.

What’s wrong with these people? Exchanging two burgers for one bowl of green leaves three or four days a week is not a huge hardship; it costs nothing and will extend your life. (The developing world must look with bemusement at the number of TV shows in the UK about… people who are sad about having too much to eat.) 

Yet Slowness is not due to biology. Plenty of septugenarians and up traverse the streets with a sprightly gait and intelligence shining from their eyes; obviously their attitudes remain young. Being a Slow Person is in the mind.

And Slow People, of course, tend to breed Slow Children. The phenotype of being a lard-assed salad-dodging gut-bucket is, sadly, a persistent pattern in the modern industrialised world; but even among those of a healthy BMI there are plenty of Slow People. You see Slowness emerging in the limbs of their children; an ambling slouch without purpose or direction, like seaborne organisms doomed to a life of chance encounters with plankton, incapable of independent locomotion. Slow People cannot forge any distinctive path in life; they merely allow life to carry them along.

The Slow People are not going away. They may, in fact, get Slower.

They are The Slow People.

How to do meetings

(Repost of an old blog from my former blogging provider!)

There’s an expression I use in meetings when people are engaging in wishful thinking instead of solving the problems at hand. When they’ve come to a convenient break in their flights of unproductive fancy, I jump in with:

‘…and while we’re in Lollipop Land, I’d like a pink-maned pony to ride across the candyfloss clouds.’

In other words, I run a tight meeting. Get me leading a table and you’ll see decisions made and minutes acted on with a clear sense of purpose, everything tight as a drum. It’s not hard. Here’s how I do it.

1. Set a start time. And keep to it. It’s far too easy to lose 30 minutes or more waiting for stragglers to arrive. If the meeting starts at 10am, start it at 10, and anyone not there loses the right to be involved. They’ve missed the Chocolate-Frosted Choo-Choo that brings them to the meeting room, and they’ll have to stay over in Lollipop Land.

2. Communicate the meeting’s purpose. All meetings should have ONE purpose and ONE major outcome. Meetings are to decide things, not discuss them. If people start wandering off track, ask them how that conversation is contributing to the meeting’s purpose – or give them the line above. You may as well mention Sugarcane Mountain while you’re at it.

3. Tell people what their role is in the meeting. In other words, make sure everyone knows their area of responsibility. And don’t let them step outside it – because perversely, the best performers at work are often the worst at meetings: experts tend to think their expertise reaches beyond their area of knowledge, and will grab any opportunity to demonstrate this. Don’t let them. Every Yummy-Scrumptious Pebble on Lollipop Land’s beaches is different, but not one has more than one flavour.

4. Tell people it’s okay not to come, and that if they don’t, decisions will be made without them. You don’t want anyone there who doesn’t need to be. It’s perfectly possible to do this diplomatically – ‘If you feel this would not be a good use of your time, please tell me and I’ll cc you the minutes’. And while they’re in Lollipop Land, they can get you a cookie.

5. Practice lock-out for latecomers. People must understand that the meeting fulfills a business purpose and that if they miss it they’re preventing that purpose from being met.

6. Have a chairman. All meetings need a leader. And that’s not just a note-taker (ideally someone else takes the scribe role) – the leader introduces topics, summarises decisions taken, gets agreement, and moves down the agenda at a set rate.

7. Specify a finishing time. More important than you think. Few meetings need longer than an hour; most can be done in 30mins, and plenty can happen by phone or IM without travel involved. There’s no need to take the Choo-Choo all around Sugarcane Mountain when you only want to go as far as Gingerbread Station.

8. Issue the minutes. A single page with a title, participant list, date and time, a paragraph, and bullet points of what was done. The most important is the one-paragraph (even better, one-line) summary of what the meeting achieved, which should always include context of what needs to happen as a result of that decision.

9. Keep your eyes on the clock. If the first agenda item of 6 takes half an hour, you’re in line for a three-hour meeting – which is too long. Agree a set time at the start – say, ten minutes per agenda item. If the strawberry-shortcake clock in Lollipop town centre strikes 12, you might be stuck in Lollipop Land forever!

10. Close the meeting properly. When the end time approaches, the chairman should summarise the decisions and firmly close the meeting. If you let the conversation wander aimlessly or peter out, you’re on the fast track to Sugarcane Mountain. If you’ve dealt with everything early, then close the meeting early! ‘Fill all the time’ is never a meeting objective.

Lastly, the best advice of all: don’t go to meetings! At least 75% of meetings are unnecessary. Cancel three meetings a week, and you’re putting a whole morning’s worth of time back in your day. And over time, the quality of the meetings you do go to will rise – because people will assume if ‘the guy who doesn’t go to meetings’ is there, it must be important.

No accounting for socialists

I’m at the other end of the political spectrum, but I’d really like to at least *respect* the few hundred motley socialists gathered in the City of London. The trouble is, they’re just so…. daft. Take this report in the Telegraph.

“The richest 10pc of the UK population have a combined personal wealth of £4 million, million. A one-off 20pc tax on those people would raise £800 billion. Those people can afford it, they’d feel no pain, they’re so fabulously wealthy. With that sum of money you could pay off the entire government deficit. No need for any public spending cuts.”

“Protester Peter Tatchell” aptly demonstrates the biggest problem with the Left: its complete inability to do basic maths.Let’s skip over the fuzzymouthed phrasing (£4 trillion would sound less preteen, buddy) and take a look at what this socialist’s “solution” would actually involve…

He wants £800bn. So let’s assume that “rich” ten percent, 5.8 million UK residents, is okay with paying an average £137,000 each. Whoops! First mistake right there!

In Britain today, people at the 90th percentile (those Tatchell calls “rich”) earn about £40k. Hmm. That’s the income of a hardworking plumber or electrician putting in overtime. Are these people “rich”? If that describes your household income, “beware” indeed: the lefties want five years’ aftertax salary from you. My word, this guy’s truly from the Gordon Brown School of Public Finance, where taxpayers’ money is something that rains from the sky in infinite quantity.

A silly socialist, doing silly socialist things

A silly socialist, doing silly socialist things

But what the hell, this is socialist arithmetic. So they could sell their houses to be part of this socialist utopia, right? Hmmmm again. The top 10% of the UK possess average wealth of about £60,000, mostly in the value of their homes. So at his suggested 20% level, the average tax per person will be about £12k, and most people will have to sell their homes to pay it.

And wait, wait… that’ll raise less than a tenth of the £800bn he feels entitled to! What a silly little socialist.

Next up for critiquing: the “Tobin Tax” on financial transactions. Which would, in socialist speak, “reduce speculation and be good for the economy, and raise at least £100 billion a year.

Hmmmmm once more. What happens in a global economy, Mr Socialist? When business feels squeezed, business goes elsewhere. Sweden had a nice little financial sector before 1984; when it introduced a Tobin Tax, they expected it to raise a billion and a half kroner a year. Nope. The business fled, and the tax never raised more than a twentieth of that level. Today, let’s just say if you want a job in finance, Sweden’s not the best place to look for it.

So, in summary: what this socialist suggests would raise less than a tenth of what he wants and throw over 5m people out on the streets. Perhaps that’s what he wants: socialists love the downtrodden.

Definition of a Socialist: someone who really, really likes getting his hands on someone else’s money. As I said, I wish I could at least respect them, even if their views are different to mine. But I just can’t.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Ok, so it’s not getting great reviews, and when a girlfriend pouts her way through the whole two hours it’s a fair bet she doesn’t like it either*. But I enjoyed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Which means it’s fair to say you probably won’t.

It was obvious rather a lot of the audience were expecting a James Bond-style thriller. (Comments overheard on the way out: “appalling”, “junk”, “boring”, “slow”.) But I take that as a sad indictment of today’s want-it-all-now, over-stimulated, X-factor’d up society – a society of instant gratification where not having to wait for stuff is seen as a basic right.

But real films are narratives, not rollercoasters. To get this film you’ve got to sit quietly and actually listen. Which, let’s face it, is more than most people are capable of these days. This film is a piece of art – from its pixel-perfect 1970s sets (remember those funny-looking Saabs and cans of Harp?) to the quality of the acting.

I’ve never quite “got” Colin Firth – nor what women see in him; he always seems to spend about a third of his screen time blubbing. But he’s pretty good here – and it says something that in TTSS, he’s one of the worst-cast. And Gary Oldman’s George Smiley IS the Le Carre original. The slightly effete awkwardness of the harmless-looking middle-aged man who was actually the most effective agent on either side of the Cold War … Oldman captures every twitch and shuffle. The one occasion he holds a gun, it’s dangling unwanted at his side, a slightly distasteful accoutrement rather than a tool of the trade. And there are a LOT of extreme close-ups. Half the narrative is in facial expressions; this dialogue-driven film has relatively few words-per-minute. People are civilised, waiting for each other to finish a sentence before presenting their rebuttal.

(Is this gentlemanliness what’s missing from British society today? The chavster classes inhabiting so much of the mass media don’t have the wit or breeding to consider any situation not pertaining directly to themselves?)

And the narrative gains a lot from being pared back to a movie’s essential elements. The setpieces are terraced townhouses and workaday government offices; SiS high command inhabits a grimy Cambridge Circus building and the overseas headquarters are grimy import/export sheds. You get the feeling this is how intelligence work really was during the Cold War – a lot of dull hours waiting around at Teletype Terminals, where privileged but intelligent and civilised men pondered tiny scraps of information and deducted Red military policies and Kremlin power structures from a half-hidden salute in an old photograph.

(Of course, the blue connections and personal relationships of such groupings led to things like the Cambridge Five in real life, but the point stands: this film works.)

And because it was a more formal decade, protocol and procedure seem a lot more important. Simple acts like looking up files in a fifth floor archive are imbued with sweaty-collared menace … no Tom Cruise wirobatics, no webs of red lasers, just the clenching anguish of doing stuff you’re not supposed to be doing. Everyday tradecraft was about not leaving a paper trail, right down to swapping bag-check chits and leaving woodchips in the doorjamb. You never see James Bond walking around in his socks while a friend listens underneath to see if the floorboards will creak, but such details are what distinguish a good agent from a bad one. The beauty is many such scenes are never explained; you’re left to work it out for yourself.

Go and see “Tinker Tailor”. Chances are you’ll hate it.

And by the way, Odeon, your cinema is still crap. For future reference, it’s normal practice to TURN THE LIGHTS OFF BEFORE THE FILM STARTS, without members of the audience having to come out of the theatre to tell you.

 

*Possibly connected to me upending her popcorn before the film started.