Saturday 24 September 2016

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a 1979 BBC adaptation (made in association with Paramount) of John le Carré’s celebrated 1974 spy novel of the same name. Alec Guinness stars as the masterspy George Smiley.

Things are not going well for the Circus. The Circus (so-called because it has its headquarters in Cambridge Circus) is le Carré’s fictionalised version of Britain Secret Intelligence Service, sometimes known as MI6. An operation in Czechoslovakia went horribly wrong with a British spy ending up with to bullets in his back. Eighteen months later another disaster followed with the defection of two high-ranking KGB officers ending in another fiasco. The Circus officer involved, Ricki Tarr (Hywel Bennett), spent six months on the run but now he’s surfaced in London and he has a disturbing tale to tell. Tarr’s story makes it clear that there is a Soviet mole (code-named Gerald) in the Circus. Worse than that, the mole must be one of the five top-ranking men in the Circus. That means that an internal investigation would be completely pointless. The investigation will have to be carried out by someone who is both an insider and an outsider. Someone like George Smiley, formerly the number two man at the Circus and now retired.

The former chief of the Circus (known only as Control) had had strong suspicions and Smiley had shared those suspicions. Control had narrowed the field down to five suspects. The first is Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge), a man whose skills at political manoeuvring are vastly more impressive than his skills as an intelligence officer. For the purposes of his ow investigation Control has given Alleline the code name Tinker. The second is the brilliant and urbane Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson); Control has dubbed him Tailor. The third suspect is the boisterous and somewhat unstable Roy Bland (Terence Rigby); he has been given the code name Soldier. Number four is the ambitious Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton) - he is Poor Man. Control’s final suspect is George Smiley - Beggarman.

Control is now dead and the new chief is Alleline. George Smiley is no longer a possible suspect - he was forced into retirement and it is clear that the mole is still in the top echelons of the Circus. 

Smiley’s investigation is official but it has to be undertaken without the knowledge of any of the four remaining suspects or anyone else in the Circus who might alert the mole.

Smiley’s greatest assets are his patience and his thoroughness, and most of all his remarkable memory. His memories are crucial since his investigation is in fact a journey into the past. At times the distant past. The mole might well have been working for the KGB for decades. Smiley’s memories of Karla may be important as well, Karla (Patrick Stewart) being the KGB spymaster who recruited Gerald. Smiley had encountered Karla twenty years earlier - in fact he’d tried (with a striking lack of success) to recruit Karla as a double agent.

Memory is also important in the sense that the Circus is in a sense living in the past, trying to recapture the glory days of the Second World when Britain was a great power. Those glory days are long gone. To many in the Circus this seems like a kind of betrayal. They started their careers with high hopes and high ideals but now they are simply a rather unsuccessful intelligence agency of a third-rate power.

Betrayal is of course the other major theme. The original novel was obviously partly inspired by the spectacular real-life act of betrayal by Kim Philby, the senior MI6 officer who was a Soviet spy for the whole of his lengthy career. In fact one of the many MI6 operatives whose cover was blown by Philby was John le Carré, who worked as a real-life spy for MI5 and later MI6 until the early 1960s. Betrayal was something le Carré experienced at first hand and this doubtless goes a long way to explain George Smiley’s relentless pursuit of the mole in the novel. 

The book deals with betrayals on multiple levels - not just actual treason but betrayals of hopes and ideals and also personal betrayals. The TV adaptation is surprisingly successful in translating these complex interlocking themes to the small screen. This is a very cerebral spy drama with very little action. The lack of action could have been a problem in a seven-part TV serial but the psychological tension and the suspense are sufficient compensation and on the whole it works very well. The one criticism that could be made is that the final episode, much of which is a kind of epilogue, drags a little. This doesn’t matter so much in the novel but for TV I think it should have been tightened up a little. On the other hand it does offer the opportunity to make Gerald’s motivations much clearer.

The adaptation is remarkably faithful to the novel, both in terms of plot and characterisation. 

I was not entirely convinced by Terence Rigby’s slightly caricatured performance as Roy Bland and I thought that Bernard Hepton made Toby Esterhase much too English (he’s supposed to be Hungarian). On the whole though the acting is fine. Alec Guinness is physically not quite right as Smiley but he captures Smiley’s quirks of character so well that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Michael Aldridge (who was so delightful in the 60s spy series The Man in Room 17) is perfect as the rather oily Percy Alleline. Ian Richardson plays Haydon with an admirable sense of style and self-assurance. Anthony Bate is excellent as the Circus’s political master Sir Oliver Lacon, a typical politician  whose main concern is to limit the political damage to the government.

The co-production deal with Paramount meant that the BBC had plenty of money to throw around on location shooting and the result is a very handsome production.

The only real weaknesses are in fact reflections of weaknesses in the source novel - the identity of the mole is a little too obvious and the emphasis on Smiley’s train wreck of a private life is such that there is at times a danger that the viewer will start to regard with contempt rather than sympathy.

The DVD includes a fine documentary on John le Carré in which the author takes at length about his own experiences as a spy. The documentary also includes some fascinating comments from a former very senior KGB officer and also from the former head of the East German secret police (who spent his leisure hours in the 1960s reading John le Carré spy novels).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is engrossing television. Highly recommended.


  1. Very nice review. I watched this fairly recently after reading the book, and I enjoyed the series very much.

  2. It is a brilliant piece of 1970s television, and like you I'd recommend it to anyone who likes genuine spy stories.

    However, I should point out that it's meant to be obvious who the traitor is, although more so in the novel than the TV series (or the Gary Oldman movie). Everyone at the Circus is so convinced that the 'special source' will bring back the glory days, with a seat at the top table, that they ignore anything that might rock the boat. There's a scene in the novel after the mole is unmasked where Smiley considers that, deep down, everybody knew; they just didn't want to think about the possibility that One of Us could be One of Theirs.

    1. where Smiley considers that, deep down, everybody knew; they just didn't want to think about the possibility that One of Us could be One of Theirs.

      That's a good point. That seems to be an ongoing them in le Carré's work - that the British intelligence services were living in a fantasy world in which Britain was once again a Great Power.