Monday 19 June 2017

Smiley’s People (BBC TV, 1982)

The BBC had a success  with their 1979 television adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. They followed this up with a sequel, Smiley’s People, three years later, with Alec Guinness reprising his role as British master-spy George Smiley.

It should be explained that the novels Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People form part of le Carré’s celebrated Karla trilogy. The BBC chose not to adapt the second installment, The Honourable Schoolboy. This was understandable. The nature of this novel would have required a very expensive project and was probably beyond the scope of a television production. It isn’t absolutely necessary to have read The Honourable Schoolboy before reading Smiley’s People. On the other hand it is absolutely essential to have read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy before Smiley’s People and it’s equally essential to have watched the TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy before watching Smiley’s People. If you don’t you won’t have any understanding of Smiley’s motivations, or the motivations of any of the other characters for that matter. 

I’ll keep this review a bit vague in plot terms so as to avoid revealing any spoilers either for this series or for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Smiley’s People deals with George Smiley after his final retirement from the Circus (a thinly disguised version of MI6). Smiley might be on the scrap heap but the Circus itself is in even worse shape. Since his retirement ill-advised political interference has pretty much destroyed the Circus’s capabilities as an espionage agency. Morale is at rock bottom. And now the Circus is faced with a problem that could become a scandal sufficient to destroy it. 

An ex-agent is murdered. He had been one of Smiley’s agents and now the Circus needs Smiley to sort out the mess and if possible to cover up the whole incident. Unfortunately they’ve picked the wrong man to organise a cover-up. Smiley intends to find out why his ex-agent was murdered and he intends to follow the trail as far as it goes. It goes a long way and Smiley has a suspicion that ultimately it will lead him to Karla. Karla is his Soviet counterpart, the most feared and most ruthless of all Soviet spy-masters, and the duel between Smiley and Karla goes back more than a quarter of a century.

This is an extraordinarily faithful adaptation. Most of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book. This is probably not altogether surprising since le Carré co-wrote the script.

This is a six-part mini-series. It’s not a very long novel but the plotting is intricate enough that the mini-series has no problems holding the viewer’s interest.

George Smiley really should be a fat man but apart from that one tiny quibble it has to be said that Alec Guinness is magnificent in the role. He was nearly 70 at the time but that’s roughly the age that Smiley would have been. Guinness of course was no action hero but Smiley is not supposed to be an action hero. He’s a spy-master not a spy - he’s the man who pulls the strings while his puppets handle any rough stuff that has to be done. In this story Smiley finds himself having to go back into the field, something for which he is too old, but that’s the whole point - only the chance to strike at Karla could have persuaded him to do so and only the depth of his obsession could have driven him on. So Guinness’s age is really no problem at all.

The superb supporting cast includes some real favourites of mine. There’s Michael Gough as the crafty and possibly duplicitous Mikhel, there’s Vladek Sheybal as the sleazy but oddly charismatic Otto Leipzig and as a bonus for cult movie fans there’s Hammer scream queen Ingrid Pitt in a small part as well. Dudley Sutton is an amazingly creepy Karla  henchman. There are also a number of familiar faces from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - notably Patrick Stewart, Anthony Bate and Bernard Hepton (the latter giving an extremely memorable performance).

The one blemish, and it’s a matter of personal taste, is that I thought the scenes in The Blue Diamond were unnecessarily distasteful. Yes I know the night club is actually a brothel but that could be made perfectly clear without rubbing the viewer’s nose in depravity. This was at the time becoming an all too common feature of British television, a wallowing in sleaze in the mistaken belief that this made television more grown-up when in fact it made merely more adolescent. It’s only one scene though so it’s a minor blemish.

Smiley’s People was a co-production with Paramount so the BBC had a fair amount of money to play with. There’s a lot of location shooting and the production captures the jaded, sordid and cynical atmosphere of the novel extremely well.

Smiley’s People is, like its source novel, a rather cerebral spy thriller. There’s virtually no action with the focus instead being on the suspense and on the painstaking methods used by Smiley in both his investigation and his subsequent operation. A treat for fans of gritty realistic spy tales. Highly recommended.

This mini-series seems to be available on DVD just about everywhere and I believe there’s also been a Blu-Ray release. The only extra on the DVD features John le Carré and others reminiscing about Alec Guinness.


  1. One of the performers in the Blue Diamond scene can be seen chewing gum during her act.

  2. One of the performers at the Blue Diamond can be seen chewing gum during her act.

  3. Agree about the Blue Diamond. I've nothing against the odd set of bouncing boobies (pace The Sopranos) but the stripper scenes in The Bing didn't go on for several minutes. Speaking of which, Smiley's People was one of the last slow, intelligent TV productions before the 20 year idiocy of the 80s and 90s (The A-team, Baywatch) which was finally ended by The Sopranos, ushering in the current golden age of telly. Hurrah!