Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — Killer TV No 27

BBC2, 1979

‘I’ve got a story to tell you and it’s all about spies, and if it’s true – and I think it is – you boys are going to need a whole new organisation.’ – Ricki Tarr

Alec Guinness, Michael Jayston, Anthony Bate, George Sewell, Sian Phillips, Patrick Stewart, Hywell Bennett, Ian Bannen, Beryl Reid, Josh Ackland

Identikit: George Smiley, watchful, middle-aged, cuckolded intelligence officer, is asked out of enforced retirement to track down a mole at the heart of the British Secret Intelligence Service.


logosTHE SOMBRE pace makes this dramatisation of John Le Carré’s classic spy story feel a little dated, but the fine cast and multi-layered story definitely draws you in. Humiliated and forced to retire, George Smiley is called back to work because of his outsider status, to dig for a mole at the heart of the British intelligence service. Inspired by Le Carré’s own experience as an intelligence officer, and with a masterclass in understated acting from Guinness – who barely moves or reacts or acts at all – this is a fascinating timepiece of intrigue. Where the 2011 movie was a costume drama, this BBC seven-parter was of the Cold War period, and perfectly captures the drizzly dowdiness of a time when Western and Soviet spies were earnest in this grim tango of loyalty, honour and betrayal. There’s something about this craggy generation of actors playing these oddballs and stuffed shirts that give this series a feel of verisimilitude. Actors just don’t look like this any more. Whether it’s Smiley drying his feet by an electric fire or the gents standing in their three-pieced suits exchanging barbed pleasantries, it looks and feels real. Control sends agent Jim Prideaux to Czechoslovakia to get the name of a high-ranking mole in the Circus, the top echelon of British intelligence. Control gives the top five men, one of whom is the traitor, codenames according to the nursery rhyme – George Smiley’s is Beggar Man. Tinker-Tailor-DVD239Control instructs Jim to simply give him the code name of the ‘maggot’ in the Circus. It’s a trap, and Control and his deputy, Smiley, are forced to retire. Smiley is asked back to investigate without his successors at the Circus knowing what he is up to. The scenes are droll, smart and very wordy, but if you get into its groove it is a rich story, full of trickery, personal agendas and grim loyalties. ‘Every one has a loyalty somewhere,’ says Smiley at one point, but they’re rarely lodged where you expect them. It was a huge critical success, won Baftas, including one for Alec Guinness. Smiley’s People followed in 1982.

Classic episode: In episode four there is a flashback during which Smiley meets Mr Guestman – actually his arch-rival Karla – in 1941, when the British had him in irons in a Delhi jail. It’s a fine scene between Patrick Stewart and Alec Guinness, during which Karla doesn’t say a word, but we sense it is the Soviet agent – facing a firing squad back home – who still outmanoeuvres the Brit trying to turn him.

Theme music: End credit music was Nunc dimittis by Geoffrey Burgon.

Sequel: Smiley’s People, 1982

Watercooler fact: Before filming, Alec Guinness, who based many of his performances on the observation of real people, asked John Le Carré to introduce him to a real spy. The author took him to lunch with Sir Maurice Oldfield, the former Chief of British Intelligence.

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