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.

Father Brown BBC1 with Mark Williams PREVIEW

Mark Williams as Father Brown
Murder in the afternoon with Father Brown (Mark Williams). Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★ 

BBC1: starts Monday, 14 January, 2.10pm 

Story: Father Brown attends a tea party to celebrate a new church clock tower, presided over by his friend, Reverend Bohun. However, the serene atmosphere is shattered when the reverend’s caddish brother Norman arrives, riling most of the guests.

This new period detective series featuring GK Chesterton’s sleuthing priest Father Brown is as cosy as a cucumber sandwich at a tea party. The reason it is so light and bland seems to be that it is part of BBC1’s new afternoon line-up, with 10 episodes scheduled to go out on consecutive weekdays.

It’s an easy-going drama set in a safe sentimental past of steam trains, police cars with funny bells and Catholic priests who don’t vociferously condemn homosexuality (Father Brown is way ahead of his time in this respect). Programme makers adore these inoffensive, twee shows set in English villages and shot through rose-tinted filters (Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, Poirot etc etc). The Beeb and ITV must find such picture-postcard dramas easy to sell to foreign markets.

Sam Hoare as Norman in Father Brown BBC1
Asking for trouble – Norman

The Hammer of God
Anyway, if afternoon audiences really enjoy period whodunits in which the characters have all the depth of a Cluedo suspect, then Father Brown should do well.

The first story is The Hammer of God and begins – where else? – at a church tea party. Father Brown is played by Mark Williams, who, though not short and stumpy like Chesterton’s hero, has the right balance of humour and earnestness as the Catholic priest who ‘doesn’t look for mysteries, they look for me’. He’s following in the cassocks of Alec Guinness and Kenneth More in taking the part.

The church tea party was murder
Brown’s been invited to the do by the Anglican vicar, the Reverend Bohun, whose unsavoury brother Norman also turns up, though uninvited. Much of the plot is signposted in neon lights, so it’s clear Norman is going to get bumped off, and within 15 minutes his skull is smashed with a blacksmith’s hammer.

Sorcha Cusack, Mark Williams, Nancy Carroll
Mrs McCarthy, Father Brown and Lady Felicia

When the police turn up all the villagers suddenly look shifty, including Norman’s gay lover, the Polish woman who was blackmailing him, the wife he had seduced and her husband, the blacksmith. The blacksmith’s wife confesses and then retracts her confession, but it is up to Father Brown to prove her innocence and save her from the gallows.

Implausible way to kill someone
Working out who the culprit is should not have viewers straining their analytical faculties to breaking point, despite the killing itself being a tad implausible. The formula is simple – whoever looks shifty is not the killer; the person who is not shifty is the killer.

ITV1’s Crime Stories was heavily criticised for some wobbly acting and its improvisational longueurs, but it was at least an attempt to do something new on daytime TV.

If the programme makers are targeting an older daytime audience here, then fine, everyone deserves to be catered for. But if you’re going to make a show that is not just set in the past but feels as though it was made in the past, you wonder if anyone at Television Centre was tempted to just buy the old Kenneth More version from ITV, made in 1974, and shown that instead.

Cast: Mark Williams Father Brown, Adam Astill Reverend Bohun, Sam Hoare Norman, Bryony Afferson Elizabeth, Hugo Speer Inspector Valentine, Simeon Barry Sloane, Nancy Carroll Lady Felicia, Sorcha Cusack Mrs McCarthy, Kasia Koleczek Susie

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Tinker, Tailor/Smiley’s People DVD boxset

DVD: ★★★★
Extras: ★★★★

As you’d expect from a famous old spy tale, appearances are deceptive here. Watch the opening episode of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and it seems very dated at first. The pace is slow, the actors old, and the story and settings dingy.

First shown on the Beeb in 1979 (not 1982 as it states on the cover of this set), this dramatisation of John Le Carré’s story of betrayal is from an era when TV storytelling was less hectic and youth obsessed, and viewers were credited with some patience.

Alec Guinness
By episode two, the jolt of watching a series from 30 years ago passes and the strengths of this acclaimed production will get their hooks into most viewers. There’s the fantastic cast including Sir Alec Guinness in his first major TV role and last great part as traitor hunter George Smiley, along with Ian Richardson, Ian Bannen, Hywel Bennett, Beryl Reid, Joss Acland, Siân Phillips and Patrick Stewart, among others.

Once the characters and intricacies of the story are absorbed, the drama becomes tense and compelling, as Smiley, the cuckold and apparently clapped-out old intelligence man, is recalled from retirement to snare the highly-placed double agent working for KGB.

John Le Carré
Gary Oldman has just done a fine job of playing Smiley in this year’s movie version of Tinker, Tailor, but Guinness, who may have been a little on the old side for the role at 65, is still superb behind his large specs. A large chunk of his performance is with his eyes as Smiley is the great listener, carefully weighing the words of the professional liars all around him.

John Le Carré says in one of the excellent special features included here, the BBC documentary The Secret Centre, that he started writing Tinker, Tailor without Smiley in it, but soon realised that the old stager would bring the story alive and give it heart.

Smiley’s People
And Guinness certainly injects the drama with emotional depth despite his placid exterior, with the pain of his adulterous wife and his outmoded decency in the face of treachery always clear in his eyes.

Smiley’s People, which was shown in 1982 and features Smiley’s final confrontation with his brilliant rival Karla, is included in this boxset. Again there’s a tremendous line-up of acting talent on display (see below). Like the smoke-filled restaurants and Lada cars on show here, many of these characterful actors are no longer around, but this boxset showcases their wonderful performances in two rich dramas.

Alec Guinness George Smiley, Michael Jayston Peter Guillam, Anthony Bate Oliver Lacon, Bernard Hepton Toby Esterhase, Ian Richardson Bill Haydon, Ian Bannen Jim Prideaux, Hywel Bennett Ricki Tarr, Michael Aldridge Percy Alleline, Terence Rigby Roy Bland, Alexander Knox Control, George Sewell Mendel, Beryl Reid Connie Sachs, Joss Ackland Jerry Westerby, Siân Phillips Ann Smiley, Nigel Stock Roddy Martindale, Patrick Stewart Karla, John Standing Sam Collins, Thorley Walters Tufty Thessinger, Mandy Cuthbert Molly Purcell, Warren Clarke Alwyn, Susan Kodicek Irina.   
Smiley’s People: with Barry Foster Sir Saul Enderby, Michael Lonsdale Anton Grigoriev, Bill Paterson Lauder Strickland, Mario Adorf Claus Kretschmar, Curd Jürgens General Vladimir, Vladek Sheybal Otto Leipzig, Rosalie Crutchley Mother Felicity, Maureen Lipman Stella Craven, Dudley Sutton Oleg Kirov, Michael Gough Mikhel, Michael Elphick Detective Chief Superintendent  

Boxset supplied by BBCShop.com

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