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.

Sherlock Complete Series 1 & 2 – Blu-ray Review

Sherlock Complete Series 1 & 2 Blu-ray
Episodes ★★★★★
Extras ★★★★★

Even on a second and third viewing, these episodes of 21st-century Holmes still fizz with wit and invention.

Seeing them again rams home how good the cast and the adaptations are. Benedict Cumberbatch as the ‘high-functioning sociopath’ is a superb bit of casting, while Martin Freeman’s wonderful comic asides and reactions sum up perfectly the audience’s response to the consulting detective’s outrageous behaviour and capabilities.

Meanwhile, Andrew Scott is creepily off-beat as Moriarty, and it’s good to see Rupert Graves (DI Greg Lestrade) playing something other than his usual cads. As for Una Stubbs, she’s charming as Mrs Hudson.

So how did Holmes fake his death?
Co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who’s also on-screen as Sherlock’s adversary-brother Mycroft) could so easily have got this modern reboot wrong – and it will be interesting to see how Elementary, CBS’s copycat idea in the States, fares in comparison. Instead, they have made the transition seem obvious and inspired at the same time.

My favourite episodes are the two series openers written by Moffat, ‘A Study in Pink’, which set up the whole edgy relationship between Holmes and Watson so cleverly, and ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, with Lara Pulver as Irene Adler. But all six 90-minute stories are hugely enjoyable, and included in this boxset.

And, of course, it offers the chance to forensically scrutinise series two’s cliffhanger to try to work out how Sherlock faked his own death. Did Molly provide the corpse that plunged off the roof? We never get a good look at the body whose pulse is checked by Watson, so is it Holmes? Did Holmes leap and land on the lorry? Moffat says the clues are there, but they’re not conclusive – as far as I can see, anyway.

Sherlock – series 3
The extras included here are first class, including the original pilot episode of ‘A Study in Pink’, which was redone, prompting rumours at the time that the show was a turkey (how wrong were they?). There are also films called ‘Sherlock Uncovered’ and ‘Unlocking Sherlock – The Making of’.

That will have to keep us occupied until series 3 is shown, which is unlikely to be before 2013.

Tinker Taylor Solider Spy
Episodes ★★★★
Extras ★★★
 
Benedict Cumberbatch also appears in the stellar British cast for another modern reboot, this time updating John Le Carré’s spy thriller, which was originally filmed by the Beeb with Alec Guinness in 1979.

Gary Oldman, who recently missed out on the Best Actor Bafta to Jean Dujardin, is superb as George Smiley, the ex-MI6 agent recalled from retirement because his bosses are in a mess – namely, that they have a highly placed Soviet mole among them.

Mark Strong, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy are also among the rather sad bunch trying to believe in what they are doing for Queen and country, and playing some nasty games as they go. My slight preference is for the original two series, which obviously had more time to explore and depict Smiley’s sadness and disillusion. 

The extras include an interview with Le Carré and deleted scenes.

• Also out is the new Blu-ray boxset of series one of The Fades, BBC3’s gory horror about teenager Paul, who is haunted by apocalyptic dreams and the spirits of the dead. Includes some good extras, such as deleted scenes, out-takes and behind-the-scenes footage.

Boxsets and DVD supplied by BBCShop.com

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