Skip to content

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979,UK)


Director: John Irvin      Starring: Alec Guinness, Michael Jayston, Antony Bate, George Sewell, Bernard Hepton, Ian Richardson

Something strange happened to British TV, I think sometime in the mid to late nineties, a cataclysm of sorts that resulted in our outright failure as a nation to remember how to make great drama series. Whatever it was that occured seems to have robbed us of our internationally renowned ability to make gripping, challenging and interesting TV drama. I’m not going to attribute blame to anyone here, there seems little point but I do hanker after a time when telly shows weren’t all about spoonfeeding audiences nonsense in as simplistic and unchallenging a way as possible just in case they don’t get it. It’s something that’s endemic in global television output these days although for a while there it looked like HBO would reverse the trend with their challenging and yet hugely popular The Sopranos and The Wire and the like. Who’d have thunk it, American telly outclassing even the BBC?

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a case in point, a fine example of the glory days of British TV, the kind of programming that made our television the envy of the world. Adapted from John Le Carre’s book of the same name it’s a slow burning espionage thriller about a retired high ranking SIS officer, George Smiley (Guinness) who is enlisted to covertly investigate the top brass of SIS in order to establish which member of the organisation is the mole who is leaking highly classified information to the mysterious Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in Moscow Centre.

James Bond this most certainly is not. There are occasional moments of action, the series opening with a covert mission to help a Soviet General defect in Czecheslovakia going spectacularly wrong being probably the most frenetic the story gets. Authenticity is the name of this particular game. It’s dialogue heavy, Smiley’s investigation consisting in the main of procuring files and having quiet conversations with people, often obliquely probing them for information without revealing his genuine motives. His world is one of distrust, paranoia and subtle deception and is a million miles away from Fleming’s gung ho, womanising dare devil secret agent.

It’s truly magnificent. Nobody stops to explain the SIS jargon (Scalphunters, Lamplighters, etc) they just use it almost challenging the audience to keep up. There are no CSI style breakdowns in minute detail of what they are talking about. And rightly so. If two of the most senior spies in the Service are having a conversation it would be madness for them to explain what they are talking about as an aside. Any reasonably intelligent person can work these things out from context and by employing minimal wit and imagination. This is vital to establishing a sense of realism. It could be argued that any devotion to realism is a gamble in this sort of production, after all it leads to what effectively amounts to five hours or so of men talking in rooms (occasionally there’s a woman too), smoking cigarettes in the shadows and skirting around the point in an effort to sidestep into the truth. Written down it sounds incredibly dull but in practice it is really quite gripping.

Of course it helps in this sort of production if you have a cast of sufficient calibre to handle the apparent inertia of the story, maintaining interest through their performances. Alec Guinness heads a great cast here. He plays George Smiley a quiet, patient, stillness that belies the razor sharp wits and potent intellect within. He seems every inch the super-spy is he is portraying, acting with his eyes and glasses as much as anything else. You completely believe that this man has awesome powers of observation, eidetic memory, supreme judgement – all the qualities that make for a good spy and more importantly has trained himself for years not to show it. Guinness is one of the greatest British actors who has ever lived and the subtlety he displays here is all the evidence of this you will ever need.

The rest of the cast are equally excellent. Special mention has to be made of Patrick Stewart’s miniscule role as a very briefly encountered Karla, all menacing eyes and Rasputin beard (so much is communicated in this series with the actors’ eyes). Michael Jayston is very good as Peter Guillame, Smiley’s somewhat younger sidekick and Scalphunter in chief who gets the fun job of taking all the risks in order to obtain the necessary files he needs, not to mention providing a little bit of muscle when necessary. He also tends towards a more animated, hot headed approach in contrast to Smiley’s serene, zen-like calm.

How all this compares to the book I do not know. No doubt there have been sacrifices in order to fit the main points in. Presumably less has been jettisoned than in the new feature film version starring Gary Oldman in the lead (which I have heard only good things about incidentally) but seeing the series has definitely encouraged me to seek it out. I suspect I’ll love it.

It’s worth pointing out that the BBC had a stab at a one off drama in a similar vein not so long ago with Page Eight, a similarly understated Security Service thriller with a contemporary setting and big name cast which was enjoyable enough in its own right but doesn’t really match the slow burning glory of Tinker, Tailor. Admittedly it’s one off nature worked against it in this respect but there was something else lacking in it, it had an undefinable limpness about it. I must admit that after seeing Tinker, Tailor it’s pretty clear that it’s a pretty heavily diluted version of it. Still worth checking out though, if you’re into that sort of thing.

But I digress. I absolutely loved every quiet, slow burning minute of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It doesn’t disappoint on any level and while time hasn’t done the picture quality any favours (it still looks well crafted, just a bit fuzzy round the edges on an HD screen) none of that really matters when the story and characters are so interesting. I resolutely love it when a television show (or film for that matter) doesn’t assume that I won’t be able to keep up with it. I wonder if anyone in TV land has considered the possibility that if they aim a little higher with their programming that their audiences will rise to the challenge and get more out of their viewing experiences? Doesn’t seem likely to me. In the meantime though grab this on DVD and remember what it was like when TV in general but the BBC in particular was great.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 04/10/2011 00:33

    I’m telling you, I am not going to live long enough to watch all the great stuff you recommend. But don’t stop, okay?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: