If I were pushed to nominate the best television fiction ever made, it would likely be the BBC’s 1979 adaptation of John Le Carré’s 1974 novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Arthur Hopcraft’s screenplay is surprisingly, pleasingly faithful to the novel, and the cast is superb.
The story follows the progress of a sacked senior member of the ‘Circus’ (meaning MI6, nicknamed after its fictional location at Cambridge Circus), George Smiley, invited by senior civil servant Oliver Lacon to conduct an investigation into the persistent suspicion there is a double agent, or mole, operating out of the highest echelons of the Circus; a suspicion revived by a story told to Lacon by the recently returned rogue agent, Ricky Tarr.
The title of the novel comes from a nursery rhyme used by the disgraced and deceased former head of the secret service, ‘Control’, when assigning code names to the Circus seniors who are his principal suspects. Tinker for Alleline, the vain, pompous new head of the Circus after Control’s demise. Tailor for the the brilliant and charming upper class polymath Bill Haydon. Soldier for Smiley recruit and Soviet satellite state expert Roy Bland. Poorman for another Smiley recruit, the Hungarian-born, obsequious Toby Esterhase. Beggarman for Smiley himself. Control eschewed ‘sailor’ as being phonetically too similar to ‘tailor’.
Smiley is assisted in his investigation by a former special branch inspector, George Mendel, and Circus tough guy Peter Guillam-all three characters appeared in le Carré’s earlier novels.
Plagued by his own wistful memories of a declining Control (the actor Alexander Knox really did look deathly ill), to whom he was loyal, Smiley is also haunted by his own past, including his serially unfaithful wife Ann, and the holy grail quest to defeat his arch-nemesis, the Russian spymaster known as ‘Karla’ (played very briefly, without any lines, by Patrick Stewart).
The story develops through a series of genteel interrogations with current and former Circus operatives to clarify what exactly happened on the night of Control’s last operation, gone horribly wrong, in order to expose who knew things they shouldn’t have, and then setting a trap for the chief suspects that the real mole wouldn’t be able to resist.
Le Carré littered his fictions with references to the downstream effect of radicalized Oxbridge graduates, and the unspoken commonplace of homosexual relationships carried over from public schools. In the television adaptation, Westminster bureaucrat Oliver Lacon tells us coyly that the relationship between Jim Prideaux and Bill Haydon was ‘very’ close. And in the final episode Haydon himself, partly modelled on Kim Philby, reveals his bisexuality by asking Smiley to make some financial arrangements for both a ‘boy’ and a ‘girl’ with whom he was intimately entangled. This was a nod to the real British double agents; Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt were homosexuals, and Donald MacLean was bisexual, like Haydon. But it also heightened the motif of betrayal, making Haydon unconscionably responsible for the shooting and torture of his lover, Jim Prideaux.
This was a quintessentially British story, and the television production was unmistakably so, suffering not a bit from the obviously less than generous budget, giving us a sense of the grimy, gritty England of the times, similar to the mises en scène in the popular 1970s police drama, The Sweeny (1975-1978).
Alec Guiness stole the show as the pudgy, ungainly, pallid George Smiley. A most unlikely spy when measured against James Bond, but probably a more accurate representation of what was really going on in MI6 at the time. Guiness plays Smiley as deceptively polite and retrained in his ‘interviews’ with suspects and witnesses, but we gain the impression he has the sharpest mind and is laying little rhetorical traps for everyone he talks to. Guiness’s Smiley also displays a habit of frequently not answering questions or responding to conversational cues to reveal an opinion, hinting at long practice in being secretive and discreet.
Le Carré himself clarified Smiley’s silences in the second paragraph of chapter three, Smiley’s People: ‘For a while Smiley did not seem to hear it, but his silence was not offensive, he had the gift of quiet.’
He also sang Alec Guinness’s praises –
When Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was first shown on the BBC, the only independent channel in those days obligingly staged a strike and for six precious weeks the entire British viewing public had to choose between BBC1 and BBC2. In consequence, we were pulling in audiences of up to eleven million for each episode, and the series became a kind of public institution, with endless chat on the radio about who understood how much or how little of the plot, and George Smiley briefly became a kind of myopic national hero, solving crossword puzzles that defeated the rest of us.
The problem went further than that. George Smiley, whether I liked it or not, was from then on Alec Guinness-voice, mannerisms, the whole package. And I did like it. I liked it enormously. Once in a writer’s life, if he’s lucky, an actor plays one of his characters to perfection. And Alec did that. He was as good at being Smiley as Cyril Cusack was at being Control in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. Better.— from John le Carré’s introduction to the 2011 Penguin edition of Smiley’s People.
Ian Richardson, who went on to become the magnificent Thatcherite monster Francis Urquhart in Michael Dobbs’s House of Cards saga, was superb as the duplicitous Bill Haydon.
Perhaps the only casting decision I might have taken issue with was Hywell Bennett as Ricky Tarr. Bennett just seemed too conspicuously sultry and civilized. Michael Jayston, who played Peter Guillam, would have been a better choice. Anthony Valentine, Patrick Mower, or even Edward Woodward would then have been good as Peter Guillam.
Nevertheless, the entire cast convincingly portrayed the characters revolving around a decaying class of Oxbridge-educated spooks, struggling not just with their own professional and personal disappointments, but with the mediocrity that descended on Britain in the 1970s, a culmination of which was the paralyzing ‘winter of discontent’ over 1978-79, in which widespread strikes and political incompetence ground the nation to a halt. The verité of the mises en scène precisely matches my own experiences and observations of England between the mid-1970s to the rise of Thatcher.
Just one of the stand-out performances came from Beryl Reid as Connie Sachs, a former Circus analyst with an eidetic memory and sharp analytical skills that must have been invaluable in times pre-dating databases and the internet. Sachs was modelled partly on the real British intelligence officer Milicent Bagot, said to have been the first to ring alarm bells about Kim Philby. Portrayed in episode three of the mini-series as an ageing, decaying, dipsomaniac spinster, plagued with arthritis, living in dilapidated digs at Oxford. It was a brief but wonderfully evocative performance, tying together her betrayal by a new broom in the Circus that regarded her as at odds with new political directives, and her pain at being thought of as obsolescent. Consigned to twilight years in which she was forever alienated from all her ‘lovely, lovely boys’, living and already dead. Sachs was the only figure I thought of as more shambolic, disappointed, and out of place than Smiley himself. Beryl Reid returns as Sachs in the 1982 BBC adaptation of Smiley’s People, which is the final instalment of Smiley’s rivalry with Soviet master spy Karla.
Reading Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy didn’t quite give me the same flavour as watching the television serialization (in seven parts). The latter was understandably condensed into what became primarily a detective story. A ‘whodunnit’. Losing much of le Carré’s parenthetical insights into characters and their culture in his seductive prose, yet director John Irving managed to make up for most of this by inference, alluding to things the audience was expected to know about as indices of Smiley’s-and presumably Cornwell’s-Britain. The author is said to have been delighted with the adaptation.
The melancholy, tense strings in Geoffrey Burgon’s musical score provided further atmospheric hints, particularly the ending credits, with what I think is a still photo of Oxford, accompanied by a boys’ choir singing ‘Nunc dimittis’, with its topical line ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’, taken from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Evoking the ethos of British public schools, and their rituals of matins end evensong, again reinforcing the stuffy atmosphere of a civil service populated by public schoolboys turned Oxbridge dons (the ‘Cambridge’ Circus location is no accident), even if many of them are shown to be pompous twits. It was clever, too, in presaging the forced retirements of almost all the senior spies, even if departure wasn’t quite so peaceful for some.
Perhaps the temper of those times is lost on modern audiences unfamiliar with pre-Thatcher Britain, but the television narrative is sophisticated enough to give the audience the necessary clues, if they only pay close attention. It would be easy to miss clever asides and hints.
I was quite fond of the parting words between George and Ann Smiley. After he demands to know whether Ann loved Bill Haydon, with whom she had an affair (another level of betrayal), she responds that she didn’t, and then says: ‘Poor George. Life is such a puzzle to you, isn’t it.’ And here we have a perfect coda for the Smiley character: a master investigator of conspiracy puzzles, but so baffled by personality traits that have nothing to do with the spy game. As if his life in espionage made him unfit in social circumstances outside that domain.
I have seen the entire mini-series several times now, and I am still pleased to discover little details here and there I didn’t focus on previously. Like the novel, the Blu-rays would be a worthy addition to anyone’s bookshelves.
BBC Worldwide, 315 min in seven episodes. Directed by John Irvin, Written by Arthur Hopcraft and John le Carré. Produced by Jonathan Powell. Cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts. Edited by Chris Wimble and Clare Douglas. Music by Geoffrey Burgon.
With Alec Guinness as George Smiley (Beggarman), Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon (Tailor), Ian Bannen as Jim Prideaux, George Sewell as George Mendel, Michael Jayston as Peter Guillam, Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase (Poorman), Anthony Bate as Oliver Lacon, Alexander Knox as Control (without a name ever being given), Hywel Bennett as Ricki Tarr, Beryl Reid as Connie Sachs, Joss Ackland as Jerry Westerby, Michael Aldridge as Percy Alleline (Tinker), Terence Rigby as Roy Bland (Soldier), John Standing as Sam Collins, Alec Sabin as Fawn, Duncan Jones as ‘Jumbo’ Roach, Nigel Stock as Roddy Martindale, Susan Kodicek as Irina, Frank Moorey as Lauder Strickland, Thorley Walters as Tufty Thessinger, Siân Phillips as Ann Smiley, Patrick Stewart as Karla.
See also my other reviews of John le Carré novels and adaptations.