For its fortieth anniversary, the classic BBC adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Alec Guinness, comes to Blu-ray.
The early 1970s. Control (Alexander Knox), head of the British espionage service “The Circus”, suspects that there is a double agent, or “mole”, working at a high level in the organisation. He sends Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen) to Czechoslovakia, to meet a Czech general who has the identity of the mole. Prideaux has to call back with the codeword for that name, derived from the children’s rhyme. It could be Tinker, Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge), Tailor, Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson), Soldier, Roy Bland (Terence Rigby), Poorman, Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton), or Beggarman, George Smiley (Alec Guinness). However, Prideaux soon realises he has been betrayed, and in an effort to escape is shot in the back. He is later returned to the UK.
Six months later, due to the fallout from the operation, Control has been replaced and has since died. Alleline is now in charge and the theory of the mole’s presence is discredited. Smiley is brought out of retirement when agent Ricki Tarr (Hywel Bennett) has new evidence that there is indeed a mole. Now Smiley has to find out who he is.
John le Carré (real name David Cornwell, born 1931) became and remains one of the leading spy novelists of our time. He knew of what he spoke, working for both MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s and 1960s. As a novelist, though, he created his own world, and how much of his work, with its own argot – the Circus, scalphunters, lamplighters, and so on – was based on reality and how much transformed by his own imagination is probably something for the Official Secrets Act. He began as a novelist in the early 1960s, adopting his pseudonym as Foreign Office personnel were not allowed to publish under their own names.
George Smiley had been a recurring character in his novels from the start, being the protagonist of his first, Call for the Dead (1961). His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), became a bestseller. Needless to say, the film and later television industries took interest. The Spy… was filmed in 1965, very well. Smiley, a minor character in that story, was played by Rupert Davies. James Mason played the role in The Deadly Affair (1967), based on Call for the Dead, though the character was renamed Charles Dobbs, because Paramount, who had made the film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, owned the rights to the character. Then in 1974, le Carré published Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the first of a trilogy which put Smiley at centre stage and pitted him against Russian spymaster Karla.
The first thing you notice about Arthur Hopcraft’s adaptation, generally faithful to the novel, is that it takes its time. But that’s to the good, as it’s a complex story being told, and much of the first half of it unfolds in flashbacks, even a flashback inside a flashback in Part Three. There were complaints at the time of first broadcast that the serial was hard to follow if you hadn’t read the novel – especially if watched at the rate of an episode a week, at a time when home video recorder ownership was in its infancy. It does require that the viewer pay attention, but that’s nothing new in the days of binge-watching. What soon becomes clear, in the convolutions of the plot and its motor, the search for the mole, is that this is a story about betrayal. That’s not just the mole’s betrayal of his country, but many smaller personal betrayals, not least Smiley’s well-known cuckolding by his wife Ann (Siân Phillips). The story is about the price of such betrayals, on the betrayer as well as the betrayed.
What was obvious from the outset was the quality of the production, even by the then standards of BBC drama (a co-production with Paramount). There are plenty of pleasures to be had in the dialogue, as much of the story is told in conversations between characters, played by some of the best character actors of the time. John Irvin had directed extensively on television and documentaries for some fifteen years before this. The success of Tinker Tailor sent him to Hollywood, not always with great results – this may in fact stand as his best work. Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts also moved from the small screen to the large, with Oscar nominations for A Room with a View and Howards End. Another contribution was the music, the work of Geoffrey Burgon (who died in 2010): apart from the opening and closing credits, the latter a setting of Nunc Dimittis over a shot of the dreaming spires of Oxford, the music is sparely though effectively used.
Alec Guinness’s remains a definitive take on the character of George Smiley. He underplays to a fault, letting the rest of the impressive principal cast have their head in their particular scenes. But it’s a performance of small nuances, small gestures, a highlight of what had already been a distinguished career.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was first broadcast on BBC2 on Monday nights with repeat showings the following Sundays, beginning on 10 September 1979. There was soon a sense that this was something special, and it had a rapid repeat on BBC1 at the end of the year, in two omnibus episodes of around two and a half hours each, on 30 December and 1 January, which was the first time I saw it. The serial won BAFTA Awards for Guinness and Pierce-Roberts. It didn’t win the award for Best Drama Series or Serial, though. That went to the BBC’s adaptation of Testament of Youth, which shared its producer, Jonathan Powell, with Tinker Tailor.
Following the success of the serial, the BBC passed on adapting the second of le Carré’s “Karla Trilogy”, The Honourable Schoolboy, due to location shooting in the Far East being beyond their budget. (They have adapted all three for radio, however, with Simon Russell Beale as Smiley.) So they followed up Tinker Tailor with the third novel, Smiley’s People. Irvin and Hopcraft did not return; Le Carré and John Hopkins wrote the script and Simon Langton directed. Many of the cast returned in their roles, Guinness included. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was filmed in 2011 with Gary Oldman as Smiley – a good film, but I’d have to give the longer television adaptation the edge.
The BBC’s Blu-ray release of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is on two Region B discs, with the first four episodes on the first and the final three on the second along with the one extra, of which more below. The serial carries a PG certificate, so unusual as a production clearly aimed at adults carrying such a rating, which is for “mild violence, sex references, language”. It’s also a sign of the times how much many of the characters smoke. This is the original seven-part version of the serial. In the US, it was re-edited and shortened into six parts, and that version has appeared on DVD in the past.
The serial was shot on 16mm film throughout, though transferred to two-inch tape for broadcast. Being shot on video hasn’t prevented the BBC and others from releasing such productions on high-definition discs, but you can see the gain with a film-originated serial like this. The colours are true from what I remember from past TV broadcasts and grain is natural and filmlike. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1, as you would expect from a television production from before the widescreen era. The Blu-ray transfer is 1080i50, which reflects the fact that this serial was shot at 25 frames per second, intended to be shown on PAL television sets.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as DTS-HD MA 2.0, and it’s clear and well balanced throughout. Subtitles are available for the hard of hearing. There is one issue, though. In Part One, Czech dialogue is left unsubtitled, which was not the case with previous disc editions. The hard-of-hearing subtitles are no help here: they just say “(SPEAKS CZECH)”. Also missing is a “Six Months Later” caption at the end of this sequence.
There’s one extra, the documentary The Secret Centre (57:08), first broadcast on BBC2 on 26 December 2000. It takes the form of an interview with le Carré at his home in Cornwall by Nigel Williams. Also interviewed are le Carré’s ex-wife Ann and other friends and colleagues. The interview covers le Carre’s life and career, illustrated with extracts from the BBC’s adaptation of his work, especially the 1987 version of The Perfect Spy, from the novel inspired by le Carré’s own father, so appropriate when le Carré discusses him in this in-depth piece.