Weekend Film Recommendation: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The BBC mini-series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the perfect realisation of the John Le Carré novel.

BRITAIN-GUINNESS-007If I were BBC Director-General, and had been granted only 24 broadcast hours to make the case to the nation and its elected officials that my organisation was capable of greatness, I would immediately fill the first 315 minutes of my schedule with this week’s film recommendation: 1979’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

This is what a television mini-series can do that is virtually impossible in the movie theater: Tell a long, complex, intimate story over a series of episodes that hang together, and in which the audience being forced to wait for the resolution adds to the exquisite tension of the tale. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is also the apotheosis of what BBC can do better than any other organisation when it sets its mind to it: Trawl through the British theater for stage-trained, perfectly cast actors to play parts large and small, give them a quintessentially British script, and spend a TV-level budget in just the right way to get the sets and production that are “tailor made” (sorry, couldn’t pass that up) for the story. The result is BBC television magic.

The plot: The aging head of the British Secret Service, dogged by a series of espionage failures and declining health, sends out a trusted agent on a mission to Czechoslovakia that will help smoke out a high-level mole who is working for the Soviets. The mission goes horribly wrong, almost as if the enemy knew of it in advance. A different group of agents ascends to control of the service, and casts out along the way faithful, long-serving head of personnel George Smiley. But the politician who oversee the service believes the mole is still active, and recruits Smiley out of retirement to covertly investigate his former colleagues. With glum professionalism, and the aid of an embittered assassin who has been demoted, he slowly draws on the loose strings that he hopes will lead him to the mole’s identity.

I am no expert on Le Carré, but his passionate fans embraced this production as assiduously faithful to the book. Indeed, the man himself said that after viewing the mini-series, he could no longer think about Smiley without visualizing Alec Guinness.

Many people say Sir Alec was “born to play” spymaster George Smiley. But people said that about many of the parts he played in his career, a tribute to his genius as an actor. I love all the small things he does in this movie: Wiping his glasses on his tie, locking his flat door behind him without looking, wincing almost imperceptibly at the mention of his wayward wife. And he never commits the dramatic error of trying to make Smiley normal or likable. As his former wife says to him in the crucial final scene, he doesn’t understand life very well at all, he is strangely emotionally detached and not someone you’d want to have over to dinner. Unlike many of the people around him, he still seems to hold his country in some regard, but even that explanation doesn’t seem to fully explain why he takes on the difficult mission which he is assigned.

I frankly think this movie is no less enjoyable if you know in advance (from the book or from prior viewings) the mole’s identity. The story is about institutional rot, collective lassitude and endemic careerism. Yes, one man is particularly guilty but in various ways, every one of the key suspects has much of which to be ashamed.

Director John Irvin was at the peak of his skills in the late 1970s, helming this series and The Dogs of War immediately afterwards. His career seemed to stall after those two triumphs, but he certainly delivers the goods here. Irvin had a champagne cast with which to work, not just Guinness. The actors are so uniformly fine that it seems an injustice to single out particular performers, but I will nonetheless take the risk to applaud Ian Richardson as Deputy Director Bill Haydon, who defeats Smiley in bureaucratic battles and does something even more horrid to him on the home front. How in the name of The Queen, St. Michael and St. George was this magnificent actor never knighted? Perhaps it was the suddenness of his death when he seemed in rude health…if so that’s a case for honoring people when they deserve it rather than waiting until they are “old enough”.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a million miles from the heroic James Bond-sort of secret agent picture. There are no car chases, fist fights or explosions. There instead is the gritty, slimy work of espionage, the grind of a meticulous investigation and the guessing and re-guessing of who can be trusted and who is a villain. Yet even with a running time of more than 5 hours, it never loses the viewer’s interest. Indeed, I would not be surprised if some people who own it on DVD devour it in one or two sittings.

p.s. I am given to understand that the US rebroadcast version of this mini-series is shorter than the UK original and also makes some narrative changes. Not having viewed it, I do not know how it compares to the version I review here.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

48 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”

  1. I saw (most of) the american version in college, and it seemed quite solid enough. But what I remember most was the narrative introduction, given by some comforting fellow or other, in which it was argued that secret agentry (single, double or otherwise) was a very appropriately british pursuit, because of the country’s class system(s) and the resulting fact that almost everyone was accustomed to playing the role of someone else. I’m no longer sure that that’s a peculiarly british condition, but it certainly give an interesting gloss to watching the series.

    1. “some comforting fellow or other”

      …so much for Alistair Cooke’s legacy.

      1. I couldn’t remember if it was Cooke, and the person I remembered on screen was so much younger…

    1. Saw the movie. I couldn’t really figure out what was going on, but then I
      guess the point of LeCarre’s stuff is that intelligence work is complicated
      and boring and no-one knows what’s going on. But as a Brit who grew up in
      that era (8 years old in 1970), it was a horrifyingly accurate recreation
      of early-1970s England - lousy British cars, terrible clothes, bad haircuts,
      cheap furniture and all. How we went from the fab sixties into the god-awful
      early seventies is a puzzle (I suspect Karla, feeling threatened by the allure
      of the Beatles and Twiggy and the E-type Jaguar, must have planted a few moles
      in the fashion and automotive industries).

    2. I’ve seen it too and enjoyed it, although like RichardC I didn’t always know what was going on. But Keith’s description of the BBC mini-series version could equally apply to this film. The acting is top-notch in every role. I haven’t seen the BBC mini-series version, but Oldman’s performance echoes Keith’s description of Guinness’s. The movie felt long - although I see that it’s just over 2 hours long - but I think that’s because it painstakingly built to the powerful ending.

    3. With due respect to Oldman, who is a fine actor, neither he, nor the rest of the contemporary version, stack up to the BBC classic. Understatement, unfortunately, doesn’t play well these days, and whether consciously or not, those who produced the recent version turned up the treble, so to speak, and the delicate balance was lost as a result.

  2. A true classic miniseries, based on what is, going away, John LeCarre’s finest novel. The only thing not completely captured in the miniseries was the full scope of the elegaic portrait of prewar England that came across in the backstory of a couple of the main characters. The latest film version of Tinker, Tailor had a hard edge, too hard for me.

  3. For those who don’t have 6 hours, the 2011 movie is quite worthy of your attention. Gary Oldman does very well as Smiley (although he can’t match Guinness for pained nuance), and the rest of the cast is outstanding. John Hurt as Control is particularly fine.

    1. Yes, I thought Oldman was very good, but then I thought the entire cast was impressive.

  4. I haven’t seen either the 1979 television or the 2011 film version (I’ve gotten lazy about seeing video that isn’t easily available by streaming on Netflix), but BBC Radio 4 did radio dramatizations of all eight George Smiley novels a couple of years ago (19 hours in all) that were quite good - though I imagine a widely lauded six hour television version of just the one novel must be something else entirely.



    Both the book and this wonderful series gave me the feeling that Alleline knew all along who the mole was — did anyone else get that idea?

    As for the 2011 movie, John Hurt was terrific as Control, but Gary Oldman — meh. Guinness gave me the idea that his feelings had been worn away from him by the spy trade, whereas Oldman looked like he was a cold fish from birth.

    1. I thought Oldman made a decent effort at the role, the the film was ok, but Alec Guinness and the TV series is what sticks in my mind.

    2. Annie — No, I don’t think Alleline knew who the mole was, or even that a mole existed. I believe most readers, however, surely knew who in the end would prove to be the traitor. I think Alleline was a bit of a caricature, a “Peter Principle” bureaucrat for us to hold, along with Control, in shared contempt.

  6. I never got the impression Allenine suspected the mole was Haydon or even if he was certain there was a mole at all; he did seem quite certain he needed to cover his rear though.

  7. I think I agree with RW (the other) about Alleline. I haven’t seen this since the original but have re-read all of the George Smiley books more than once (maybe I’m just slow). But as far as I’m concerned there are two miniseries worth watching again every few years: “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Lonesome Dove.”

  8. Hear, hear about Ian Richardson and the knighthood he should have gotten. Between Tinker Tailor and House of Cards he showed his talent as well.

    1. Richardson was tremendous. After you’ve seen “Tinker Taylor…”, try to get hold of “Private Schultz”, a 1981 mini-series in which Richardson plays several parts, all exquisitely. It’s a fictionalised account of a real plan by the Germans in World War II to flood Britain with forged currency, and features Michael Elphick and Billie Whitelaw as well. Great television.

        1. Keith, damn, I had forgotten about Charlie Muffin. Thanks. Everyone, from Hemmings to Wanamaker, was excellent in that movie. Here we have another example (just like Tinker Tailor) where the movie was as good as the book. I’ve been a Freemantle fan, especially of the Charlie Muffin books, for a long time.
          Now (offtopic) I’ve got to dig up the story of how Wanamaker and Robeson put together a baseball team while they were performing in some obscure historical drama(heh) in England, way back when. :::grin:::

          1. And one more delicious piece of minor Richardson: the voice of Death in the made or TV adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather. In this, his grand-daughter, the dauntingly sensible Susan Sto-Helit, is inhabited by a young Michelle Dockery.

  9. Don’t know if it was seeing the miniseries (American version) or reading the book that got me hooked on Le Carre, both happened about the same time. Anyway, really love his books. But you’re right to single out Guinness as Smiley. Le Carre dedicated a later book to him (The Secret Pilgrim) which was the last in which Smiley made an appearance. The final shot of Smiley, basically just putting on his trilby and standing there after his ex-wife sighs about his social hopelessness is really amazing. Guinness expresses so much while doing so little. A credit to the director to. Most of the movies made from Le Carre novels are generally OK but not as good as the books (Spy Who Came in from the Cold was really good though).

  10. Can we Yanks order the UK version off Amazon.co.uk, or is there some glitch to playing UK DVDs on American players? Anyone know?

    1. I have not been able to get my US DVDs to play in the UK or vice versa.

      1. DVDs are region-encoded (North America is Region 1, the UK and I think Europe are Region 2, etcetera), and most DVD players will only play discs of the same region as the player was intended to be sold in. You can sometimes flip some switches in the player to change its assigned region, but it’s not worth it: you can buy a region-free DVD player cheaply. I got one through Amazon several years ago for under $30, if I recall, and it works fine.

        Also note that DVD pricing works somewhat differently in the UK, with older films and DVDs often much more heavily discounted than they are in the US, such that they’re still quite affordable after you pay shipping to the US. You can order through Amazon.co.uk easily enough; I’m sure other options are available.

        PS you can also use your computer’s optical drive to play outside-region DVDs, but it’s not a good idea. They are designed to permit switching by software a very limited number of times and then stop switching. There are ways around this, but they sound like work and sound uncertain of success.

        1. An all-region Panasonic DVD player costs $59 at Radio Shack. Half of Keith’s touts are only available in UK versions, e.g., most of Danny Kaye’s movies. Why forego the pleasure?

    1. It’s divine, is it not? Thanks for linking it. Another pleasure of the series: Seeing Patrick Stewart in a long scene with Guinness, with former playing his part entirely without words.

      1. Stewart says nothing in both Smiley mini-series. He clearly studied Guinness very carefully. Even the master scene thief, Guinness, could not steal one from Stewart.

  11. Interesting interview with Le Carre in the NYT Magazine a few weeks ago in which he stated that spy agencies around the globe changed their terminology to match “Tinker Tailor”. Of course, hard to know how far to believe a retired spy…


    1. IIRC, the FBI, when they spiked the house in suburban Boston (Medford) where the Patriarca lads were conducting the ceremony for making people ‘made men’, were surprised and amused to hear movie dialogue coming in from their bugs….

  12. The BBC series was one of the most exhausting television experiences I’ve ever had. Information is provided to the viewer precisely once and often in the most understated way. Smiley never telegraphs that something is important. You have to watch the screen with your full attention continuously. Not that this is a bad thing - it’s gripping.

    But the movie takes things one step too far. It’s too compressed. You can’t tell this story in two hours. It’s fine if you’ve read the book or seen the mini-series but as a stand-alone it’s incomprehensible. I saw it with my college-aged children and they were lost five minutes in and never regained the thread. And that’s not just because they’re too young to remember the cold war. People at my office who saw it couldn’t follow it either.

    1. Well said. The “Oldman” version of TTSP is like “Cliff Notes.” It’s mostly all there but the fun is gone. The leisurely, graceful story telling that is LeCarre’s hallmark is nowhere to be found.

      1. And yet Le Carre was credited as an advisor on it. I think your point is that even a short TV series can be more than twice as long as a movie made for theatres, thus allowing time for a great deal more subtlety.

        1. They could hardly do a le Carre’ book without shoehorning his name into the credits somewhere could they. That also doesn’t mean that he had artistic control over the film As to what you think I meant I think I said it better. I’m not sure it has anything to do with ‘subtlety.’ For me there has always been a leisurely (in some of his books almost boring) quality to le Carre’s story telling that was patently absent in the Oldman film hence “Cliff Notes.” By the way: If you go to David Cornwall’s website you’ll find he spells his pen name: “John le Carre'”

          1. In writing this I risk accusations of hypocrisy - I can be at least as much of an obnoxious pedant as the next person on the internet - but must you really go out of your way to correct someone who typed “Le Carre” instead of “le Carre”?

          2. You are perfectly entitled to your opinion of the Oldman film, and Le Carre is entitled to his, which I happen to share. I notice in passing that the Daily Telegraph spells the author’s name with a capital “l” and I find that I couldn’t care less one way or this other. This is a blog comment, ffs.

  13. When I saw this movie, I had no idea what was happening and was so bored I actually fell asleep after one hour. This movie is not for children and people with Asperger’s or similar.

  14. “Guinness expresses so much while doing so little.”

    Exactly. He gives understatement a good name. What an event! High quality script, high quality cast, great music. I remember how elated I was after I saw this in 1980.

    No one has mentioned Oliver Lacon, played by Anthony Bate.
    I’ll know that the Rapture is imminent when I can lay my hands on “The Englishman’s Castle”, in which Bate appears, along with Kenneth More and a very young Nigel Havers. Someday it’s got to be made available on DVD.

  15. the recent movie brought me back to the BBC series. i love it so, though the one better thing about the movie was … smiley. oldman was colder, more clearly an operator.
    btw, this isn’t the ‘apotheosis’ of anything. the apogee maybe, but only people can be apotheosized.

    1. sal: when I google “definition apotheosis” the primary meaning given is “The highest point in the development of something”.

      1. grrrrrrrr yes i see, but how can you god-ify a thing?
        i’ll be having a word with the dictionary writers …
        anyway timely weekend recommendation, i watched this just a few weeks ago. i could go on about it.

        1. It’s a living language…or a dying one, depending on your point of view. Glad you liked TTSS!

  16. I watched the BBC series both of TTSS and of Smiley’s People when they were on PBS in the ’70s. Highly memorable. Seeing them led me to the books and to Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a thoroughly chilling thriller (pardon the pun). I thought the new movie did justice to the story and the feel of an aging, creaking institution riven by infighting, but my wife, who hadn’t read the book, was instantly lost. Smiley’s People was also good, but not as tightly wound. I had to rewatch both after seeing the new movie.

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