Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 1979). Episode One

tinker 01

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a cast to die for.  It’s headed, of course, by Alec Guinness and features the likes of Michael Jayston, Anthony Bate, George Sewell, Bernard Hepton, Ian Richardson, Hywel Bennett, Terence Rigby, Ian Bannen, John Wells, Joss Ackland, Warren Clarke, Thorley Walters, Beryl Reid, Patrick Stewart, Nigel Stock and Sian Phillips.

Arthur Hopcraft’s adaptation took John LeCarre’s novel and turned it into seven episodes of absorbing television.  For some people, it’s too long and it’s too talky.  Certainly, if you like action, this probably isn’t the programme for you.  Tinker Tailor is concerned with men (and the occasional woman) who tend to sit in rooms and talk.  There’s the odd spot of action and guns are occasionally brandished – but it’s by no means a thriller.

Central to Tinker Tailor is Alec Guinness as George Smiley.  Smiley is less of a talker and more of a listener.  It’s a pared-down, minimalistic performance by Guinness – at times, Smiley is content to remain in the background as a nebulous figure (absorbing the information he’s told, but not feeling the need to vouchsafe his own opinions or feelings).

Moving onto episode one, Hopcraft elects to open with a meeting between Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen) and Control (Alexander Knox). Control reveals that there’s a mole operating at the highest levels of British Intelligence (nicknamed “the Circus”).  Control sends Prideaux to Czechoslovakia to speak to a potential asset called Stevcek, who Control thinks can identify the traitor.

Control has narrowed it down to five possibilities and assigns each a codename –

Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge), Director of Operations – Tinker
Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson), Head of Personnel – Tailor
Roy Bland (Terence Rigby), Head of Iron Curtain Networks – Soldier
Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton), Top Lamplighter – Poorman
George Smiley (Alec Guinness), Control’s deputy – Beggarman

Prideaux’s mission is a disaster, he was led into a trap, shot and captured (we later learn that he’s back in England, although his location isn’t divulged).

In LeCarre’s novel, all of this was only reported second-hand later in the book.  Instead, chapter one begins with Jim arriving at a minor public school as a temporary teacher.  He befriends one of the boys and it’s a good while before we discover his identity and the part he played in the abortive operation.

Hopcraft was probably wise to hold this part back, as opening with a list of suspects and the mission is a much stronger hook. And whilst the lengthy school scenes work well in print, it probably would have tried the patience of the television audience (although I do slightly regret that so much from this part of the novel was jettisoned by Hopcraft).

After Pridaeux’s abortive Czech adventure, we see that time has moved on.  Control is dead, Smiley’s been sacked and Alleline is now running the show.  When we see Smiley, he appears content to potter about doing little – before having the misfortune to run into Roddy Martingdale (Nigel Stock).

Martingdale appears to be somebody on the fringes of the intelligence community who wishes to imply that he’s a good deal closer to the centre.  He attempts to pump Smiley for information with no success, and then he moves on to discuss (in acid detail) the four main men at the Circus.  As one of these must be the mole (I think we can safely discount Smiley, although it would have been an excellent twist had LeCarre decided to make Smiley the mole after all) his observations are interesting – although like a great deal of what he has to say, possibly not terribly accurate.

Stock gives a fine performance as a pompous windbag and Guinness soaks up all of Martingdale’s inane ramblings with a long suffering air – only right at the end does Smiley show a flash of anger.  One interesting point which emerges is the reveal that Bill Haydon was a lover of Ann, Smiley’s wife.  Regularly, people will ask Smiley how Ann is, and he will always respond that she’s fine – even though her present location is a mystery to him.  Theirs is clearly a marriage with problems, but it’s no surprise that Smiley (a master of the secret) doesn’t share his thoughts with anyone else.

Before Smiley bumped into Martindale, he spied Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston) in the street outside and hastily beat a retreat in the opposite direction (unfortunately bumping into Martindale en-route).  When Smiley gets home, Guillam is already there (he’s an expert with locks).  He tells him that Lacon (Anthony Bate) wants to see him.  Lacon is the civil servant charged with overseeing the intelligence services and whilst Smiley wearily agrees, he agrees to the meeting nonetheless.

When Smiley and Guillam reach Lacon’s house, they find somebody else is also there – Ricki Tarr (Hywel Bennett).  Tarr used to be a Scalphunter (Circus slang for the people who do all the dirty work) but he’s been posted as officially missing.  Apart from Guillam, nobody else from the Circus knows that he’s back in England.  As Lacon, Smiley and Guillam sit down, Tarr (somewhat relishing his captive audience) begins his story.

I’ve got a story to tell you, it’s all about spies.  And if it’s true, which I think it is, you boys are gonna need a whole new organisation, right?

3 thoughts on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 1979). Episode One

  1. It doesn’t appear that Arthur Hopcraft’s script is commercially available, sadly. But all the British releases of Tinker, Tailor should have subtitles (possibly some foreign editions don’t). The copy I own (2003 BBC Classic Drama release) certainly does.

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    • Thank you for your reply. I bought the DVD set in the US from Amazon. It does not contain sub-titles. I wonder if I bought a the relevant DVDs from a British distributor I would be able to play them on DVD players in the US. I’ll have to do some homework on this one.

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