Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was certainly a series that took its time. With seven episodes to play with, it could afford to take the long road – and this was very evident in episode two.
Ricki Tarr’s story runs for the first thirty minutes and it’s fair to say that the amount of plot in this section could have easily been condensed down to, say, ten minutes. But plot obviously wasn’t the overriding factor here – rather, it’s character and atmosphere.
So while Tarr’s romancing of the Russian spy Irina (Susan Kodicek) is told at a leisurely pace, it doesn’t feel drawn out and the location filming in Lisbon helps to bring a dash of colour to a series that otherwise exists in the (intentionally) drab world of British intelligence.
Ricki Tarr’s been dispached to Lisbon to liase with station head Tufty Thessinger (Thorley Walters). Tufty is convinced that a Russian called Boris (Hilary Minster) is ripe for the picking. Tarr keeps him under observation for a while and he reports back that Boris is bad news. “We’re definitely in the wrong ball game with this chummy. That’s a professional, a Moscow Centre-trained hood. The way he sets himself. That alone!”
Tarr is about to report back that Boris is a no-go, when he decides to take a look around his apartment and see what happens. It’s dangerous and possibly somewhat reckless, but that sums up Tarr’s character – he’s someone who is supremely confident in his own abilities to extricate himself from any situation.
When he breaks into the flat, Boris isn’t there – but his wife Irina is. Tarr puts on an Australian accent and spins her a line about how Boris has stolen his girlfriend. He manages to use all of his considerable charm to arrange another meeting the following day, but he quickly learns that Irina is no fool.
There’s an English expression. ‘It takes one to spot one’. You wouldn’t have fooled me for long. It’s the way we look for things, isn’t it? We don’t stare. We don’t seem to be looking. We are not like tourists … or prostitutes … or pickpockets. We just know how to see.
The relationship between Ricki and Irina is the heart of the episode – and it’s a fascinating one. As they’re both spies, how much trust can we put in what they say? Ricki seems to be the colder, more professional one. He picks up Irina for no other reason than to understand what makes Boris tick. As their brief relationship blossoms, does he ever feel any genuine love for her? Or is the fact she has information about a mole in British Intelligence the reason for his growing interest in her?
Irina professes love for Ricki. But again, can we believe her? Or is she simply telling him this so that he’ll take her back to London as a defector? The fact she leaves him a series of notes in a dead-letter drop does indicate that her feelings were geniune. By the time he visits the drop, she’s gone – forcibly taken back to Moscow where, presumably, a brutal interrogation awaits. Was she betrayed and if so, was it the mole in London? Her parting gift to him is the sheaf of documents which detail what she knows. “I would prefer to give you my life, but I think that this wretched secret will be all I have to make you happy. Use it well”.
Her notes confirm that the mole in London is known by the codename of Gerald and that he’s a high-ranking member of British Intelligence. She doesn’t name names though, so Lacon needs somebody to investigate the Circus clandestinely and Smiley is the obvious man for the job. Especially since six months previously he tried to convince Lacon that there was a mole – only for Lacon to dismiss him out of hand.
Since the bulk of the episode is taken up with Tarr’s flashback, there’s not a great deal of screen time for Alec Guinness, but he’s still so good when he does appear – especially when he and Anthony Bate are walking through Lacon’s garden, discussing how the enquiry will work. As ever, it’s a masterclass in underplaying.
Smiley and Lacon also discuss how well the Circus has been doing lately, especially with Alleline’s source of material, codenamed “Witchcraft”. The mysterious source, Merlin, has provided the Circus with invaluable intelligence – but the uncomfortable, unspoken question is how much credence can be placed on this material if Moscow have an agent at the heart of the Circus? Is Witchcraft information or disinformation?
That can wait for another time, for now Smiley is holed up in an anonymous hotel, where he can work undisturbed. He plans a trip to Oxford to visit an invaluable source whilst he asks Peter Guillam to break into the Circus to steal some key files …..