Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 1979). Episode One

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a cast to die for.  Headed, of course, by Alec Guinness and featuring 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 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 – as at times, Smiley is content to remain in the background as a nebulous figure (absorbing the information, but not feeling the need to vouchsafe his own opinions or feelings).

Moving onto episode one, Hopcraft elects open with the meeting between Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen) and Control (Alexander Knox) where Control reveals that there’s a mole operating at the highest levels of British Intelligence (nicknamed “the Circus”).  Control sends Pridaeux 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

Pridaeux’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 on.  Instead, the book opened with Jim Pridaeux arriving at a minor public school as a temporary teacher.  He befriends one of the boys and it isn’t until much later that his identity and the part he played in the abortive operation are known.  Hopcraft was probably wise leave this part of the story until later, as opening with a list of suspects is a much stronger hook.

After Pridaeux’s abortive Czech adventure, 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 – but then he has the misfortune to run into Roddy Martingdale (Nigel Stock).

Martingdale appears to be somebody on the very fringes of the intelligence community who nevertheless 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 the pompous windbag and Guinness soaks up all of his 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 that Bill Haydon seems to have been a lover of Ann, Smiley’s wife.  Regularly, people will ask Smiley how Ann is, and he will respond that she’s fine – although 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 saw 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 was a Lamplighter (Circus slang for the people who do 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?

Their name liveth for evermore – A Foreign Field (BBC Screen One – 1993)

Roy Clarke's A Foreign Field
Roy Clarke’s A Foreign Field

The recent centenary commemorations of the start of WW1 has inspired me to pull this Screen One production from September 1993 down from the shelf for a rewatch as although it’s concerned with the events of WW2, the themes of sacrifice and comradeship are universal and timeless.

Cyril (Leo McKern) and Amos (Alec Guinness) are two D-Day veterans who have returned to Normandy to visit the graves of their fallen comrades. Both of them have been scarred by those fateful days in 1944 – particularly Amos, who is virtually mute and seems to have the mind of a child.

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Alec Guinness and Leo McKern

Cyril has another reason for the trip, as he is looking to track down his wartime sweetheart Angelique (Jeanne Moreau). The fact he hasn’t seen her for nearly fifty years doesn’t discourage him, nor does the fact that he has a rival for her affection – Waldo (John Randolph), an American veteran visiting the area with his son (Edward Herrmann) and daughter-in-law Beverly (Geraldine Chaplin).

John Randolph
John Randolph

After fighting for Angelique’s affections, Cyril and Waldo decide to join forces as they both treat her to a day out and then together with the mysterious Lisa (Lauren Bacall) the mismatched party eventually find their way to the graves to remember those they have lost.

A Screen One production from 1993, A Foreign Field was written by Roy Clarke. Although he has a varied CV, the record-breaking Last of the Summer Wine is undoubtedly the series he is best remembered for. That series’ longevity and the critical mauling and polite indifference that the later runs generated have tended to mask that Clarke is a very talented writer with a keen ear for dialogue. This is a hallmark of A Foreign Field, particularly as Cyril and Waldo give full vent to their simmering Anglo-American resentment.

Lauren Bacall and Jeanne Moreau
Lauren Bacall and Jeanne Moreau

As good as Clarke’s teleplay is, it clearly doesn’t hurt that the likes of McKern, Guinness, Randolph, Moreau and Bacall are cast members. Frankly, this is a dream lineup, with particularly fine performances from Guinness and McKern. Alec Guinness has probably the showiest part – lacking virtually any dialogue he is able to insert various bits of business in order to steal any scene that takes his fancy. The eye is automatically focused on him because, well, he’s Alec Guinness, but he still manages to instil a sense of dignity into the character of Amos.

Best of all is Leo McKern. Well known for his long run in Rumpole of the Bailey, McKern here is able to produce a moment of subtlety and pathos that is heart stopping. Outwardly bluff, his mask slips when discussing the beachhead landings in a wonderful monologue.

The conclusion, with the mystery of Lisa’s pilgrimage solved, brings the story to a satisfactory conclusion and the point made, whilst subtle, is clearly understood. Available on DVD from Acorn, this is a fine production that could have so easily tipped over into mawkish sentimentally. The fact it doesn’t is a tribute both to the writing and the acting choices of the principal cast. A production that is well worth tracking down and treasuring.