Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 1979). Episode Five

tinker 05

LeCarre’s novel opens with Jim Prideaux taking up his new role as a schoolmaster.  Periodically through the book we return to Pridaeux and witness his growing friendship with one of the boys, Bill Roache, nicknamed “Jumbo” by Pridaeux.

Arthur Hopcraft’s adaptation chooses to hold back the school material until this episode, rather than scatter it throughout the story.  This was probably the right thing to do, although it does mean we lose a great deal of the interaction between Prideaux and Roach.  But a little does remain, such as the scene where Roach spies Prideaux digging up a package.  Roach can’t resist taking a peep through the caravan window (where Prideaux lives) and is shocked to see him holding a gun.

Prideaux: We’ve got a secret, haven’t we? I can trust you, I know that. We’re good at keeping secrets, loners like you and me.
Roach: Is it because of that man? Would you shoot him? Are you working undercover, like Bulldog Drummond in the book? Some of the boys wanted to call you Bulldog, but we thought Rhino was better. Bigger than a bulldog.
Prideaux: Well I, uh… I used to be a soldier, Jumbo. What you saw just now, that’s a souvenir, you know, it’s like this…
[he points to his back]
Prideaux: How I got it, they’re both secrets, I keep them to myself. Y’understand that, don’t you Jumbo?
Roach: Yes, sir.
Prideaux: Knew you would, knew you would.

Since getting shot, Jim’s turned into something of an eccentric, at least when the schoolboys are around.  He lets them drive his vintage car (an Alvis, his pride and joy) and has clearly made a deep impression on many of them (especially Roach).  But he still has wounds that haven’t healed (and not just physical ones) which will be examined later on, when Smiley visits him.

But before Smiley speaks to Prideaux, he makes a call on Sam Collins (John Standing) who was duty officer the night Jim Prideaux was shot.  When the crisis happened, Sam was unable to get much sense out of Control – so he recalls how relived he was when Bill Haydon turned up.  It’s been repeated several times already just how close Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux were, and this is clear when Bill takes charge.

All right, Sam. Now, first thing you do, you call this number, it’s Toby Esterhase’s. Tell him you’re speaking for me, and he’s to pick up the two Czechos we’ve had our eyes on in London School of Economics, and lock them up. Now, right away, Sam. Jim’s worth a lot more than those two, but it’s a start. I’ll have a word with the chief hood of the Czech Embassy. If they hurt a hair on Jim Prideaux’s head, I’ll strip the entire Czech network in this country bare. You pass that on. I’ll make him a laughing-stock!

Later, Smiley finally speaks to Jim Pridaeux.  Given the number of flashbacks we’ve seen in the series so far, it was a little surprising that we don’t see Pridaeux’s interrogation by the Czechs – instead Pridaeux just tells us about it.  But in retrospect, that’s actually a plus – as it allows Ian Bannen full reign to describe exactly how bad it was.  And sometimes, words are more powerful than pictures – for example, when he describes the moment they finally broke him.  “I hoped I’d go mad. And no, they knew how to stop that. They left me alone for a couple of days; got me ready for the long one. That was when I ga… ga… gave… g… gave them what they wanted.”

Another interesting moment is when Smiley discusses the friendship between Haydon and Prideaux.  Haydon recommended Prideaux for the service and Smiley is able to quote verbatim from part of the letter that Haydon wrote to the Circus talent-scout, some thirty years earlier.  “He has that heavy quiet that commands. He’s my other half. Between us we’d make one marvelous man. He asks nothing better than to be in my company or that of my wicked, divine friends, and I’m vastly tickled by the compliment. He’s virgin, about eight foot tall, and built by the same firm that did Stonehenge.”

If Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a collection of great acting moments, then Ian Bannen’s in this episode must rate very highly.  And although his part of the story seems to be over, events might prove otherwise ….

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?