Ladykillers – The Root of All Evil (17th July 1981)

Frederick Seddon (Michael Jayston) and his wife Margaret (Carol Drinkwater) stand accused of the murder of their lodger Eliza Barrow ….

Running for fourteen episodes during 1980 and 1981, Ladykillers dramatised real life murder cases, mostly drawn from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (the trial of Ruth Ellis in 1955 was one notable exception to this rule). Series one concerned itself with female defendants whilst the second series (from which this episode is drawn) was male dominated. Although since The Root of All Evil featured Margaret Seddon as the co-defendant, it does hark back to the format of series one.

The writer was Sue Lake, who has a somewhat limited television cv. In addition to this installment of Ladykillers, she wrote an episode of Supernatural, seven episodes of Triangle and her final work was an episode of Angels in 1983. I’ve not yet been brave enough to tackle her Triangle work, but based on what we see here it’s surprising her credits were so limited as The Root of All Evil drips with menace and dark humour.

The gallows humour comes from Michael Jayston who, sporting an impressive moustache, gives a typically rich performance as the pompous and pernickety Frederick Seddon. He remains blithely convinced right to the end that the jury are bound to find him innocent.

His calmness is contrasted by Carol Drinkwater as Margaret Seddon who, away from the courtroom, seems to be on the verge of collapsing into hysterics (although she always manages to control herself when she’s back in the court).

As good as the courtroom scenes are, it’s the intercutting between the Seddons in their respective cells that’s really the heart of the story. Both are provided with prison confidants to talk to – with Trevor Cooper (as Oliver) providing the episode with another dollop of dark humour. Despite the fact that Frederick Seddon stands accused of murdering Eliza Barrow for her money, Oliver is quite happy to approach him for financial advice!

And shuttling between her mother and father is their teenage daughter Maggie (Sarah Berger). This was only Berger’s third television credit, but it’s a very compelling one – Maggie’s relationship with her mother is teased out across several well drawn scenes in which Berger drips with polite malice.

Several familiar faces (Eric Dodson, Pam St Clement) take their turns in the witness box whilst the always dependable Michael Ripper (sporting some memorable face fungus) makes an impression as Seddon Snr.

As with the rest of the series, Robert Morley is your avuncular host – introducing and summing up each case. His presence feels slightly odd (possibly a simple VO or caption would have worked better).

For those who don’t know the verdict, please look away now.

Frederck Seddon was found guilty and Margaret Seddon was acquitted.

The Root of All Evil seems less sure of her innocence though as not only does Morley raise his eyebrows after imparting the news that Margaret remarried only two months after her husband’s execution, there’s also the fact that Drinkwater allows a faint smile to play across Margaret’s lips as she exits the condemned cell. Then there’s also Maggie’s innuendo laden conversations with her mother to consider ….

Having given this one a 40th anniversary rewatch, I’m happy to report it stands up very well – not least for the performances from Jayston, Drinkwater and Berger.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Radio Ham


Given how highly regarded Galton & Simpson’s final television series for Tony Hancock has always been, it’s no surprise that three episodes were adapted for series one of PM in G&S’s ….  Possibly the only surprise was that they didn’t tackle The Blood Donor – maybe they felt that one was just too iconic.

The Radio Ham has always been inexorably linked to The Blood Donor though, by virtue of the fact that both were re-recorded by Tony Hancock for LP release.  And because the only way to relive classic comedy performances in the pre-VHS days was via record or cassette, for decades the re-recordings of The Blood Donor/The Radio Ham were one of the few ways you could experience classic Tony Hancock.

So for a generation, or two, you can guarantee that many would know The Radio Ham virtually word by word – which means that a remake has to pass a fairly stern test ….

Neatly, there’s an explanation provided at the start to explain why Paul, in the mid 1990’s, is mucking about with equipment so antiquated that it requires new valves.  It’s ex-Army surplus (which possibly was extracted from a WW2 Lancaster).

Apart from the odd cosmetic touch like this, the script remains pretty much as it was.  So Paul has to run the gamut with his uncomprehending friend in Tokyo (“it is raining not here also”), carry on long-distance games of chess, poker and snakes and ladders, whilst organising trays of bread pudding for ex-pats in Kuala Lumpur.

It’s interesting that they kept the moment where Paul puts on a cod Japanese accent, all the better – he hopes – to get through to his friend in Tokyo.  It wouldn’t have surprised me had it been snipped out, but no, it’s present and correct.

Merton seems a little stiff to begin with, especially when he’s by himself.  Once he starts interacting with the voices on the radio, things pick up a little – especially when all his dreams come true and a May Day distress call starts broadcasting …..

Michael Jayston is suitably frantic as the misplaced mariner, but there’s still something missing here.  It’s competent enough, but maybe because I’m so familiar with the Hancock original this version can’t help but feel a little second best.  In an ensemble piece, like Twelve Angry Men, the load can be shared, but in The Radio Ham, where Merton is on-screen by himself for most of the duration, it’s impossible not to remember how skilled Hancock’s performance was in the same piece.

By comparison Paul Merton is competent, but somewhat lacking.  Direct comparisons are invidious, but when you’re remaking a comedy classic they’re sadly inevitable.

Callan – God Help Your Friends


Written by William Emms
Directed by Peter Duguid

In Callan’s world, the innocent often have to suffer. They frequently find themselves used as pawns, sacrificed in a game they don’t even know they’re playing.  God Help Your Friends is a prime example of this – it also demonstrates Callan’s disdain for the work he has to do.

Hunter tells Callan and Cross that the engagement between Beth Lampton (Stephanie Beacham) and Mark Tedder (Michael Jayston) has to be stopped.  Beth works as a top-level interpreter for NATO whilst Tedder is suspected of being an agent for the opposition.  Hunter accepts that they have no definite evidence about Tedder, but the merest hint of suspicion is enough to make their union highly undesirable.

It’s not a job that Callan relishes, so he spends the episode in a very bad mood, taking every opportunity to rile Hunter and Cross.  Callan and Cross spend their time digging for dirt on Tedder and then making sure that Beth knows about it.  This isn’t a problem for Cross, who shares none of Callan’s scruples,  although he does come to believe that if they end the relationship it will be for the girl’s benefit.

At the start, we see that Beth and Tedder are very much in love.  But once a little suspicion and paranoia are introduced, even the strongest relationships can be destroyed.  Hunter is keen for them to achieve this as quickly as possible, but he’s adamant that he doesn’t want anything untoward to happen.  Callan bitterly reassures him that “there are other ways of killing people than with a bullet.”

Hunter assigns Cross to keep an eye on Beth (posing as a time and motion expert) whilst Callan roots around for incriminating evidence.  Initially, Callan assumes that Hunter will want him to romance the girl, but by assigning Cross we can assume that the intention is to infer that Callan’s getting slightly too old to play the lover ….

Beth is a nice girl – possibly too nice and innocent for the world she’s found herself in.  She’s surprised that, despite her sensitive job, her immediate superior wants to know about her engagement.  Given this, it seems clear it would never occur to her that the security services would be at all interested in her or her fiance.

Mark Tedder is a smooth, charming man (played to perfection by the always impressive Michael Jayston).  We never discover if he was actually an agent or not, but that’s not the point of the story.  In the shadowy world of the Section, there’s no judge or jury (although there’s certainly plenty of executioners).

As good as Russell Hunter always was (and Lonely has some nice moments in this one, especially in his first scene, when he’s dressed in a very smart suit, complete with umbrella!) by this point it was sometimes difficult to include him in the episodes without stretching credibility to breaking point.  During the first series (when Callan was still officially out of the Section) Lonely was a useful character, since he could obtain things (such as guns) which Callan couldn’t get any other way.

But by series three he doesn’t fulfill any function that a trained member of the Section couldn’t provide – so it’s sometimes harder to justify his presence.  For example, Callan asks him to break into Tedder’s flat and look for anything that could be used against him.  Callan then waits in the street below and only goes up to the flat once Lonely signals that he’s found something.  Lonely’s ability as a burglar is well-known, but do we really believe that Callan couldn’t have picked the very simple lock on the door or that he’d let Lonely search the flat by himself?

This does, however, give us the one moment of levity in the story – as Lonely excitedly thrusts a series of red-hot letters into Callan’s hand.  “Now the bird that wrote that, that is terrible, that is shocking, she’s got no shame. Now read that, read that.”

But the letters (referring to an old love-affair before Tedder met Beth) don’t do the trick and so Callan has to resort to other methods.  Eventually they succeed, but by the end of the episode there’s no particular cause for celebration.  The final words of the story go to Woodward and once again he delivers the goods.

God Help Your Friends was William Emms’ second and final script for Callan (he also wrote the wiped story The Running Dog for series two).  Active as a writer during the 1960’s and 1970’s he contributed to a number of popular series, such as Redcap, Public Eye, Doctor Who, Mr Rose, Ace of Wands, Z Cars and Owen M.D.

Peter Duguid would eventually direct eleven episodes for Callan, of which this was the eighth.  His direction here is unshowy and straightforward, but he manages to capture good performances from both Beacham and Jayston (who carry many of the key scenes).  Woodward is pushed more into the background, but he’s a constant, brooding presence and plays  Callan’s disgust with the job (and with the way it turned out) to perfection.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 1979). Episode Six

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Smiley’s hunt for the mole leads him to a rather dingy London drinking club.  There he meets Jerry Westerby (Joss Ackland).  Westerby is a newspaper reporter who’s done odd jobs for the Circus in the past – such as delivering packages to dead letter drops.  “Telephone kiosk, ledge at the top, dump a little package ready for collection.”

Westerby is clearly somebody who enjoys the cloak and dagger aspect of the job, as well as the glamour of operating on the fringes of the intelligence services, athough it seems that his usefulness has come to an end.  Possibly his fondness for alcohol is the reason.  “Firewater not good for braves. They think I’ll blab, crack up.”

Or it may be because of what he knows about the Jim Prideaux shooting.  Westerby was in Czechoslovakia at the time and he learnt that “the Russians moved in on Saturday, it was the day after they got Jim. Russians knew the lot, knew he was coming. They were lying in wait for him. Bad story, you see. Bad for big chief. Bad for tribe.”   When Westerby returned to England he told Toby Esterhase, but Toby professed not to believe it, dismissing it as nothing more than drunken ravings.

It’s a lovely cameo from Ackland and Guinness is his usual excellent self.  Whilst it’s clear from the outset that Westerby wouldn’t necessarily be Smiley’s first choice as a lunch companion, he’s easily able to tease the information out of the newspaper man.  As always, Smiley asks many more questions than he answers – witness the end of lunch, as Westerby wonders exactly what Smiley’s been after.  Guinness/Smiley remains inscrutable, offering very little.  At one point, rather than commit himself, he smiles – and the camera remains on him as the smile slowly fades away.  Tight close-ups (switching between Ackland and Guinness) are used in this scene, very effectively.  As they finish their lunch, Westerby muses about Toby Esterhase.

Westerby: Rum chap, Toby Esterhase.
Smiley: But good.
Westerby: God, brilliant! First-rate chap! But rum.

If Smiley has tended to be mostly passive so far, eliciting information rather than sharing it and not expressing too many of his own opinions, then that changes once he confronts Toby.  It’s the first time he’s spoken to one of the four suspects and it signals a major turning point in the story.

Toby meets Guillam at a safe house – apparently to see a potential agent – but instead he’s met by George Smiley.  Now it’s Smiley who does the majority of the talking, whilst the camera closes in on Toby’s increasingly pained face.  Guinness is, once again, excellent, as he’s able to fillet and humiliate Toby – but in the most gentlemanly way.

George Smiley: Ever bought a fake picture, Toby?
Esterhase: I sold a couple once.
Smiley: The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt its authenticity.

Eventually it becomes clear to Toby that source Merlin, and his London representative Polyakov, has deeply compromised the Circus.  He’s desperate to assure Smiley that he knew nothing about it, as well as downplaying his own involvement.

Esterhase: Why pick on the little guy? Why not pick on the big ones? Percy Allenine, Bill Haydon!
Guillam: I thought you were a big guy these days.
Smiley: You’re the perfect choice, Toby: resentful about slow promotion, sharp-witted, fond of money. With you as his agent, Polyakov has a cover story that really sits up and works. The big three give you the little sealed packets of chickenfeed, and Moscow Centre thinks you’re all theirs. The only problem arises when it turns out you’ve been handing Polyakov the crown jewels, and getting Russian chickenfeed in return. If that’s the case, Toby, you’re going to need some pretty good friends. Like us. Gerald’s a Russian mole, of course. And he’s pulled the Circus inside out.

Afterwards, Smiley commiserates with him.  “Poor Toby. Yes, I do see, what a dog’s life you must have had running between them all.”  It might be just another scene of people sat in a room talking, but in the context of the story it’s riveting stuff.  The result is that Smiley’s happy to discount Toby as a suspect, so that leaves the other three.

Now we’re into the endgame.  Toby has told Smiley about the location of the safe-house where Polyakov meets the representatives of the Circus.  In order to flush out the mole, a crisis needs to be created (so a crash meeting with Polyakov can be called).  He sends Ricki Tarr to Paris and instructs him to telex the following message back to London Station.  “Have information vital to the safeguarding of the service. Request immediate meeting. Personal.”

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 1979). Episode Four

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In many ways Michael Jayston is the glue that holds Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy together.  With Smiley remaining in the shadows until the end, it’s Peter Guillam who has to act as Smiley’s leg-man (for example, venturing into the Circus to obtain the information that he needs).  Guillam isn’t a showy part, but Jayston is perfect casting.  When Smiley’s People was made a few years later, Jayston presumably wasn’t available – so the role of Guillam was played by Michael Byrne.  Byrne’s a decent actor, but Jayston’s loss was keenly felt.

In episode four, Guillam is able to successfully liberate the Testify file from the Circus file-room, but his hopes for a quick getaway are scuppered when Toby Esterhase collars him in the corridor.  “Peter, I am very sorry to disturb you, but we have a crisis. Percy Alleline would like a word with you.”

Guillam finds himself confronted by the Circus’ top-men, with Alleline very much on the warpath.  He tells him he’s been seen with Ricki Tarr.  Guillam denies this and it becomes obvious that Alleline doesn’t have any proof – it’s more of a fishing exercise.  Source Merlin has divulged that Tarr’s wife and child are en-route to England, so logically Tarr must be here as well. And it’s clear that Alleline doesn’t believe Guillam’s denials.

Alleline: What the hell are you shrugging at us like that for? I’m accusing you of playing hooky behind our back with a damn defector from your own damn section, of playing damn-fool parlour games when you don’t know the stakes! And all you do is shrug at me? There’s a law, Guillam, against consorting with enemy agents! You want me to throw the book at you?

Guillam: I haven’t seen him! If anybody’s playing parlour games it’s not me, it’s you! So get off my back!

It’s another scene that throws the main suspects into sharp relief, especially Alleline, who is shown to be both patronising and condescending.  And when Guillam wonders exactly what use Tarr would be as a double-agent, Alleline can only respond with bluster.  “Well never mind what sort.  Muddying pools, poisoning wells maybe.  That damn sort.  Pulling the rug out.”

Whilst waiting for Guillam to return, Smiley and Mendel discuss him.  Mendel’s slightly concerned, since he’s heard some details about Guillam’s past operations – but Smiley remains confident in him.  It’s a scene that helps to give Peter Guillam a little more depth.

Mendel: He does sound jumpy. He might have overdone it a bit there. He was very loud. I’ve seen it all before, tough ones who crack at forty. They lock it away, pretend it isn’t happening, all of a sudden you find ’em sat in front of their desks, the tears pouring on the blotter.

Smiley: I think Peter will manage. You heard something about his murderous assignment in French North Africa, I suppose?

Mendel: Something. Whispers.

Smiley: Peter was over-matched, and lost. His agents were hanged. No one recovers entirely from that sort of thing. That is, I wouldn’t trust a man who did.

Later, Smiley and Guillam discuss Karla (Patrick Stewart) the man who is undoubtedly running the mole.  Smiley reveals that he met him once – in the mid 1950’s, long before Karla became the legendary figure he now is.  In the flashback scene of their meeting it’s notable that Stewart doesn’t have to utter a single word – Guinness does all the talking.

Look, I am not offering you money or hot women or fast cars, you have no use for such things. And I am not going to make any claims about the moral superiority of the West. I’m sure you can see through our values, just as I can see through yours in the East. You and I have spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in each others systems. I’m sure each of us experienced innumerable technical satisfactions in our wretched Cold War. But now your own side is going to shoot you, for nothing. For misdemeanors you have not committed, because of a power struggle within your own kind, because of someone’s suspicions or sheer incompetence.

Karla (Patrick Stewart)
Karla (Patrick Stewart)

Karla remains unmoved by Smiley’s offer and eventually returns to Moscow, where he wasn’t shot  – instead during the next few decades he was gradually able to increase his power-base.  When Guillam reflects that Karla’s fireproof, Smiley angrily responds that he’s “NOT fireproof!  Because he’s a fanatic! I may have acted like a soft dolt, the very archetype of a flabby Western liberal but I’d rather be my kind of fool than his. One day that lack of moderation will be Karla’s downfall.”

As there’s still three episodes to go, there’s a certain sense on running on the spot – but there’s still some important matters to be discussed.  The news that Irina has been executed in Moscow causes Smiley some concern.

Smiley: Ricky Tarr mustn’t know. It’s vital that he gets no wind of this! God knows what he would or would not do if he found out, and we may need to make further use of him.

Guillam: Do you really believe all that guff about Tarr being in love with her? The little homestead in the Highlands? The avenging lover, the honourable Ricky Tarr?

Smiley: He may be compelled, Peter, everyone has a loyalty somewhere. He mustn’t know.

It’s a moment that once again raises the question whether Ricky had any feelings for Irina or if he was purely interested in her for the information about the mole.  And Jim Prideaux has been tracked down (he’s teaching at a minor prep school) and it’s clear he’s somebody that Smiley needs to talk to urgently.  It’s emphasied that Prideaux and Bill Haydon were great friends.  Since this has been mentioned several times before, it’s obviously a point of some importance.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 1979). Episode Three

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Beryl Reid had an interesting career.  She first came to prominence in the 1950’s via the radio series Educating Archie, where she played several roles (the mischievous schoolgirl Monica and the Brummie Marlene).  During the 1960’s she continued to ply her trade as a comedienne and comic actress in a variety of different series.  She would later reflect that “comedy is the longest apprenticeship in the world.”

But it was a non-comic role, The Killing of Sister George, firstly on stage (for which she won a Tony award) and later on film (where she received a Golden Globe nomination), that bought her to critical prominence.  During the 1970’s she appeared in a number of films such Rosie Dixon – Night Nurse and Carry on Emmannuelle, which are pretty grim viewing, although they’re apparently comedies.  But there were also decent roles in several BBC Plays of the Month, such as Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals and Amanda in Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart.

Her somewhat unpredictable career path would later lead her to the role of Connie Sachs in episode three of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  Critically, both this and her later appearance as Connie (in Smiley’s People) can be considered career highlights – she was BAFTA nominated as Best Actress for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and won the BAFTA Best Actress award for Smiley’s People.

In Tinker Tailor she gives an effortless performance opposite Alec Guinness.  Smiley is the patient observer, gently guiding the voluble Connie to the topic he wishes to discuss.  Connie cuts a somewhat sad figure – disfigured by arthritis and living in rather shabby surroundings.  Like Smiley, she has been cast out of the Circus – and she still feels the pain.  “I was the best Head of Research the Circus ever had!  Everyone knew that! And what did they say the day they gave me the chop?  That personnel cow!  ‘You’re losing your sense of proportion, Connie.  Time you got out into the real world.’  I hate the real world!  I like the Circus and my lovely boys!”

With official Circus records not available to him, Connie is an invaluable resource, since she has instant recall of every case that ever passed her desk.  Smiley is interested in an agent called Polyakov and Connie recalls that when she tried to get Esterhase and Alleline to investigate him further, they declined.  And shortly afterwards Connie was retired from the Circus.  Another example of someone too close to the truth about the mole having to be removed?

Although her screen-time is only a little over seven minutes, it’s still one of the most memorable parts of the serial.  “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. Englishmen could be proud then, George. They could… All gone.”

Smiley has entrusted Peter Guillam with the task of obtaining the log recording Ricki Tarr’s reports to London concerning the Russian agent Irina.  Smiley reminds him to exercise extreme caution.  “You must assume, Peter, the Circus has dogs on you twenty four hours a day. Think of it as a foreign country.”

The Circus, as befits Britain in the late 1970’s is somewhat shabby and tired-looking.  This is exemplified by the squeaky lift door.  When Guillam says it’s about time that it was sorted, the receptionist gloomily tells him that he’s asked for it to be dealt with on more than one occasion.

Guillam’s visit is fruitless – the log has been tampered with and a vital page removed, but along the way he bumps into Haydon, Bland, Esterhase and Alleline who all react to him with varying levels of suspicion.  Haydon seems the most amused.  “What the hell are you doing here, you pariah?”.  But like all spies, he’s not always easy to read.

These scenes give us our first proper look at the four top men at the Circus – one of whom is “Gerald” the Soviet mole.  They didn’t appear in episode two and their only appearance in the first episode was in the pre-credits sequence, when the four of them silently entered a meeting-room.

The scene in the first episode is worth looking at in a little more detail, as even though only Alleline speaks, the it still manages to clearly define all their characters.  First to enter is Toby Esterhase – the fact he’s early and that he gets up later to close the door behind Haydon clearly demonstrates his fussy, precise nature. Next is Roy Bland, cigarette dangling casually from his mouth. Percy Alleline is the third one in, sitting down with a pompous, self important air. Bill Haydon is last – balancing his cup of tea with the saucer on top, he betrays a sardonic, amused attitude

The remainder of the episode is told in flashback, some six months before Control’s death.  Alleline has just proudly unveiled his Witchcraft material, much to Control’s disgust.

Alleline: Merlin is the fruit of a long cultivation by certain people in the Circus. People who are bound to me as I am to them. People who are not at all entertained by the failure rate about this place. There’s been too much blown, too much lost, too much wasted. Too many scandals. I’ve said so many times, but I might as well have talked to the wind for all the heed he paid me.
Control: “He” means me, George.
Alleline: The ordinary principles of tradecraft and security have gone to the wall in this service. It’s all “divide and rule”, stimulated from the top.
Control: Me again.
Alleline: We’re losing our livelihood. Our self-respect. We’ve had enough. We’ve had a bellyfull, in fact.

Does Control distrust the material or Alleline?  He charges Smiley to speak to Haydon, Bland and Esterhase.  “Sweat them, George.  Tempt them.  Bully them. Anything damn thing.  Give them whatever they eat.  I need time.”

Smiley draws a blank with all three.  First he speaks to Toby Esterhase.

Esterhase: My problem is promotion. I mean the absence of it. I have so many years’ seniority that I feel actually quite embarrassed when these young fellows ask me to take orders from them.
Smiley: Who, Toby? Which young fellows? Roy Bland? Percy? Would you call Percy young? Who?
Esterhase: When you’re overdue for promotion and working your fingers to the bone, anyone looks young who’s above you on the ladder.
Smiley: Perhaps Control could move you up a few rungs…
Esterhase: Actually, George, I am not too sure he is able to.

Roy Bland, despite being a protegee of Smiley’s, is equally disinterested.

If there’s no deal, you’ll have to tell Control to get stuffed! I’ve paid, you see, you know that! I don’t know what the hell I’ve bought with it, but I’ve paid a packet. Poznan, Budapest, Prague, back to Poznan – have you ever been to Poznan? – Sofia, Kiev, two bloody nervous breakdowns and still between the shafts! That’s big money at any age. Even yours.

The relationship between George Smiley and Bill Haydon is tense, since Haydon had previously had an affair with Ann, Smiley’s wife. He does, however, argue quite convincingly that Control’s problem is with Alleline – not the Witchcraft material.

Merlin would do if he were my source, wouldn’t he? If dazzling bloody Bill here pottered along and said he’d hooked a whacking big fish and wanted to play him alone and sod the expense, what would happen then? Control would say, “That’s very nifty of you, Bill boy. You do it just the way you want, Bill Boy. Have some filthy jasmine tea.”

With the personalities of the four top men now firmly established, Smiley begins his investigation in earnest.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 1979). Episode Two

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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 developing 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 to Tufty 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’s 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 with her 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?  But the fact she leaves him a series of notes in a dead-letter drop is one indication that her feelings were genuine.  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 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 …..

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?