Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: TV Review

A long time back I reviewed Smiley’s People. At the time I’d seen the previous series – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – but I’d never gotten around to reviewing it. With the show having come out on Blu-Ray and being available through Netflix on-disk, and having seen the film a while back, I figured it was about time to revisit it.

The premise is probably pretty well known by now. There is a mole – an undercover Soviet agent – in the upper reaches of The Circus – British intelligence. After the previous director of The Circus, who was known only as Control, failed to suss out the mole and ended up being disgraced, his lieutenant, George Smiley (Alec Guinness) was forced out of The Circus – Control ended up dying of an heart attack.

Now, about a year or so later, new information about the existence of the mole has come to light thanks to a field agent named Ricki Tarr (Hywel Bennett), and Smiley has been called out of retirement by the Minister of Intelligence, Oliver Lacon (Anthony Bate), to find out who the mole is. Working with Smiley is his former protege, Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston).

From Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Smiley, Guilliam, and Lacon question Ricki Tarr.

Going from Control’s earlier work, they have narrowed it down to a handful of suspects, with the title being derived from the code names Control gave to the suspects for his failed attempt to get the mole’s identity from a Czech source.

  • The semi-competent current director of The Circus, Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge) – Tinker.
  • The second-in-command of London Station (who had previously been having an affair with Smiley’s wife) Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson) – Tailor
  • Haydon’s own number two, Roy Bland (Terence Rigby) – Soldier
  • The head of the surveillance and wiretapping division, Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton) – Poorman

Smiley himself was codenamed Beggarman, but by nature of being fired he’s out of the running for the mole.

By the nature of the adaptation being a miniseries instead of a film, the pace and structure is very different – and this really changes how the story plays. Roy Bland has so little presence in the story, as to generally disqualify him as the mole pretty quickly. He has pretty much the same amount of narrative presence in the film as well, but over a shorter runtime, which at least does something to preserve the possibility that he’s an actual suspect. By comparison, we get something from Alleline, Haydon, and Esterhase, to give a reason why we should keep them in the running as the mole.

The filming of Tinker, Tailor is pretty dry. I wouldn’t quite describe the direction style as “BBC Standard”, but the presentation doesn’t quite do it. There are parts that work – the school where Jim Prideaux is teaching in retirement is fine, as is much of the in-Britain location shooting. Using the offices of the BBC for the Offices of The Circus did a good job of getting across a sense of institutional age without the combination of age & prestige that you get with some of the Bond film set designs for MI-6. However, if there was ever a BBC miniseries that could have merited from some film-noir levels of use of light and shadow, this was absolutely it.

Once they step out of the UK, then things get a little rough, mainly because near that I could tell they had the budget to either find someplace in Europe to double for the Czech republic, or to film in Spain for Ricki Tarr’s sequences, and they chose the latter. Now that’s fine, but it also leads to the other problem with the miniseries.

Because the miniseries was for BBC TV, there are some definite limits on violence and sex that, by contrast with the film, hold the miniseries back. In the film, there aren’t a lot of graphically violent scenes. However, when they do happen they are intense and they are shocking. It puts the film more heavily in contrast with Bond movies and other, similar works that have violence, but are generally tame in their violence. The violence in Tinker, Tailor is horrific and has long lasting consequences, both physical and psychological, and I think the film conveys that well, while the miniseries is prevented from getting that across from the nature of where it’s being aired.

Still, in a lot of respects this is probably one of the best adaptations of Le Carre’s work, and while we’ve never gotten an adaptation of The Honorable SchoolboyTinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People are definitely worth your time.

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