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PBS's Great Performances show was our outlet for this landmark British TV miniseries, which seemed to be repeated ad infinitum on public television stations all through the 1980s. The show was difficult to follow, to say the least, what with all the rarified British spy jargon and the foreign accents.
For John Le Carré enthusiasts, the 1979 miniseries of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a show made in heaven. A real secret operative whose works were widely read and admired by members of various intelligence services, Le Carré's utterly believable world of espionage aligned perfectly with the frustrating public image that emerged after WW2. Elaborate institutions studied the other side's strengths and weaknesses and dispatched agents to set up networks of information gatherers in foreign countries. Little was heard about them until scandals made front page news -- key secrets stolen for or sold to eager foreign agents; diplomats and government men compromised by sexual relationships; perplexing exchanges of prisoners and curious defections. The gate between East and West Berlin was a regular highway for men in gray raincoats.
Director John Irvin (The Dogs of War) made his name with this show, adapting the book's deliberate pace and careful, insular characters for the small screen. Although little in the way of action occurs, Tinker Tailor is heavy with a dozen different kinds of tension, from bureaucratic discomfort to the threat of imminent death. There seem to be two kinds of intelligence men in the outfit called "The Circus": honest foot soldiers that put their lives on the line out of trust for their superiors, and schemers working both sides of the street.
The Circus has been completely reorganized. Its leader for many years, code named Control (Alexander Knox) has been phased out due to the catastrophic failure of a mission to Czechoslovakia. He's since passed away and the next generation of spymasters is in charge, among them Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton) and Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson). But a cashiered fellow agent George Smiley (Alec Guinness) is hot on the trail of a traitor in the new order. Before he died, Control showed Smiley his theory that one of the new top men in The Circus is a Soviet agent. Smiley knows that the traitor must be one of the top four, given code names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Spy. Working with Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston), an agent from outside the central office, Smiley slowly gathers information from other dismissed associates and people connected to the failed mission: Jim Prideaux, the agent shot, captured and tortured in Czechoslovakia (Ian Bannen), Connie Sachs, an information archivist sacked for asking too many of the wrong questions (Beryl Reid), and Ricki Tarr (Hywel Bennett), a crack hit man who suddenly became an outlaw after uncovering suspicious facts about a Soviet trade agent. The trick for Smiley is to make his inquiries without raising suspicion -- he's trying to corner some very, very smart and ruthless men.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the antithesis of what passed for spy entertainment just a few years previous. It lacks action set pieces, exotic women, and diabolical conspiracies to rule the world. George Smiley is an unprepossessing man that Joseph Conrad might pick to be a spy -- just the kind of unimpressive, mild stranger that attracts no attention whatsoever.
But Alec Guinness's Smiley is a crafty, careful player, a thoughtful intellectual that tells the truth to his friends and puts up a convincingly bovine front for others. He looks meek but is totally unflappable under provocation. The only time Smiley loses his temper is when he must suffer the questions of fools. And Smiley must hide a deep distress somewhere inside him whenever people ask after his wife Ann (Sian Phillips). They're separated and she carries on her own love life with what seems to be many partners, including some of Smiley's own associates. It's a subject that requires tact whenever Smiley meets a friend.
In this American re-cut Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy plays out in six taut episodes. The extended format allows scenes to unspool at a natural pace, yet the story maintains a strong forward momentum. Ricki Tarr's romance with a Russian agent who wants to defect to the west (Susan Kodicek) dominates one episode, and the digression doesn't seem like padding. She becomes one of hundreds of contacts compromised by the "mole" within The Circus; many of them are killed. In one flashback Smiley interrogates a Russian agent named Karla (Patrick Stewart, amazingly a non-speaking part). Smiley allows his prisoner to steal his personalized cigarette lighter, as if knowing they will meet again. Karla will become the Soviet spymaster who seems to have all of the British service in the palm of his hand.
Also a standout is the underappreciated Ian Bannen as the loyal agent Jim Prideaux, who is tortured by Karla's people and finally released. The new leaders of The Circus that set him up then banish him as an undesirable. When Smiley finds him, Prideaux is holed up as a teacher in a boy's prep school, wary of assassins and looking forward to the day he can exact his vengeance.
Most of the major players are over fifty years of age, and waiting for the sickly Control to step down. Actor Alexander Knox looks to be on the threshold of death's door, yet he lived another fifteen years. Smiley's confidante and wing-man Peter Guillam is a youngster at perhaps 40; actor Michael Jayston (Nicholas and Alexandra, Zulu Dawn) gives him a flair for irony.
The general reputation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that it is slow, methodical and uneventful, which couldn't be further from the truth. The new Gary Oldman feature adaptation is very successful on its own terms, but both movies can be difficult for newcomers to follow. I recommend keeping a list of characters and actors close at hand for reference, as more names are tossed around in these conversations than there are dwarves in The Hobbit.
What makes the story compelling to us non-spies is the universality of the socio-political situation. The Circus is a company with leaders and followers, nose-to-the-grindstone types and opportunists, old hands and ambitious young talent. And every organization breeds its own domains of secrecy. Every company, school administration, government office and bait shack is now an arena of information hoarding, as knowledge is power and no organizational mission is more important than one's self interest. A good game to play while watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is to see if any of the characters align with "types" in one's life: the tearful team player that cries because she's been ousted from the game, the person that retains his dignity by keeping his co-workers at an emotional arm's length, the charismatic leader who doesn't identify with the goals of his own company.
We're told that Alec Guinness based his interpretation of George Smiley on aspects he noted in John Le Carré, and that Carré was so taken by Guinness that he adapted future "Smiley" books. Guinness returned for a second miniseries, Smiley's People -- that rascal Karla is still at large.
Acorn Media's Blu-ray of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes on two BD discs, with three episodes each as they were shown on American television, minus the PBS host intros. Viewers complaining about earlier dark DVD encodings have something to look forward to, as the new HD transfers are quite sharp and bright whenever there's enough light to illuminate a scene (which is most of the time). Tinker Tailor was filmed on 16mm, as were many UK TV movies (what an idiotic idea) so the images are somewhat grainy. But the original cinematography is quite good. Scenes are always in focus, something difficult to hit every time with the smaller format. HD pulls far more information from the negative, giving us images with more character detail. Nighttime shots of people skulking in dark doorways, or Jim Prideaux stalking across a moonlit meadow, are far easier to read than they were on old TV presentations. The HD processing also steadies the image and smoothes out splice jumps. The show now looks reasonably attractive, perhaps for the first time.
Also aiding our understanding are good removable English subtitles. They really help when the jargon gets thick. Nobody in Tinker Tailor stops to actually explain what a Mole is, and some crucial explanations are given only once. So keep that list of names handy if you really want to fully understand the show.
As if knowing that we Yanks will be "all at sea" without a crib sheet, Acorn provides a glossary of characters and terms as one of the extras. Fans of the world of John Le Carré will enjoy two half-hour interviews with the author and director John Irvin. More notes are followed by eleven minutes of deleted scenes.
The IMDB says that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy showed in a completely different version in the UK, divided into seven episodes. Neither I nor European correspondent Guido Bibra can make heads or tails of the conflicting running times. Each of the seven foreign episodes is said to end with a good cliffhanger, something that can't be said of this six-part cut, even though the shows are more than satisfying. Several episodes begin with reprised scenes from the previous show. Those eleven minutes of deleted scenes must be what was taken out. I didn't measure each episode for length, but I have a feeling that the 324-minute number includes some of the extras. The series was shown in hour time slots but I doubt that the episodes averaged out to 54 minutes apiece.
I thoroughly enjoyed both versions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but the long running time of the original miniseries gives it a definite edge: we get more time with a group of characters we really like.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.