New release of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on Blue Ray now

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: 40 years on, the labyrinthine thriller is still TV caviar
The BBC adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel mystified a nation – but also featured one of the greatest performances ever seen on the small screen
Paul MacInnes

Thu 5 Sep 2019 12.45 BST Last modified on Fri 6 Sep 2019 23.38 BST
Sir Alec Guinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979).
Sir Alec Guinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979). Photograph: BBC
Forty years ago, the BBC broadcast its adaptation of the John Le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the first time. Starring Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley, the master spy hunting down a Soviet mole in the British intelligence services, it provoked controversy. Largely over whether it made any sense or not.

While Nancy Banks-Smith, in her review for the Guardian, called Tinker Tailor “the very best caviar”, Clive James in the Observer was of a different mind. “The first instalment,” he wrote, “fully lived up to the standard set by the original novel. Though not quite as incomprehensible, it was equally turgid.”

You get the feeling, from the way James begrudgingly warmed to the drama as it ran its course (“Anything can improve,” he wrote, “even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, of which the latest episode was a good deal less wearisome than the previous three”), that some of the invective was for effect. But he was not alone in finding the material challenging. Working out whether you had a clue what was going on in Tinker Tailor became something of a national pastime. Larry Grayson even joked about it in the Generation Game.

In 2019, it is not just the bluffs and double bluffs (and treble and quadruple bluffs) that viewers might find baffling. It is the world in which the drama is set, the way its inhabitants behave and what – if anything – they believe in. Tinker Tailor very much remains TV caviar. But it is also, from today’s vantage point, a remarkable insight into a different time, one that itself offered a window on to another, dying world.

Terence Rigby and Alec Guinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
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Terence Rigby and Alec Guinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Photograph: BBC
Tinker Tailor’s director, John Irvin, now 79, is one of the few people still alive who was involved in the production. His understanding of what the story required, he says, was filtered through values born of empire. “What we wanted to reveal dramatically was the complexity of the secret state,” he says. “The contradictions, the betrayals of loyalty. The aspect that I latched on to, I think, the one I felt personally, was the idea of service. Christian service and service to country. How that sense of Christian service could be corrupted into the most mendacious and reckless behaviour was something I was preoccupied with throughout the telling of the story.”

While we are still living in a Britain ruled by public school elites, this aristocratic concept of service would appear long gone. In 2019, it is a struggle to find anyone articulating a case for “doing good”, even disingenuously. Tinker Tailor may be a story about betrayal, the hunt for a mole at the heart of MI6, but it occurs in a world defined by rules and procedures. In the modern era, with all its disruption and executive action, that seems odd. A final jarring dissonance between Smiley’s world and ours is the aesthetic of it all, the drab locations and sallow flesh. It depicts a country wearing its decline on its sleeve. Our contemporary age would never admit to as much (and indeed it did not in the 2011 film version, where everything was carefully stylised and in the colour scheme of a 70s sitcom).

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Watching Tinker Tailor today, you feel teleported: you get the thrill of watching something that is complex, that you can’t quite make sense of but desperately wish to. (In 1979, the debate over Tinker Tailor’s complexity continued into the Guardian’s letters pages, with the counterpoint to the Larry Grayson position being articulated by a Dr Graham Nicholls, who made the case that “People love being mystified”.)

You also get to watch something that is slow and often silent, and all the more powerful for that. “Arthur [Hopcraft] in his dialogue left a lot of space for silence,” says Irvin of the celebrated Guardian journalist who went on to a brief but glittering career as a screenwriter. “It wasn’t like working with Pinter, where it was deliberate, but it gave a chance to see what’s going on behind the mask. A spy story is a succession of masks. It’s poker – the silence is when you are trying to read the other’s mind. If people talk a lot, they’re not going to be very good spies. The trick was in timing the silence so that you don’t overdo it and it becomes tedious, but leaving it long enough that it became tantalising.”

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Photograph: BBC
Those moments worked as Irvin hoped, and form the centre of Tinker, Tailor. They are like the extended interrogations in Line of Duty, except the tension is more drawn out and there are more gaps the viewer is encouraged to fill. Those interrogations would not have been remotely as effective, however, had they not featured one of the greatest acting performances ever delivered on the small screen.

Sir Alec Guinness, it was suggested at the time, was able to play Smiley because he was rolling in Star Wars money. His reluctance to take the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi had led him to ask for 2% of the film’s box office takings. That turned out to be a smart move and allowed Guinness some latitude in selecting his next roles. According to Irvin, however, that did not mean he leapt at the prospect of Tinker, Tailor. “He needed three lunches with me and certainly a lunch with David [Cornwell, AKA John Le Carré] and the head of MI6 to be convinced that he would commit.”

Eventually he did commit, and Guinness set about fully engaging with a character he described to the Guardian at the time as being “a vulnerable man who … is capable of taking unexpectedly swift and rather harsh action”.

For Irvin, working with Guinness was “a deep, creative partnership”, but it had its strengths and weaknesses. Guinness’s pull meant that the supporting cast – from Ian Richardson to Beryl Reid – were easy to acquire. Requiring more time and patience, however, was Guinness himself.

“Like a lot of great artists, there were moments of great insecurity,” Irvin says. “He rang me at four o’clock in the morning on a Sunday before a shoot, saying that he hadn’t really found George Smiley and that it would be much better if we just recast. He also said that he couldn’t put on any more weight, he didn’t feel right.

“I don’t know whether it was a provocation or not, but this made me quite angry. I said: ‘It’s not about the size of George Smiley’s tummy; it’s about the size of his massive brain, for heaven’s sake.’ We were about to shoot in two hours, so I said: ‘Let’s go back to sleep, we’ve got to get some rest.’ A little later I arrive at Primrose Hill and he’s standing entirely alone in an overcoat and bowler hat, ready to shoot the scene. Any hint of that insecurity had entirely gone.”

Guinness’s insecurity existed alongside the confidence to insist the UK’s chief spy dine with him before he accepted the job. And the same stark contrast is at work in Smiley, too. A paunchy, aged cuckold who looks too frail even to leave his chair, he is capable of plumbing the depths of the human psyche and confronting them.

The contradiction within Smiley served as a reminder that human beings are complicated things, and this complexity is the heart of what makes Tinker Tailor one of the best dramas of the TV age. A lot has changed in the years since it was made, but not that.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is now available to buy on Blu-Ray from BBC Studios

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: 40 years on, the labyrinthine thriller is still TV caviar