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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)
Paramount Television/BBC, 10/9-22/10/1979
7x50 min, colour
DirectorJohn Irvin
ProducerJonathan Powell
Dramatised byArthur Hopcraft
Author of Original WorkJohn Le Carré
MusicGeoffrey Burgon

Cast: Alec Guinness (George Smiley), Bernard Hepton (Toby Esterhase), Terence Rigby (Roy Bland), Michael Aldridge (Percy Alleline), Ian Richardson (Bill Haydon), Ian Bannen (Jim Prideaux); Alexander Knox(Control); Hywel Bennett (Ricky Tarr)

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Retired spymaster George Smiley is brought back to uncover the identity of a double agent in the upper echelons of the British Secret Service.

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John Le Carré's 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sought to dramatise the sense of loss and betrayal that accompanied Britain's post-war disillusionment following the final collapse of its empire. It did this by fictionally recreating the revelations of the 1950s and '60s that exposed many of its Intelligence officers, including Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, as double agents in the employ of the KGB, events that rocked the British establishment.

In Arthur Hopcraft's seven-part BBC adaptation, George Smiley returns from his enforced 'retirement' to spearhead a mole hunt that is loosely based on the circumstances surrounding Kim Philby's identification as a KGB spy at the heart of the British Secret Service. By coincidence, the miniseries' first showing in 1979 coincided with the announcement that Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen's pictures, had also spied with Burgess et al for Moscow.

As Smiley, Alec Guinness gives one of his finest performances, his seemingly placid and imperturbable exterior masking a seething mass of conflicting emotions, culminating with his angry realisation that the same man is reponsible for his own domestic betrayal and that of the Service. The long, complicated narrative is told largely through a series of interlocking flashbacks, which helps to locate the mindset of the story and its characters in the past, one step closer to the events that inspired it.

Tinker, Tailor eventually resolves itself into a succession of extended vignettes, allowing for some finely-etched cameos from the likes of Joss Ackland, Ian Bannen, Hywel Bennett and Nigel Stock. Ian Richardson, as the ambivalent Bill Haydon, and Beryl Reid, as a melancholic ex-colleague of Smiley's now subsisting on a diet of whisky and memories, are especially good. Siân Phillips is also particularly sharp in the series' final scene as Smiley's unfaithful wife Ann, the mere mention of whom has been used throughout the episodes as a subtle way to impugn his integrity.

Although its Cold War aspects date it (as does Warren Clarke's crudely camp caricature of a homosexual functionary), the series remains notable for its powerful performances, taut direction by John Irvin, and an exceptional music score by Geoffrey Burgon, including his haunting Nunc Dimittis, a setting of the 'Song of Simeon', sung over the end titles uncredited by chorister Paul Phoenix. The series was an immediate success and has been repeated many times since. Guinness returned in the sequel Smiley's People in 1982.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Briefing Prideaux (2:35)
2. Smiley trapped (3:32)
3. Finding Smiley (2:02)
4. Ricky Tarr's story (2:35)
Smiley's People (1982)
Bannen, Ian (1928-1999)
Clarke, Warren (1947-)
Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)
Reid, Beryl (1919-1996)
Cold War Spies
TV Literary Adaptation