British Thriller/Miniseries

When first broadcast in September 1979, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was greeted with opposing voices as "turgid, obscure, and pretentious" or as "a great success." It is in keeping with the ambiguous nature of John Le Carré's narratives that one can simultaneously agree with both formulations without contradiction. As Roy Bland, paraphrasing Scott Fitzgerald observes: "An artist is a bloke who can hold two fundamentally opposing views and still function". The obscurity is a consequence of the themes of deception and duplicity at the centre of the narrative: to those who, like Sir Hugh Greene, prefer the moral certainties of Buchan's version of British Intelligence, Le Carré's world will not only be difficult to follow but morally perplexing. On the other hand, the success of the serial was not only demonstrated by good audience ratings but by general critical acclaim for the acting, a judgment ratified by subsequent BAFTA awards for best actor (Alec Guinness) and for the camerawork of Tony Pierce-Roberts. Ambiguity persisted in America where the serial won critical acclaim when shown on PBS but failed to be taken up by the networks.

Although Le Carré published his first novel, Call For the Dead, in 1961, and his first major success The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) was turned into a film in 1966, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was his first venture into television. He rejected the project of turning it into a film because of the compression, but felt the space afforded by TV serialization would do justice to his narrative. He was also impressed with the skill of Arthur Hopcraft's screenplay which extensively reordered the structure of the novel to clarify the narrative for a television audience without violating its essential character (Hopcraft for example begins the narrative with the debacle in Czechoslovakia which only begins to be treated in the novel in chapter 27). Le Carré was even more taken by the interpretation of Smiley provided by Alec Guinness, so much so that as he was writing Smiley's People he found himself visualizing Guinness in the role and incorporated some of the insights afforded by the actor in the sequel to the trilogy. A trivial example will stand for many. During the production of Tinker Tailor, Guinness complained that the characterizing idiosyncrasy of Smiley, polishing his glasses with the fat end of his tie, cannot be done naturally because the cold weather in London means that Smiley will be wearing a three piece suit, thus a handkerchief has to be substituted. At the end of Smiley's People Le Carré includes a teasingly oblique rejoinder:

From long habit, Smiley had taken off his spectacles and was absently polishing them on the fat end of his tie, even though he had to delve for it among the folds of his tweed coat. (emphasis added)

The story of Tinker, Tailor has an archetypal simplicity reminiscent of the Odyssey: the scorned outsider investigates the running of the kingdom, tests the loyalty of his subjects and kin by means of plausible stories before disposing of the usurpers and restoring right rule. In Le Carre's modern story the elements are transposed onto the landscape of conflicted modern Europe in the throes of Cold War.

A botched espionage operation in Czechoslovakia ensures that Control (Head of British Intelligence) and his associates are discredited. Shortly after, Control dies, George Smiley his able lieutenant is retired and the two are succeeded by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon, Roy Bland and Toby Esterhaze. Six months later Riki Tarr, a maverick Far Eastern agent, turns up in London with a story suggesting there is a mole (a deeply concealed double agent) in the Circus (intelligence HQ, located at Cambridge Circus). Lacon of the Cabinet Office entices Smiley out of retirement to investigate the story. Smiley gradually pieces together the story by analyzing files, interrogating witnesses and trawling through his own memory and those of other retired Circus personnel, notably Connie Sachs (a brilliant cameo role played by Beryl Reid) until he finally unmasks the mole "Gerald" at the heart of the Circus.

The mood of the story, however, is far from simple. Duplicity and betrayal, personal as well as public (Smiley's upperclass wife is sexually promiscuous, betraying him to "Gerald") informs every aspect of the scene. While the traitor is eventually unmasked the corrupt nature of the intelligence service serves as a microcosm of contemporary England: secretive, manipulative, class-ridden, materialistic and emotionally sterile. Thus, if the Augean stables have been cleaned, they will be soon be soiled again. This downbeat tone accounts for the serial not being taken up by the American networks and marks it off from the charismatic spy adventures of James Bond, but it also accounts for its particular appeal to British middle-brow audiences.


The spy genre is virtually a British invention: although other countries produce spy writers, the centrality of the genre to British culture is longstanding and inescapable: John Buchan, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth, Len Deighton as well as John Le Carré have all achieved international success for their spy stories (not to mention television dramas by Dennis Potter (The Blade on the Feather) and Alan Bennett (An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution). To account for this obsession with spies we only have to consider the political circumstances of Britain in the twentieth century: a declining Imperial power, whose overseas possessions have to be ruled and defended more by information than by outright physical force; an offshore island of a divided Europe; seeing itself threatened by German, then Soviet military ambitions. Perhaps even more significant than these external threats are those from within. A ruling class which maintains its grip on power by exclusion--a public school and Oxbridge educated elite hold a disproportionate share of positions of power in Cabinet, Whitehall, the BBC and government institutions--is liable to marginalize or demonize those who openly challenge its assumptions. The result is liable to be subversion from within--a tactic fostered by the duplicitous jockeyings for power of rival gangs in the enclosed masculine world of the public schools. The symbolic and emotional link between the world of the public school and that of the circus is established in Tinker Tailor by Jim Prideaux. The injured and betrayed agent teaches at a prep school after his failed Czech mission and enlists the aid of a hero-worshipping pupil as his watcher. Thus the fictions that Le Carré invented have their counterpart in the real world and tap familiar English fears and obsessions. In the same year, 1979, that saw the serialization of Tinker Tailor, the BBC also produced two documentary series Public School and Spy reinforcing the connections with Le Carré's work. "The Climate of Treason" concerned itself with speculating about the Fourth Man of the Burgess, MacLean, Philby double agents within MI5. On 15 November 1979 Mrs Thatcher identified Sir Anthony Blunt, adviser of the Queen's Pictures and Drawings as the Fourth man who had been recruited by the Russians in the 1930s. Le Carré's novel was read as a fictionalized version of these events.

The success of Tinker Tailor lies in the realism, not only of character portrayal--and the acting of Alec Guinness has achieved as definitive a performance as Olivier's Richard III or Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell--but of the way in which intelligence institutions work. But the claim for realism must not be pressed too far: Le Carré has admitted that the vocabulary used was invented: babysitters, lamplighters, the Circus, the nursery, moles--though he was also amused to discover that real agents had begun to appropriate some of his vocabulary once the stories were published. Moreover, much intelligence work is bureaucratic and boring: Smiley's reflections turn the drudgery of reading files into a fascinating intellectual puzzle which, unlike the real experience, always produces significant information.

At the symbolic level, however, the portrayal of the workings of bureaucracy is authentic: bureaucracies serve those who govern by gathering, processing and controlling access to information. In a world increasingly governed by means of information, those who control it have power and wealth, so that the resonance of Le Carré's story will carry beyond the cold war setting that is its point of departure.

-Brendan Kenny


George Smiley ..........................................Alec Guiness
Annie Smiley............................................. Sian Phillips
(Percy Alleline) ..........................Michael Aldridge
(Roy Bland).................................. Terence Rigby
Poor Man
(Toby Esterhase).................... Bernard Hepton
Peter Guillam........................................
Michael Jayston
......................................................Anthony Bate
.................................................Alexander Knox

PRODUCER Jonathan Powell

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 7 50-minute episodes

10 September 1979-22 October 1979


Bloom, Harold. John Le Carré. New York: Chelsea, 1987.

Bold, Alan Norman. The Quest for Le Carré. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

Lewis, Peter. John le Carré. New York: Ungar, 1985.

Monaghan, David John. "Le Carré and England: A Spy's?Eye View." Modern Fiction Studies (West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn 1983.


See also British Programming; Spy Programs