In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6’s echelons.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This week, the new feature film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy debuts in the UK. Be on the lookout for Kelvin Green’s review of the film in the next few days.
As preparation for the film’s release, the UK Crime, Spies, and DCIs team decided to take a look back at the classic 1979 BBC adaptation. Be warned. Beyond this point, there be spoilers!
Kelvin Green: Was this your first viewing of the BBC adaptation?
Paul Brian McCoy: Yes. I’d heard of it for years, of course, but just never got around to seeing it.
Kelvin: I’d seen it years ago, and had always remembered it being good, but I enjoyed revisiting it.
Paul: And with the new film adaptation on the way, I figured I should see what all the fuss was about.
Kelvin: Yes, a good opportunity to catch up.
I think the thing I like most about it — and I hope they keep it in the new film — is how it’s about the boring side of being a spy, all the paperwork and reading and sitting up all night in tiny rooms going through files.
And yet, it’s never boring to watch.
Paul: True. Although it is quite casually paced, nearly every minute was interesting and drew me in.
Kelvin: Yes, “casually paced” is a good way to describe it.
Paul: As we’ve discussed in other works, it really does help to have a single hand, or in this case, a single team doing the adaptation.
Kelvin: Yes, compare to Torchwood, although it’s perhaps unfair to do so.
Paul: Remarkably unfair.
Kelvin: It doesn’t hurt that the cast is full of so many heavyweights (something the new film is clearly attempting to mimic).
The cast is so good in this that Patrick Stewart is reduced to a silent cameo.
Paul: That was hilarious.
Kelvin: And he’s the big villain of the piece!
It’s like stunt casting, only not.
Paul: Retroactive stunt casting to draw in the Star Trek fans years later.
Kelvin: Clever old BBC!
Paul: You won’t catch them napping.
Kelvin: It shows the strength of the writing that Stewart’s character has this importance despite only appearing for about three minutes.
Paul: I really wasn’t familiar with most of the cast, to be honest, though. Guinness and Richardson, of course. But for most of the other main characters I had my standard response to watching a UK production: I should know who that guy/girl is!
Kelvin: Yes, a lot of them are the type of solid British actor you see propping things up in various costume dramas and the like. As well as the twelfth-and-a-halfth Doctor, of course.
That’s our one Doctor Who link, I think.
Kelvin: Michael Jayston, who played Smiley’s right-hand “scalphunter” — and how I loved all the insider jargon — played the evil future incarnation of the Doctor in the late 80s.
Paul: Ah, I saw where he was The Valeyard in “The Trial of a Time Lord”, but I’m not as up on that era of Doctor Who as I should be.
Kelvin: In all honesty, you’re not missing much. Still, he was good in this.
Paul: I loved the way the other branches of The Circus looked down on the Scalphunters. You can almost see the recent rebooting of the James Bond films as going back to this sort of relationship.
Kelvin: Yes, the rough and tumble boys who do the dirty work.
Paul: Structurally, I have to admit that I was a little put off by the first chapter. But that was on me for being lazy. I wanted to be told what was going on rather than having to figure it out as things went along.
Kelvin: Yes, the narrative jumps weren’t clearly signposted, so I was momentarily lost once or twice.
I liked that first pre-credits scene showing the heads coming in for their meeting and showing how weird they were, with their little tics.
Paul: Did the UK DVD have subtitles for the Czech part?
Kelvin: Yes, there were subtitles, but they were on a second subtitle track, past the usual track, so I wouldn’t have found them if I wasn’t flicking through to see what was there.
I’m not sure what that was about.
Paul: Weird. The copy I was watching had nothing, so that section was all very mysterious.
Kelvin: For me too, but I went back with the subtitles. In all honesty, nothing much is missed.
Paul: That’s what I figured. It was all pretty clear, I just wasn’t sure if something was revealed when they drove out to the woods, just before being captured.
It may have helped draw me in a little more than it would have otherwise. I had to pay attention.
Kelvin: Yes, it did have that effect on me too. It forces you to watch closely, as you can’t rely on the subtitles. One wonders if that was subtitled in the original broadcast.
I would guess not, from the way the DVD is set up.
Paul: Ultimately, I liked it for not making that easy. It was just that next scene with Smiley running into the gossip and being forced to sit and listen to him for hours that put me off.
I understand the reasoning for the scene, but the info dump it provided wasn’t the most efficient.
Kelvin: Yes, it was difficult to engage with that bit, I agree. It may have been the only unsubtle part of the whole thing.
Paul: I agree. From that point on it was brilliant.
Kelvin: Yep. now I can understand those stories that float around about how Alec Guinness was apparently so annoyed about only being remembered for Star Wars; he’s so good in this.
Paul: It’s no wonder he wanted nothing to do with the sequels. Cameos or nothing.
Kelvin: Yep! I loved those lingering shots of him taking off his glasses, cleaning them, then putting them back on, ever so slowly. The silent menace of it.
Paul: It made me curious about their pasts. I’ve not read anything by le Carre, so I don’t know if there’s any back story beyond what we got here.
Kelvin: It’s part of a trilogy, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first one. The BBC also did an adaptation of Smiley’s People, the third book, but not the second.
The second book is about the character played by Joss Ackland in this one.
The history is fascinating. It’s just another way in which they make this small production — small cast, not many sets — seem bigger than it is.
Paul: I was just tracking down who Ackland played – the reporter, Jerry Westerb
Kelvin: Yes indeed. Quite the stomach-turning role, I thought. There was something so disgusting about the way he played the scene.
Paul: A man of appetites.
Kelvin: The eating, the hint of desperation and alcoholism.
Paul: But the character was so much more interesting than the gossip at the beginning (whoever that was).
Kelvin: Yes, he had more to him. That grotesque feel made him more memorable and interesting.
Paul: I really liked the way Arthur Hopcraft (the writer) and John Irvin (the director) staged the flashback scenes to provide the information that otherwise would have just been people sitting in a room talking.
The first one took me by surprise, in Chapter Two, “Tarr Tells His Story”, where nearly the entire episode is, as the title says, devoted to Ricki (Hywel Bennett) telling his story.
Kelvin: Yes, the shifts to flashback were a little jarring and could perhaps have been signposted better, but the actual use of flashbacks for exposition was really well done throughout.
Paul: It makes me curious to see how they structure this in the film.
Kelvin: Yes, even if they pick up the pace, there’s still a lot of material in the series which must not make it into the film.
Paul: That’s a little disconcerting, as it seemed like there was very little fat on this version. Seven episodes and nearly everything seemed vital and important.
Kelvin: Yes, I thought that too. As I watched it, and another episode ended, I found myself surprised at how gripping it was. At no point was I urging them to get on with it.
Paul: That’s what’s so impressive. Even the vaguely creepy scene where Smiley visits Connie (Beryl Reid) was completely engaging.
Kelvin: Yes, there’s so much going on in every scene, stuff that’s not explained, and it all adds texture to the world. Like Connie’s condition, and the way it affected her hands. Prominent, but not commented upon.
Paul: Aha! She was in Psychomania! That’s where I recognized her!
Kelvin: Oh, Psychomania, how we love thee. And she was in Doctor Who, too!
Paul: If you keep scratching at any British production, the Doctor Who connections will start bleeding out.
Kelvin: Yes, it’s inevitable really.
Paul: By the end of the production I thought they had laid out the mystery well enough that the revelation of who was spying seemed a little obvious. Although they did try to throw us off-guard with Toby (Bernard Hepton).
Kelvin: Yes, I thought that too, although I’d argue that by that point it’s not about the mystery as such, but how Smiley gets to the answer.
Paul: Exactly. Which is why I wasn’t bothered by it at all. It was just a natural coming together of the plot. Although it was orchestrated as though it was supposed to be a big surprise, with Smiley creeping so slowly and Peter running through the street to get there in time.
Kelvin: Yes, I wonder if it would be more of a surprise if it wasn’t watched in one sitting.
Paul: Possibly. No, probably. Although, if it hadn’t been Bill (Ian Richardson) I would have been pissed.
Paul: Should that have a spoiler warning? For a show that first aired over 30 years ago?
Kelvin: Ha! Perhaps. We wouldn’t want to spoil it for the film-goers, assuming the plot is the same.
Paul: Because dammit, Ian Richardson was great in this role. And I want to talk about it.
Kelvin: Yes, he really was good. He was the most Bondesque in there, and you liked him. So of course he had to be the mole.
Paul: I know! He was like the only character who seemed to enjoy his job.
Kelvin: When he comes in on the night shift and promises to get Prideaux (Ian Bannen) out of Czechoslovakia, I wanted to cheer for him, even though I knew somehow that he was behind it all.
Paul: The only thing about his character that I wasn’t thrilled with was the way they subtly worked in his homosexuality. Or bisexuality, at least. Of course the pinko spy was a fairy, too.
Kelvin: Yes, that seemed a bit odd and unnecessary at the end.
Paul: But then, all the sexual relationships were odd.
Kelvin: True, and one suspects that that’s part of being a spy.
Paul: Smiley and Ann’s relationship was a surprise. I really wasn’t expecting that. Or for it to be brought up over and over again.
Kelvin: Yes, I thought it was an attempt at humour at first.
Paul: I was waiting for Guinness to punch somebody.
Kelvin: And then, at the end, for it to suddenly be revealed as important to the whole conspiracy. Vital, even.
Paul: Hell, even Karla (Patrick Stewart) took a jab at them.
Kelvin: It does make Smiley seem human though, and makes his cold intelligence easier to take. Although he seems to inspire loyalty in other agents, his wife is all over the place.
Paul: It just wasn’t the relationship I expected. It made sense, in a weird way, but was a surprise. It added a surprise texture to the narrative.
Kelvin: Yes, I didn’t expect the couple to be so at peace with how their relationship worked. No anger, no difficulties.
And at the end of it all, Smiley goes to Ann to talk about what’s happened.
Paul: I couldn’t help but feel there was a little bit of cold anger in that. Let her know she was bedding a spy who was with her on orders.
Kelvin: Yes, one last dig at her. Good point.
Paul: Complicated and very well played.
Kelvin: That’s the way Smiley works, wheels within wheels and all that. Yes, he’s not going to come out with a bare criticism, but rather hide it behind an official debriefing.
Paul: It was the same kind of thing in that final bit where he’s temporary head of The Circus and lets all the bastards who put him out know that they’re done. Cold and polite. But they all know they’re right fucked.
Kelvin: Yes. As I was saying before, you get the feeling that Smiley is a proper bastard, but he’s so quiet and calm about it all.
Paul: That was my favorite thing about him.
Kelvin: Yes, he’s just as tough and dangerous as Bourne and Bond, but he does it all in a different way.
Paul: Watching this for the first time, I was struck by how many recent works have told similar stories.
Kelvin: Yes, I wonder if that w
as part of why the revelation of the mole didn’t come across as much of a surprise, because others have ripped it off since.
Paul: Rubicon did a little of this. And there were echoes in The Shadow Line, too.
Kelvin: Yes, very much so. Gatehouse was like Smiley gone bad.
Paul: Have you read or seen the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels?
Kelvin: I have not. I’ve been waiting for the hype to subside a bit.
Paul: There’s a major storyline there that is similar to the ousting of Control and taking over of the Circus. Not the same thing, but a conspiracy of spies operating on their own inside of the main organization that ties into the main story with those characters. These men in suits with agendas sitting in a room and making big decisions, kind of thing.
Kelvin: What I liked about that was how petty it was. These are men who have so much power, yet they’re pissing about trying to get the biggest chair in the office, and in doing so they don’t realise they’re being played.
Whereas Smiley, in his coldness, is not concerned with such pettiness.
Paul: Smiley and Control. I loved Control. He was such a bastard. Wouldn’t even tell anyone his real name. Awesome.
Kelvin: Yes, how to annoy a bunch of spies.
Paul: So after watching this, I want to watch Smiley’s People even though it has a different writer/director team. I want to see more of these characters and their interactions.
Kelvin: Yes, me too, and it’s a shame the BBC never did the middle book, although I can understand the cost being prohibitive.
Paul: I wonder if the filmmakers are considering it?
Kelvin: I would expect so. They could easily get a trilogy out of it.
Paul: Lock Gary Oldman into a three-picture deal. I’d do my best to make that stick.
Kelvin: Yep, the new film seems to be getting good reviews, so I’m sure they have an eye on more instalments.
Paul: Especially if I could lock the director in, too. I didn’t realize it was Tomas Alfredson, the director of Let the Right One In who was at the helm.
Kelvin: Yes, it’s his first English-language film too.
Paul: Ooh, didn’t know it was written by Peter Straughan either. I’m very curious about The Debt. That looks pretty damn good.
Although I suppose Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman might have had more of a hand in that.
Kelvin: What’s with Helen Mirren making all these action movies about spies, anyway?
Paul: Helen Mirren is God.
Sexy, older God.
Paul: I’ve loved me some Helen Mirren since the first time I saw The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.
Kelvin: It was Excalibur for me, which I’m fairly sure wasn’t appropriate to show in English lessons, but I’ll let my teacher shoulder the burden on that one.
Paul: I forgot about Excalibur! I was stunned when I saw her in O Lucky Man! a few years ago. She’s always been gorgeous and smart and God.
Kelvin: Apparently so!
Paul: Do you have any final thoughts?
Kelvin: Nothing major, just to note that I should have watched Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a lot earlier, as I’ve been missing out. Or re-watched, rather.
Paul: Everyone who’s a fan of the genre should see this. It’s a foundational work.
Kelvin: Absolutely. Textbook. If the new film is half as good as this, it’s on to a winner.
Paul: , then?
Kelvin: Yep, no reservations. This is how it’s done. .
Kelvin Green erupted fully formed from the grey shapeless mass of Ubbo Sathla in the dark days before humans walked the earth. He grew up on Judge Dredd, Transformers, Indiana Jones #12, the Avengers and Spider-Man, and thinks comics don’t get much better than FLCL, Nextwave and Rocket Raccoon. Kelvin lives among garbage and seagulls and doesn’t hate Marvel nearly as much as you all think he does.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot. He currently has little spare time, but in what there is he continues to work on his first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.