“TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” (1979) Review
I would have never thought about watching the BBC’s television adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel if I had not seen the 2011 movie version. Never. For some reason, I have never been that inclined to read his novels or watch any movie or television adaptations of his work. But after seeing Tomas Alfredson’s movie, I had to see this version that starred Alec Guinness.
Unlike the 2011 movie, this “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” was set around the time the miniseries aired, since the Cold War was still in full swing. You know the story. The head of SIS (MI-6 in real life), Control, sends agent Jim Prideaux to Czechoslovakia to meet a Czech general who claims to have information identifying a deep-cover Soviet spy planted in the highest echelons of “Circus” (the nickname for the SIS headquarters). “Operation Testify” proves to be a trap when Prideaux is shot and captured by the Soviets. Due to the mission’s failure, both Control and his right-hand man, George Smiley, are forced to retire.
But when Ricky Tarr, a British agent gone missing in Portugal, turns up in England with new evidence backing up Control’s mole theory, Smiley is recalled to find the mole. He learns from Oliver Lacon, who oversees the country’s intelligence services, that Control had four suspects occupying high positions in SIS – Percy Alleline (who assumed the position as the Circus’ new head), Toby Esterhase, Bill Haydon and Roy Bland. Smiley, with the help of Peter Twiliam (who happens to be Tarr’s immediate supervisor), instigates a secret investigation of Operation Testify to learn the name of the mole, nicknamed “Gerald”.
To compare a seven-part television miniseries with a motion picture with a running time just barely over two hours seems just a bit too ridiculous to me. Instead, I will merely talk about the former. And what can I say about “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY”? It was a first-rate production that deserved all of the accolades it had received three-three to thirty-four years ago. Instead of the usual action-dominated spy stories that have spilled out of Hollywood and the British film industries since the first James Bond movies, “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” felt like an well-paced Cold War mystery that featured a good deal of excellent acting, dramatic moments and perhaps the occasional action scene or two on the side.
Too many flashbacks can be deadly to a story or a production. But when said production is basically a mystery, flashbacks can be effectively used. Director John Irvin and screenwriter Arthur Hopcraft certainly used the miniseries’ flashbacks with great dramatic effect – aside from one particular flashback. The most effective flashback – at least for me – proved to be the back story regarding of Ricky Tarr’s affair with Irina, the wife of a Moscow Center intelligence official, in Portugal. This affair leads to Tarr’s discovery of new evidence supporting Control’s theory of a high-ranking Soviet mole in the Circus. Another flashback that I found interesting proved to be Sam Collins’ recollection of the night when news of Jim Prideaux’s capture reached the Circus.
The single flashback that failed to resonate with me proved to be Smiley’s recollection of his brief meeting with his nemesis, KGB operative-turned-official Karla, during the 1950s. Although the scene featured an excellent performance from Alec Guinness as Smiley and a strong screen presence in the form of a smoldering Patrick Stewart as Karla, the brief scene nearly put me to sleep. I would have been satisfied with a verbal recollection from Smiley. And there were two sequences that I found either unnecessary or disappointing. I found the sequence featuring Prideaux’s trip to Czechoslovakia. I realize that both Irvin and Hopcraft’s script tried to convey this entire sequence as intriguing action scene. It did not work for me. Considering that most of the sequence was shot at night, I found it rather dull. And it came as a relief when the miniseries moved on to Smiley’s recruitment into Operation Testify. Smiley’s capture of “Gerald” in the last episode struck me as unsatisfying and anti-climatic. And while watching the miniseries, I realized that one needs a great deal of patience to watch it. I had no problem with its length, but I did find Irvin’s pacing rather slow at times.
The performances featured in “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLIDER, SPY” struck me as outstanding. I have already commented on Patrick Stewart’s brief, yet strong silent presence as Karla in one scene. Siân Phillips’ portrayal of Smiley’s unfaithful wife, Ann, proved to be equally brief. Although the character was discussed in numerous scenes, Phillips did not appear long enough for me to be impressed by her performance. Terence Rigby’s portrayal of one of the “Gerald” suspects – Roy Bland – seemed like a waste of time to me. Although Rigby gave a first-rate performance in one scene in which his character is interviewed by Smiley, he spent most of the production as a background character. I found this rather odd, considering his role as one of the major suspects. I also enjoyed the performances of John Standing, Joss Ackland, Alexander Knox and Michael Aldridge, who proved to be effectively smug as the new head of the Circus, Percy Alleline.
Ian Richardson was the last person I could imagine portraying the charming, yet acid-tongue womanizer, Bill Haydon. Yet, he really did a fabulous job in the role and it seemed a pity that he never portrayed similar characters, later in his career. I really enjoyed Ian Bannen’s performance as disgraced agent, Jim Prideaux. But I must admit there were times when I found it a bit hammy . . . especially in those scenes in his new profession as a schoolmaster. Beryl Reid struck me as perfect in the role of former Circus intelligence analyst, Connie Sachs. She not only conveyed the character’s intelligence, but also the latter’s joie de vivre that had sadly dampened with time and a surprising job termination. Bernard Hepton’s portrayal of mole suspect, Toby Esterhase, struck me as the most unusual role I have ever seen him portray. He was marvelous and slightly eccentric as the Hungarian immigrant who rose to the top echelon of the Circus by toadying to others. Hywel Bennett did a great job in his performance as field agent, Ricki Tarr, projecting both the character’s emotions and trapped situation. Michael Jayston’s portrayal of Smiley’s protégé, Peter Guilliam, struck me as equally emotional. In fact, I found his performance so effective that there were times I found myself wondering if the character was suited for intelligence work. The top prize for best performance definitely belonged to Alec Guinness, for his portrayal of intelligence officer, George Smiley. With delicious subtlety, he did a superb job of conveying every aspect of Smiley’s personality. To my knowledge, only five actors have portrayed Smiley either in the movies or on television. I believe that Guinness’ portrayal is probably one of the two best interpretations I have come across.
“TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” is not perfect. I believe it has a few flaws that included an unnecessary flashback, an unnecessary action sequence and some very slow pacing. But its virtues – an excellent story, first-rate use of flashbacks and some superb characters portrayed by a cast led by the legendary Alec Guinness – outweighed the flaws considerably. In my opinion, the 1979 miniseries might be one of the best television productions from the 1970s and 80s.