Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (TV Series)

I read John Le Carré’s classic spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a few months ago, and found it difficult but brilliant. (The same can be said of most of his books).


Back in 1979, the BBC made a highly regarded TV mini-series adapted very faithfully from the book, starring Alec “Ben Kenobi” Guinness as protagonist George Smiley. I was keen to see it, and to compare it with the book.

I’m glad to have seen it, but not in any hurry to see it again. I had three difficulties with the series.

First — like all 1970s TV, viewed from 2017 — it is terribly slow. There are long, long passages where nothing happens. We watch George sitting in a car waiting for someone. We watch Peter Guillam looking out of a window. We watch Jim Prideaux walking along a road. I had the same problem recently when I watched the TV adaptation of R. F. Delderfield’s novel To Serve Them All My Days. For that matter, I have the same restless feeling when I watch old Doctor Who episodes where we spend a significant amount of time just sort of looking at Tom Baker. It would be harsh to criticise TTSP for this — it’s just what TV was like then.

Second, the cast consists entirely (bar a couple of short one-off appearances by two women) of middle-aged white men in suits smoking cigarettes. I don’t object on political-correctness grounds: this is simply the way things were in the British secret service in the 1970, and I am not one for rewriting history to be as ethnically and sexually diverse as we now think it should have been. But the uniformity of the cast does mean I have terrible trouble telling who is who. I’m not great with faces at the best of times, and this made it hard for me to follow what was happening — which leads me to …

Third, this is a complicated story, and difficult to follow even in the best of circumstances. The TV adaptation doesn’t make it any easier than the book. Much is left unsaid, implied. The watcher is expected to do plenty of work to put it all together.


But, oddly, that last difficulty turns out to be a plus. It seems appropriate somehow to be constantly bewildered by what transpires, unsure of identities, lost in the flow of events. This is how it would have felt to the participants, and there is something compelling about being a part of that rather than watching omnisciently.

Also: Alec Guinness is just perfect in this role. The George Smiley of the books is a smallish, unimpressive man, outwardly rather ineffectual or even a little foolish; but with a truly brilliant mind working away under the surface. Guinness captures that exactly. He is one of those rarest of actors who can do almost nothing and be absolutely in the role by doing it. (Martin Freeman is about the only contemporary actor I can think of who does this; Mark Williams comes close.)

Putting it all together, what we have is complex, difficult, confusing but richly rewarding TV adaptation of a complex, difficult, confusing but richly rewarding book. Which I think is the best we could have hoped for.

(I also plan to watch the 2011 film, which has a stellar cast, and see how it compares.)


11 responses to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (TV Series)

  1. I look forward to hearing what you thought of the film version. I had much the same problem with the tv series – everyone looked alike apart from Francis Urqhart (yes, I know that’s not his character’s name!) who I could at least recognise most of the time. The film has similar issues but the actors were a little more distinguishable, to me at least.

  2. I have a copy of the series. Anything with Lonesome George (Smiley) in it is worth watching!

  3. I have seen the 2011 film and I think the best I can say of it is that it was not awful. Some of the performances were good, but as a whole…

    Only worth watching if you are a fan of the novel and a completist.

  4. I have just landed after flying back from Houston, and, ironically, the 2011 version was the film I chose to spend time with for the first part of the flight. I found It excellent, with the right balance of slowness (without the continual edits and changes of camera) allowing the story to unfold, but with enough going on to keep me engrossed. Especially interesting was the fact Gary Oldman (Smiley) said nothing for the first 15 minutes of the film, letting life happen to him, almost as if he was a man out of his time.
    Sadly you also see an ageing but wonderful, John Hurt as Control. I will watch it again on a larger screen, without the turbulence, and let the story unfold around me once again.

  5. Sadly for me, “a fan of the novel and a completist” is a pretty accurate description :-)

  6. Interestingly different take on the film from Jon. I think seeing Hurt in the role of a slowly dying man is going to add a layer. If you found it effective even on a tiny screen on a noisy plane — which in my experience is the worst way to watch any film — that bodes well for how it does under more promising circumstances.

  7. “For that matter, I have the same restless feeling when I watch old Doctor Who episodes where we spend a significant amount of time just sort of looking at Tom Baker.”

    Actually, I think the measured, meandering pace of it helps the series. The film streamlines things, takes out some of the supporting characters’ backstories, but is lesser for it. I think that’s partly because it’s about being inured in a world or a culture, rather than a whodunnit for the mole. Also, it’s about a bunch of people, who wouldn’t be great at expressing their feelings if they wanted, trying to read one another. So small details become kind of numinously significant, as you do the same from the viewer’s perspective. (‘Dr Who’ is a different matter as that’s nearer to a standard adventure show.)

    The other weakness of the film compared to the TV series is that the world of the series didn’t have to be created so much because it simply existed then, it was the world of it’s day. Tweed jackets with frayed elbows. The film is stuck with recreating it.

    But I think the film would work well if you saw it without knowing the book or the series, or could switch off the parts of your brain that would seek to compare them.

  8. Well, Gavin, that all sounds very much as I would expect. Apart from anything else, the sheer requirements of fitting into two hours or so will necessarily entail cutting an awful lot of detail. I’m interested in finding to what degree they managed to retain the atmosphere of the original under that constraint.

  9. I saw the TV miniseries when it came out way back when and really liked it. I remember it being true to the book both in incident and in spirit. Le Carre’s books were not meant to be read as thrillers, full of action. They were puzzles, meant to be thought about and gnawed on. One was only seeing the surface. Phrasing, details, even delays often had meaning that became apparent only later. In a way, Le Carre’s books were written as a remedy for James Bond syndrome.

    I’ve known people in the intelligence business, mainly CIA, and their work was a lot like Le Carre’s books. There was the accumulation of detail, the puzzles, the shadow play, and it took a lot of thinking to understand what one was actually seeing. Emmanuel Todd, the French historian who forecast the collapse of the Soviet empire, argued in his book, ‘The Final Fall’, that understanding an opaque society like that of the USSR or communist China required using the tools of a historian. There were places you couldn’t go, things you couldn’t see, people you couldn’t meet.

    We were in Paris with an ex-CIA guy in ’92, and he wasn’t up to climbing to the gallery at the Notre Dame, so we younger members of the party left him below. When we returned, he was talking in Russian to a well dressed gentleman, perhaps in his late 30s. After the conversation: “That was the KGB head of station.” He explained his reasoning to us amateurs, the man’s clothes, his well dressed wife, his fluency in French, and the ambiguous title he had attached to the embassy, one usually reserved for the KGB head of station. My friend used to do that kind of thing for a living. It was interesting to get a glimpse of his work since he couldn’t talk much about it.

    If you find the Le Carre books too stuffy and upper crust, try Freemantle’s ‘Charlie Muffin’. It’s from the same era and works both as a Cold War spy novel and as a novel of manners. It helps if you are familiar with the English class system of the era and perhaps of today. They, possibly BBC, made a television movie of the book that was even funnier. The ending was priceless.

  10. Pingback: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011 Movie) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  11. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 14 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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