Written PostFrom the DVD Shelf: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979)

From the DVD Shelf: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979)

I’m very excited for the new film adaptation, starring Gary Oldman, of John le Carré’s 1974 spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. (I haven’t seen the film yet, but really hope to get to it soon.)  But the release of this new film adaptation spurred me to at last track down something that had been on my “to-watch” list for years: the BBC’s 1979 six-part television adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring none other than Sir Alec Guinness in the lead role as George Smiley.

(I wrote six parts because that was how the show was presented in the DVD that I have.  I am aware that the show was aired in seven parts on the BBC, and re-edited into six parts for the American release back in 1980.  I actually didn’t know that until reading up on the mini-series after I’d watched it and, while watching it, I didn’t notice anything that would have lead me to suspect that the series had been re-edited.  Nothing seemed to be truncated, and the end-points of each of the six episodes felt natural to me.  In hindsight, the film-purist part of me wishes I’d seen the original British seven-part version, but the six-part American version certainly worked for me so I have no complaints.)

George Smiley is a getting-on-in-years British intelligence expert who was forced out of the British secret intelligence service (which all the characters refer to as “the circus”) following a power-play in which his mentor, the head of the agency who was known as Control, was pushed out.  But Smiley is brought back into the game when a government official becomes aware of the existence of a possible mole deep within the Circus.  It turns out that Control had been aware of the existence of the mole, and had narrowed down the possibilities to five suspects, nicknamed “tinker,” “tailor,” “soldier,” “poorman,” and “beggarman” (from the words of a British children’s rhyme).  Smiley is given the near-impossible task of spying on the spy-masters.  He must infiltrate the circus and uncover the identity of the mole, all under the noses of the current head officers of the circus, any of whom could be the mole.

I absolutely adored this mini-series, but it’s not for the casual viewer.  One has to pay very close attention to the story to suss out who everyone is and what exactly is happening.  Although it’s very languidly paced, the mini-series doesn’t stop to hold the viewer’s hand to explain who the different characters are, or what the heck they’re talking about.  All of the information you need to understand the story is there, but the viewer has to do a lot of the work to figure things out.  There were definitely scenes that went by, at the end of which I said, “what the heck was that scene all about?”  Sometimes I’d rewind and a second look would clarify things.  Other times it was only much later that I was able to think back and piece together, “oh, OK, that’s what that scene was all about.”  At times this was a bit frustrating, but over-all I appreciated a story that wasn’t in any way dumbed-down for the audience.

The other aspect of the mini-series which might turn off some is it’s very slow pace.  I found the story to be riveting, but you should be warned that this is a spy story with very little action or adventure.  The vast majority of the scenes in the six-hour saga are just a few people (mostly British) sitting in drab rooms talking to one another.  To me, the fun of the series is the way in which great drama is drawn out of all of that dialogue.  Particularly as the series builds towards its climax, I found it to be terribly compelling.  But if you’re feeling drowsy, this might not be the DVD to pop on.

I mentioned drab rooms, and boy is that an understatement.  This is not a film in which the visuals really grab you.  Most of the scenes in the mini-series really do take place in small, dull little rooms.  In a lot of spy-movies, the places in which the spies live and work are glamorized, but not so here.  This might have been as a result of a limited budget, but the result is a film that probably captures the real, every-day realities of life in the secret services.  Though I do wish that the occasional scene had been set in a room with a window!

The series uses flashbacks in an interesting way.  Particularly in the first three hours, the show is unafraid to plunge viewers into an extended flashback.  This works well in illuminating the situation Smiley has been presented with, though I will admit, at times, to getting bored with the flashbacks (particularly in episode two, the entire hour of which is almost entirely a flashback) and wanting to get back to Smiley already.  But I have to be sort of admiring of the show’s fearless use of those extended flashbacks, as if saying “trust us, this information will be useful to you in the end.”  (In watching this six-hour mini-series, I found it interesting to ruminate on how this story will be condensed into a two-hour movie, and I’d bet these lengthy flashbacks will be the first thing to go.  We’ll see…!)

The centerpiece of the whole show, of course, is Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley.  Mr. Guinness is absolutely amazing in the role.  It’s an extremely quiet, reserved performance.  Mr. Guinness was not exactly a spring chicken when this was filmed, and the film doesn’t present George Smiley as anything other than an elderly chap.  And yet, Mr. Guinness brings enormous steel to Smiley.  Even when faced with younger, tougher men than he, Smiley never blinks, never wavers.  Mr. Guinness uses his glasses as a fascinating device, throughout the mini-series, to show Smiley’s inner strength.  Time and again we see a scene in which, at first, Smiley seems like a very old man, impossibly out of his depth.  Then Mr. Guinness will rub his glasses and put them back on his face, and suddenly it’s as if his entire face changes, and through those glasses we’ll glimpse eyes of incredible toughness and danger.  Those glasses are like Smiley’s armor, and they serve to sometimes camouflage and sometimes make crystal-clear the sharp intelligence of the man behind them.

Watching Sir Alec Guinness at work is the greatest delight of the mini-series.  This is Guinness’ show, without question, and any scene that he’s not in suffers from his absence.  There is a fine ensemble of British actors at work around him, of course.  Most of them were unfamiliar to me, though I did enjoy at seeing Waking Ned Devine’s Ian Bannen as the tough, virile British agent sent off on a doomed mission in the mini-series’ opening scenes.  (Mr. Bannen is so engraved in my mind as the kindly, frail Jackie O’Shea that it was great to see him, as a younger man, playing a tough-guy.)  And I was also tickled to see Patrick Stewart cast as the Russian spy-master Karla!  Unfortunately, he’s just in one scene, and he doesn’t have a single word of dialogue, but it still tickled my geek funny-bone to see Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Obi-Wan Kenobi in a scene together.

One might think that some of what I’ve written (the series’ slow pace, drab settings, etc.) would mean that I really disliked this mini-series, but that’s not the case at all.  I found it to be a fascinating spy-story, and although some of those aspects of pacing or lack of visual interest do sometimes serve as a barrier for one’s engaging with the story being told, I didn’t find them to be insurmountable barriers.  This is just a story in which, as I wrote before, the viewer needs to do a bit more of the heavy-lifting in order to follow the narrative.  But for those willing to invest the time and energy, the result is a rich, complex tale of espionage, and a phenomenal star performance by Sir Alec Guinness.