1 9 7 9 (UK)
7 x 50 minute episodes
It took the combined efforts of BBC drama chieftains Graeme McDonald and Jonathan Powell to coax Alec Guinness out of semi-retirement to take the lead in a full-blown TV serial.
It then required a generous amount of tenacity and patience on behalf of director John Irvin to convince both Guinness and his equally imposing supporting cast of the merits of filming through one of the coldest winters on record.
The end result could have been all over the place: scriptwriter Arthur Hopcraft had constructed long static scenes of two-handed dialogues within bleak hotel rooms and dingy offices, alternating with rambling sequences of characters walking very slowly around Hampstead Heath.
The plot, meanwhile, was only fractionally more coherent and concise than that of the original John Le Carre novel, and the minutiae of the subject matter just as opaque and obscure (chock full of references to “juju men”, “lamplighters” and “scalp hunters”). Yet when Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy arrived on screen, it proved to be a masterpiece of controlled tension and character study.
On the one hand, there was a startling depiction of a hitherto unseen layer of society, an ageing, upper-class ensemble of crusty spies and traitors conducting the Cold War from within linoleum-lined corridors and shabby coats.
On the other, a poignant portrayal of one man’s inability to withdraw from his old life and come to terms with changing unfamiliar modern times.
A botched espionage operation in Czechoslovakia ensures that Control (the 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 Percy Alleline (“Tinker”), Bill Haydon, Roy Bland (“Soldier”) and Toby Esterhaze (“Poor Man”).
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 analysing 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.
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.
As George Smiley, Alec Guinness delivered one of the performances of his life (despite sporting a wig seemingly modelled on Le Carre himself) and proved vital in holding together the disparate strands of plot, narrative, atmosphere and double-bluff. He barely spoke in many scenes, letting the dialogue flow around him or allowing blustering characters to exhaust themselves.
A sequel, Smiley’s People, followed in 1982 but it is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that remains one of the greatest adaptations BBC2 ever attempted.
Much imitated, oft-remade, never improved.