Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Well it’s a Bank Holiday (hooray!) so naturally it’s raining (boo!). Nice to have a lie-in on a Monday morning for a change, but will probably spend the afternoon working anyway. We’ve just finished formal teaching term, and now we have a “Guided Study Week” of revision lectures etc before examinations start next week.

By way of a diversion I thought I’d mention that on my recent trip to South Africa I got a chance the see the film version of  John le Carré’s superb novel Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy. It was much as I’d expected, actually. Well acted and directed  in itself, but rather difficult to enjoy if you’ve either read the book or seen the seven-part 1979 BBC TV dramatisation which, centred around a flawlessly understated performance by Alec Guinness as George Smiley, is surely one of the finest TV drama series ever made, although the sequel Smiley’s People is perhaps even better.

The point is that the original plot by John le Carré is just too complicated to fit in the usual duration of a feature film, so if one knows the full story one can’t fail but be conscious of the alterations and huge chunks completely missing from the movie. Nevertheless, given the constraints, it’s a good film in its own right. I’m glad I watched it, though that was mainly because it reminded me how good the TV version was.

Incidentally, parts of the film were apparently shot at Imperial College. I didn’t actually spot this when watching it, but was told about it afterwards.

Anyway I found this clip on Youtube of the very start of the TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy , a scene placed before the opening titles rolled. Although it doesn’t correspond to anything in the book, I think it epitomizes what was so good about the television version. It features the four characters who belong to the Witchraft “Magic Circle” responsible for running Source Merlin, a Soviet agent who is supposed to be working as double-agent for British Intelligence (called “The Circus” because of its headquarters in Cambridge Circus). Of course it turns out everything is actually the other way round, and Source Merlin is Moscow Centre’s contact with a mole inside the Circus (codename “Gerald”) who is handing over British secrets. Gerald must be one of the four who have regular contact with Source Merlin, but which one?

I think this scene is brilliant because nobody says a word for most of it, but it immediately establishes the different characters of the respective protagonists. The pompous and punctilious pipe-smoking Percy Alleline (“Tinker”) brings a huge dossier of papers to the meeting, evidently enjoying his role as Head Boy. Flamboyant Bill Haydon (“Tailor”) displays his studied eccentricity by bringing only a cup of tea, with the saucer on top, and a biscuit. Haydon’s expression as Percy starts the meeting is priceless. Dishevelled chain-smoking Roy Bland (“Soldier”) seems entirely preoccupied with other things. Snappily dressed Toby Esterhase (“Poor Man”) betrays his status as a junior member of the club by arriving early – no doubt to impress – and closing the door that Haydon carelessly left open.

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16 Responses to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”

  1. I did enjoy the recent film, but was left slightly disappointed, or at least puzzled, with some of the departures from the book.

    I can understand some of the changes for cinematic effect (like Testify itself, or the Tarr/Irena side story), but some seemed unnecessary – for example, why Jerry Westerby replaces Sam Collins (unless this is to introduce the character in preparation for the next film).

    Recently I’ve been listening to the radio adaptions of the trilogy with Simon Russell Beale as Smiley, which is excellent, and pretty close to the book.

    • telescoper Says:

      I didn’t understand that either. The TV series established Jerry Westerby as a rather engaging character, but then they skipped the Honorable Schoolboy and followed Tinker Tailor up with Smiley’s People, which I also thought a bit strange.

      Smiley’s encounter with Sam Collins, and the latter’s recollection of the night of Operation Testify, was the point where I was sure I knew the identity of the mole…

      • Dave Carter Says:

        Allegedly they would have had to film the Honourable Schoolboy on location in Hong Kong, but they couldn’t afford it.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    I enjoyed the BBC Smiley’s People a lot more than their Tinker Tailor, although I did see the former only recently (thanks for lending me the DVD Peter!)

    Which of them was the traitor? I couldn’t possibly comment…

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  4. I find it funny that you say the movie is difficult to enjoy if you have read the book or seen the BBC series. As someone who hasn’t done either, I found the movie utterly incomprehensible. I had imagined that only someone who *did* know the earlier versions could enjoy it.

    I couldn’t bring myself to care which one of those guys was the mole, because the characters were so sketchily drawn that I couldn’t remember anything about any of them anyway.

    This novel is probably just not well-suited to adaptation to something as short as a feature film.

    • On the other hand, I watched the film before I read the book and I very much enjoyed it. I didn’t understand all the links and subtleties at the time, but that meant I spent some time discussing and puzzling over them with friends afterwards – in my opinion a point in favour of the film rather than the other way around!

      I then read the book and enjoyed that even more. Curiously, having seen the film first enhanced my appreciation of both. I dare say doing things in the opposite order I might have shared Peter’s view. (I haven’t watched the BBC series.)

      Having now read The Honourable Schoolboy, I’d be very surprised if anyone managed to make that into a film.

  5. Dave Carter Says:

    I must admit that I have avoided film adaptations of Le Carre ever since Connery and Pfeiffer butchered The Russia House. I agree with others that you could not do justice to a Le Carre novel in 3 hours.

    An even bigger peeve: whoever told Mel Gibson that a film adaptation of Edge of Darkness, magically transported to America, would be a good idea?

    • telescoper Says:

      The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, with Richard Burton, was a pretty good film however…

      • Dave Carter Says:

        Ok, so that was a quite early Le Carre, and as I remember it (I may be wrong here, I should re-read it) about half the length of Smiley’s People etc. But possibly it is less demanding for a film producer.

  6. Watched it on a flight to France – was singing La Mer with my best Julio Inglesais voice for a week after…

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