Archive for Percy Alleline

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted in Television with tags , , , , on May 7, 2012 by telescoper

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.