“An Infinite Capacity for Suspicion”: The BBC’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Turns 40

Joseph Oldham / September 10, 2019

“We’ve a rotten apple, Jim,” says Control—the nameless head of a British intelligence service known to those on the inside as “the Circus.” In the shadowy attic of a safe house, he is briefing agent Jim Prideaux on his conviction that a deep-level Soviet penetration agent (a “mole”) has been planted in the highest echelons of the service. Prideaux is incredulous, but agrees to undertake a dangerous mission into Czechoslovakia in the hope of obtaining proof from a potential defector. But the mission goes horribly wrong—Prideaux is captured, while Control is discredited and dethroned. The task of identifying the mole will instead be taken up six months later by Control’s deputy, the veteran spymaster George Smiley, who is tasked with unravelling an elaborate deception intertwined with years of departmental intrigues…

Broadcast on the evening of September 10, 1979, 40 years ago today, this was the British public’s introduction to the BBC adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It was unlike any TV spy drama seen before.

A decade earlier, TV channels on either side of the Atlantic had been awash with spy shows like The Man from UNCLE and The Avengers. Responding to the popular emergence of James Bond, these series took place in a world where good-looking agents would go out each week and thwart diabolical masterminds, always getting home by the end of each episode for a bottle of champagne and a cheery quip—quite literally in the case of The Avengers. Certain British series tailored less towards the international market—most notably Callan and The Sandbaggers—had dabbled with more complex characterization and some pioneering story arcs. But for the most part, producers stuck with standard case-of-the-week episodic formats, their storylines focused on physically active agents in the field.

Tinker Tailor, by contrast, was a slow-burning, intricate tale of spy-catching that would take seven weeks to tell. And Smiley, the protagonist, was an ageing intelligence officer with professional skills more in the deductive tradition of the classical detective. It was a watershed moment for the story’s author too. Sixteen years earlier, le Carré had shot to fame with his international bestseller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), a bleak and cynical tale of a disillusioned agent’s mission behind the newly-constructed Berlin Wall—a rather different reaction to (or rather, against) the popularity of James Bond, which established le Carré’s position as the acknowledged maestro of the British spy novel.

John le Carré (left) and Alec Guinness during the filming of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 1979

A decade on, in 1974, le Carré had achieved another critical and popular success with Tinker Tailor in its original novel form. Like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor was set in the world of the Circus, a fictionalized version of British foreign intelligence service MI6 (nicknamed for its headquarters at Cambridge Circus). This time, however, the focus was not on a field agent, but on the intrigues of the officer class.

When the possibility of adapting Tinker Tailor for the screen arose, le Carré made a then-unconventional choice. Three of his earlier novels had been adapted for the cinema, and while Martin Ritt’s version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was (like its source novel) widely acclaimed, results elsewhere were mixed. And so, despite film offers, le Carré later described how “I was very leery, then, of the short form and I thought that Tinker, Tailor would work far better in long form.”

So it was that Tinker Tailor reached the screen as a seven-part BBC television miniseries. In 1979, this was a highly unusual use of the miniseries form, then more strongly associated with adaptations of classic authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy—a key cornerstone of public service broadcasting. But Tinker Tailor was, in fact, a product of this tradition, with the project being initiated by Jonathan Powell, producer of the classic serial line and an early admirer of the novel. It was a strange choice of “classic”—a novel then less than five years old—but Powell described to me how “there had always been a sort-of informal agreement that we could do classics and also pepper it with more contemporary material… it was a way of trying to keep the little subgenre of this programming fresh.”

And despite its modern-day setting, Tinker Tailor was a story suffused with rich historical themes, exploring the post-imperial melancholia of (in the novel’s words) “that unrepeatable, fading Circus generation” who still gave the service “its dying flavour of adventure.” The settings—musty gentlemen’s clubs, prep schools, Oxford colleges—were the faded relics of this generation, while the decision to film largely in order over fall and winter 1978 gave a seasonal metaphor to the themes of national decline.

Playing the part of Smiley was Alec Guinness, highly respected elder statesman of stage and screen, making an unprecedented venture into multi-episode TV drama to considerable media excitement. Nowadays, of course, it is commonplace to see big names from the cinema making excursions into TV miniseries—think George Clooney in Catch-22, Rob Lowe in Wild Bill—or, for that matter, Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager, the BBC’s recent return to the world of le Carré. Back then, though, this was a far less common occurrence. Guinness had made his name in an extraordinarily diverse body of work ranging from the historical epics of David Lean to the comedies of Ealing Studios. By the late 1970s, however, he was on the run from playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977)—a role that had brought him fortune but also a fame that was rather too pulpy for his tastes.

In the role of Smiley, however, Guinness discovered something that would later become gospel among film actors in the era of Netflix and HBO. He discovered that the longer running time of the miniseries offered far greater scope for exploring characters and situations than the feature films in which he had built his career. Describing his past reluctance to do television, Guinness remarked to the Radio Times that “I always had a slight feeling that it provided the worst of both worlds. But Tinker, Tailor has changed my mind.”

The form of the TV miniseries would turn out to have other advantages that only became apparent on broadcast. Smiley’s investigation unfolded on Monday evenings over September and October 1979, just as ITV—then the BBC’s only competitor—was fortuitously shut down by a strike. As a result, the miniseries achieved an average viewing figure of 8.5 million, holding the British public in thrall and becoming a national talking point. So it was that an unprepared public was plunged into the complex flashback structures, intricate bureaucratic tensions, and dense technical jargon that had become le Carré’s trademark. The TV version made a point of retaining such obscure, euphemistic terminology as “scalphunters,” “lamplighters,”and “housekeepers.” The Radio Times even provided a glossary so that the keenest viewers might follow along closely.

Much of the response centered on the supposedly baffling plot, with Terry Wogan’s Radio 2 breakfast show running a quiz: “Does anyone know what’s going on?” But neither Wogan nor his call-in listeners were complaining—the experience of being lost and bewildered, and the experience of helping each other puzzle out the story, was all part of the fun. And for all the welter of perplexing detail, audience interest was sustained by a simple narrative hook: who is the mole? For, at its core, this most tricky and elaborate of spy stories was a simple “whodunit,” inviting its viewers to consider a range of suspects alongside the detective (Smiley), and to make their own deductions based on the available clues.

The BBC went on to adapt two more le Carré books in the 1980s. His 1977 novel The Honourable Schoolboy was passed over—despite following on directly from the end of Tinker Tailor—as its extensive Southeast Asian locations were beyond the resources of the BBC. (It remains one of the few le Carré novels from the Cold War era that has never been adapted for either television or film.) Instead, the BBC skipped straight to Smiley’s People (1982), the third novel in the trilogy (published in 1979), presenting it as a sequel to Tinker Tailor. Le Carré had been writing it during the filming of Tinker Tailor and later complained that Guinness’s performance had contaminated his vision of the titular character. Guinness reprised the role, as Smiley goes on the offensive against his Soviet opposite number and long-time nemesis, Karla.

This was followed by A Perfect Spy (1987), a standalone story that returned to the topic of treachery—this time, though, the narrative was not a whodunit but an intimate psychological portrait of lifelong double agent Magnus Pym (Peter Egan), whose life story echoed le Carré’s own. Although much admired, neither Smiley’s People nor A Perfect Spy quite matched Tinker Tailor as a national phenomenon—perhaps in part because they lacked the simple hook of their predecessor.

Yet even as le Carré disappeared from television screens in the 1990s, such long-form mystery narratives were beginning to find a new prominence on US television. When acclaimed director David Lynch turned to television with Twin Peaks in 1990, he framed his intricate, supernatural-tinged portrait of small-town American life with a simple question to draw the audience in: “Who killed Laura Palmer?” The first season of Twin Peaks ran for eight episodes—just one more than Tinker Tailor—and it too became the show that everyone was talking about, with radio hosts across America hyping up its mysteries and twists. But unlike Tinker Tailor, Lynch and his collaborator Mark Frost showed no interest in resolving the central mystery after these initial episodes—indeed, they seemed content to leave it open indefinitely.

The ABC network intervened, however, famously compelling Frost and Lynch to prematurely reveal the killer’s identity midway through the second season. A multi-episode mystery narrative, it seemed, could be drawn out as far as Tinker Tailor, but no further, for fear of losing the audience’s attention. But once the killer’s identity was revealed, ratings rapidly declined. In the end, did the audience simply find the question more interesting than the answer? Nowadays, traditional case-of-the-week formats on TV seem to have been almost entirely supplanted by intricate and extended storylines—this is often seen as one of the triumphs of “peak” or “prestige” television. Indeed, there is now almost a subgenre of shows, from The Killing to Broadchurch, using a simple mystery (often a whodunit) to draw the audience into a complex world. The shadow of the BBC’s Tinker Tailor looms large over these productions.

And in the era of the boxset and binge-viewing, Tinker Tailor has aged very gracefully indeed, still regularly hailed as “the greatest spy show ever made.” Describing a re-watch of both Smiley adaptations in the New Yorker, for instance, David Denby found that watching an episode a night simply wasn’t enough—“Late at night, I would often creep back into the study and watch the episode again, just to be sure I had understood all of it, savored all of its intricacies, noted its omissions and implications.”

When Tinker Tailor was re-adapted as a film by Tomas Alfredson in 2011, the TV version was an ever-present comparison. “How to match or surpass the 1979 five-hour version?” was a common question. So effective had the miniseries been at unpacking the intricacies of le Carré’s plot, it was hard to imagine a two-hour version could possibly do it justice. And when the BBC returned to le Carré after a 29-year hiatus with The Night Manager in 2016, Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People were once again widely hailed as “the espionage dramas against which all contenders must be measured.”

To coincide with transmission of The Night Manager, le Carré penned an article for the Guardian surveying the many screen adaptations of his work. Although enthusiastic about the new production, it was clear that the BBC’s Tinker Tailor retained a special place—the first and greatest instance of an adaptation “where director, cast and crew came genuinely to relish what they were making; where the inevitable squabbles and rivalries gave way to a larger, shared purpose.”

But Tinker Tailor’s legacy lies in more than its quality. It lies also in how prestige television learned to embrace the complex, ongoing mystery narrative, captivating and confusing audiences with sophisticated tales of intrigue. Now the internet and social media provide new incarnations of Terry Wogan’s weekly quiz, allowing us to share in the labyrinthine twists and turns of modern hits like Bodyguard and Killing Eve, and to ask each other the ageless question: “Does anyone know what’s going on?”

A more extended analysis of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC2, 1979) can be found in my book Paranoid Visions: Spies Conspiracies and the Secret State in British Television Drama.

Joseph Oldham is the author of Paranoid Visions: Spies, Conspiracies and the Secret State in British Television Drama, and also writes for Doctor Who Magazine and The Conversation. Patreon Button

3 thoughts on ““An Infinite Capacity for Suspicion”: The BBC’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Turns 40

  1. Pingback: Roaming Charges: They Are the Walrus - CounterPunch.org

  2. My first exposure to Tinker was the Gary Oldman movie and I loved it. I read the novel and loved it. I started reading more Le Carre and was discussing it with my dad who was a long time fan. I eventually got around around to watching this famous series and was blown away. As good as the Oldman movie is it cannot compare to what the were able to do in the long format. Great piece!

  3. Pingback: Play for Today: Traitor – Forgotten Television Drama

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