Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a densely-plotted espionage series that was produced for British television in 1979. Alec Guinness stars as George Smiley, a British Intelligence Service agent forced into retirement but called back into service to identify a mole within the “Circus” (insider slang for the agency). While it was remade as a two hour theatrical film in 2011 (starring Gary Oldman as Smiley), the original series was seven television episodes (condensed to six for home video release). In both cases, the source material was a 1974 novel of the same name by John le Carré. At 324 minutes total, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy could certainly be described as a “thinking person’s spy thriller,” but some viewers might alternatively describe it as confusing and sluggishly paced.
I happen to side with the latter group, though that places me in the minority. Praised for its meticulous plotting and gradually revealed twists, the episodes do not rely on cheap thrills. But this apparently realistic display of the work done by intelligence agencies left me cold and uninvolved. As the story begins, we meet “Control” (Alexander Knox), leader of the Circus. It has become known to Control that there is a mole in the agency and he enlists Agent Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen) for an undercover mission. Control has five suspects in mind, and he assigns each a codename based on a children’s rhyme, “Tinker, Tailor.” That’s where the first three words of the title come from, followed by “Poor Man” and “Beggarman.”
Things go terribly wrong for Prideaux after he is dispatched to Czechoslovakia. When the smoke clears Control is dead and his deputy, Smiley (“Beggarman” of the five original suspects), has been forced out of the Circus. Smiley is persuaded to return and the remainder of the series is devoted to his attempts to piece together who the mole is. Many characters are introduced along the way, including “scalp-hunter” Ricki Tarr (Hywel Bennett), who has close ties to an important Soviet agent who might have valuable information about the mole. A scalp-hunter, incidentally, is a Circus agent who tackles the highest-risk operations of all field agents. The jargon that is used throughout the show lends a feeling of authenticity to the proceedings.
While Guinness delivers an intriguing, drastically understated performance as Smiley, I found that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a difficult series to embrace. The acting by the supporting cast, which includes a brief turn by Patrick Stewart as a Russian super-spy, is uniformly realistic. And while potentially difficult to follow, there is no doubting that the series was well-written and directed. It’s also rather cold and analytical. Whether that counts as criticism comes down to a matter of taste. I happened to find the experience of viewing the series a bit like enduring a very protracted (and fictional) history lesson.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, framed at its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, shows its age on Blu-ray in the worst of ways. This is one unpleasant visual presentation. The colors are washed out, with sickly, pale-pinkish skin tones and an overall muted look. The image is severely lacking in detail. Close-ups are sometimes acceptable, but wide shots are very soft and indistinct. Black crush is a regularly problem, with details more or less disappearing in the shadows. The image is consistently grainy, to varying levels. If all that wasn’t enough, the episodes are riddled with visual artifacts such as black specs. Overall there is very little, if anything, to justify spending the extra money when the standard DVD is available as a cheaper alternative.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is serviceable. The show was broadcast on television in 1979, resulting in a very dated and simple audio presentation. The dialogue is, by far, the most important part of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and luckily there are no issues in this department. The dialogue is clear and mixed at an appropriate volume level. Music and effects sound fine without grabbing the viewer’s attention in any significant way.
There are a few interesting special features included. New to this release and presented in high definition is a half-hour interview with director John Irvin. Many interesting stories are packed into this piece, with Irvin discussing the background and making of the series. Carried over from a previous DVD edition are two standard definition video features. The most substantial is a 20 minute interview with John le Carré. He talks about his George Smiley novels, including Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (1974) and Smiley’s People (1979), which was adapted by the BBC in 1982.
A selection of deleted scenes run 11 minutes but doesn’t contain anything especially noteworthy. A few text features round out the package, including production notes and a John le Carré biography. The Blu-ray insert contains a glossary of key terms and characters, which is helpful if you find yourself lost or confused during Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.