Television has often disappointed me as a media because of both its failure to live up to its potential and its willingness to sink to the the lowest common denominator. Unlike movies, which are limited by time constraints and the need to make huge returns at the box office, television productions are relatively inexpensive to produce and can be released episodically in order to tell a story properly. Unfortunately this capability is mainly wasted now on so-called reality shows or glorified talent contests. The occasional gems produced by cable stations have become fewer and fewer as the years pass. Even British television, once far superior to its American counterpart, is no longer the reliable source for great television it once was.
Of course memory can play tricks on you, and it’s easy to deceive yourself into thinking the past, or the good old days, were better then what’s on offer today. So when I requested a copy of the newest DVD version of the television adaptation of John Le Carre’s (the pen name for British author David Cornwall) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy being released by Acorn Media Group on October 25 2012, I hoped it was as good as I had remembered it being from watching it on television some thirty years ago. I needn’t have worried, its not only as good as I remembered it being, its even better.
For those of you somehow unfamiliar with John Le Carre, he pretty much single handed changed the face of spy fiction as we know it today. Instead of James Bond style sex, glamour and violence he gradually introduced us to a world of furtive observers, back room manoeuvring and the faceless civil servants who were the backbone of British intelligence during the height of the Cold War. George Smiley, the quintessential faceless civil servant, was first introduced as a minor character in one of his early works, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. His first “starring” roles were in Call For The Dead and A Murder Of Quality, but these were just warm ups for his taking centre stage in what is probably Le Caree’s most well known book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
When a loose cannon field agent shows up after mysteriously vanishing spinning a tale of a Russian agent highly placed in the British intelligence agency known as The Circus, Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate whether or not there’s any truth to the man’s claims.
Through a series of flashbacks we see how both George and his former boss and mentor, Control, were forced out. The Circus had been suffering from a series of failures. Agents captured in the field, spy networks arrested and sources of information going dry. All of a sudden a new source appears promising to deliver the innermost secrets from the Kremlin and Moscow Centre, the Russian equivalent of the Circus. Control smells a rat and sets out to prove the information is false and that one of his senior agents is a mole – a Russian spy who was recruited when he was young and has gradually worked himself up into a position of authority.
Unfortunately the mole is one step ahead of Control and sets him up for one more disaster. As a result a British agent was captured in Eastern Europe and worst of all the events make the newspapers. When the dust settled Smiley and Control were out, and those who supported the new source were in.
Once brought up to speed on the events of the past, we then follow Smiley as he begins the painstaking process of tracking back through the files, interviewing other former agents about what happened on the night the British agent was captured in Eastern Europe and finally tracking down the agent in question and hearing his story. At every step he discovers somebody has been doing a very careful job of trying to cover his or her tracks. Agents have been warned off and fired who had any information that either lends credibility to the mole theory or discredits the new wonder source.
What’s remarkable about this televised version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is how beautifully it manages to translate the process of Smiley’s investigation from the book to the small screen. Instead of rushing the information out in blurts and speeded up chunks, we are allowed to witness the whole story unfolding before our eyes. From the whispered instruction Control gives his chosen agent before sending him off to Eastern Europe in the hopes he’ll come up with the name of the spy, the agent eluding possible tails on his way to meeting his contact and his eventual capture, to each step of Smiley’s path on his way to pushing the mole out into the open, in one way or another the entire book ends up on screen. Very smartly the scriptwriters, Le Caree being one of them, make use of visuals to tell the story when able, and fill in whatever blanks that might have been left behind further on down the line. So if you are confused by what’s going on at anytime during the show, don’t worry, it will all come clear in the end.
However, the best thing about this series is still the brilliance of the performances. Simply put, Alec Guinness delivers one of the best performances of his career as Smiley, if not one of the best ever seen on television. In television everything takes place in a very tight focus, there are no vast vistas like film and very few long shots for an actor to hide in. Almost the entire time Guinness is on screen, he occupies the centre of the frame if he’s not in a close up. The slightest twitch communicates volumes, and Guinness never over or underplays his performance. From the polishing of the glasses that was Smiley’s most famous characteristic to his sudden displays of authority while conducting interviews and interrogations, he works with the camera to create one of the most fully realized characterizations I’ve ever seen on television.
Of course Guinness isn’t the only actor in the series, and the entire cast is a wonder. Ian Richardson and a young Ian Bannen (you might just recognize him as the same actor who played Jackie in Waking Ned Devine) in particular do stand out jobs as the intellectual and urban Bill Haydon and the agent Jim Prideaux, who was captured in Eastern Europe, respectively. You’ll also notice Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame in a small but important role. No matter how small the role, each of the actors involved with the production are letter perfect. They go about their business calmly and sedately, lulling one into believing they are all simply minor functionaries in some obscure branch of the government. Yet every so often you are reminded that what they are so casually discussing over tea and biscuits around the board room table are things like Russian troop movements in Eastern Europe or reports on the inner workings of the Russian secret service.
The three-disc DVD set contains all six episodes from the television series first broadcast back in 1979. Naturally the sound and visual quality are not quite what were used to, but that is more than compensated for by the quality of what you see on the screen. While the bonus features are primarily limited to things like cast filmographies, there is a wonderful interview with John Le Carre, in which he discusses everything from his experiences helping write the script for the show to his memories of Alec Guinness preparing for the role of Smiley.
This adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a wonderful example of what can be achieved when television lives up to its potential. No movie could afford to take the nearly six hours required to create such a stunning adaptation. The series might have been first broadcast more then thirty years ago, but it’s still by far some of the best television you’re liable to ever watch.