Steven Powell has an M.A. in Victorian Literature from the University of Liverpool, and is currently studying for a Literature Ph.D. on the American Crime author James Ellroy.
Spying is considered too lowbrow a subject for many TV critics. This is a shame as the BBC’s 1979 adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ranks as one of the best television dramas ever produced. Many of Le Carré’s novels have been adapted for the screen, each with varying degrees of quality. Le Carré had resisted selling the film rights to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, as he felt that a television serialisation would be more able to fully explore the book’s rich and complex narrative.
The plot of both novel and film is deceptively simple: George Smiley is a former spy who is called back from retirement to uncover a Soviet ‘mole’ who has reached a senior position in British Intelligence. The complexity of the story derives from the subplots, relationships and timeline which are interwoven around this central premise. Some critics have compared the story to The Odyssey, in that a scorned outsider (Odysseus/Smiley) has to secretly examine the running of the kingdom, testing his subject’s loyalty before disposing of those who forced him into exile and restoring rightful rule. It is an interesting comparison, but one that can be overly reductive in critical analysis. Smiley is diffident and intellectual, hardly a warrior comparable to Odysseus. He often appears passive to his enemies, whilst his achievements are snatched away from him and claimed by glory-seeking civil servants. In direct contrast to the suave, womanising James Bond in Ian Fleming’s novels, Smiley is a cuckold. He is frequently mocked by his colleagues for the indiscretions of his upper-class, promiscuous wife Ann. Smiley is portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness in the mini-series. His performance so accurately conveyed the quietude and exactness of the character that it now seems impossible to imagine anyone else in the role (although James Mason and Rupert Davies have made two decent previous attempts).Le Carré admitted that after watching the mini-series, his writing of the character Smiley was strongly influenced by Guinness’ portrayal.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was adapted into a seven episode format with each episode running to fifty minutes. Its strength lies in its loyalty to the book. In both versions, Smiley pieces together the identity of the mole by sifting through old case files and interrogating or interviewing witnesses. In the novel, these witnesses recall their experiences in long dialogue scenes, but for the film these scenes become explicated flashbacks, wherein the action is seen rather than described. Although the content remains the same, the movement from novel to film produces more dramatically satisfying scenes. The narrative timeline is also reordered for television. The first episode begins with a British Spy being shot and captured in Czechoslovakia in a botched mission to try and discover the identity of the mole. Then it cuts to six months later and the consequences of this event are slowly explained: there has been a huge scandal; Smiley has been sacked as one of the many scapegoats; other officers have been promoted, one of whom is the mole. Now, Smiley is called back to unmask the mole. In the book, the Czech incident does not appear until very late on. There are big elements of the book that feel far more elusive and evasive than the television adaptation, even the fate of the mole is not directly shown, it is only hinted as to what happened, whereas, the adaptation is much more explicit. It also seems more logical that in the television serial the Czech incident should appear at the beginning of the narrative, and then it is gradually revealed episode by episode how it all links to the mole.
The Russian’s codename for the mole is ‘Gerald’, and the Russian Spy who recruited the mole, Smiley’s nemesis in Soviet Intelligence, is known as ‘Karla’: his real name is not known. The codenames created for those suspected of being the mole are derived from the nursery rhyme ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor’. Thus, the four suspects are known as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poor Man. Sailor is deemed inadequate as a codename as it sounds too much like Tailor- a wonderfully subtle point in a novel obsessed with the petty politics of bureaucracy. Le Carré coined new spy jargon for the novel: there are ‘scalphunters’, ‘lamplighters’ and ‘legends’. British Intelligence is known as ‘the Circus’ as it is based in Cambridge Circus, London. The United States Intelligence agency, the CIA, is known as ‘the Cousins’. This terminology is thoroughly convincing in both the novel and the adaptation. Le Carré was even gratified to discover U.S. Intelligence had adopted some of his terms for their own use after the success of his novels. What makes these spy terms particularly convincing is how successfully the story evokes the snobbery at the heart of the British system of Government and Intelligence. The Circus is portrayed as a natural extension of Eton and Oxford, and civil servants are running institutions for their own personal gain rather than the nation’s interests.
The first episode is unique as it features a wonderfully observed pre-credits sequence in which the Intelligence officers, who it is later revealed are the suspects, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poor Man, enter a Circus office one by one. The scene has only one line of dialogue, but so much characterisation is conveyed through little mannerisms such as how Poor Man holds his files or how Soldier chain-smokes. Then, there is a slight trace of mischief in how Tailor holds his cup of tea with the saucer resting on top of the rim. There is something curiously reassuring about the Englishness of their behaviour, although, ironically, one of them has betrayed every official secret of the nation. The credits sequence is also brilliant in its simplicity. The camera focuses directly on a Russian Matryoshka doll. As the doll is opened, each new smaller piece carries an expression which is progressively more irate until the fourth and final piece is revealed to have no face. Then, the faceless doll lies in two pieces on the floor. The symbolism is clear and unpretentious: the mole may be broken by the end of the story, but that is only secondary to the corruption and malaise which he has wrought upon the country. This seems an apt subject for these cynical times, and it concisely mirrored the bitter pessimism that was the prevalent attitude of the nation when the series was first broadcast in 1979. This was the age of economic decline and the Winter of Discontent.Shortly after the series was first broadcast, Sir Anthony Blunt, art advisor to the Queen, was publicly named as being a former Soviet mole.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first of three novels written by Le Carré which are sometimes identified as the Karla trilogy or the Quest for Karla omnibus. The success of the TV adaptation prompted the BBC to make a sequel. The second novel in the trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy, was deemed too complex and too expensive to adapt for television, as it is predominantly set in Hong Kong, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. It is a shame the BBC decided against making an adaptation of The Honourable Schoolboy, as it is the most outwardly dramatic novel of the three. Thus, the BBC decided to adapt the third and final novel of the trilogy, Smiley’s People. Although they had a superb novel to work from, the television serialisation of Smiley’s People never quite attained the standard of excellence set by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It is undeniably brilliant in parts, but it feels slightly marred by comparison. The musical score is not quite as good. The credits sequence is not quite as good. The plot is just a bit too complex. Still, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a brilliant novel which has a superlative companion piece in the television adaptation. The adaptation of Smiley’s People is a fine companion piece to the original, and one of the best television productions.
by Steven Powell