Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

1979 | United Kingdom

Superior television adaptation of John le Carre's spy novel about a retired spymaster, George Smiley (played by Alec Guinness), who is called out of retirement to unearth a double agent among the top ranks of the British Secret Service. 

As far as the BBC was concerned, the timing of this series couldn't have been any better. The initial broadcast coincided with the British Government announcing that Anthony Blunt, the keeper of the Queen's Pictures, was one of the Cambridge Five, a ring of spies recruited as traitors by the Soviet Union during and after the Second World War. It is against this background that Arthur Hopcraft's seven-part BBC adaptation is based. The cold war is at its height and British agents are at risk from a mole, working within the highest levels of the Secret Intelligence Service (known as the Circus). But who can spy on the spies? George Smiley, former Deputy Head of the Service, who had retired under mysterious circumstances some years earlier, is brought back to investigate. But he must tread carefully and covertly because the double agent could be any of his former colleagues. 

As Smiley, Alec Guinness gives one of his finest performances. His outwardly placid and composed demeanour masks a mixture of emotions and a seething hatred as the realisation dawns on him that the double agent he is trying to uncover is not only the same man responsible for Smiley's sudden departure from the SIS, but also for his domestic betrayal. Sian Phillips also shines in the series' final scene as Smiley's unfaithful wife Ann. There are also some fine cameos from the likes of Joss Ackland, Ian Bannen, Hywel Bennett, Nigel Stock, Ian Richardson, and Beryl Reid. The series was an immediate success and Guinness returned in the sequel Smiley's People in 1982. A 2011 big screen version was also received with equal enthusiasm.

Published on February 7th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus (2012) for Television Heaven.