As a book reviewer I can honestly admit that I read very few top ten authors. Generally when someone makes it to the lofty NYT list they have lost their edge. Oh, the books are fine, they are quite readable, but lack the needy urgency of a hungry author. In 1974 the relatively unknown John Le Carre unleashed his full length novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on the unsuspecting world. His hero George Smiley had been well established, the 1961 novella Call For The Dead had introduced him, further excursions included A Murder Of Quality, and The Spy That Came In From The Cold. But none of these books really put George Smiley in the forefront.

Tinker, Tailor changed that. George Smiley had found his place at the high table of the British secret world, but lives a tenuous life, not as gregarious as the other ‘head prefects’ yet more influential. George finds himself on the outs when the big boss ‘Control’ seemingly makes a huge misjudgment over the defection of a Soviet General. The fallout from this botched operation puts Smiley out to pasture.

It does not take long though for rumors and speculation to gain traction that that all may not be well withing Britain’s secret world, the Circus, as the organization is known as. Seemingly unconnected events begin to paint a picture that there may well be a traitor in the ranks. In Circus parlance a ‘mole’. The question is ‘who spies on the spies’? Smiley finds himself tasked with unearthing this deep dark secret. If there is a mole it has to be one of the top four people in the Circus. Smiley is told by the Minister, Oliver Lacon “Go backwards, go forwards, turn it upside down, but find the answer”.

Author le Carre is an interesting character himself, having once been part of the secret world about which he writes. And while Tinker, Tailor was most certainly billed as a work of fiction there are some interesting parallels to Peter Wright’s biographical work Spycatcher, and Nigel West’s book Mole Hunter.

In 1979 British TV turned Tinker, Tailor into a 6 part miniseries that was very well received. It very much followed both the tone and plot line of the book. As I recall John Le Carre was involved in the production acting as a technical consultant. This is not the spy world of high tech gadgets and daring do. This is the slightly shop soiled and grubby world of the prosaic. There are no James Bond’s just seedy characters that you likely would not wish to associate with. Their lifestyles being as ill fitting as their clothes.

The series was made in a cinematic fashion, and certainly from a technical standpoint no expense was spared. The quality is so outstanding on this DVD it is hard to believe that it is 30 years old. Filmed partly in the studio and partly on location, this was a major departure from the regular TV drama fare, and set the bar for future drama series.

The other aspect that makes Tinker, Tailor stand out is the casting. Many years ago I read an interview with John Le Carre where he claimed that Alec Guinness was more like George Smiley, than George Smiley was. In fact I have yet to talk to anyone who does not agree that this was a marriage made in heaven. Actually the casting as a whole, is outstanding, even minor parts have been meticulously researched, the tone of Le Carre’s prose is maintained throughout. Le Carre is a very descriptive writer and to maintain the physical appearances and nuances of his word pictures must have been a task of monumental effort.

The one thing I did notice about this latest DVD version is that a slight re-edit in the final scenes has been done. In the book, and the original on air series the identity of the killer is only intimated at, although it is perfectly clear who the culprit is. In this new version, the end has been re-cut to leave no doubt who did it. That is not a gripe, that is just an observation!

With a running time of six hours, this is a DVD set that anyone who loves great drama and the murky world of espionage should have in their collection. You can order your copy via Acorn by clicking the image below.


My friends at Acorn also sent a copy of the DVD set Smileys People, which was a follow up to Tinker, Tailor, look for that review soon.

Simon Barrett

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