Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 April, 2006, 12:00am


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Starring: Alec Guinness, Ian Richardson, Michael Aldridge, Bernard Hepton, Terrence Rigby, Ian Bannen

Directors: Frances Alcock and John Irvin

The series: This literate six-part BBC adaptation of John le Carre's novel of espionage and betrayal of the same name, serialised for television in 1979, may seem dated by its cold war setting, but nevertheless retains its grip as an atmospheric, intricate drama with acclaimed performances.

Real-life 'spook' le Carre drew on personal experience and insight into the 1950s and 60s exposure of British MI5 intelligence officers - including Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean - as double agents in the employ of the KGB, for his fictionalised portrayal of corruption in the intelligence world.

The first airing of the series coincided with then prime minister Margaret Thatcher's announcement identifying Sir Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen's Pictures, as the 'fourth man' of the Cambridge spy ring in the service of Moscow - 'catching a wave of history' as le Carre put it.

Le Carre, himself reportedly betrayed to the Soviets as an intelligence officer by Philby, develops a plot in which master spy George Smiley is called out of retirement to unearth a high-ranking Russian mole who has burrowed deep into the heart of the 'Circus' (British intelligence service).

The gritty realism of le Carre's cynical world, a microcosm of Britain's class relations, is the antithesis of the glamorous James Bond fantasy of his contemporary Ian Fleming; Smiley is advanced in years, cuckolded, owlish and bookish.

Alec Guinness (below), whose sonorously voiced role as Smiley earned him a Bafta award for best actor, applies a masterful and minimalist approach to his character - a man who by profession reveals little of himself and makes little impression.

This six-hour miniseries is not for those with a short attention span or those who crave action sequences. The reward is mental pabulum rather than adrenaline, with the many sub-plots, plot twists and turns and subtle dialogue demanding sustained concentration.

The extras: The three-disc set includes an interview with le Carre, a biography of the author and actor filmographies. In addition, a leaflet contains a glossary of main characters and terms - the latter being useful in elucidating the 'spy speak', which in part is le Carre's invention, though he claims this has been adopted by members of the real intelligence world.