Saturday, 24 September 2011

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" - Movie vs. TV

I simply can’t remember the last time I felt compelled to go and see a film at the cinema during its first week of release. But I just couldn’t wait forTinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to come out on DVD or Sky Movies. It’s my favourite spy novel – actually, one of my favourite novels in any category.

And I’ve always considered the 1979 TV version to be the best small-screen drama ever produced in Britain.  
You’ll probably have read the reviews by now, so I won’t bother adding to the monsoon of critical adulation.
Instead, I’ll look at some of the major differences between the film and TV versions.
Because the movie is less than a third of the length of the TV series, a lot of material has had to be compressed. For instance, in order to retain much of the original, highly complex plot, the four main suspects’ back stories are almost entirely jettisoned, and they spend surprisingly little time on screen – I missed getting to know Toby Esterhase, Roy Bland, Bill Haydon and Percy Alleline this time round: we get street-artist sketches of them rather than oil portraits. (For instance, it’s hard to imagine a modern film or TV director being allowed to spend two minutes doing this.) 

Smiley’s horrible bitch of an aristocratic wife, Ann, barely exists in the film, except as a plot device. She’s a shadowy, distant figure, without a single line of dialogue. This is a distinct improvement, as one spent most of the TV series hoping that Smiley would go critical and smack her around a bit (and, before you call the police, I’ve never hit a woman in my life , and don’t generally advocate it - but if any woman in fiction ever deserved a good thrashing, it’s Ann Smiley).

The mesmerising scene in an Indian prison where Smiley tries to persuade Karla (Patrick Stewart acts his socks off without uttering a word) to defect is now simply recounted by Gary Oldman (the new Smiley, in case you’ve been living in a cave) to Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch, in particularly sparkling form). And this works well – it gives Oldman a chance to do some mildly animated acting.

The Circus offices are positively high-tech for 1973 – far more convincing than the cramped, rickety, Victorian HQ of the TV version, which always struck me as unlikely. Publishers worked in building like that back then, but one somehow doubted that the security services did.

Connie Sachs was far better done in the TV version – most of the desperation, pathos and obsessiveness conveyed by Beryl Reid’s bravura performance has been lost, which is a shame. And I couldn’t for the life of me grasp what sort of place Kathy Burke had ended up living in. A school? A drama college of some sort? Confusing.

Perhaps the film’s makers decided that no one – especially an international audience – would understand or would care about the class differences so wonderfully observed in the original. Or maybe it’s because the director is Swedish (Thomas Alfredson directed the superb horror movie Let the Right One In) and so he couldn’t care less. Percy Alleline is no longer the lanky, popmpous, bullying public school prick he was in the original. John Standing’s extremely pukka Sam Collins – the agent on duty at HQ the night the news that Jim Prideaux has been shot is received - has metamorphosed, for some odd reason, into a curly-haired, lower class Liverpudlian (but they’ve stopped short of renaming him Gary or Barry). In fact, almost everyone is more common than they used to be. Maybe that’s meant to make it more “accessible” to a modern audience – but it doesn’t ring true of Britain 38 years ago. It also means we lose all sense of Esterhase’s exotic, Hungarian strangeness and Roy Bland’s working class, Communist-father origins – equally exotic-seeming in the original.

The downplaying of class – or lack of understanding of it – is also evident in the handling of the scenes at the boarding school where Jim Prideaux has now been reduced to earning a living as a teacher. The fat boy whom Prideaux identifies as promising future spy material, Jumbo Roach - so memorably played by Duncan Jones in the original – is poorly acted and largely pointless here. That marvellous final scene in the original, in which Prideaux – who has returned to the school after killing his former lover, the traitor Bill Haydon – helps Jumbo by reciting from memory the Bible passage the boy has stumbled over while reading it in chapel, has been entirely lost. A pity. (And of course Jumbo can’t be called “Jumbo” these says, for obvious PC reasons.) The place just doesn’t feel like a boarding school would have. (And where’s Prideaux’s rant about socialists ruining everything?)

But there are several brilliant new scenes (at least, I can’t remember them from the book, although they might very well be there - they both feel as if they should be). In the first, Jim Prideaux is teaching a classroom of boys. They’re  making noisey fun of their teacher’s odd, jerky  movements at the blackboard (which might very well be standard behaviour in a modern state school, but would have earned the little bastards a walloping and a class detention in a 1970s boarding school).  A trapped bird suddenly appears, flying over the boys’ heads, panicking them. Prideaux stuns it with a lightning-fast blow of the text-book he’s holding before smashing it to death on the classroom floor, thus revealing the ex-agent’s capacity for swift action, and presaging his later murder of the exposed traitor, Haydon – another trapped animal. Clever stuff.

Then there’s a lovely little scene where Smiley and three others are riding along in a car. As we look through the back window, we see a trapped bee buzzing around inside. The driver and the other two passengers make unsuccessful, agitated attempts to kill it. Eventually Smiley, who hasn’t moved at all, quietly winds down his window, thus allowing the bee to escape. Clunkingly obvious symbolism, maybe – but ever so effective: it only takes a few seconds and it elicits a delighted laugh from the audience.

Some intriguing characters have disappeared altogether, including Ricky Tarr’s quiet, deadly little minder, Fawn, and boozy former agent, Jerry Westerby, who was kicked out after raising concerns that the Russians had known all about Prideaux’s mission in advance, and has been reduced to working for what he calls “the comic”  (presumably The Sun).

Much of the language of the original has been lost as well - no more “ju-ju  men” or “lamplighters” or “scalphunters”: either because that sort of jargon is just too larky and public school for modern tastes, or because explaining what the terms mean might have been more trouble than it’s worth. I didn’t mind their absence - but I felt something akin to pain when I realised we were never going to hear the statement “There were three of them... and Alleline”. Could have been slipped in somewhere, surely.

And I missed the scene where Ian Richardson – as Bill Haydon – reveals his reasons for defecting: essentially, a hatred of America and of Britain’s new subordinate role in the world. And the one where Connie Sachs explains that her “lovely boys” had been raised to run an empire – only to find that it had disappeared on them. Now, Haydon just says it was an aesthetic choice and complains that the West “has become so ugly”, which, as an isolated observation, isn’t particularly convincing. I’m astonished a contemporary director didn’t grasp the opportunity to garner a few more Oscar votes by rubbishing the United States (and it would no doubt have pleased John Le Carré, who now seems to regard America as the font of all evil).

Peter Guillam – a tough-guy ladies’ man in the original – is revealed to be gay. I tried to find this annoying, but it worked okay, and there’s a rumour that Britain’s security services have occasionally been known to employ players of the pink oboe.

I can’t quite remember what happens at the very end of the TV series. I think it’s that scene in the school chapel. In the movie, it consists of Gary Oldman taking his place as Percy Alleline’s successor. He gives the faintest hint of a smile of satisfaction, and you could almost hear the audience purr with pleasure at the sheer rightness of it all. Probably a little too obvious for the TV series, but a nice touch nevertheless. 

Having noted all that, please be assured that the film is a masterpieceentirely in its own right. Gary Oldman gives the performance of his career and Benedict Cumberbatch is a revelation: despite being an Old Harrovian, he may just be the best actor of his generation. (A shiver of sheer pleasure runs along the audience’s collective spine when the horizontal lift doors open behind slimy little Toby Esterhase to reveal Peter Guillam smiling menacingly, waiting to take him for a ride). 

I almost wish I was still a BAFTA member just so I could vote for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in every category. It’s that good.

And I can’t wait to see it again. And again. And again…


  1. I am now very much looking forward to seeing this film.

    I was disappointed that you missed the opportunity to do some name-dropping. Your grand-mother "starred" with Michael Aldridge [Percy Alleline in the original TV production] in the 1955 Norwegian war film "Shetlandsgjengen". Very few people know this.

    Saturday, September 24, 2011 - 04:40 PM

  2. A TTSS nerd writes: I was undecided until I read your post but I will go and see it. I cannot re-read the book without envisaging Alec Guinness polishing his spectacles on his tie and I am not sure Gary Oldman will have quite the same effect. There were weaknesses in the TV version. I thought Ian Bannen was too old to play a convincing Jim Prideaux and the shooting scene in the forest includes a most unconvincing stunt forward roll. But these are quibbles about a classic series.

    I recall the scene with the bird in the book but not in the series. I don't recall the bee in the car from either. Everything Le Carre has written since has been a bit of a disappointment, including Smiley's People, despite the satisfaction of stuffing the Soviets at the end.
    Saturday, September 24, 2011 - 04:40 PM

  3. How about a post on really crap TV or film adaptations. I'd be happy to offer the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice. Where to start? Greer Garson more of an age to play Mrs Bennett than Elizabeth; Rev Collins turned into a town clerk to avoid offending American religious sensitivities; and the ending changed so that Lady Catherine de Burgh says to D'Arcy "It's OK with me. Go on and give her one, son". OK, I might have exaggerated the last bit but not by all that much.

    I challenge you to nominate a worse one.
    Saturday, September 24, 2011 - 06:37 PM


    George may have to come out of retirement.

    There are two jobs for him to do.

    1. I went to a lecture given by Dr Emma Widdis yesterday, one of the series given at the Cambridge alumni weekend, entitled “Life has become better, comrades; life has become more fun”: Stalin Goes to the Movies. For some details please see

    We all know a bit about the early Russian film directors around the time of the Revolution and maybe a bit about the late ones, after Stalin. Few people know much about the Russian directors in between, working during the 1930s and 40s, said the lecturer and, in my case, she couldn't be righter.

    Stalin decreed that Russian films should express socialist realism. But no-one knew what it meant. So some member of the Nomenklatura was sent over to Hollywood to take notes.

    There followed a stream of films with a pretty lead actress belting out songs about improving production in her knitting factory, smiling peasants singing and dancing Busby Berkeley-style as they get in the golden grain harvest (Oklahoma! (admittedly 1955), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), ...), and tragic stories of pretty lead actresses being blackmailed by unscrupulous Germans, threatening to denounce them for their bastard black babies, Germans who promptly come unstuck when communes of every race in the USSR welcome the black babies in their arms, smiling at them, singing at them and dancing all the while.

    Much good fun was had by all. You, too, can enjoy film clips from this oeuvre at where I can promise you hours of entertainment (drill down through the years, through the topics listed to the videos links).

    Dr Widdis ended by asking us not to go round saying there's this woman in Cambridge denying the forced population movements, the famines and the Gulag, it's just that it's obvious that not everyone suffered under Stalin, some people did well.

    Mr Smiley, Sir, it may be utterly blameless but I do think it might be worth looking into. The film clips shown during the lecture were all spoken of as obvious propaganda -- compare comments elsewhere on the Gronblog about Pathé News -- and so it's a bit rich for the Head of Department in the Department of Slavonic Studies at Cambridge, for it is she, to claim that they demonstrated that some people did well under Stalin. Isn't it?


    2. On the way home, the wife and I listened to Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller's third Reith lecture at the end of which she said she hoped that by the time of her next visit to the Lubianka, they would have installed Ladies lavatories, it had all been a bit inconvenient last time she was there.

    Mr Smiley, Sir, could you send a lamplighter? Or one of Toby's pavement artists?
    Sunday, September 25, 2011 - 03:17 PM

  5. Crap adaptations.

    I rermember Greer Garson in P&P. She and Olivier had a ludicrous archery scene at a garden party? Garson and age. She played Calpurnia in the Brando version of "Julius Caesar"when she was over 50 [C. was 30 on the Ides of March 44 B.C.] and it showed. She also married the actor who played her young son in "Mrs Miniver" and it also looked peculiar.

    Bad Shakespeare film adaptations. I give you the modern verions of "Romeo+Juliet" sic] ]with DiCaprio [Brian Dennehy plays "Ted" Capulet] and "Titus" [Andronicus] with Hopkins [human meat pies and the ghastly Scottish actor Alan Cumming]. There was "Taming of the Shrew" with Burton; his infatuation with Taylor blinded him to the fact that she was a rotten actress with a screechy voice. I haven't seen Al Pacino in "The Merchant of Venice",.but I don't think it was very good. Shakespeare should be limited to classically-trained British actors [ditto Ibsen and Scandinavian actors].

    Jane Austen. "Emma" with the anaemic Paltrow exercising her pre-Shakespeare in Love accent. Film ruined by another ghastly Scottish actor IMcEwan] sporting a very unfortunate hair-style and making a complete hash of the obligatory ball sequence [see Miller and Armstrong who have hopefully killed off the ball sequences forever].

    And then there is "Alice in Wonderland". According to IMDb there have been 16 separate productions over the last 50 years. Not being brought up in Britain I have never understood the fascination with "Alice" [or "Peter Pan" or "Wind in the Willows" - though I have dark suspicions]. I have watched some of these adaptations and I simply don't get it. Why do they keep churning them out? Do they make money? Now, the Brothers Grimm and HC Anderson. That's another story - both lit and fig, as they say..

    To end on ghastly Scottish actors - Robert Carlyle in "Hitler. The Rise of Evil" [2003]. There is a scene where Carlyle is invited to an upmarket dinner party and fronts up in his Lederhosen looking like a little boy. It is surreal. Hitler and Alice. Where would the studios spend their money otherwise?
    Monday, September 26, 2011 - 08:29 AM

  6. MULTICULTURALIST11 October 2011 at 22:00

    Shakespeare should only be performed by British actors? Nonsense. I have just heard on Radio 4 that the Globe Theatre is mounting a festival of 37 of Shakespeare's plays next spring as part of "The Cultural Olympics". They will be performed by the national theatre companies of 37 selected countries [non- English speaking]. The director of the Globe who is organizing this event [I missed his name] delivered the following insights in the course of the interview in case you missed it: " They care passionately about Shakespeare in the Sudan - it helped sustain them through their recent civil wars"; " Not being able to understand the various languages will help the audiences to focus on the architecture of the plays" and "Argentina is located at the southern tip of South America".

    "Cymbeline" in the Sudanese dialect sounds like a fun night out. Book early to avoid disappointment. What next? TTSP in Farsi or Swahili? We do indeed live in exciting and sensible times.
    Tuesday, September 27, 2011 - 09:45 AM

  7. The mini series was far and away much better than the pile of toot the Blog waxes lyrical about. Typically modern take; concentrating as it does, on the Gay aspect.
    I notice the Blog makes no mention of the sequel to Tinker..
    Not surprising, really. They appear to have resigned themselves to the fact that they where out of their depth with Tinker..
    that the sequel isn't going to happen.

    I can only think they used big names in order to sell a weak screenplay as the big names appeared to play their parts in the spirit of Patrick Stewart, but not nearly as polished.
    The musical end summed up the whole repast.
    A crossbow. I suppose Aids would've taken too long however, they could've played it to music and made that the sequel. Lol