Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TV series)

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Opening title
Based on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
by John le Carré
Written by Arthur Hopcraft
Screenplay by John le Carré
Directed by John Irvin
Theme music composer Geoffrey Burgon
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodes7
Producer Jonathan Powell
Cinematography Tony Pierce-Roberts
Running time
  • UK: 315 min
  • US: 290 min
Original network BBC2
Original release10 September (1979-09-10) 
22 October 1979 (1979-10-22)
Smiley's People

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a 1979 British seven-part spy drama by the BBC. John Irvin directed and Jonathan Powell produced this adaptation of John le Carré's novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). The serial, which stars Alec Guinness, Alexander Knox, Ian Richardson, Michael Jayston, Bernard Hepton, Anthony Bate, Ian Bannen, George Sewell and Michael Aldridge, was shown in the United Kingdom from 10 September to 22 October 1979, and in the United States beginning on 29 September 1980. The US version was re-edited from the original seven episodes to fit into six episodes.


The series was followed by Smiley's People in 1982.


George Smiley, deputy to the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, has been forced into retirement in the wake of Operation Testify, a failed spy mission in Czechoslovakia. Veteran British agent Jim Prideaux had been sent to meet a Czech general, having been told the general had information identifying a deep-cover Soviet spy planted in the highest echelons of the British Secret Intelligence Service—known as the Circus, because of its headquarters at Cambridge Circus in London.

The mission proved to be a trap, and Prideaux was captured and brutally tortured by the Soviets. The Chief of the Circus, known only as Control, was disgraced by Testify and replaced by his rival Percy Alleline. Control's obsession with the possibility of a Soviet mole at the Circus was not shared by others in the organisation, who insist that any leaks and failures at the Circus were due to Control's incompetence. On the contrary, Alleline and the rest of the new leadership team at the Circus believe that they have a mole, code-named Merlin, working for them in Moscow Centre, the KGB headquarters, passing them secrets in an operation code-named Witchcraft. Others in the British and American intelligence communities have been impressed with the information produced by Witchcraft, and Alleline and his team are regarded as a refreshing change from Control.

More than a year after Testify and the shake-up at the Circus, Ricki Tarr, a British agent gone missing in Lisbon, turns up in England with new evidence backing up Control's theory of a mole at the Circus. While on a routine mission Tarr had been approached by Irina, a low-level Soviet agent who claimed to know the identity of the mole and wanted to trade it for permission to defect. As soon as Tarr informed the Circus of Irina's offer, she was abducted by the KGB and spirited back to Russia. Tarr, convinced he had been betrayed by the mole Irina was going to identify, believed that he would also be targeted and murdered. Returning to London secretly, Tarr contacts Oliver Lacon, a senior civil servant who is the liaison between the Circus and the British Cabinet.

Before his ousting, Control had narrowed his list of suspects to five men – Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase, Bill Haydon, Percy Alleline, and George Smiley – all of whom occupied high positions in the Circus. Knowing the Soviet spy is highly placed in the Circus, Lacon cannot trust the Circus to uncover the mole or even allow its personnel to know of the investigation. Smiley, who had been fired along with Control while Control's other four suspects were promoted, is recalled by Lacon and given instructions to expose the mole. With the help of his protégé, Peter Guillam, who is still in the Circus, Smiley begins a secret investigation into the events surrounding Operation Testify, believing it will lead him to the identity of the mole, whom Moscow Centre has given the cover name Gerald.

Smiley learns that Operation Witchcraft uses a safehouse to meet with Aleksey Aleksandrovich Polyakov, a Soviet agent. Polyakov appears to hand over valuable intelligence material but this is actually "chickenfeed", and the operation is a cover by which Gerald passes valuable material to Polyakov. Smiley forces Toby Esterhase to reveal the location of the safe house. Tarr is sent to Paris, where he sends a coded message to Alleline about "information crucial to the wellbeing of the Service". This triggers an emergency meeting between Gerald and Polyakov at the safehouse, where Smiley and Guillam lie in wait.

The mole is revealed to be Bill Haydon. Haydon is debriefed by Smiley but is killed by Jim Prideaux before he can be exchanged with the Russians.



Shortly before filming began, Alec Guinness asked author John le Carré to introduce him to a real spy to aid him in preparing for his role. Le Carré invited Guinness to lunch with Sir Maurice Oldfield, who served as Chief of the British Intelligence Service from 1973 to 1978. During their meal, Guinness intently studied Oldfield for any mannerisms or quirks that he could use in his performance. When he saw Oldfield run his finger around the rim of his wine glass, he asked whether Oldfield was checking for poison—much to Oldfield's astonishment, as he was only checking how clean the glass was. [1]

The series was shot on location in London, including some of the intelligence agency scenes which were shot in the BBC offices; in Glasgow for scenes in Czechoslovakia, at Oxford University, at Bredon School in Gloucestershire where the character Jim Prideaux was a master, and elsewhere. [2]


The end credits music, an arrangement of "Nunc dimittis" ("Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace") from the Book of Common Prayer (1662), was composed by Geoffrey Burgon for organ, strings, trumpet, and treble; the score earned Burgon the Ivor Novello Award for 1979 [3] and reached 56 on the UK Singles Chart. The treble on the original recording, Paul Phoenix, was a tenor in the King's Singers later in his career. [4]


The series was shown in the United Kingdom from 10 September to 22 October 1979, and in the United States beginning on 29 September 1980.

In the US, the syndicated broadcasts were re-edited from the seven original episodes broadcast in the UK to fit into six episodes. [5] The overall running time is about the same. [6] [7]


Le Carré cited the series as his favourite filmed adaptation of his work, attributing this to his experience collaborating with Guinness. [8]

In a retrospective review in The New York Times , Mike Hale lauded Guinness's performance, ("It's conventional wisdom that Guinness's performance is a landmark in TV history, and you won't get an argument here, though if you're watching it for the first time, you may wonder at the start what all the fuss is about.") and cited the production's pacing versus current techniques, stating, "Audiences used to the pace of the modern TV crime or espionage drama will need to reorientate themselves." [9] Retrospective reviewers favourably compared the series with the 2011 film version, also citing le Carré's praise of the original and referring to Guinness's performance. [10] [9] [11] [12]


1980 BAFTA TV Award Best Actor Alec Guinness Won
1980 BAFTA TV Award Best Film Cameraman Tony Pierce-Roberts Won
1980 BAFTA TV Award Best Actress Beryl Reid Nominated
1980 BAFTA TV Award Best Costume Design Joyce MortlockNominated
1980 BAFTA TV Award Best Design Austen SpriggsNominated
1980 BAFTA TV Award Best Drama Series Jonathan Powell & John Irvin Nominated
1980 BAFTA TV Award Best Film Sound Malcolm WebberleyNominated
1980 BAFTA TV Award Best Graphics Douglas BurdNominated
1980 BAFTA TV Award Film Editor Chris Wimble & Clare Douglas Nominated
1980Broadcasting Press Guild Award Best ActorAlec GuinnessWon
1980Broadcasting Press Guild Award Best Drama SeriesWon
1981 Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries Jac Venza (executive producer), Jonathan Powell (producer) and Samuel Paul (series producer)Nominated

Home video

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was released on VHS in 1991 (BBCV 4605) and 1999 (BBCV 6788). It was released on Region 2 DVD in 2003 (BBCDVD 1180), and in 2011 bundled with Smiley's People (BBCDVD 3535). A remastered Blu-ray edition was released in 2019 (BBCBD0465).

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  3. "Geoffrey Burgon, British composer". The Boston Globe . Associated Press. 24 September 2010. Retrieved 12 September 2012.
  4. "Voices of angels: child stars". The Daily Telegraph . 17 November 2010.
  5. Kung, Michelle (2 December 2011). "'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' Miniseries Director John Irvin on the New Film". The Wall Street Journal . Retrieved 26 December 2014. the seven-episode series – which was condensed to six episodes for U.S. audiences
  6. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Episode guide". BBC. Retrieved 19 May 2022.
  7. Zabel, Christopher (27 May 2013). "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) Review". DoBlu.com. Retrieved 19 May 2022.
  8. le Carré, John (8 March 2002). Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: A Conversation with John le Carré (DVD). Disc 1.{{cite AV media}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  9. 1 2 Hale, Mike (21 October 2011). "Spycraft Dispensed With Appropriate, Deliberate Speed". The New York Times . Retrieved 30 April 2018.
  10. "A Second Look: 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' miniseries". Los Angeles Times. 27 November 2011. Retrieved 12 July 2021.
  11. Thomas, June (8 December 2011). "Gary Oldman's Good, but Alec Guinness Was Great". Slate . Retrieved 30 April 2018.
  12. Lane, Anthony (12 December 2011). "I Spy". The New Yorker . Retrieved 30 April 2018.