Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (miniseries)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a 1979 seven-part drama spy miniseries made by BBC TV. John Irvin directed and Jonathan Powell produced this adaptation of John le Carré's novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). The miniseries, 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.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Opening title
Based onTinker Tailor Soldier Spy
by John le Carré
Written byArthur Hopcraft
Screenplay byJohn le Carré
Directed byJohn Irvin
StarringAlec Guinness
Michael Jayston
Anthony Bate
George Sewell
Theme music composerGeoffrey Burgon
Country of originUK
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodes7
ProducerJonathan Powell
CinematographyTony Pierce-Roberts
EditorsChris Wimble
Clare Douglas
Running timeUK – 315 min
US – 290 min
DistributorBBC Worldwide
Great Performances
Paramount Television (North America)
Original networkBBC2
Original release10 September (1979-09-10) –
22 October 1979 (1979-10-22)
Followed bySmiley's People

In the United States, syndicated broadcasts and DVD releases compress the seven UK episodes into six,[1] by shortening scenes and altering the narrative sequence.[2]


George Smiley, deputy head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, is forced into retirement in the wake of Operation Testify, a failed spy mission to 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 proves to be a trap, and Prideaux is captured and brutally tortured by the Soviets. Britain's chief spymaster, known only as Control, is disgraced for his role in Testify, and soon replaced by Percy Alleline. Control's obsession with the Soviet mole was not shared by others in the Circus. On the contrary, the British believe they have a mole, Merlin, working for them in Moscow Centre, passing them secrets code-named Operation Witchcraft.

Fears of a mole are revived when Ricki Tarr, a British agent gone missing in Portugal, turns up in England with new evidence backing up Control's theory while not identifying the mole. Control had narrowed the 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, the British cannot trust the Circus to uncover its own mole or even to let its leaders know of the investigation; Smiley, who had been ousted along with Control while Control's other four suspects were promoted, is recalled to expose the mole.

Under instruction from Oliver Lacon, the civil servant responsible for overseeing the intelligence services, 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. With the help of his protégé Peter Guillam, who is still in the Circus, he gradually uncovers a labyrinthine plot as well as the ultimate betrayal—of country, the service and friendship.[3]



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.[4]

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.[5]


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[6] 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.[7]


Le Carré cited the series as his favourite film 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; "Audiences used to the pace of the modern TV crime or espionage drama will need to reorient themselves."[9] Retrospective reviewers favourably compared the series with the 2011 film version, also citing le Carre's praise of the original and referring to Guinness's performance.[3][9][10][11]


Year Award Nominated Result
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 Mortlock Nominated
1980 BAFTA TV Award Best Design Austen Spriggs Nominated
1980 BAFTA TV Award Best Drama Series Jonathan Powell & John Irvin Nominated
1980 BAFTA TV Award Best Film Sound Malcolm Webberley Nominated
1980 BAFTA TV Award Best Graphics Douglas Burd Nominated
1980 BAFTA TV Award Film Editor Chris Wimble & Clare Douglas Nominated
1980 Broadcasting Press Guild Award Best Actor Alec Guinness Won
1980 Broadcasting Press Guild Award Best Drama Series Won
1981 Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries Jac Venza (executive producer), Jonathan Powell (producer) and Samuel Paul (series producer) Nominated

Commercial releasesEdit

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).


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ Fletcher, Brett (17 November 2011). "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979 BBC Miniseries) | Review". GotchaMovies. Retrieved 12 September 2012.
  3. ^ a b Lim, Dennis (27 November 2011). "A Second Look: 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' miniseries". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 12 September 2012.
  4. ^ le Carré, John (11 October 2002). "Over lunch, he turned himself into a spy". The Guardian. London. ISSN 0261-3077. OCLC 60623878. Retrieved 5 January 2013.
  5. ^ Powell, Jonathan (25 October 2011). Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Production Notes (DVD). Disc 1: Acorn DVD.CS1 maint: location (link)
  6. ^ "Geoffrey Burgon, British composer". The Boston Globe. Associated Press. 24 September 2010. Retrieved 12 September 2012.
  7. ^ "Voices of angels: child stars". The Daily Telegraph. 17 November 2010.
  8. ^ le Carré, John (8 March 2002). Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: A Conversation with John le Carré (DVD). Disc 1.CS1 maint: location (link)
  9. ^ a b Hale, Mike (21 October 2011). "Spycraft Dispensed With Appropriate, Deliberate Speed". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 April 2018.
  10. ^ Thomas, June (8 December 2011). "Gary Oldman's Good, but Alec Guinness Was Great". Slate. Retrieved 30 April 2018.
  11. ^ Lane, Anthony (12 December 2011). "I Spy". The New Yorker. Retrieved 30 April 2018.

External linksEdit