‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’

John le Carré’s spy novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, was published in 1974. Set during the Cold War, it features a middle-aged protagonist, George Smiley, who’s given the task of uncovering a Soviet mole within ‘The Circus’. It’s a defining work of the spy fiction genre.

It’s taken a while for me to get around to reading this novel. I finally managed to read it this month. It’s an impressive work of fiction. In terms of the ‘fun factor’ provided by the reading experience, Len Deighton might have the edge on John le Carré, but in terms of storytelling sophistication, and writing craft, John le Carré probably has the edge on Len Deighton.

Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels, beginning with 1983s Berlin Game moved on from the nameless protagonist in The Ipcress File. Twenty years later, the Bernard Samson novels are clearly written with a post-Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy awareness. There’s even a moment in the 1979 BBC drama where Smiley uses an alias of Sampson, ‘Sampson with a P’ he reiterates over the phone.

There’s a fair amount of debate about the merits of John le Carré Vs Len Deighton Vs Ian Fleming. I appreciate each of them in their own way. They were writing different kinds of spy stories.

Fleming was consciously writing mainstream genre adventures. His books were aiming for nothing less than the bestseller stand at the airport. Bond is a fantasy action hero derived from the swashbuckling heroes of yesteryear like Baroness Orczy’s hero in The Scarlet Pimpernel (although the Bond in the novels is less ridiculous than the films). Bond also arrived a decade earlier than The Ipcress File and just over two decades before Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Casino Royale was published in 1953. The Ipcress File was published in 1962. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was published in 1974. The world was very different in 1953, 1962, and 1974. Each of them can be seen as novels of their respective decades.

Len Deighton wrote spy stories that veer towards literary fiction. Like a Bond adventure, they have immediate appeal, but the main characters are more ‘literary’ and realistic in conception.

John le Carré, on the other hand, wrote literary fiction novels that are also spy stories. Each author has chosen a different emphasis between entertainment and realism, between action sequences and intricate psychological world-building. They can almost be seen as reflecting how spy fiction itself changed from pulp fiction to literature.

Fleming’s novels had charm, action and the fantasy of a classical alpha male hero. They were written to perform as crowd-pleasers. Len Deighton’s protagonists are anti-heroes, armed with a deadly combination of sarcasm and wit. The Bernard Samson novels continue the office politics but with less humour and melancholier.

Generally speaking, extreme manifestations of pop culture tend to age the fastest. Ian Fleming’s relatively cardboard cut-out character, James Bond, is the most dated of the three writers. Len Deighton’s hero in The Ipcress File is more realistic, and Bernard Samson more so again. But John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy goes for even greater realism and psychological resonance.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a number of superbly realised characters. Not just George Smiley, but Jim Prideaux (who carries the opening of the novel), Peter Guillam, and Ricki Tarr with his complicated romantic life and his doomed love affair with Irina.

The seven-part TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy aired on BBC in late 1979. It is a remarkable adaptation, although its production values are very much that of late 70s TV. The production was shot on 16mm film in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The 1970s era photographic equipment has left an indelible mark — soft lenses, focus issues, chromatic aberration and purple fringing, the colour of the film stock, etc. While disappointing, it is oddly appropriate for the subject matter (watching it in 2021). Sir Alec Guinness is excellent as George Smiley.

The story was adapted into a film in 2011. Perhaps knowing that the performances of the TV series could not be topped they focused on creating a cinematic look and feel. The result feels visually over-designed. While I did enjoy watching it, it seemed like something was lacking. Gary Oldman’s performance as George Smiley is good but he looks a bit too handsome and healthy for the role.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, film, 2011, a scene in The Circus meeting room.

The meeting room at The Circus illustrates the different approach between the TV series and the film. In the film, the meeting room is a strange almost sci-fi space. It has prominent sound insulation blocks fixed to the walls, which creates an unusual pattern. It has a large, impressively polished hardwood desk. It was probably shot on a specially designed and built sound stage.

The meeting room at The Circus in the 1979 BBC TV series.

In the TV series it’s a small room that looks right for any small business or government office in the 1970s. The small table pushes the characters together creating an almost comical but psychologically claustrophobic space. It was shot on location (for budgetary reasons most likely) and because of that it feels more authentic.

The 2011 film seems strangely theatrical and over-reliant on its visuals. Everything is disconcertingly new, neat and clean, like it’s been freshly unwrapped from cellophane.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy novel: Brilliant.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy TV series: Brilliant.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy film: Interesting.