Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) (Blu-ray Review)

No doubt remains: a mole has infiltrated the Circus, code name for the British Secret Intelligence Service. It can only be one of four men operating at the very highest level. Sidelined agent George Smiley is covertly tapped to root out the mole, a task that requires a painstaking dig through the double-blind world of Cold War-era espionage and his own past. Alec Guinness brilliantly captures the weary heart and steely soul of John le Carré’s master spy.  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was nominated for an Emmy for best miniseries and won two BAFTA Awards, including best actor for Guinness.  The series also stars Ian Richardson, Michael Aldridge, Joss Ackland, Ian Bannen, Ian Bannen, Terence Rigby, Michael Jayston, Hywel Bennett, Anthony Bate, and a memorable cameo by Patrick Stewart, who returns in a larger role for the sequel.  Hailed as one of the finest dramas ever made for television, this 1979 BBC miniseries garnered universal critical acclaim for its stellar ensemble cast, literate writing and intricate plots.


When a British agent named Ricki Tarr (Hywell Bennet) is sent to discover whether or not a Moscow Center intelligence officer could possibly become a defector, he finds out that the man’s wife is the one who is unhappy. After having an affair with her, he learns that there is a high ranking mole nicknamed Gerald within the British Secret Service or the “Circus,” as it’s informally known. When the woman is captured by Russian agents, Ricki knows he’s in danger and disappears which makes him look suspicious to his own people who believe that he’s gone rogue. He finally reappeares to talk with his boss Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston), who notifies Oliver Lacon (Anthony Bate), who then brings in retired former Deputy Head of the Service George Smiley (Alec Guinness).  Knowing that any one of the top men of the Circus could be the mole, they agree to run the investigation without the help or knowledge of the Circus.

The Circus is now being run by Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge) after his predecessor “Control” (Alexander Knox) was forced to step down due to a disastrous  mission called “Operation: Testify.”  Control believed that there was  mole in the upper echelon of the Circus and created the mission to discover who it was.  He sent agent Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen) to communist Czechoslovakia on a purported mission to retrieve a Czech Army General but it was a setup and Prideaux was caught in a ambush and shot in the back and was later repatriated and dismissed by the Circus. The failure of that mission and his poor health, was enough to have Control forced out the door by the opportunistic Alleline and his deputies, Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson), Roy Bland (Terence Rigby), and Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton).

After learning about Operation Testify, Smiley believes that the reason the mission failed was because of the mole Gerald who tipped off the Russians in advance.   Alleline is now in command largely thanks to his secret Soviet mole code-named “Merlin” who was a constant source of seemingly good material.  The more Smiley looks into Merlin, the more he is convinced that Moscow Center is actually playing the British and not the other way around as Alleline believed.  Alleline and his deputies are so enamored with Merlin that they automatically disregard anything that might jeopardize their feed from him which actually benefits the real mole.

With the cutthroat political games being played by the Circus’ deputies, the service has suffered because of these bitter internecine rivalries which has left them paralyzed.  It’s up to Smiley and his small group to determine who the mole is and just what damage he or she has done.  Knowing that they will have to draw the mole into the open, Smiley and Peter arrange for Tarr to send a message that they know will be intercepted by the mole Gerald, who will try to contact the Soviet mastermind Karla (Patrick Stewart)  since he’s the one pulling all of the strings.

I enjoyed reading the book by John le Carré and watching this series, although I know a lot of people nowadays will complain about the pace of the series.  Compared to what’s on TV today, this series pace seems positively glacial in comparison but that’s not always a bad thing when the time is used to deepen characters like this one does. Learning all of the ticks and motivations of all of the Secret Service deputies is invaluable in understanding the infighting between them and to having a better understanding of the mole’s motivations at the end.  Smiley himself remains a cypher throughout the series since he never volunteers anything about himself, nor does he generally answer questions as he prefers to ignore them and ask one of his own.

There is a real sense of history between these characters which adds a punch to the ending.  Not only do we see the infighting within the service, we also learn that Smiley’s wife Anne cheated on him with Bill Hayden.  Unfortunately for Smiley, that affair is public knowledge and he is constantly asked about Anne by his co-workers who surely are asking just to twist the knife in him.  All of the performances are very good but Alec Guinness is superb as the inscrutable George Smiley.  As someone who has Guinness’ performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi burned into his brain, it’s a little disconcerting to see him in this type of a role, but I will never tire of hearing Mr. Guinness’ voice or seeing his masterful performances.


This 1080p presentation is pretty much what you would expect from an old television mini-series but it does look better than the previous  DVD release but it’s still a far cry from what we are used to today.  Detail is acceptable but lacking, while colors and textures are muted and not defined well but are an improvement over the last release.  Black levels are fairly washed out and the picture can be downright murky at times.  Flesh tones are natural and consistent throughout the series.  If you are expecting an amazing restoration you will be disappointed but this is better than the DVD set so if you haven’t bought this set yet, I would recommend getting the Blu-ray.


If you were hoping for a lossless track for the Blu-ray edition, prepare for some more disappointment.  This mix is better than the DVD but it could be better too.  Dialogue is clear for the most part, but there are some instances where the dialogue is muffled and hard to understand.  The music for the series is very clear and the theme song plays louder than the rest of the series so be prepared to adjust the volume.  All in all, this track is fine for what it is but it could have been improved.

Special Features  

There isn’t a lot on this set but the interview with John le Carré was very interesting. If you haven’t already bought this series on DVD, there’s some new goodies on the Blu-ray edition including a chat with the director and some deleted scenes.

  • Exclusive interview with John le Carré – A twenty minute talk with the author of the book who shares his thoughts on the adaption, the cast, and why he wrote the book.  For fans of the author, this is a nice look into his world and his thoughts.
  • Interview with Director John Irvin – An illuminating thirty minute chat with the director of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy who shares his thoughts on the series and the cast.  This is new to the Blu-ray set and is not included on the previous DVD release.
  • Deleted Scenes – A set of deleted scenes that were a part of the original seven episode series that was cut down to six.  These scenes restore some of that lost footage and they are exclusive to this Blu-ray set.
  • Production Notes – Some interesting information on the production of the movie given via text as an extra on the disc.
  • Glossary of main characters and terms
  • Cast filmographies
  • John le Carré biography and booklist

Final Thoughts  

I really liked how the series captured all of the minute details from the book.  Whether it’s the seedy looking secret service headquarters that looks like it’s rotting from within (mirroring what is actually happening) to the methodology of spy-craft that Smiley and the others use.  This is a very literary adaption and true to the book which are both rare especially when it’s done this well.  The Blu-ray set is the version to buy since it has improved picture and sound quality as well as some new extras.  If you haven’t seen this series yet, you should correct that right now!

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