Send In The Clowns

Film still for Send In The Clowns

Alec Guinness' fastidious cuckold and master agent in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was his first major TV role. Rob White revisits a very English mix of melodrama and investigation


The head (Control) of British intelligence (the Circus) has become convinced there is a traitor high up in the organisation. He sends a trusted agent, Jim Prideaux, to Czechoslovakia to meet a Soviet army officer who has offered to defect and to reveal the mole's identity. But the offer of defection is a set-up. Prideaux is shot then interrogated. Six months after the ensuing diplomatic scandal Control is dead and Smiley, his deputy, is sidelined. Percy Alleline, one of Control's suspects, is head of the Circus and the other suspects, Bill Haydon, Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase, are entrenched in the new regime. Smiley is brought back covertly by Whitehall intelligence mandarin Oliver Lacon when an AWOL field agent Ricky Tarr turns up with corroboration of the mole theory. Abetted by Peter Guillam, who steals documents from the Circus, and Lacon, Smiley gets to work. He reads files and interviews former Circus personnel including Prideaux and sacked head of research Connie Sachs. He discovers that the Soviet attaché whom he suspects of liaising with the mole uses a Circus-funded London safe house and sets a trap for the mole by having Tarr break cover. Haydon, Smiley's Oxford contemporary who had had an affair with Smiley's wife Lady Ann, is the double agent. Sent to a compound to be forcefully debriefed, Haydon is killed by Prideaux. Smiley becomes acting chief of the Circus.


The opening and closing credit sequences of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) tell different stories. To begin each episode a glum-faced wooden Russian doll is disembowelled. Inside it are further dolls: one sullen, another glowering and a final one with only a blank where its face should be. A suspenseful oboe adds to the atmosphere of intrigue. But at the end the credits roll over a still photograph of Oxford. A boy soprano sings the Nunc dimittis ("Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace"). On the one hand, espionage and investigation, the hunt for a double agent; on the other, an elegiac drama of remembrance and departure: a time past, an ideal recalled, a love lost, perhaps. These bookends signal contradictory concerns, but one of the most compelling aspects of Tinker, Tailor is precisely its melding of thriller conventions with intricate melodrama. It's also a reminder - a somewhat poignant one given the recent death of its star - of how well television can handle both these genres. Though this accomplishment is untarnished by the passage of time, the interest of the series today has also to do with the sense that it depicts a world of Englishness that seems as if it belongs to another age.

Alec Guinness was intensely enthusiastic about the part of George Smiley, the "fat, barefooted spy - deceived in love and impotent in hate" created by John Le Carré. Remarkably it was the actor's first substantial television role, and he went on to reprise it in Smiley's People (1982). He was fresh from Star Wars (1977) and no doubt this was a significant factor in Paramount's decision to co-finance the BBC's adaptation of Le Carré's 1974 novel. Novelist and actor got on immediately. Le Carré arranged for them to have lunch with a certain Sir Maurice Oldsmith, a reclusive former British spymaster, and reported that Guinness studied his mannerisms owlishly, peering after the old man as he left the restaurant, intent on studying his gait. This research seems superfluous: Guinness had long been brilliant at playing withdrawn, passive-aggressive types and more or less decent men caught up in larger machinations, including a fair share of spies - The Quiller Memorandum (1966), Our Man in Havana (1959) and The Comedians (1967), the last two adaptations of Graham Greene. He had also played Hilary, a character modelled on the British traitor Kim Philby, on stage in Alan Bennett's The Old Country.

Smiley the gent and buttoned-up Englishman, weighed down, struggling with secrets, was well within Guinness' repertoire, so much so that David Thomson finds it necessary in his Biographical Dictionary of Film to comment that "it became all too clear, at such length, that Guinness could do Smiley standing on his head." Guinness' lasting affection for the role belies that comment to some extent. And the length is surely the point: seven 50-minute episodes first transmitted in September and October 1979. Le Carré had been adapted before on film - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), directed by Martin Ritt, with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom; Sidney Lumet's The Deadly Affair (1966), from the novel Call for the Dead, starring James Mason; The Looking Glass War (1969). But on television there was much more room to breathe; the author's labyrinthine plot (adapted by Arthur Hopcraft, see synopsis above) could unfold at its own pace. And a highly accomplished crew headed by director John Irvin, producer Jonathan Powell and DP Tony Pierce-Roberts executed it superbly.

Reviewers bemoaned the plot's obscurity, but nonetheless most were enchanted, the perplexity being part of the pleasure, and viewing figures were high. The appeal of the series as an espionage drama isn't, however, self-evident. There is very little action to speak of in Tinker, Tailor apart from the brief ambush scene in Czechoslovakia. Instead there are conversations, often in darkened rooms, between middle-aged men. They sit in a group, occasionally with a woman marginally present, around a committee-room table, working through an agenda, circling around an issue, chewing the fat. Alternatively two men sit across a desk or a restaurant table or are hunched in a car engaged in a dialogue that is uncomfortably honest. In all cases conversation is made fraught by the pressure either of what isn't said or of what painfully has to be said.

In episode three Smiley is with Guillam (Michael Jayston) and Lacon (Anthony Bate) going over files they have sequestered. Smiley recalls the last days of Control's regime. Within this conversation there's one of Tinker, Tailor's many flashbacks - to another conversation, this time a meeting between all the senior Circus personnel. Alleline has come up with a new source of intelligence, codename Witchcraft, from source Merlin, which has aroused Control's suspicion. The bigwigs are let into a boardroom at the head of which Control (Alexander Knox) sits, facing at right angles to the table, staring into the distance. They settle into chairs, Esterhase (Bernard Hepton) fussily straightening his jacket. Alleline (Michael Aldridge) pompously informs the others of the strict procedures for access to Witchcraft material in an Admiralty reading room. He's occasionally interrupted by a derisive snort from Control or a wisecrack from Haydon (Ian Richardson) who is the charmer of the group, dressed more casually than the rest, ready to elicit a laugh, quickly swallowed, from the moustachioed Bland (Terence Rigby). Lacon interjects officiously about procedures. Smiley listens. The cutting emphasises fracture: three men on one side of the table, three on the other and Control ever more isolated, filmed in close-up, twisting his neck enough to sneer at Alleline but not to look at him. This is the world of Tinker, Tailor: fine character actors photographed pointedly but unostentatiously to convey the impression of a bureaucracy going bad.

Smiley mostly listens, occasionally urging on whoever is speaking or pausing to wonder out loud. Behind his wide, round spectacles his eyes are slightly moist. He's thin-lipped and dumpy, given to fastidious gestures: wiping his spectacles with a handkerchief, putting on gloves, smoking like a schoolboy. In Guinness' portrayal his rectitude and purposefulness are sympathetic. But Smiley is also unmistakably the cuckold. He's very bruised by his wife's adultery and by the general awareness of it in the circles he moves in. ("Have you noticed," he asks Guillam, "that whenever I really trouble one of our acquaintances with my questions he'll raise the matter of my failure as a husband?" Indeed, "How's Ann?" is the epitome of speech in Tinker, Tailor, an apparently polite question that's in fact loaded with gossip and innuendo.) This humiliation has made him to some extent pitiless. When he goes to visit Connie Sachs (Beryl Reid), his mind is only on her knowledge of Soviet intelligence. In exile in Oxford with an irascible little dog and the occasional student for company, Connie really wants to reminisce with "lovely, darling George". She stretches out on a sofa, cradling a whisky in her arthritic fingers, and embellishes all her answers to Smiley's questions with bitchy or gushing asides. "This is no time to be whimsical," Smiley insists, when all Connie wants is to be whimsical. When Smiley gets up Connie is still speaking and there's a cut to a close-up of her: "If it's bad, George, don't come back." But he has already left the room. This is much harsher than in the novel, which emphasises Smiley's inner turmoil rather than Connie's melancholy: "He did not like to leave her there in the dark - As he went down the road he heard her humming again, so loud it was like a scream. But it was nothing to the mayhem inside him just then, the currents of alarm and anger and disgust at this blind night walk with God knows what bodies at the end."

Later on Smiley visits journalist and Circus hanger-on Jerry Westerby (Joss Ackland) who had been in Czechoslovakia and had heard about troop activity in the area in which Prideaux was soon to be captured. When he reported this ominous coincidence to Esterhase he was thrown out. Westerby is an alcoholic, ordering "another bucket of gin", and then another, at lunchtime. He's succumbing to drink and he knows it. This knowledge is one more bit of damage to his fragile self-esteem. Smiley wants to hear the story and it's not difficult to get Westerby to remember. Half-guiltily glugging his drinks, shoving mushy Fleet Street pub food into his mouth (the cutting is between big close-ups of the two men), Westerby can't restrain himself from talking, desperate for any crumb of Circus approval. But when he begins to ask questions for himself Smiley just glares at him from behind his spectacles, barely bothering to conceal his disdain. Much of Guinness' skill in realising Smiley lies in this streak of pious reproach. Smiley relishes his role as molehunter because it confirms his beleaguered sense of moral superiority. And just occasionally, as in this scene, he revels in it.

Isolation within a pair or a group, where shot/reverse shot and close-ups are used to signal alienation rather than engagement, is the key formal element in Tinker, Tailor. It's emphasised by the many scenes that take place in almost complete darkness. When Control briefs Prideaux (Ian Bannen) about his mission they are in an office lit by a single lamp on a desk. The lamplight accentuates Control's gaunt features, the hollowness around his eyes, his growing introversion and monomania. Prideaux is barely visible in the shadows as he learns the full extent of Control's suspicions and probes for more detail. When Guillam is driving Smiley to Lacon's home to debrief Tarr (played by Hywell Bennet, the only miscast actor in the series) he has to stop his sportscar to fiddle with the engine. He kneels by the car while Smiley sits, troubled, in the passenger seat, their faces lit only by the headlights of occasional passing cars. And near the end, in the climactic confrontation between Prideaux and Haydon, the lighting is almost non-existent. Haydon sits on a bench at night. Prideaux steals up behind him and, without looking at each other, these two old friends settle their scores.

Tinker, Tailor is haunted by all the baggage and repression of the High Tory English 'ruling class'. "The maggots are eating up the Circus," Control tells Prideaux before sending him into Czechoslovakia. The double agent is the faceless symbol of a broader disintegration. "Poor loves," Connie says to Smiley, "trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. Englishmen could be proud then, they could George." "I hate the real world," she goes on. "I like the Circus and my lovely boys." But part of the force of Tinker, Tailor lies in its refutal of the claim that changes in the world have brought things to the state they are in. The intelligence bureaucrats are shown to be vain and venal, constantly seeking personal advantage. Their loyalties are never motivated by principle or even ideology. Haydon's explanation for his treachery - "I hate America very deeply: the economic oppression of the masses institutionalised" - is entirely unconvincing. Ann's sense of his actions as selfish seems more apt: "Bill standing at the centre of some secret stage, playing world against world. He had a wonderful time." Haydon is no better or worse than the others, no more smug and ambitious. He betrays, but betrayal is implicit in this world ruled by class and convention where so many acts and utterances are small perfidies dressed up as honourable behaviour.

Connie's invocation of Empire flushes out a subtext of Tinker, Tailor: its characters' uneasy relation to a post-colonial world. This is a Cold War story, but the mindset is pre-war, bounded by public school and Oxbridge, the City, Whitehall and the Colonial service, gentlemen's clubs and country houses. Smiley says of Control: "He hated everywhere except Surrey, the Circus and Lord's cricket ground." At no point, Connie's remark aside, is there any reflection on this mindset: it just pervades the air and weighs down the language. When Guillam goes to the Circus to purloin documents for Smiley, Alleline, in a dark blue three-piece suit, his forefinger curled around a pipe, feigns surprise at the sight of him. "Are you lonely in the Brixton outpost? Tired of chasing the local virgins, if there are any virgins in Brixton, which I doubt - You do know that Mo Delaware is our new head of research, do you? Man with message and cleft stick does reach Brixton?" "Barring the monsoon," Guillam retorts.

Another recurring term, "ju-ju man" (the late-19th-century adjective, denoting a fetish, entered English by way of explorations in West Africa), belongs to the same vocabulary. In briefing Smiley about the new Circus organisational doctrine of "lateralism", Guillam reminds him of the previous structure: "Each region was commanded by its own ju-ju man with Control in heaven pulling the strings." But the term is above all favoured by Prideaux, Control's trusted heavy. Smiley's bodyguard Mendel has tracked Prideaux down to Thursgood's Preparatory School where he's in "quarantine" after the scandal in Czechoslovakia. A fading war veteran, fit and strong but injured, always aware of the seeping bullet wound in his back but always pushing it to the back of his mind, his eyes have a perpetual faraway look and he speaks slowly, his breathing laboured. His mind is on other things, or on the business of not thinking too much about other things, and when he speaks it's a kind of preoccupied banter, fluent and controlled but essentially evasive. He's taking the school motor club, letting the boys drive his Alvis car ("best Britain ever made and years out of production") when he spots Mendel in the near distance, keeping watch. He draws the boys around him. "See that man? Who's he? Seen him before? - He's not staff and he's not village, so who is he? Beggarman? Thief? - Don't want ju-ju men wandering around pretending they don't know we exist."

Even when Tinker, Tailor deals with violence, a certain English tact prevails, a manner of talking around things, calling one thing by the name of another. With his clipped, military phrasing, Prideaux makes sure the boys are vigilant, and in so doing he undetectably (to the boys, at least) replays the trauma of being shot and tortured by repeating the codenames for the five senior Circus men Control had given him before sending him on the ill-fated mission. When Smiley quizzes him about the interrogation, in a car at dusk, Prideaux skirts around the worst of it. "You don't break exactly, you just run out of stories to tell." There's an allusion to Guillam cracking up after a network he'd set up in North Africa was "blown" and the agents hanged. When Smiley visits Haydon after spells of interrogation, Haydon can't stop the trickle of blood from his nose, and can't resist a weak joke: "I'm sure it's just the excitement of it."

Tinker, Tailor is most reticent, however, when it comes to sexuality. It inverts the analogy between patriotism, athleticism and sexual prowess that holds in, for instance, Bond films. Sexual charisma is instead a mark of treachery. Women, including Smiley's wife, "simply bow down before" Haydon. Smiley is deceived and then ridiculed for his marriage, Control is driven and sexless, Alleline and Esterhase seem uptight and prudish, easiest in the company of men. The hypocritical English horror of homosexuality becomes a central conundrum of Tinker, Tailor, its guilty secret. Whereas Julian Mitchell's play Another Country (filmed in 1984) and Alan Bennett's 1983 BBC drama An Englishman Abroad, each based on the life of Guy Burgess, explicitly explore the fact that several British double agents were gay, Tinker, Tailor is very uneasy with the subject, nodding towards it in the forms of a camp Circus clerk and a "sensitive" man running a hotel with his mother. But ultimately it's crucial. When Haydon is winding up his affairs with Smiley, asking him to deliver messages and to pay off a mistress, he pauses a little before adding: "There's one particular boy, a cherub but no angel - Better give him a couple of hundred."

The idea of Haydon as a polysexual hedonist would be a fudge were it not for the relationship between Haydon and Prideaux. They "really were very close you know," Lacon tells Smiley after looking into their time at Oxford. This is Prideaux, the staunchest of men, now rotting away in a provincial prep school, nursing old wounds. The most dramatically intense scene in the series comes when Prideaux sneaks into the compound where Haydon is being held, having stalked Smiley. Haydon smokes in the darkness, the dim lights of the prefab huts a little way off. Prideaux moves quietly towards him from the foreground, the camera dragging behind him at hip level. "Don't turn round, Bill." "Come to say goodbye, Jim?" As Haydon asks this Prideaux leans over him and kisses his forehead. They go over the events in Czechoslovakia and Haydon's foreknowledge of them. "The shooting wasn't part of the plan, Jim." "No, not the shooting, but everything else." Then he chops his hand down hard on Haydon's neck and kills him.

Melodrama, the photograph of Oxford, wins out. Tinker, Tailor has depicted a deeply sentimental and self-indulgent culture, mostly without connivance. It ends with two broken men suffering the fallout of so much deception and aversion. Jim Prideaux, back at Thursgood's, is sitting at assembly as his favourite pupil, Jumbo, reads from the Bible. Jumbo stumbles on the Authorised Version spelling of showed - 'shewed' - repeating it, at a loss. Prideaux completes the sentence for him, his voice tremulous, tears welling in his eyes. Finally there is Smiley returning to Ann (Sian Phillips) at her family home in the country. As they walk around the grounds Ann can't stop herself from asking whether Haydon had ever said anything about her, anything personal. Smiley presses on: "Did you love him, Ann? Ann, did you?" "No, George. Poor George, life's such a puzzle to you, isn't it?" George Smiley, wearing a bowler hat, overcoat and brown leather driving gloves, replaces the spectacles he was polishing on his white scarf and stares at his wife, aggrieved and dumbfounded, then looks away.

Alec Guinness (b. 2 April 1914) died on 5 August 2000

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012