Revisiting The First 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' Before the 2011 film version of John Le Carre's spy novel, British director John Irvin directed the original 1979 series for the BBC. It starred George Smiley as the master spy, recalled from forced retirement to root out a mole in the British intelligence service's top ranks.
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Revisiting The First 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

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Revisiting The First 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

Revisiting The First 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

Revisiting The First 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In the 1979 BBC series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, director John Irvin created a dreary depiction of the British Secret Service. Acorn Media hide caption

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Acorn Media

In the 1979 BBC series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, director John Irvin created a dreary depiction of the British Secret Service.

Acorn Media

John Le Carre's Cold War espionage novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is enjoying a resurgence among today's audiences.

Gary Oldman stars in a 2011 film adaptation of the book — often called Le Carre's finest — as master spy George Smiley, recalled from forced retirement to root out a traitor in the top ranks of the British intelligence service.

While the 2011 film may be some viewers' first introduction to the story, many others will remember the iconic 1979 BBC mini-series starring Alec Guinness, recently released on DVD. The multi-part series slowly unravels a labyrinthine tale of intrigue, petty rivalries and bureaucracy against a dreary Cold War backdrop.

John Irvin, director of the original series, joins NPR's Neal Conan to talk about how he crafted his adaptation and why the story still resonates today, more than two decades after the end of the Cold War.


In the new movie "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," master spy George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman, recalls what he told his Soviet counterpart and nemesis Karla to try to get him to defect.


GARY OLDMAN: (as George Smiley) We're not so very different, you and I. We both spend our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another's systems. Don't you think it's time to recognize there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?

CONAN: This new version of John le Carre's classic Cold War thriller inevitably faces comparison to the BBC TV series first broadcast in 1979 that starred Alec Guinness as Smiley.


ALEC GUINNESS: (as George Smiley) I'm not offering you wealth or smart women or your choice of fast cars. I know you have no use for those things. And I'm not going to make any claims about the moral superiority of the West. I'm sure you can see through our values, just as I can see through yours in the East. You and I have spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in each other's systems. I'm sure each of us has experienced innumerable technical satisfactions in our wretched Cold War.

CONAN: In a moment, the man who directed that BBC miniseries joins us. If you have questions for John Irvin about either version, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. John Irvin joins us now from the studios of the BBC in London. His version of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is now available on DVD from Acorn Media. He's gone on to direct more than 40 films and television programs, including "Hamburger Hill" and "The Dogs of War." John Irvin, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

JOHN IRVIN: It's a great pleasure to be here.

CONAN: I know you've seen the new film directed by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson. What do you think?

IRVIN: I think he's a very good director. Obviously, the film in the theater is very different from the version that we made, which went out on the BBC some 30 years ago. I don't think you could make comparisons, really. They're two different animals. I enjoyed it, and it was very thoughtful. It was very stylish, and it was engrossing. I know the story pretty well, so I wasn't lost.


CONAN: It helps to have read the book, doesn't it?

IRVIN: It does. Yes, yes. It's a tricky one. But, no, I thought - I was - obviously, it was rather like looking in the mirror and seeing somebody completely different looking back at you. But I did enjoy it, and as I said, it was done with tremendous panache, and I enjoyed that.

CONAN: You faced - I'm sorry to interrupt. But you faced what you must have felt were hellish choices compressing the book to, what, five-and-a-half hours. They had two.


IRVIN: I know. I don't know how they did it. I mean, we thought we were compressing the story, and we thought we were, you know, we were hard pressed. But I - it is - the heart of it is really quite simple. It is, obviously, dressed up as an extraordinary, thrilling, suspenseful, you know, mystery. And I think the way I directed it and the way I saw it is very different from the way, you know, the present film is envisioned. But I think they're both - I mean, they're both valid. I saw my version as a, you know, as a labyrinth, with a very dark secret in the center of it. And I based my version on the corridors of the BBC.

CONAN: Oh, really?

IRVIN: This circus, it was a combination in my imagination really of all the intrigues, jealousies, rivalries within the departments of the BBC and combined with my schoolmasters, my boarding school, when I was - where I was very unhappy.


IRVIN: So I was able to get my revenge...


CONAN: You couldn't actually take any of them out and shoot them, so.

IRVIN: ...both on the BBC and my school, yes.

CONAN: So there is, speaking of shooting, one action sequence in both the movie and your version. It's right at the beginning. This is a little different from the spy thrillers that people had been accustomed, starring people like James Bond.

IRVIN: Indeed. This is - I mean, the ending sequence in our version was set in a forest. There's - it makes your pulse race. It's a man running for his life, chased by dogs. Here, it's an assassination - in Budapest. I think - you know, I think it's - it was never - it's never - it was never going to be compared with James Bond. But what's interesting is that Alec Guinness, the most thoughtful, the most - in some ways, the most cerebral of actors, when he walks into his house and realizes that somebody's inside, he holds a pistol in his hands, and he suddenly sort of completely changed. He obviously thought he was James Bond for a minute, and it's quite (unintelligible).


IRVIN: I just said, calm down, calm down. Stop that. Put it away. Not so keen, you know. But it's interesting that as soon as he had it in his fist, he was transformed by this weapon. I always remember thinking, gosh, you know, we're all boys at heart, aren't we really?

CONAN: It is Alec- - and you mentioned his play with the gun. He did more cleaning his glasses than any actor I have ever seen in my life.

IRVIN: Yes, with the tip of his tie.


IRVIN: Which is a - that's why it works so well, yes. That's - looking back through his - holding his spectacles up, almost like a magnifying glass with this great owl looking into them, you know, penetrating - this penetrating examination of his victims. Wonderful stuff - wonderful, wonderful. He was a master, master, master in terms of his technique. It was amazing. I mean, I've never worked with an actor who, apart from Melvin Douglas, who had the same command and control and concentration - absolutely brilliant.

CONAN: We have - in fact, we've asked for calls. And a surprise to us, a wonderful former colleague of ours, Anne Garrels is calling. Annie, how are you?

ANNE GARRELS: I'm very well, and I have a great "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" story.

CONAN: Go ahead.

GARRELS: Well, I was an ABC correspondent in the late '70s, '80s when the first BBC series came out. And I was the only one in town with a VCR. It was the old three-quarter inch. Nobody - it was way before VHS, and whatever. And I got the series, and I watched it in Moscow with the CIA station chief. I knew who he was. He knew I knew, but we never actually said that - and a bunch of Russians. And, of course, we were sitting there watching it. And, of course, we knew the KGB was listening in to the apartment.


GARRELS: And they knew we knew, they knew we knew, and it was a hilarious moment.


CONAN: Now - so that's how they first got the audio track of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

GARRELS: Well, we had the video.

CONAN: Yes. Now, you have the video. They got the audio by listening into you.

GARRELS: They got the audio for the first time - or maybe not.

CONAN: Those were the days, Annie. We remember when the person the CIA believed to be the KGB chief in Washington used to be regularly issued the license plate 007.

GARRELS: Exactly. And, of course, subsequently, I was thrown out for being a spy - although, as the Soviets said, a very bad one...


GARRELS: ...I regret.

CONAN: Annie, it is great to hear from you.

GARRELS: Well, I just - I heard this, and it was just, you know, one of those moments in the Cold War which are distant for so many, and present for so many of us. But, I mean, it was one of the best moments I had in Moscow.

CONAN: Annie, thanks so much.

GARRELS: Thank you, sweetie. Bye.

CONAN: Our old colleague, Anne Garrels, calling in from, I suspect, Northeastern Connecticut, but she'll correct if I'm wrong. In any case, John Irvin, I know John Le Carre always liked your version of this novel as his favorite adaptation of any of his books into television or movies. Did you ever get a chance to talk to him about it?

IRVIN: About the - we worked very closely with David Cornwell...

CONAN: Yes, his real name.

IRVIN: ...and - his real name, yeah. And although we'd - it's interesting. He may not thank me for saying this, but we didn't show him many rushes for about, I think, you know, until we'd been filming for three or four weeks. We then compiled some rushes with Alec, you know, playing Smiley. And he was halfway through "Smiley's People," writing it. And when he saw the rushes, the compilation, he went back and started again and rewrote "Smiley's People" so that Smiley was much closer to Guinness' persona. It was fascinating. So I know that - Alec and I became very close.

Alec was introduced to the head of MI6 by David. And I knew after that meeting that he was hooked, because he came back and he said to me, hmm, not quite a gentleman: suede shoes, blue suit, very trunky cufflinks. He didn't like the cufflinks. So I knew - once an actor starts talking about his costume or his - you know, I knew that he was hooked. It took - I had to work him for about a month, two months, almost, I think, actually, looking in retrospect, to persuade him to come aboard, because it was a year's work. It was a long, long journey.

CONAN: Did you have to cancel shooting if the sun came out?


IRVIN: Steady. No, we - unfortunately, we had to stop shooting quite often because the crew was in a dispute with the BBC management, so it was (unintelligible).

CONAN: As happened often in those years, yes.

IRVIN: Yes. It was - we were embroiled in all sorts of industrial action, but I kept shooting, even if it was only for a day. But I thought that Alec would, you know, would be really, you know, disappointed and might walk. And I know that I told him (unintelligible), which we - you know, and we couldn't film. We weren't allowed to. The shop steward said no, no, no. So I said, you all go home. I was very depressed.

And I saw Alec get up to the telephone outside the dining room, and I thought, you know, he was, you know, talking to his agent, saying, well, you know, this is ridiculous. It's not working. And he came - and he talked to a waiter, and he sat down. And I was profoundly depressed. I thought, you know, we would have to abandon the whole project. And suddenly, the dining was flooded with waiters bearing trays of champagne. And I said, what on earth is - you know, what's going on? Hardly a time for celebration. And he said, no, no, John. You look so depressed. I thought you needed cheering up. So I bought you some champagne. And, of course, he stayed to the end. He was an extraordinary a generous man and, you know, obviously, a master. But he was very thoughtful.

CONAN: Fantastic performance you got from him. John Irvin, congratulations on the renewed interest in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

IRVIN: Thank you.

CONAN: And I know you're also now working on a World War II story, "Monte Cassino," due out next year. So good luck with that.

IRVIN: Thank you so much. It's been a great pleasure.

CONAN: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," the Alec Guinness version is available on DVD from Acorn Media, the new - excuse me - the new movie version starring Gary Oldman is out on screens, I guess, just about everywhere. John Irvin joined us today from BBC in London. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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