"I've got a story to tell you, it's all about spies. And if it's true, which I think it is, you boys are gonna need a whole new organisation..."
— Ricki Tarr, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a seven-part miniseries based on the first book in John le Carré's The Quest for Karla trilogy; it aired in 1979 and starred Alec Guinness as British Intelligence officer George Smiley. He reprised the role in Smiley's People, made in 1981 and based on the third book in the same trilogy.note The middle installment, The Honourable Schoolboy, was deemed too difficult to film due to budget constraints. Together, the chronicle Smiley's conflict with his opposite number in Moscow Center, a legendary spymaster known as Karla (Patrick Stewart), and thematically deal with the minutiae of spy work and the emotional toll it wreaks on people's lives.
These series provide examples of:
As You Know: George Smiley puts out a couple of milkbottles on the steps of a safehouse, then goes inside and confirms that this is, in fact, the correct 'It's safe to come in' signal.
Peter: Yes George, for the second time.
Smiley: Is it? Well let's not pretend we're not nervous.
Batman Gambit: Karla's plan in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Because of the very particular way that the "source" Merlin operates, the heads of the Circus not only don't bother searching for a mole, they actively stop others from doing the same, because they believe they're keeping their own agent safe.
Bi the Way: Connie Sachs is flirtatious with the men in the Circus, and is revealed to be in a romantic relationship with a former female Circus employee in Smiley's People.
Chiaroscuro: There is a lot of this. The credits sequence lists "Photography" as by Tony Pierce-Roberts, and puts his name before that of the producer.
Billing Displacement: The current publicity for the Smiley's People DVD lists Patrick Stewart (Karla) prominently among the main cast, even though he has approximately three minutes of screen time and zero lines.
Cassandra Truth: Smiley's earlier warning that there was a mole was ignored, as it was assumed that he was trying to save Control from being fired.
Jerkass Has a Point: Near the end of the appalling Roddy Martindale's passive-aggressive conversation with Smiley, he asks what turns out to be an extremely good question: Alleline is supposedly in charge of the Circus, but who is in charge of Alleline?
Matryoshka Object: The series has a traditional Russian doll in its intro. Each doll is revealed to have an irate expression until the final one, which is blank. This is reflecting the search for a Russian mole at the heart of MI6.
Meaningful Codename: The Moscow source giving the supposedly indispensable intelligence to the Circus is codenamed "Merlin", and the information he gives that is relayed to the Americans is codenamed "Witchcraft." As Smiley finds out, both Merlin and Witchcraft are part of an ingenious plot between Karla and Bill Haydon to mislead the Americans and discredit the Circus. Meaning both Merlin and Witchcraft are... "hocus pocus".
Neck Snap: Jim Prideaux uses the karate chop version of this to kill Bill Haydon.
Nice Shoes: Smiley wears a pair of orange suede desert boots. A trait Guiness borrowed from the real MI6 boss, who he met for lunch along with John le Carré.
Not Even Bothering with the Accent: In the novels, the Hungarian Toby Esterhase speaks English with a noticeable but unplaceable accent. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy miniseries, he speaks English in impeccable Received Pronunciation.
Averted in Smiley's People, where the character's English approaches Poirot Speak. Esterhase hints that his exercise in British Stuffiness was to belong at the Circus.
Oh, Crap: After he's arrested as the mole, Bill Haydon is unrepentant, even defiant. Until Jim Prideaux, the close friend he betrayed to the Russians, shows up one night. Haydon, knowing he's about to die, is clearly rattled.
The Watson: Peter Guillam in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
What Happened to the Mouse?: Without The Honourable Schoolboy, there are some unexplained loose ends. Why was Smiley forced back into retirement? Why is he willing to recruit Toby Esterhase, but not Roy Bland? What happened to Fawn?