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Series / Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

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Alec Guinness as George Smiley

"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 CarrĂ©'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  Together, they chronicle Smiley's conflict with his opposite number in Moscow Centre, 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:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Haydon can't help but chuckle the entire way through Peter's interrogation by the Circus leaders, where Guillam snarks at Alleline the entire time.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: George Smiley is described in Call for the Dead as short, plump, and always wearing ill-fitting clothes so he resembles a "shrunken toad". Which doesn't sound like Alec Guinness at all. Guinness himself apparently agreed, initially, considering himself unsuitable for the role; he suggested Arthur Lowe.
  • Adaptational Location Change: In the book, Ricki Tarr meets Irina in Hong Kong and Tufty is the Circus's representative in Southeast Asia. In the series, Tufty's stationed in Portugal and Ricki's meetings with Irina are in the Portuguese capital Lisbon.
  • Animated Credits Opening: The opening titles are a sequence of Matryoshka dolls opening up inside each other, with the last doll having no face note . Seen here.
  • Arc Words: Control's words that "There are three of them, and Alleline". They get repeated through the series until the penultimate episode, when Smiley clears one of the suspects with the remark "There are two of them, and Alleline."
  • 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. 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.
  • Battle Butler: Fawn. Pretty handy with a karate chop.
  • The Casanova: Bill, he has at least four sexual partners mentioned, and there are probably others. Ricki Tarr as well is a bit of a player.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Composite Character: For Smiley's People; Strickland is promoted to being Saul Enderby's number two and carries out all the roles that Sam Collins performed in the book.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Grigorieva in Smiley's People.
    Toby: And she's terrible. I mean terrible like lousy! Pauli Skordeno, he says to me, 'Toby, I need danger money just to follow that woman.'"
  • Everybody Smokes: Like the proverbial chimney. Lightens up considerably in Smiley's People.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: Toby explains to Smiley how a False Flag Operation works, only to realize that this technique can very easily be turned on its users.
  • False Flag Operation: The crux of the Witchcraft operation. And as Smiley points out, how Gerald the Mole operates.
    Esterhase: Listen, George, I know Polyakov works for Moscow Center. Of course I do, we all know. But come on, think how many other operations we've run this way. We've bought Polyakov, right? He's a Moscow hood, but he's also our Joe. Now, he's got to pretend to his own people that he's spying on us, so we've got to give him one or two goodies now and again... Chickenfeed, so he can send them home and Moscow Center clap him on the back and tell him he's a big man. It happens all the time. Come on, George. You know the game.
    Smiley: The only problem arises when it turns out you've been handing Polyakov the crown jewels and getting Russian chickenfeed in return.
  • Give Me Back My Wallet: Bill Haydon nicks Smiley's pen after using it to sign some cheques. Having learnt his lesson from Karla and the cigarette lighter, Smiley insists he hand it back.
  • Heroic BSoD: Control after the failure of Operation Testify.
  • 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?
  • Limited Advancement Opportunities: Why Toby Esterhase gets roped in by Alleline and company.
  • Mandatory Unretirement: Smiley is forced out of retirement at beginning of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
  • 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".
  • Motive Rant: The Mole, after he is unmasked. Smiley, his interrogator, is unimpressed.
  • Neck Snap: Jim Prideaux uses the karate chop version of this to kill Bill Haydon.
  • Not Actually the Ultimate Question: An interesting aversion/variation, when Guillam is bringing Smiley to meet Lacon:
    Smiley: Why did Lacon send you for me?
    Guillam: Did you mean why did he send me for you? Or why did he send me for you?
    Smiley: Quite right, Peter. I should have known better than to have asked.
  • 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.
  • Really Gets Around: George Smiley's wife Ann. She is unstoppably unfaithful.
    George Smiley: She gets around.
  • Silent Antagonist: Karla appears in just one short scene; a flashback in which he is interrogated in a Delhi prison cell by Smiley. He doesn't say a word, barely twitches an eyebrow, and pockets Smiley's engraved gold cigarette lighter. The scene is unforgettable.
  • Spy Speak: And not just any Spy Speak, it's dialogue and jargon lifted directly from le Carre's novels.
  • String Theory: Control's pinboard of mole suspects, complete with red ribbon connections.
  • That's What I Would Do: Toby works out how someone unknown (Jim Prideaux) slipped a message for Bill into the suit he'd sent to the cleaners.
  • 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? And of course, what happened to Jerry Westerby?

Alternative Title(s): Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 1979, Smileys People