17 January 2000 | Glad-2
Definitely in the BBC pantheon...
Definitely in the BBC pantheon (alongside I Claudius and Pride and Prejudice), partly for its formidable cast, but mainly for John Irvin's taut directorial grip - a model of visual economy and uncompromising narrative drive.
A double-agent or 'mole' is suspected at the top levels of the British secret service and retired spymaster Alec Guiness must narrow down the suspects amongst his former colleagues. Arthur Hopcraft's adaptation, while capturing the bureaucratic intrigue and perfidy of John Le Carre's novel, will demand viewers' utmost attention if they want to stay with the unfolding plot.
Irvin shoots Tinker, Tailor as if for widescreen - edge of the screen compositions, careful background detail - and demonstrates how a determined director can overcome the limitations of television(usually seen as a writer or producer's medium). Look at how he composes and cuts the scene where Guillam (Michael Jayston) is interrogated round the boardroom table towards the end of the first half. How Irvin provides deft little 'bookend' shots with the characters slowly walking away from camera.
Not that his sparse, pared-down style doesn't translate to action scenes with equal verve. The prologue - Ian Bannen's abortive mission into Czechoslovakia and its climatic chase through the forest - is as tense as anything you're likely to see on the big screen. Wintry settings and a fraught music score (mainly strings) add to this bleak, cynical vision.
Irvin landed the Hollywood actioner Dogs of War on the strength of Tinker, Tailor, but despite clever touches it didn't launch a notable cinema career. Look out, however, for his earlier television adaptation of Dickens' Hard Times. (For another example of very superior television direction, check out James Goldstone's handling of two first-season Star Trek episodes - 'Where No Man Has Gone Before' and 'What Are Little Made Of').
Author Le Carre may have topped Tinker,Tailor with a dazzling sequel (The Honourable Schoolboy, published 1977), but this is still far and away the best espionage suspenser ever televised. Indeed, it's hard to see how anything else, post Cold War, could quite match this relentless, ruthless dissection of personal and political betrayals.