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Before it was ever made into a Hollywood movie starring Gary Oldman, John le Carré’s novel of the same name was crafted into a fantastic adaptation for British television by BBC. The 1979 production of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a true television classic, most memorable for its labyrinthine plot involving Cold War spies and an unforgettable performance by Alec Guinness. This adaptation is nearly a direct reproduction of John le Carré’s novel, only made possible by running well over 300 minutes.
Set at the height of the Cold War in Europe, this spy thriller begins in London and unwinds across the continent. An unidentified Soviet mole has infiltrated the upper levels of the British Secret Intelligence Service. The series is steeped in its own world of authentic spycraft terms, the upper level British Intelligence is codenamed “Circus.” The Soviet spy has been narrowed down to a small list of a few men, operating at the highest levels of Circus. The suspects are each given codenames, based off the old English rhyme, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor.”
Sacked years before for a spy operation that went bad, in steps master spy George Smiley out of retirement to hunt down the mole, played brilliantly by Alec Guinness. This is one of those rare acting performances that transcends the program and genre that spawned it. His weary take on the aging spy is pitch perfect and what holds the entire series together, almost by sheer force of will. Smiley’s careful mannerisms and style of precise speech pose no problem for the legendary British actor.
The intricate plot is a web of intrigue and mystery, as each new development leads to more and more mysteries concerning the mole. The deep cast of characters are all sharply drawn, given their own sense of direction and purpose in each stage of the hunt. Double-crosses and surprises await at every turn. Consider the character only known as Control, the mysterious former head of the Circus. Control is supposedly the agent who first suspected there was a mole within the organization. His actual identity is a mystery to both viewers and the other agents inside the current Circus, except for George Smiley. The narrative masterly balances the tension of the unknown with dramatic developments at each step.
Many have called Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the greatest spy film ever made. I can’t seriously argue against that point, it’s a literate and thoughtful adaptation of an excellent series of novels. Topped off with a classic performance by Alec Guinness, it is a perfect series. While more demanding of modern viewers to follow each and every twist and turn than recent Hollywood fare, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is vastly rewarding in the end.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was filmed on 16mm film stock, a revolutionary move for the BBC back in 1979. The television series did see its first DVD release in 2002 and there is no indication from the visual evidence that a new high-definition master has been struck for this Blu-ray. A dramatic restoration of the original film elements was unlikely to greatly improve the dated look of this production, but it is evident the film elements used for this transfer are in dire shape. The video quality results are not pretty and this Blu-ray provides only the tiniest of improvements over SD-resolution.
The six episodes, running 324 minutes of coarse film, are split evenly across two BD-50s. Approximately framed at an appropriate 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the main feature is presented in 1080i and encoded in AVC. The interlaced video of 1080i is somewhat troubling for a movie shot on film, possibly indicating the Blu-ray was sourced from a master originally intended for interlaced broadcast or PAL frame-rates. Acorn Media certainly cannot be faulted for starving the video compression, the video regularly hits 39 Mbps and averages a robust figure in the mid-30s. That limits the amount of irregular noise and artifacts due to the heavy grain structure and dark shadows.
Everything in the image proceeds from the dense and mushy grain structure present in Tinker’s 16mm cinematography. Almost immediately a viewer will notice how soft the picture is, with its serious lack of definition and clarity. It is a sub-par presentation of a 16mm production, much less a 35mm production of its original era. High-frequency content in close-ups is rare and almost impossible to find in medium-range shots. There is no hint of untoward digital processing, the transfer appears to have been made as a straight scan of badly-dated film elements. It is highly unlikely the transfer was struck from the original film negative. Occasional gate scratches appear on the faded film print and some other examples of damage, though to be fair they are easy to ignore.
A somewhat flat color palette is the standard temperature, though the settings move around Europe so much that there is bound to be some variance. Shadow delineation is acceptable, if a tad faltering in the darker nighttime settings. The tolerable contrast once again reminds the viewer the series was made for 1970s’ television.
Someone at the BBC or Paramount (they were the original co-producers and their logo runs at the end of each episode) needs to invest the money and properly restore this series to its rightful glory. This Blu-ray set does merely an adequate job at giving Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy an incremental improvement over DVD.
Tinker’s original monaural mix is included here in a satisfactory 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack at 256 kbps. The lack of a lossless option is disappointing, but one should remember this was a limited mix intended for broadcast television in the late 1970s. Dialogue is acceptable but overall this audio presentation has limited dynamic range and moderate fidelity. The score is quite moody and low-key for the most part, unless it is meant to convey urgency for a specific moment.
Overall the audio does just enough for its intended purpose, but no one will mistake this for a modern surround presentation. English SDH is the only subtitle option, displayed in a typical white font.
Acorn Media has brought the supplements over from the original DVD and a couple of new extras for this BBC production. These are honest glimpses into the men interviewed in the featurettes and well worth watching. A glossy slipcover is included with original pressings. The score for this section may seem high but the two included interviews are both of very high quality.
Exclusive Interview With Director John Irvin (29:56 in 1080i) – Irvin shares his memories of working on the film and with Alec Guinness.
Deleted Scenes (11:26 in 480i) – The deleted material largely consists of extensions to scenes that had already made the cut for inclusion.
Interview With John le Carré (19:33 in 480i) – An excellent interview of the elderly author, sharing his views on his career and the character of George Smiley.
Production Notes – Several pages of text on the BBC production, courtesy of its producer.
Glossary Of Main Characters and Terms – In a rarity these days for Blu-ray, a small booklet is provided that details some of the more confusing terms found in the novel and from the world of spycraft. A detailed cast list is also included in the booklet.
John le Carré Biography and Booklist – A short overview of the author’s life and his published works.
Acorn Media Trailer (01:55 in 480i) – This trailer runs before the main menu on disc one.
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.