Consider the Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy | BBC

The truth is, if director John Irvin hadn’t been there to persuade him, Alec Guinness would never have starred in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy at all. John le Carré had published the book in 1974, and in the following years received numerous offers to adapt it into a film—all of which he refused. He thought, he would later say, that “the condensation would be impossible.” But when the opportunity to do a television series presented itself—using producer Jonathan Powell as its messenger—le Carré changed his mind. It wasn’t just that the episodic nature of television would save his story from butchering that convinced him; it was also, if not mostly, “the mystery of Guinness.”

Guinness had already met with both Powell and le Carré to discuss the possibility of playing the role of George Smiley, but according to Irvin, Guinness remained “reluctant” to commit. Since he had worked with him previously, Irvin was assigned to take Guinness out to lunch in an effort to convince him: “I embarked on a courtship, set out to bring him to the altar.” Eventually, the actor said yes.


Two men engage in a furtive meeting in a secret apartment somewhere in London. The older of the pair, “Control,” sends the other, the rough-looking Jim Prideaux, to Czechoslovakia in order to pry information from an old general regarding the “rotten apple”—the mole he suspects the Russians have inside his service, “the Circus.” Control has five suspects, his top five underlings, and a code name for each: Percy Alleline (Tinker), Bill Haydon (Tailor), Roy Bland (Soldier), Toby Esterhase (Poor Man), and George Smiley (Beggarman). All Prideaux needs to do is hear what the General has to say and convey it to Control, so he can have his man.

Nothing goes according to plan, at least not Prideaux’s. A contact drives him to a house in the middle of nowhere, an ambush he senses but doesn’t avoid. He ends up shot, alive but captured by men screaming in a foreign language.


George Smiley is a ghost. After Prideaux’s shooting, he retires, or so he says. Haydon, Smiley’s “old rival, in everything,” replaced him, while Alleline replaced Control, dead of “old age, a little early.” And thanks to Witchcraft (a Haydon operation handling a source within Russian Intelligence named “Merlin”), Alleline is able to regularly provide invaluable secret information about the Russians, endearing himself to both the powers that be and to the Americans. Smiley roams antique bookstores, the foggy streets of London, and the empty halls of his own haunted house, his wife Ann always euphemistically “out of town,” his out-loud frustrations cutting through the silence of the night. He wants to give himself up “to the profession of forgetting,” but the combination of a desire to leave the past behind and an inability to do so is what makes a ghost a ghost.

Peter Guillam—another casualty of the Circus’s reorganization after the “Checo scandal,” another ghost appearing and disappearing from and into the shadows, “tucked away” in some remote part of England conveniently far from where decisions are made—sits in Smiley’s house. Guillam has been tasked to deliver Smiley to Lacon, a bureaucrat assigned to watch over the Circus. Once he does, Smiley is brought into the presence of another ghost, Ricki Tarr. More than a ghost, though, Tarr is a risen man, brought back from a death he might not have wished to survive into a life he could no longer bear to endure. “I’ve got a story to tell you,” Tarr says.

The resurrected always do.


It’s the most beautiful scene in the book, and the most beautiful scene in the series: Prideaux, another Lazarus, comes back to some semblance of life as a teacher in a boarding school, and finds one of his students spying on him. The boy hurts himself, falling after being startled by Prideaux’s gun. He tends to the boy, telling him that they now share a secret. “I can trust you, I know that,” Prideaux says. “We’re good at keeping secrets, loners like you and me.”

This is what le Carré’s book is, and what the series is, too: a story about lonely people, aching for solace and longing to start over.


Tarr’s story begins in Lisbon, where he’s been sent to trap a Russian into defecting or working for the British. Trying to achieve such an end, Tarr entangles himself with Irina, the man’s Moscow Centre-assigned wife (if you’ve watched The Americans you’ll know what the description of her professional and marital situation means). A devout Christian, tired of her life as a Russian agent, Irina immediately sees Tarr for what he is. She wants him to help her defect, and to convince him she provides him with “one of the biggest secrets ever”: Karla, the smartest of the Centre’s intelligence officers, has a mole inside the Circus who meets regularly with a man named Polyakov.

Tarr relays this information to the Circus and awaits a reply, but the wait is long and the reply unsatisfactory: A demand for information on her—a poorly disguised attempt to stall Tarr and buy time to kill Irina, or at the very least to forcibly spirit her away to Moscow. Before the Russians manage to do so, Irina writes a letter describing details about the mole, but giving Tarr no name. Tarr disappears into Istanbul and the company of a wife and daughter, but once someone comes looking for him, he fears for his life, and contacts Guillam. Knowing his pariah status within their organization, Tarr trusts him. Ghosts know their own.

They raise each other, too. Tarr’s resurrection brings Guillam back from the afterlife he’d been sentenced to, and Guillam brings Smiley back from his. Lacon instructs Smiley to investigate the identity of the mole, asking whether Bill Haydon’s widely-known affair with Smiley’s wife might cloud his judgement. Smiley assures him it won’t and, with Guillam’s help, begins to investigate. Tarr and another old agent, Mendel, are specters looking over the unsuspecting living, a watchful presence unseen by the observed subjects of their haunting.


If you hire people to lie for the country, you shouldn’t be too surprised if now and then they lie to you as well.

-John le Carré to The Observer, February 3rd, 1980


 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy aired on the BBC between September 10th and October 22nd, 1979. Just a few weeks later, on November 20th, Anthony Blunt—a relatively famous art historian and museum curator with the features of an old English actor playing an intellectual— appeared on the same screen. “A Leslie Howard face,” an MI5 secretary once said, and though many decades had passed, the glow of youth long gone, it was still there, that face, peeking out from under the wrinkles of age, asking you to trust it. It was something he had done often in the past, and something those across from him should never have agreed to.

Five days earlier, the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, revealed to the British Parliament that Blunt had been a Russian spy, identified in 1964 and given immunity from prosecution in exchange for a full confession and cooperation. Under the piercing eyes of the TV cameras, Blunt swore his actions did not cost any lives, and although he couldn’t “deny” he was “a traitor,” he felt he hadn’t betrayed his conscience, believing he’d made “an appalling mistake” acting on what he “believed was the right thing.”

Blunt was a product of the English ruling class’s privilege factory, of “public” schools and centuries-old Universities, and a hatred of and resentment for the circumstances that so favored their kind. In Blunt’s case, this seemed to take on a merely performative character; he once left a protest rally for tea at an elite Club he belonged to. At Cambridge in the 1930’s, Guy Burgess—who decades later would become famous for his role as a Russian agent within the British secret service—approached Blunt and recruited him. Once Blunt joined the Army’s Intelligence unit, he became useful to both Burgess and Moscow.

Through the years, Blunt and his “Leslie Howard face” recruited infiltrated agents for the Russian services, and gave runners troves of classified information. After the war, he left the service, but continued to cooperate with the NKVD.

In 1963, Michael Straight—an American Blunt had met at Cambridge—told the FBI that Blunt had tried to recruit him when he was a student. Warned by their American counterparts, MI5 agents visited Blunt at his home. Confronted with the accusation, he admitted it was true.

Six years after Blunt’s public confession, the BBC produced a film about his past as a Russian mole. Blunt was played by Ian Richardson, the actor who played Bill Haydon in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. 


If you live in secrecy, you think in secrecy. It is the very nature of the life you lead as an intelligence officer in a secret room that the ordinary winds of common sense don’t blow through it.

-John le Carré to Time magazine, July 1993


Peter Wright knew what it was like to be Smiley. He had been recruited by MI5 for his technological knowledge, and only fifteen years later was given the task of investigating the extent of the Russian success in penetrating British intelligence, and of interrogating Blunt. One freezing night in Helsinki in December 1961, a Russian man named Anatoliy Golitsin walked into the American embassy and asked for asylum in the United States. He was a KGB agent, and had precious information to share: his bosses had managed to place several moles inside the British intelligence services. Burgess and Maclean had already been dug out, of course, and both Blunt and Kim Philby seemed to fit what Golitsyn was telling them about their respective identities. But Golitsyn had mentioned a fifth man, and in hopes of finding out who it was, Wright kept on interrogating Blunt, well after he had been exposed.

“Shadows were gathering” and “treachery stalked the corridors,” he would later recall in his controversial memoirs (written with Paul Greengrass, future director of three Bourne movies). In the months that followed, Wright “pored through the files.” Only two men could possibly be the mole: Roger Hollis, head of the MI5, or his deputy Graham Mitchell, a furtive man who displayed a “kind of shyness which made him avoid eye contact.” As his efforts progressed, Hollis became his main suspect. And yet, he could prove nothing.

In 1963, when Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour Party, died of lupus, Wright remembered something else Golitsyin had told interrogators: the KGB had a plan to assassinate an important politician. Could Gaitskell have been the target? Had he been poisoned during his visit to the Soviet consulate in London? Who else might have been involved?

Wright must have felt like he couldn’t trust anyone. He couldn’t trust his own boss, or even his government: he wondered if Harold Wilson, Gaitskell’s successor in the Labour leadership (and the Prime-Minister after 1964), could himself be a Russian agent—if not wittingly then at least as the man they wanted in Downing Street, the reason why Gaitskell had been snuffed out. And, of course, he couldn’t trust the information: many found Golitsyn to be an unreliable source, likely a plant by the KGB, sent to confuse and muddy the waters inside the MI5 or the CIA. Wright’s faith in Hollis’s “treachery,” while equal to that “another man might have … in God,” was nonetheless only that—a leap of faith, not a matter of fact.

This meant Wright couldn’t even trust himself. Was he right in his belief of the culpability of the suspects, or were those suspicions merely the product of a “prejudice” he might have harbored? When he started following Hollis, he must have wondered what such a course of action would mean if he happened to be wrong about it all. Wouldn’t he be betraying his boss? Wouldn’t he be raising suspicions, giving others in the MI5 reason to follow him, to surveil him, to talk about him in low-lit corridors and smoke-filled rooms? In fact, according to former MI5 director Stella Rimington’s memoirs, some officers used to call Wright “the KGB illegal.” So perhaps Wright didn’t know what it was like to be Smiley—perhaps he knew what it was like to be Haydon instead.

Consider this: What sort of life can there be for people like Wright or Hollis, Rimington or Blunt, the real Smileys, the real Haydons, other than the coldest, most despairing kind? Under permanent doubt, permanent threat, constantly being deceived, constantly deceiving others, every place they’re in a foreign country where only strangers live and everyone must be presumed hostile?


Here’s how Le Carré explains the success of the TV adaptation of his book:

“The spy, really, had been James Bond for so long, we’d had this kitschy view of the kind of super-exec with his fast cars and fast women and all that junk, and at the same time history, contemporary history, was delivering a whole parade of shadowy figures, lonely deciders, traitors and frontier-crossers and so on, and suddenly this stuff came up on television and it looked like the real thing. It really was, in that sense, a reeducation of the public about the nature of the secret world, a little bit.”

In the series, the life of a spy does not consist of thrilling car chases and a never-ending supply of willing sexual partners. It consists of long, boring conversations; of going over insurmountable mountains of paper, pondering hypotheses, testing their plausibility, and questioning every piece of information; of putting other people in danger and living with the knowledge that you’re playing with their lives for the blurriest of goals; of the burden of living in the shadows, of existing in not existing.

Every time le Carré publishes a book or someone adapts one into a film or a TV show, he’s asked the same question: How realistic are they? His answer is always some variation of a reply he’s given for decades: “I don’t need authenticity, I need credibility—seeming authenticity.” Watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the summer of 2019, I couldn’t help but think that even if it is not a realistic portrayal of intelligence officers, it does say something about the way we live now. It’s not just that, whether online or IRL, we are always presenting our covers and our “legends,” pretending to be, if not exactly someone else, then at least a different, plausible-but-not-true, real-but-not-really version of ourselves, so that others assume this facade to be who we are. It’s not just the accompanying sense that, because we know ourselves to be untrustworthy, we can’t trust anyone else. It’s not even just the always-hanging-over-us cloud of the collaboration between the Trump famiglia and the Russian Intelligence’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election, and the idea that we are all Smiley, wondering if there is a Russian mole in the American presidency. It’s the feeling that in the post-truth age we seem to be stuck in, we’re all living the life of spy, in the fog, not knowing what’s what.


[Smiley] reminds me of a character in an earlier book of mine who said “…my problem is I don’t know what the truth is.”

-John le Carré in a 1976 interview to The Listener


The truth is, no one knows what the truth is. The President of the United States told us “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Vladimir Putin said there were no Russian soldiers in Crimea. The Portuguese Prime Minister said the country was safe from the 2008 crisis. Lyndon Johnson lied about Vietnam. Richard Nixon lied about everything. The New York Times published made-up stories. So did The New Republic. Orwell is rewritten and distorted in counterfeit books. Rush Limbaugh says “there is no fact-checking, just vehicles to do partisan journalism.” The people we were supposed to trust were either wrong or determined to deceive us. The stories we told ourselves in order to live no longer cohere. We live in a world in which “everything is possible and nothing is true.” Where “everything is possible” therefore “nothing is true.” Nothing is trustworthy, so everything is bullshit. Everything is plausible, so nothing is credible.

We tell everyone everything about ourselves, letting them know how to better deceive us. The number crunchers have become reality crushers, illusion builders surrounding us with a wall of lies we mistakenly take to be the world. The lie we saw yesterday will come with the recommendation of the lie we’ll believe tomorrow, and the lie we’ll believe tomorrow will lead us to the lies we’ll spread afterwards, lies we think are true, fictions we see as facts. We believe it because we see it, and we see it because we believe it.

We do not lack information, we lack understanding. We lack the means of discriminating information and discerning what is fact and what is mere error or fabrication. We’re inundated with information, coming at us from all angles. But information is all there is. Information without knowledge, data without facts, memes without meaning. The more we see, the less we know. Reality is Rashomon, a plurality of realities, seen only from the perch upon which each of us sits—not only different from but often incomprehensible to even our closest neighbor. News is fake, propaganda is real. The truth is not the truth. There are good people on both sides. The crowds were huge. The hands are too. Sean just gave alternative facts.

What we’re seeing is not what’s happening. We see Bill Hader’s face turning into Tom Cruise, then becoming Hader’s again before transforming into Seth Rogen. We know what we’re seeing is not what’s happening. But the day will come when we’ll accept the fake as real and see the real as fake. The day will come when we’ll see a “deepfake” of a political candidate saying something outrageous, and believe its authenticity. The day will come when we’ll see a video of Donald Trump asking Russia to steal Hillary Clinton’s emails, and we’ll think it’s a “deepfake.”

The day is already here, perhaps not with “deepfakes” but almost certainly with everything else. Haydon fucks Smiley’s wife so that Smiley doubts his own belief in Haydon’s culpability. Trump, Putin, Fox News, and RT  fuck with the truth so that we doubt our own perception of what is real. What they say and show may be surreal, but the surrealness is not random. It is, instead, designed to make us feel reality doesn’t make sense anymore, not so much for us to believe what they say, but rather to make us distrust their critics. The point of it all is not to engender adherence, it’s to promote either confusion or indifference—or better yet, indifference born of confusion. And whether we succumb to it or persist in resisting it, this world has already succeeded in changing us, in turning us into modern Peter Wrights and flesh-and-bone George Smileys, unable to understand which information is valid and which is meant to take our marbles away.

George Orwell once wrote that “totalitarianism destroys” our “common basis of agreement.” Or maybe he didn’t and that’s just something someone somewhere added to a counterfeit edition of one of his books. 


“Life’s such a puzzle to you, isn’t George?”

The words come from Smiley’s wife Ann, the first time the series shows her, in the last scene of the last episode. Ann asks him if he’s glad Haydon’s dead—Prideaux killed him while he was detained and awaiting deportation to Russia—as if the disappearance of the man who betrayed him “in everything” opened the way to a clearing of the past, for getting rid of all the ghosts, for the forgetting Smiley had said he wanted to commit himself to. But all they do is to remember, all they talk about is the past, all they see are the ghosts hanging over their burdened shoulders.

In a 1974 interview with The Daily Telegraph Magazine, le Carré noted how most of his books “begin and end at odd hours of the night. That’s to say it all never began and it never finished.” The whole thing, he says, is a continuum. In other words, it’s something that Smiley would know, no matter how much he might wish it weren’t so.

There is no starting over.