on 18 September 2011
I'd personally rate these two 6-part serials as some of the best drama the BBC *ever* produced. The acting and direction is outstanding, BAFTA-winning stuff. Alec Guinness is superb, but there's over a dozen other cast members with hardly a duff performance between them - Beryl Reid for instance is excellent. The stories themselves are great, with complex plots that knit together perfectly by the final episodes, and really repay repeated watching on DVD (heaven knows how viewers kept up when this was originally broadcast once episode per week! If you missed one you'd be stuffed!)
As other reviewers have noted, however, this "box set" is simply the BBC's existing DVD releases from 2003/2004 put in a new carboard box. The sound and picture quality really are a bit mediocre at times. Given that this is one of the jewels in the crown of the BBC's output, and there's interest from the film version, you'd think one of the suits at BBC Enterprises would see fit to have this material remastered. The sound could definately benefit from a clean-up with modern techniques... the picture was all shot on 16 mm film, so it's not capable of being "high definition" resolution, but other releases have shown that nonetheless, the superior compression codecs on BluRay make 16 mm film look considerably better than MPEG munging imparted by DVD (particularly if the original film negatives are still available...?)
Considering the BBC regular undertake this kind of remastering work for dodgy old episodes of Doctor Who, you'd think they'd make the effort for this!
So - 5 stars for the content, but only 3 for this repackaging, which smacks of the BBC trying to just flog a few quid out of their back catalogue without giving it the artistic respect it deserves.
on 25 March 2012
Le Carre requires an expansive approach to translating his tales into film. These two BBC efforts benefit from the several hours devoted to unfolding each of the stories. And very successful efforts they are. Guinness's understated subtlety and that rich, expressive voice capture Smiley to the fingertips (e.g., the occasional displacement behavior of briefly removing his spectacles and fiddling with them and similar quiet "business" or even a smile or a glance that can ever-so-occasionally and ever-so-fleetingly remind you of Colonel Nicholson in "Bridge on the River Kwai" or even [yes, believe it or not] "Dutch" Holland in "The Lavender Hill Mob" [the smile that Smiley give to Peter Guillam when he first sends him to the Circus to surreptitiously retrieve certain tell-tale documents]). The supporting cast is well chosen all around (especially, Ian Richardson, who allows the inner demons of Bill Haydon to peek out from behind the mask of weary irony; Michael Jayston as Peter Guillam; and Hywel Bennett as Ricki Tarr). The settings are moody, suitably moist and overcast, and they give a feel of the texture of the London in that era. Whatever the merits of the recent "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" movie of 2011 (Gary Oldman, principally) or demerits (trying to tell a complex tale about many personalities in a couple of hours), it just cannot rival the expansive, unhurried BBC unfolding. (SPOILER ALERT: Perhaps the most impairing departure driven by commercial film's time constraint is the handling of the Spy's fate: i.e., dubiously substituting the long-distance sniper-shooting death at the end of the story for the up-close-and-personal broken neck shown in the TV film and implied in the novel). You have to wonder how many viewers of the recent movie who had not yet read the novel could actually follow so compressed a script as the 2011 film used.
on 16 August 2011
Long before he wrote 'The Constant Gardner' writer John Le Carre was celebrated by the British public for his compelling cold war novels. Many people were first introduced to his central character, 'George Smiley'(played by Sir alec Guinnes) and his sworn enemy 'Karla'(played by Patrick Stewart), through the excellent 1970's BBC drama productions of his consecutive novels. Through 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' and 'Smiley's People', Le Carre draws us into a world where the ordinary and the mundane conceal the lethal reality of the cold war spys. There is action but much of the best parts of the storyline is told through a carefully crafted, slow burn of forboding music and rainy London landscapes. At times intense and gripping, always drawing the viewer ever more deeply in .... BE WARNED these story's are addictive (In my opinion the DVD boxset is great value and I'm going to get myself the set for Christmas!).
on 7 January 2015
A strange world; mysterious yet drab; erudite yet reticent; a pause can disclose a great deal, yet an entire paragraph can say nothing. It is useful in this realm, made up largely of the unremarkable, the unspoken shades of grey and shadow, that the names are so distinctive: Toby Esterhaze, Bill Haydon, Rikki Tarr, George Smiley... Of course, nobody with a name like Roy Bland could possibly be a mole.
The story is clearly based on that of the Cambridge Spies, particularly Kim Philby, and told in a refined, exclusive argot of professional espionage; scalp-hunters, dead letter drops, lamplighters and ju--ju men, and the language is barely explained, one is expected to be clever to understand this - it's not TV for idiots and, as is made very plain, most of the characters consider idiots to be way beneath their very finely-tuned contempt. To put it another way, if you're stupid, even that nice Peter Guillam will neglect to give you the time of day. Belonging to the wrong class is almost as bad - witness the sneering at Roy Bland's 'red brick' university.
The plot is not particularly complex, though it is slow-moving and routed through some highly unfamiliar territory; this is not at all the spy world of 007 (nary a white dinner jacket nor a vodka martini to be seen in the whole six episodes); it might be a drabber version of Harry Palmer's, but I cannot somehow see Smiley pacing the aisles of a supermarket. A British agent is betrayed behind the Iron Curtain, and it is up to George Smiley to find out who by, using a series of code names coined by an ageing masterspy known only as 'Control' - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor... though Sailor is dropped because it sounds too much like Tailor. One of the sinister aspects of Control is the implication that anyone that ever knew his real name - and, as a young man joining the service, he must have had to give it - is now dead.
Much of the story is exposition and flashback - the stories of Jim Prideaux and Ricki Tarr - and delivered at such a sedate pace that violence, when it does come, is genuinely shocking, especially coming from someone as well-mannered as Peter Guillam or as pleasant as Ricki Tarr, nonetheless when Guillam plays 'Burglar Bill' - robbing the Circus on Smiley's orders - it's a crime for which he might not see the light of day again, for all he's just replacing one drab, buff envelope with another one. The Circus does not need to look like Dr Evil's HQ in order to be dangerous - at least it didn't in the 1970s - it may do now, of course.
It's an enviable cast, made up mostly of names - even Hillary Minster and George Pravda, who only have about one line each. Nigel Stock produces a bitchy, prissy old spy as Roddy Martindale with his own dignity fitted rectally and deep, while Hywel Bennet hits a nice line between laconicism and schoolboy naughtiness as Ricki Tarr (his report to Smiley has much of the prep school boy eager to avoid being caned), and Thorley Walters is aimiably mutton-headed as Tufty Thesinger.
The gilded laurels are, of course, for Guinness as the softly spoken spycatcher - a methodical, indefatigable plodder rather than inspired genius - the role that established his acting credentials for a new generation after Star Wars had made him a star - it is probably his masterpiece. Fortunately for him, he has only one scene with Connie Sachs - an artfully upstaging Beryl Reid - to contend with.
And the point of it all - because it's not easy to understand how any of the machinations of Moscow Centre, Control, Merlin, Witchcraft, Haydon, Bland or Esterhaze have anything to do with the man on the Clapham omnibus, let alone the price of fish - would seem to be intellectual integrity (for which read 'vanity') over loyalty to friends or nation. Betrayal of all that one has grown up with, all that one is protected, fed and housed by, for a principle.
It would be quite out of keeping with Smiley's world to identify 'Gerald', so I won't, but it's worth mention to the credit of the actor involved that I don't feel any sympathy at all when the mole is trapped.
on 23 October 2011
The late '70s/early '80s BBC productions of Le Carre's great espionage diptych of Tinker Tailor/Smiley's People are really without peer, amongst dramatized spy stories. Alec Guinness is at the height of his powers as Smiley and the tales unfold with the implacable force of Greek tragedy. They capture the dismal art of espionage with with a clear, harsh eye. Absolutely everything in Smiley's world is dingy and cold and depressing; much as one would assume it to be in reality. Consider how tatty and threadbare the Circus looks. Perfect. Every scene seems like it was expunged of anything warm or happy or glamorous. And that's as it should be. I haven't seen the new Tinker movie yet (not released in the US until next month), and I'm sure it's quite good. But it cannot be better than the original. Not possible. The caveat with these DVDs, though, is technical. I assume the shows were shot on 16mm. A crime that it wasn't done on 35mm. And these are dark, grainy, ugly transfers. I hope some day the BBC will remaster them and release something better looking. Still, I'm delighted to find these great shows at such a great price here at Amazon UK.
on 21 January 2014
When you have perfection, it can't be bettered. Frankly, I don't know why anyone would bother with the remake of "Tinker Tailor".
The cast is like a who's-who of the British acting profession, the way it is shot is compelling and yet understated. It grips you from start to finish and when it's over, you just wish it wasn't. I have seen the remake (was dragged along by the boyfriend who fell asleep). I decided to go with an open mind and not compare it with this (and had the good grace to remain awake). However, I didn't even think that worked as a film on its own merits (too many things unexplained which, if you hadn't seen the original, would have confused).
Go for this one EVERY time. I could watch it over and over.