Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The BBC MiniSeries


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Written by Arthur Hopcraft

Based on the novel by John le Carré

Produced by Jonathan Powell

Photography by Tony Pierce-Roberts

Music by Geoffrey Burgon

Directed by John Irvin

Original Air UK: September 1979

Original Air USA: September 1980



Alec Guinness - George Smiley

Michael Jayston - Peter Guillam

Bernard Hepton - Toby Esterhase

Ian Richardson - Bill Haydon

Michael Aldridge - Percy Alleline

Ian Bannen - Jim Prideaux

Hywel Bennet - Ricki Tarr

Terence Rigby - Roy Bland

Anthony Bate - Sir Oliver Lacon

Joss Ackland – Jerry Westerby

Alexander Knox - Control

George Sewell – Mendel

Patrick Stewart - Karla



Television: BBC & Paramount Pictures

Video: Acorn Media



Aspect ratio: 1.38:1

Resolution: 1080p

Codec: AVC

Disc Size: 2 x 50 GB

Average Episode Size: 14.6 GB

Average Bit Rate: High (mid-30s Mbps)

Total Runtime: 322 minutes

Average Episode Runtime: (53:40)

Typical chapters per episode: 8

Region 1



English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono



Optional English SDH



Interview with Director John Irvin - in HD (29:56)

Interview with John le Carré - in SD (19:33)

12 Deleted/Missing Scenes - in SD (11:26)

Production Notes

Glossary of Characters & Terms



2 discs in Amaray Blu-ray case w/ slipcover

Street date: April 24, 2012


Six months ago Acorn Media repackaged their 2004 DVD set of the classic television series starring Alec Guinness to coincide with the theatrical release of the new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley in the role that Guinness made iconic.  The video of that film hit the streets only this week, a month before Acorn’s Blu-ray version of the 1979 television series.  Let’s see what we get for our money with the new Blu-ray.


Comparison Overview:

The image and audio on Acorn’s Blu-ray appears to be much the same as the DVD, only bigger, clearer and better, but not by much.  The audio is clearer, richer, fuller and more dynamic.  Dialogue is more robust, easier to decipher.  The Blu-ray adds a couple of new Bonus Features: some deleted and/or missing scenes and a half-hour interview with Director John Irvin in high-def.



Critical Comment:

Since both the series and the earlier DVD editions have been extensively reviewed elsewhere may I refer you to Graham Nelson’s superb review of the program and the BBC “Classic Drama” DVD set issued in 2003.  This excerpt is where he speaks of Guinness’ performance:


Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000) is hypnotic as Smiley, giving what may well be the best television performance of the age, and certainly his most important work between Star Wars (1977) and A Passage To India (1984). Increasingly used for grandiose roles -- Sigmund Freud, Adolf Hitler, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Pope Innocent III -- he was now, in his fifth decade in show-business, called on to play an iconic figure who was at the same time a quiet, unassuming man without ambition and with no public face. Not a spy, but a spymaster, and not even that but a retired one. . .  Guinness is surrounded by the finest small-screen actors of the day -- Joss Ackland, Beryl Reid, Patrick Stewart, Ian Richardson, Bernard Hepton, Michael Jayston, Siân Phillips, Hywel Bennett, Nigel Stock and a dozen others, all putting in flawless turns - but, and it is hard to say quite how, he towers over them. He has mastery where they are merely expert. Some of it, admittedly, is what Le Carré would call tradecraft. Guinness has absolute confidence in the smallness of the gesture needed, given direction which is close-up to the faces. He develops any number of Smiley mannerisms: sideways glances, minute flashes of cynical appraisal done fleetingly with the eyes. His most formidable tic is to look away, wipe his glasses on a scarf and put them back on to look hard at his interviewee.



On the other hand, Holly Ordway, writing for DVD Talk, hated everything about it:


Anyone who comes to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy without some background in Le Carré's setting will be sadly adrift. The story is awash with characters, many of whom are never introduced and others who are glimpsed early on and don't reappear until much later. One of the advantages a novel has over the screen in handling a large cast is that in written text, a character can be introduced by name and information can be provided about him even if he or she is alone, whereas in film, a character by himself is a cipher; we only find out who he is from other people talking about him. There's an awful lot of this going on in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: we see various unnamed characters going about mysterious business, and we witness various other characters talking about other people, but we have no way to associate names and identities with the proper people. If you know ahead of time who the characters are, you'll have half a chance at keeping them straight; otherwise, there's just not enough context provided to follow what's going on.




The Series: 8

Having the read the novel only relatively recently, there were times when I wasn’t entirely sure when I last saw this film, so much does it evoke the book.  TTSS is a very talky movie.  Very.  You need to be prepared for this if you’ve been feeding on a diet of fast paced Bourne-like thrillers lately.  The movie does have its moments of action but they feel more like release than the tension producing thrillers of today.  Character, dialogue, reaction, what is not said as much as what is said – this is the substance of Tinker Tailor.  I rather liked what Graham Nelson reported of Guinness’ observation about Sir Maurice Oldfield, head of British counter-intelligence 1973-78, whom he observed habitually drinking as if "looking for the dregs of poison in his glass".  Tinker Tailor is a lot like that.  You can easily feel every character’s unspoken critique of every other character’s report, creating various scenarios if this sentence were true and that sentence were false.



Image: DVD: 3 / BRD: 4

The DVD: Since I have both the Acorn and the BBC DVD sets, which latter has its own bonus feature but not the le Carré interview, and also includes optional subtitles as does the Acorn, I thought a few comparative screen captures might be in order.  Both editions are pretty shabby indeed, and cry out for a proper mastering.  Both lack sharpness except under the most complementary of lighting conditions.  Noise is a common companion to both editions.  


Still, the surprising thing is that even though the BBC is of slightly higher resolution and was prepared a few years more recently than the Acorn, the American edition is to be preferred, despite the persistent edge enhancement.  The BBC gets both color and contrast wrong much of the time and to a far greater degree, while the worst that can be said for the Acorn is that it tends to be murky.  Considering the subject matter, murky is more appropriate than too bright and oversaturated.

      BBC DVD


      Acorn DVD


      Acorn Blu-ray


      BBC DVD


      Acorn DVD


      Acorn Blu-ray



      BBC DVD


      Acorn DVD


      Acorn Blu-ray



The Blu-ray: It would seem that the Blu-ray is derived from the same source as their DVD with little or no additional upgrades in scanning resolution or revisions to color, contrast and the occasional blemish.  Deep colors are bolder, but TTSS isn’t exactly big on popping greens, blues and reds.  With the exception of some wonderful isolated outdoor shots like those around the safe house in Episode 2, the color palette remains compressed as does the tonal scale, shadows often contain only more shadows.  Blacks are passable and noise is only moderately subdued as compared to the DVD.  Subtitle clarity is improved in high-definition, but movement across the frame can be compromised at times.  Note the subtly jagged progress of the cars in the background as they travel from right to left 4:10 minutes into the opening episode. . . which brings up the subject of interlacing.  The back cover states “1080p” but my VLC software screams otherwise: if not interlaced, then some sort of PAL-to-NTSC conversion mix-up - some of it pretty frightening (see cap).  Once again, a dodgy source trumps high bit rate. 

Despite what Acorn Media’s own description of their Blu-ray indicates regarding the episode breakdown (seven episodes instead of six, for example) we can see that their Blu-ray is the same edition as was edited for American Television and Great Performances.  Each of its six episodes ends with the Paramount Television logo as if to seal the matter.



Audio: DVD: 3 / BRD: 5

As with Acorn’s Blu-ray of Brideshead Revisited the audio is not upgraded to a lossless format but instead lives on in Dolby Digital.  Yet, as with Brideshead Revisited, though not nearly to the same degree, the audio is clearer, richer, fuller and more dynamic.  Dialogue is more robust, easier to decipher.  Subtle background sounds like rain and traffic noise is a little more apparent, and the disproportional discrepancies between effects and dialogue found of Acorn’s DVD are less in evidence on the Blu-ray.  There is no PAL speed-up despite the image anomalies noted above.



Extras: DVD: 3 / BRD: 5

DVD: As previously mentioned, the Acorn release includes a nice interview with le Carré that starts with his assessment of the Guinness interpretation and moves on to other aspects of the film, his novel and writing about the Cold War.  This is a much better piece than the seven-minute featurette on the BBC DVD if for no other reason than the centerpiece there is on le Carré’s earlier novel The Constant Gardener and not TTSS.


Blu-ray: In addition to the twenty-minute interview with John le Carré and the Production Notes and Glossary found on Acorn’s DVD, the Blu-ray adds a couple of new Bonus Features: a scattering of brief deleted and/or missing scenes – there seems to be nothing that further tells which, not that it matters – and a half-hour interview with Director John Irvin in high-def.  Irvin, now a handsome man of 72, reminisces about how he came to direct Tinker Tailor, the project for which he would become most well known, his meetings with and professional tugs of war with Guinness, le Carré’s involvement with the movie, the novel choice of shooting on film instead of video, and production challenges in light of a looming strike.  An engaging bonus feature.



Recommendation: 6

Whether or not you have seen the Oldman Tinker Tailor, you owe it to yourself to watch Guinness in the role. Apart form the length of the two movies, there is considerable difference in rendering, not entirely a function of the obvious enrichment of production values in the new movie.  Of the two existing DVDs, the re-issued Acorn Region 1 and the BBC Region 2, the Acorn wins on points.  But neither is satisfactory simply because the image quality is compromised.  The image on the Blu-ray is a little better, the audio more so, but it seems to me that the movie needs restoration.  The new Acorn is clearly the best we have for this classic for the time being.




Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

March 24, 2012

Return to Top

Acorn Media Home Page

Score CardScore_Card.html
About MeAbout_Me.html