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Spy Writers On George Smiley

Updated December 08, 2011

For many, John le Carré’s character George Smiley changed the genre of spy fiction. While apparently unassuming and unglamorous, Smiley is also unpredictable and, as these novelists underline, unforgettable.

George Smiley, a Spy among Spies
Olen Steinhauer on George Smiley
Philip Kerr on George Smiley
William Boyd on George Smiley
George Smiley, a Spy among Spies

George Smiley, a Spy among Spies

When John le Carré introduced the character of George Smiley in his 1961 novel Call For the Dead, he was hardly the figure of a deadly secret agent. On the first page, le Carré wrote he was  “short, fat, and of a quiet disposition” and someone who “appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes.” Not exactly 007. But in the last 50 years, George Smiley has quietly and utterly changed the landscape of the spy novel. We asked several prominent novelists to tell us what Smiley, and by extension John le Carré, means to them.




Beyond Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Other Moles, Double Agents and Traitors

Updated November 29, 2011

In TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDER, SPY, no one is what they appear, especially with a suspected Soviet mole at the very center of the Circus. But turncoats, traitors, moles, double agents, and sleeper cells are nothing new in the world of espionage.

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY: Search for the Mole
Baronet Double Agents Samuel Morland & Richard Willis
Benedict Arnold, American Traitor
Mata Hari: A Woman of Mystery Unveiled
Eddie Chapman (aka ZigZag), the Perfect Spy
Mathilde Carré, the Femme Fatale
Kim Philby and the Cambridge Spies
The Mole Hunter: James Jesus Angleton
Oleg Penkovsky: Western Hero or Soviet Spy?
Aldrich Ames: Turned by Love and Money
Robert Hanssen: A Traitor for the Children
Double Agents in a Holy War
Anna Chapman: The Cold War Gets Sultry
TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY: Search for the Mole

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY: Search for the Mole

Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s spy classic TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY continues a fascination in popular culture with double agents. In the novel and film, which are set in the 70s, Control (John Hurt), the head of the intelligence organization known as the Circus, contacts George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who has recently been pushed out by internal politics, to initiate a covert investigation into the existence of a Soviet mole at the very top of the Circus. In the world of espionage, deception is second nature, and no one, not even the most trusted agent, may be exactly who they seem to be. Indeed, many fans of TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY have looked back at history to find actual antecedents for le Carré’s dramatic duplicity. While le Carré refuses to give up his sources, there are, as the following slideshow demonstrates, a remarkable rogues gallery of traitors, double agents and moles in recent history.




Catching The Cold War: The Culture of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Updated November 28, 2011

The Cold War paranoia that permeates TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY was a focus of a series of fascinating books and films created in post-war Europe and America.

Taking the Temperature of Cold War Culture
Potential Fallout: FAIL SAFE
Paranoia Pulp: KISS ME DEADLY
Sex and the Soviet: From Russia with Love
Cold War On The Rocks: TOPAZ
Taking the Temperature of Cold War Culture

Taking the Temperature of Cold War Culture

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY is called a masterpiece of Cold War culture. But what was the Cold War? Perilous nuclear standoffs between governments or intricately convoluted dramas involving spies and backroom deals? The Cold War, which spanned the years from the end of World War II until the late 1980s/early-‘90s, was marked by both low-level tensions and Big Ideas. On the ground, the Cold War was fought in a series of proxy wars throughout Eastern Europe and the Far East, fueled by what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.” In ideology, the Cold War was a massive cultural battle, fought in films, television, fashion, comics, etc., a struggle that pitted the Free World against the Red Menace, always with the mushroom cloud of nuclear disaster drifting just over the horizon. The following survey considers the range of cultural artifacts that both represented the Cold War, and as such, the ideological atmosphere that permeates John le Carré’s classic novel. Generally the films, like the Cold War itself, split between deviously plotted thrillers in which career intelligence agents grapple with moral codes that seem to shift by the minute and epics that envision an impending nuclear apocalypse. What follows are ten films about, and made during, the Cold War — films in which actual historical incident, or, simply, the Cold War mindset, inspired the filmmakers to speculate about the nature of good, evil, and all the shades of grey in between.




A Short History of George Smiley

Updated November 17, 2011

Since he appeared in John le Carré’s 1961 novel, Call For The Dead, the unassuming intelligence operative George Smiley has become the most intellectually cunning and emotionally complex spy of modern times.

Smiley Lives
Call for The Dead (1961): Enter Smiley
A Murder Of Quality (1962): Smiley on his Own
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963): Smiley’s World
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974): Smiley’s Triumph
The Honourable Schoolboy (1977): Smiley in Asia
Smiley’s People (1982): Smiley’s Last Battle
The Secret Pilgrim (1990): Smiley Remembers
Smiley Lives

© Photo by Jack English

Smiley Lives


In Tomas Alfredson’s TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, George Smiley is played by Gary Oldman in a performance that dazzled the character’s creator, John le Carré.  “With Gary you share Smiley’s pain, share the danger of life, the danger of being who he is,” le Carré comments. Created in 1961, Carré’s most famous character, the unassuming spy master George Smiley, has become a figure as iconic as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. Producer Tim Bevan describes him as “a quiet guy who disappears into the woodwork of a room, watches and listens very carefully.” Alfredson sees him as “‘the perfect spy.’ He is someone you would immediately forget if you saw him on the street.” Yet his story, which stretches out through eight novels, and has been interpreted in nearly as many films, mini-series, and radio plays, is an epic tale that captures the complicated political, moral and social drama of life in the late 20th century. And all of this in the bespectacled middle-aged face of a man whose chief virtue was his stunning ability to barely be noticed.




Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Rhyme

Updated November 14, 2011

The nursery rhyme that is used in the title of the spy thriller TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY has its own backstory and mystery.

The Mystery of “Tinker, Tailor…”
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Pawn
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Singer
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wife
AA Milne Picks up the Rhyme
Modern Tinkers and Tailors
The Mystery of “Tinker, Tailor…”

The Mystery of “Tinker, Tailor…”

In TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, Control (John Hurt) informs George Smiley (Gary Oldman) about a possible mole at the heart of the Circus, the code name for the British Intelligence Service. To highlight possible suspects, Control gives them code names -- “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Smiley later tapes the photos of the possible suspects to chess pieces, a gesture that turns out to be more resonant with the film’s title poem than one might imagine. The simple children's nursery rhyme “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor” has a long cultural history that connects it to the game of chess, among other things.  




People in Film | Mark Strong

Updated November 10, 2011

A man of many faces and characters, be they supervillains or literary heroes, Mark Strong makes each one uniquely his own.

Mark Strong | Glamour and Sadness
Mark Strong | Becoming an Actor Despite Himself
Mark Strong | A Familiar Face on the Telly
Mark Strong | Great When He’s Bad
Mark Strong | Many Faces, One Heart
Mark Strong | Glamour and Sadness

Mark Strong | Glamour and Sadness

In Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, Mark Strong plays Jim Prideaux, a strikingly handsome agent who maintains a shadow over his personal and professional history. Recruited by Bill Haydon in his Oxford days, Jim became a “Scalphunter,” an agent involved in black ops, who was disgraced when an action in Budapest went terribly wrong. Highlighting the character’s complexity, producer Tim Bevan says that “what you see with Jim Prideaux… is both a glamour and a sadness.” In playing the character of Prideaux, Mark Strong picked up on that complexity, noting, “Jim is very conscious of his sense of duty and service to his country; he would do the dirty work in the field and then come back to Circus headquarters, until he was sent out again. As a Scalphunter, he had to assume various identities in undercover work – and have more than one at the ready. He’s a very erudite Englishman, but emotionally he’s quite stunted.” In mapping out this complex emotional geography, Strong has created a figure at once fascinating and resonant. The Playlist noted in its review, “Mark Strong is heartbreaking as [Haydon’s] best friend Prideaux, hopefully demonstrating to studio types that he’s capable of a far greater range than he’s mostly played so far—watch the way that his eyes light up as he spots Firth at a party.” While Strong has often been cast in supporting roles, and then mostly as villains, his filmography showcases an artist able to craft the most remarkable characters out of any role.




People in Film | Colin Firth

Updated October 24, 2011

Whether as a spy, a single man, a king, or a romantic icon, Colin Firth has always been able to bring a clear, albeit complex, sense of humanity to his characters.

Colin Firth | A Natural Spy
Colin Firth | Growing Up as an Outsider
Colin Firth | Becoming an Actor
Colin Firth | More than Mr. Darcy
Colin Firth | Finding his Voice
Colin Firth | A Natural Spy

Colin Firth | A Natural Spy

In Tomas Alfredson’s TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, Colin Firth plays Bill Haydon, a dapper and amiable British intelligence chief who is at once an icon and an enigma. Firth describes how his character is “very much looked up to by some of the younger members of the organization, with hero worship. They’re subscribing to his self-image; dashing, with a kind of glamour and rather cavalier – for example, he’s the one who rides his bicycle into the office and through the typewriter pool.” Of course, there’s also lots of hero worship directed at Firth himself, having received the Best Actor Oscar for THE KING'S SPEECH the year before. And there was hero worship from him to the others involved in the film. As he told Den of Geek, “when I heard it was Tomas Alfredson, and then I heard it was, like, John Hurt, and Gary [Oldman], it was absolutely irresistible.” And while Firth is not really like his character, he has suggested in an video interview with The Guardian that actors have a “capacity for duplicity [that] would be quite useful in the job.” Indeed Firth, who has gone from being a psycho to a spy, a dashing Darcy to a stuttering George VI, has demonstrated beautifully his talent for creative duplicity. But even more his role in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY shows how comfortable and natural he is with the characters he embodies.  As The Playlist’s Oliver Lyttelton notes, Firth “has the most fun of anyone as the flamboyant, witty Haydon.”




People in Film | Gary Oldman

Updated October 24, 2011

From playing Sex Pistol Sid Vicious to master spy George Smiley, Gary Oldman has created characters so realistic that even if they are not based on real people, we believe they are.

Gary Oldman | Finding George Smiley
Gary Oldman | A Childhood of Ambitions
Gary Oldman | Bringing Real People to Life
Gary Oldman | Making Characters Real
Gary Oldman | Director of Real Life
Gary Oldman | Finding George Smiley

Gary Oldman | Finding George Smiley

In Tomas Alfredson’s TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, the stoic spymaster who is tasked with finding a mole in the heart of British intelligence. It was a daunting challenge for the actor. Not only did he need to fill the well-worn shoes of novelist John le Carré’s most celebrated character, but he would have to contend with the shadow of Alec Guinness' magnificent portrayal of Smiley in the 1979 BBC mini-series of the novel. Oldman approached Smiley with the same precision he brings to every character he plays. First was the look, getting the slightly paunchy body of Smiley just right. He told The Guardian, “If you're carrying around a few extra pounds, we all feel it. But it also gives you a visual; it's something you can believe in when you look in the mirror, when you put those clothes on. It's the silhouette, which is as important as the emotional or the internal.” And he took time to find just the right glasses. But then there was the emotional journey to find Smiley. Oldman explained to Will Lawrence at The Telegraph, “He is an intelligence officer, a student of espionage. He has a strong moral sense, too, a strong moral compass, even though he recognises the dark, unethical, ugly side of what he does. Also, there’s a melancholy and sadness within George. It isn’t accidental that his name is Smiley.” His hard work paid off. His performance has critics suggesting that Oldman should now get his long-overdue Oscar for this performance. He’s also gotten praise from Smiley’s creator himself. Le Carré saw in Oldman both a continuity and a contrast to Guinness’ Smiley. As he told The Telegraph, Oldman evokes the same solitude, inwardness, pain and intelligence that his predecessor brought to the part - even the same elegance…But Oldman’s Smiley, from the moment he appears, is a man waiting patiently to explode.”




People in Film | Benedict Cumberbatch

Updated October 14, 2011

From school plays to playing Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch has combined a shrewd intelligence with a sense of wonder and enthusiasm. These two qualities come together perfectly in his performance in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY.

Benedict Cumberbatch | The Inside Man
Benedict Cumberbatch | Early Stages
Benedict Cumberbatch | Small-Screen Sherlock
Benedict Cumberbatch | ACTOR OF THE YEAR
Benedict Cumberbatch | The Inside Man

Benedict Cumberbatch | The Inside Man

Distinctive both in name and appearance, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the pivotal role of Peter Guillam -- the accomplice of George Smiley (Gary Oldman) in his quest to discover the identity of a Russian double agent -- in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. Being cast in this part was a dream come true for Cumberbatch for several reasons. First off, there’s the A-list cast, including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Tom Hardy and Ciarán Hinds. Cumberbatch quipped to The Guardian about the film’s talent roster, “That's a call sheet I'm going to frame and keep for ever.” Moreover, he rose to the dramatic challenge posed by playing Guilliam, a young impressionable British agent who is made to deceive the very institution to which he has sworn his allegiance. “It’s the kind of role, in the kind of film, that you crave to have as an actor because it involves subtle shifts, it’s not about everything being on enormous display,” he told the website Flicks and Bits. Indeed, as he told the Daily Mail, “I've always wanted to play a spy, because it is the ultimate acting exercise. You are never what you seem.” The elegance of his performance, showcasing both a confident intelligence and a deep emotional confusion, is not lost on critics. Xan Brooks of The Guardian applauds him: “Benedict Cumberbatch is mesmerizing as the well-groomed gentleman conspirator coming slowly apart at the seams.”