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The Real Story (and the movie versions) of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’

posted by Nell Minow

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the story of the hunt for a mole at the highest levels of British intelligence, began as a 1974 novel written by spy-turned novelist David John Moore Cornwell, who writes under the pen name John le Carré.  The dense, opaque story became the first of a trilogy about the ironically named George Smiley that is ranked with the very best of fiction in any genre.  It became an equally lauded British miniseries starring Alec Guiness.  I’ve watched it at least four times and get more out of it with every viewing.

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Le Carré was inspired by the biggest spy scandal in British history involving double agents known as the Cambridge Five.  The revelation that five distinguished, upper-class Cambridge graduates, one a prominent art historian and adviser to the Queen Mother were giving UK and American secrets to the Soviet Union shattered deeply embedded cultural assumptions in the UK.  The story has inspired non-fiction books as well including The Great Betrayal and Deceiving the Deceivers. It also inspired dramatic re-enactments like the BBC’s Philby, Burgess, and Maclean, Cambridge Spies, and the intriguing An Englishman Abroad, written by Alan Bennett about actress Coral Browne’s encounter with Cambridge Five traitor Guy Burgess, who defected to the USSR after he was uncovered.  She was appearing in a British production of “Hamlet” and he asked her to help him order a suit from his London tailor.Browne plays herself and Alan Bates plays Burgess.

Next week a theatrical version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is being released, starring Colin Firth and Gary Oldman.  Watch for the review next Thursday evening.

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