Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Season 1 Episode 1

Return to the Circus

Aired Unknown Sep 10, 1979 on BBC Two
out of 10
User Rating
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Episode Summary

Return to the Circus
George Smiley retired as a senior British Intelligence Service agent one year ago. Then, to his surprise, messengers arrive from Sir Oliver Lacon, head of the London Station, asking George to come back into the game. There is clear evidence that a highly influential KGB mole has been operating out of 'the Circus' for many years, and everyone is under suspicion. Smiley has to decide whether to take on the thankless task of hunting the traitor.moreless

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  • Who betrayed Jim Prideaux, and brought the British Secret Service to the brink of chaos?

    The style of "Tinker, Tailor,Soldier, Spy" was quite unexpected. Here was a series which took its time, trailed a myriad of loose ends, allowed its viewers to make connections themselves and expected them to be intelligent and keen-eyed. It was superbly filmed - the cameraman, Tony Pierce-Roberts, soon moved into the world of the movies and his work on several Merchant-Ivory movies won international acclaim. Director John Irvin also got a lot of movie work as a result of his work on this mini-series. Above all, it was a showcase for the dazzling talent of Alec Guinness, an infinitely subtle actor whose quiet emphasis and cold eyes gave the series its centre.moreless
  • They did make television series quite differently then.

    I remember seeing this show when it was first broadcast and thought it a bit slow back then. In today's world of fast-paced drama, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes across as a dinosaur, the slow kind... But like the dinosaurs, it is fascinating.

    The first episode starts with a dialogue-free scene of some men settling down for a meeting. Then, elsewhere, two other men discuss a problem at the British Secret Service. Jim Prideaux gets sent to Czechoslovakia to talk to a source. What follows is yet another series of scenes without dialogue, a sort of a travelogue. We're not quite sure what is happening, but the sequence ends with Prideaux getting shot (after an exciting chase through the woods at night).

    In the next scene (fifteen minutes into the episode) we finally meet the star, Alec Guinness, in his role as George Smiley. He hardly says anything during his lunch with the annoying Martindale, but Guinness's acting tell us so much. You're in awe of the quiet power of Guinness, who could create a character with just a stare.

    When Smiley gets drafted back into the service by his former assistant, further layers of the complex relations in both Smiley's professional and personal life are slowly revealed.

    Before you know it, we're at the end of the first episode. Not a lot has happened and a lot of people have been mentioned that we haven't seen yet. But you don't need to grasp the complexity of the plot to appreciate the mood of the show. Slow, methodical and strangely menacing.moreless
Alexander Knox

Alexander Knox


Guest Star

Nigel Stock

Nigel Stock

Roddy Martindale

Guest Star

Milos Kirek

Milos Kirek


Guest Star

Ian Bannen

Ian Bannen

Jim Prideaux

Recurring Role

Hywel Bennett

Hywel Bennett

Ricki Tarr

Recurring Role

Trivia, Notes, Quotes and Allusions


  • TRIVIA (2)

    • When Smiley interviews Ricki Tarr in this episode, he is wearing bright orange tanned leather shoes, which were one of the details Alec Guinness had picked up from a meeting with a real spy (see Notes).

    • Smiley's Chelsea house, first seen in this episode, is at 9, Bywater Street, London SW3. The location filming, both inside and outside the house, was done at the real number 10, Bywater Street.

  • QUOTES (5)

    • Control: We have a rotten apple, Jim, and the maggots are eating up the Circus.
      Prideaux: These people? One of these?
      Control: Why not? Are the British incapable of deception? We've turned members of other outfits. Russians, Poles, Czechs and the odd American.

    • Martindale: Let's talk about your old boss, Control. The only Head of the Secret Service who kept his name a secret. Shall we talk about Control?
      Smiley: If you insist.
      Martindale: Of course, it wasn't a secret to you, was it, George? He never had any secrets from you, his tried and trusted right hand, did he?
      Smiley: I don't know. That's the point about secrets.

    • Smiley: I have been reviewing my life in this last half hour of hell and I've come to a grave decision. After a lifetime of living by my wits and on my memory, I shall give myself up full-time to the profession of forgetting.

    • Smiley: Why did Lacon send you for me?
      Guillam: Do you mean why did he send me for you? Or why did he send me for you?
      Smiley: Quite right, Peter. I should have known better than to have asked.

    • Martindale: My love to Ann, George. Everybody's love to Ann, George.

  • NOTES (4)

    • Three weeks into filming, Alec Guinness panicked and asked to be replaced. He suggested Arthur Lowe for the role of Smiley.

    • The end title song, Song of Simeon, was sung by Paul Phoenix, who was uncredited at the time of first broadcast. The lyrics are based on the Gospel of Luke, Chapter II, verses 29-32.

    • Shortly before filming for the first episode began, Alec Guinness asked for a meeting with Sir Maurice Oldfield, a real senior British intelligence agent, and for the role of George Smiley he later copied many of the details of Sir Maurice's mannerisms and appearance.

    • The Circus is a nickname for the British Secret Intelligence Service supposedly located at Cambridge Circus in London.


    • Smiley: (paying too much for a book) Barabas was a bookseller.

      Smiley probably does not refer to the biblical Barabas, but to the main character in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1589), a greedy merchant.