Before the recent Oscar-nominated film version of John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Gary Oldman, there was the 1979 BBC mini-series directed by John Irvin and starring Sir Alec Guinness. Acorn Media has now released this classic piece of British television on a 2-disc Blu-ray set, adding a bonus interview not included on the 3-disc DVD set released last year.
Studio: Acorn Media
US BD Release Date: April 14, 2012
Original Theatrical Release Year: 1979/1980
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 324 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 (pillar-boxed)
Audio: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
Subtitles: Englisg (SDH)
Movie: 4.5 out of 5
Former Circus agent George Smiley (Sir Alec Guinness, in one of his many career-defining roles) is called out of retirement to head up an investigation to find a high-ranking Soviet mole, code-named Gerald, after an agent is ambushed by the Soviet Army while on assignment in Prague. Thus sets the stage for John Irvin’s masterful 1979 BBC television adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Adapting novels into movies, especially ones as complex as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, can be tricky. Trying to condense 400 pages of text into a two-hour movie means omitting several subplots and minimizing characters. Many have said (and I’m in agreement) that some of the best adaptations of Steven King’s novels were mini-series (The Stand, It, and even The Shining). Director John Irvin (Ghost Story, The Dogs of War) and writer Arthur Hopcraft (Agatha, A Perfect Spy) make good use of the (roughly) six-hour running time by giving the story room to breathe and develop its characters, and include subplots that would introduce characters (look for Patrick Stewart in a non-speaking role) for the eventual (but not yet penned) sequel, Smiley’s People. The series’ cast features some of the top British actors of the day, including Michael Jayston (Dr. Who) as Peter Guillam, George Sewell (U.F.O.) as Mendel, Ian Richardson (Brazil) as Bill Haydon, and Joss Ackland (Lethal Weapon 2) as Jerry Westerby.
Video: 2.5 out of 5
A few things should be taken into consideration before viewing this Blu-ray edition of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. First and foremost, it was originally produced for British television, and never intended to be viewed on anything smaller than a 25-inch standard definition television set. Secondly, it was filmed and posted using 16mm film stock. Thirdly, a complete restoration would have been too costly for a program of this length and a niche studio such as Acorn. Lastly, the packaging indicates 1080p, and although both my PS3 and Panasonic BD60 provided a 1080p stream to my main television, my CyberLink Power DVD 9 software indicated 1080i.
That all being said, the transfer thankfully retains the original broadcast ratio of 1.33:1 and has been compressed using the AVC codec at a maximum bitrate of 31 Mbps on two BD-50 discs. However, the prints used in the transfer are exceptionally grainy (likely due to the use of 16mm), and contain some occasional mild scratches, dirt, and white specks. Colors are a bit muted, and contrast is somewhat washed out. To make matters worse, there is a fluctuating softness to the image throughout, and some occasional jitter and weave. I am sure, though, that Acorn Media did the best they could with what was provided to them by the licensor and their allotted budget for this release. This is also how I remember seeing many BBC programs on my local PBS station back in the day. Owners of the previously released DVD set may want to reconsider upgrading based on the exclusive interview in the Special Features.
Audio: 3 out of 5
The audio, in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono at 256 kbps, is very good, although fidelity is somewhat limited due to the source material and originally intended audience. Dialogue is clear and crisp, as well as Geoffrey Burgon’s score. While I’m sure some would have preferred the audio in Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD MA, or even uncompressed PCM, the difference would have been minimal, at best.
Special Features: 3.5 out of 5
John Irvin Interview (1080i, 29:56): Exclusive to this Blu-ray edition, the award-winning director talks about his career prior to making the mini-series, how he was approached to direct it, casting Alec Guinness in the pivotal role (and some of the problems and perks associated with it), and the issues encountered during production while the BBC and the Cinematographers Guild attempted to negotiate a new union contract.
John le Carre Interview (480i letterboxed, 19:33): The author discusses adapting novels for the big and small screens, working with Alec Guinness and how that changed George Smiley in future novels, as well as what and who inspired his writing in this 2002 interview.
Deleted Scenes (480i, 11:26): A series of 12 deleted, extended, or alternate scenes which can either be selected individually or all at once.
Production Notes (1080p): Four pages of text, taken from an interview with producer Jonathan Powell, on making the mini-series.
John le Carre Biography (1080p): A brief biography, spanning two pages of text, on the author of the original novel, followed by a list of his novels.
Overall: 3.5 out of 5
While it is exciting to see more classic British television programming making its way to Blu-ray, it is a bit saddening that classics like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy arrive with a troubled, aged high definition transfer. Fans on a tight budget and owners of the previous DVD release may want to consider how valuable the Blu-ray exclusive John Irvin interview is before deciding on DVD or Blu-ray.