Sexual identity in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

[Warning: Contains spoilers]


Recently, I found myself rewatching the 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  It’s my televisual comfort food – everything from the late Seventies atmosphere to the terrific performance by Alec Guinness in the lead role as George Smiley makes it exceptional television.  Every time I rewatch it I get something new – this time I was led to think about its treatment of LGBT themes, and it’s this that I will expand upon. A few caveats: in terms of my source material, I will be focusing on the BBC adaptation rather than the original Le Carré novel or the 2011 film (although I have read and watched each respectively) – the BBC adaptation is very faithful to the book, but there are some minor differences which, off the top of my head, I can’t recall in any detail.  As for my viewpoint, I should make clear that I am writing as a straight man, and as such I imagine I will miss nuances which are more obvious to gay or bisexual readers.  I obviously welcome comments and discussion.


Historical background

The prominence of these themes in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is hardly accidental.  The British government was embarassed, and the British public titilated, by a series of spy scandals in the Fifties and Sixties linked to homosexuality.  The most pertinent was the case of John Vassall, who was blackmailed by the KGB after compromising photos were taken of him in a gay party that was in fact a classic honeytrap.  However, it was probably the most famous of the scandals of the era that encouraged Le Carré to explore questions of sexual identity – the Cambridge Five.  Many aspects of his story about a high-ranking mole in the British Secret Service are clearly based on the notorious spy ring – and of the group, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt were gay and Donald MacLean was bisexual.

The result was that gay or bisexual men were seen as security risks.  Partly this was on the grounds of blackmail – hardly fair, as hetereosexual men were more than capable of acting indiscretely and opening themselves to Russian manipulation, and since the threat was largely a result of criminilisation and social stigma.  Yet at the same time their very sexuality was seen as unstable and untrustworthy, and their underground social existence seen as suspicious and potentially sinister.  The result was repression.  The horrific treatment of Alan Turing is well known.  In the United States, a ‘Lavender Scare’ emerged in tandom with the better known attacks by Senator Joe McCarthy on alleged Communists.  When Control, suspecting the existence of Gerald the mole, digs out old Circus files to learn ‘who was pink, who was a queen’, his response was typical of a service suspicious about men who had sexual relationships with other men.


“They really were very close, you know”: Haydon and Prideux

The relationship between Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux forms much of the emotional core of the series and is worth looking at in detail.  It is strongly implied that the two of them, both Circus spies, were lovers when they were both recruited as students at Oxford, and afterwards they maintained a strong bond and were known as a famous duo by their fellow agents.  Prideaux is sent off to Czeckoslovakia by Control, the Head of the Service, in an effort to find information from a defecting Czech army officer that he hopes will allow him to root out a double-agent (nicknamed Gerald).  The mission fails disastrously, Prideux ends up being shot in the back and captured and interrogated by the Russians, and after being returned to Britain is retired from the Circus.  In fact, it is his former lover Haydon who was the mole, and he and his handler Karla arranged for Control to receive the offer of intelligence in the knowledge that the mission would fail embarassingly and thatat Control, who was coming close to identifying him as Gerald, would be forced out.  Furthermore, it emerges in the final episode that Haydon was fully aware that Prideaux was the most likely candidate to be sent on this dangerous mission, although he claims that he never forsaw that he would be injured.  Here, Haydon reveals how much he is willing to betray in the name of beliefs – his angry response to Smiley’s reproving look, that he had ensured his return by the Czechs, is inadequate and just makes his conduct appear even more heartless and alien.  The day before Haydon is deported to the USSR, Prideaux murders Haydon.  Before breaking his neck, he kisses him on the forehead: a sign of intimacy, but also a reverse Judas kiss.

Interestingly, Prideaux and Haydon’s past relationship is well-known within the circus.  Lacon, the senior civil servant who runs the inquiry, tells Smiley that the two “were really very close, you know.”  Smiley obtains a letter from Haydon to his Circus talent-spotter identifying Prideaux as a likely prospect and writing in clearly homoerotic tones (he is described as ‘a virgin, about eight foot tall, and built by the same firm that did Stonehenge’).  Partly this acceptance can be ascribed to a more tolerant climate before the war, especially among the aristocratic set that Haydon would have been surrounded by at Oxford.  But it also reflects an ambivalence towards men who enjoyed relationships with men in the intelligence services.  There is evidence that there was a tacit acceptence of gay activity as long as it was discrete, as was the case with much of the Establishment at the time.  This was especially true if it could be passed off as a youthful misdiscretion – “Christ, man, we were children!” Prideaux says when Smiley reads Haydon’s letter.


Bill Haydon, treachery, and bisexuality

One of the really enjoyable things about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is Ian Richardson’s performance as Bill Haydon.  For most of the series, he is in some ways the most likeable character – suave, talented, sardonic – and he is revered by his juniors at the Circus.  After he is unmasked and is taken to the detention centre at Sarratt, however, he veers between this well-controlled persona and more erratic, emotionally unbalanced behaviour in response to Smiley’s questions.  Richardson’s reptilian portrayal successfully renders him as a hateful villain whose mask has been ripped off.

It is in this context that we learn obliquely about Haydon’s sex life.  Haydon, in settling his financial affairs before leaving Russia (such is his shamelessly matter-of-fact response to the revelation of his treachery), asks Smiley to send on the balance of his salary and arrange that post be sent on from his club; he also writes a cheque and a somewhat perfunctory note for a girlfriend, for whom he obviously has a limited opinion.  He then asks Smiley to arrange for a payment from the reptile fund (the Circus’s all-purpose slush fund) for for ‘a particular boy… a cherub, but no angel’.  We already knew that Haydon had sex with women, since he had had an affair with Smiley’s wife, Ann; we also knew about Haydon’s historic relationship with Prideaux.  This scene, part of the wider revealing of the ‘real’ Bill Haydon, emphasises Haydon’s bisexuality on the most unflattering terms – he has multiple, rather shallow sexual relationships.  Yet not only does Haydon fulfill negative stereotypes of bisexuality – his bisexuality itself acts as a metaphor for his faithlessness.  It is this faithlessness that Ann Smiley touches on later in the final episode.  “Bill betrayed totally – everything, everyone, didn’t he?”  She is clearly not just thinking merely of military intelligence.  It might be said that societal wareness of what bisexuality meant and implied was poor in 1979; but this is a trope – and an attitude – which bisexual people still struggle against today.



It would be fair to argue, then, that the depiction of LGBT relationships in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not entirely positive.  But this is also true of the straight characters and their flawed romances.  Ann betrays Smiley twice, not just through her affairs with numerous men but by making him the subject of Circus tittle-tattle by sleeping with Bill Haydon.  Haydon’s relationship with Ann was based on deceit – ordered by Karla as a means of putting Smiley off the scent of Gerald the mole.  Even Oliver Lacon’s happy family in his ‘Hampshire Camelot’ doesn’t last, as by the time he appears in Smiley’s People he is unhappily divorced.  The ongoing themes of the novel are betrayal and uncertainty.  In this context, the Prideaux-Haydon relationship is tragic, but not exceptionally so.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy offers multi-faceted social commentary and the opportunity for interpretation and reinterpretation.  Someone better informed than me might pick up how exactly the series fits into the depiction of LGBT people in mainstream media in the Seventies, and the broader history of sexual identity.  I hope that I have demonstrated that this is a rich seam of interpretation.


2 thoughts on “Sexual identity in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

  1. Excellent piece. Always pleased to find another fan of this unique series (television comfort food indeed–gourmet division), and especially one who reveres Ian Richardson’s incredible performance as Haydon as much as I do. The whole cast remains the epitome of perfect translation from page to film of the characters–and, as you note, there’s something new to be discovered with every viewing. This version will remain the definitive one long after the film (good, but seriously flawed in my opinion) has passed into the dimmer annals of cinema history.

  2. Just finished the rewatch of TTSP (the 70’s version) and came straight on the internet to find this well-written piece. Huge fan of the books and of this incarnation, and as an LGBT person definitely think that the “slipping between the worlds” metaphors that come up from time to time are emblematic of both the bisexual experience and of the spy experience. It’s interesting that the strong hint that it was Jim who killed Bill means that the actual killing is invisible, much as their relationship would have been.

    My favourite scene in the adaptation? Ian Richardson weeping as Bill in the lock-up whilst trashing ideologies. Riveting.

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