A Circus, Indeed: Will Brits Be Able to Recover? How a Modern Film Opens Old Wounds

Several British intelligence officials have been killed, arrested, brought back from retirement, and brought back from the dead, among other things, as new film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy seeks to revisit a time where paranoia was high, and USSR’s reputation was squandered. The focus of the media, an elusive fictional intelligence agency, aptly named the Circus, most certainly faced both a media and political circus as they face the challenge of re-building trust within the agency. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a drawn-out, dramatic search for an English spy turned Soviet mole, but the main conflict seems to be rooted in the protagonist’s marital problems more than anything else. The plot even follows that the affair between George Smiley’s wife and his colleague contributed to his knowledge of suspecting him of espionage against Britain. In fact, this film, based on the novel of the same name by British author John le Carre, makes this modern journalist wonder about the fascination during the Cold War with spies, and why the spy fantasy was such a rampant problem.  

As such today we will all look back to the film and the 1970s in order to understand how this fictional story has very real and destructive consequences. While “the Circus” is a fabrication created by a zealous English author, Carre was in fact a British spy and his experiences with double agents were true. However, in his novel turned film the great dishonor is that the reasoning for the British spy changing sides is completely glossed over. Carre seemingly forgets to mention that many real English spies went to the USSR to help the fight against Fascism that Capitalism would eventually lead to. 1 

Gordon Corera, a journalist who sat down with Carre writes, “A small group of people – many motivated by the struggle against fascism in the 1930s and 40s – had begun secretly working for the Communist cause and had burrowed their way into the establishment”.2 While the reason many of these British spies became Soviet sympathizers was that they saw the moral right of communism, Carre lacks to include this important description in his fictional work based off true events. Kim Philby, who is the real double agent states, “’We need people who could penetrate the bourgeois institutions. Penetrate them for us!’”.3 This was a true struggle that the Joint Intelligence Bureau faced, yet Carre places this blames not on the organization but on the individuals. Philby seemed to truly believe in the cause of the Soviet Union. As he states in 1988, “’I was serving the interests of the Soviet Union and those interests required that these men were defeated. To the extent that I helped defeat them, even if it caused their deaths, I have no regrets’”.4  There really is no fight between good or bad with this situation, as Philby was acting in accordance with a government and economic system he believed in. Moreover, Carre turns the leader of the Soviet intelligence into a mysterious villain with one physical body. Thus he manages to turn a historical event into a Romantic fight between a hero and villain.

According to sources focused on the Joint Intelligence Bureau, the motivations behind betraying one’s country is not surprising given the long-standing interactions between the East and West as both sides attempted to gather information on the other. Gathering intelligence as one’s career could make anyone question their allegiance, even those at the top of the structure. Mr. Bill Haydon’s turn from his country comes from the blurred lines of what intelligence truly does to help the West combat the Soviet Union; Mr. Percy Alleline’s from an attempt to gain power in the intelligence game against their American counterparts through Operation Witchcraft. It appears that keeping one’s stakes within the game had overtaken the motivations of the two men, with a few dedicated individuals that are able to right their wrongs. 

Those tasked with avenging the mistakes of Alleline and Haydon also make serious sacrifices in order to ensure that only they face danger if something goes wrong. In Smiley’s case, he already did not have a relationship with his wife at the time of the investigation, but Peter Guillam is not so lucky. His relationship with another man comes to an end, with Guillam not even being able to tell his partner why they can no longer be together. However, the narrative also remains one-sided in its revelations of sacrifice. The characters that are spying for the Soviet Union do not seem to face such challenges, nor feel greatly hurt by their outcomes, except for Mr. Esterhouse, who was not even aware of his role in the scheme. Those that remain loyal to Britain and the Circus must sacrifice the most, while those that betray it feel nothing. The film centers itself on creating a clear dichotomy between the good and bad characters, further persisting on the clear boundaries between the East and West. These boundaries also appear in the film through the idea that intelligence work remained an elusive and mysterious profession, with anyone having the ability to be a spy or double agent. Additionally, while this film follows men that had made careers out of spying, other characters can just as easily assimilate into regular life. They can very easily cross the line between spy or common civilian, making everyone a possible suspected spy, retired or not. 

A trip to the Soviet past tells us the world of intelligence gathering and espionage has alluded many of the general public for decades, with individuals only participating in donating local information. As is known in the Soviet Union, Stasi recruiters often tried to pay off or intimidate citizens into their informants, as told by Edith Sheffer’s Burned Bridge. While the information itself was usually low-level, even to the point of gossip, it had stirred myths and rumors surrounding the world of intelligence gathering. Continually, the officials use of personalized and paranoid strategies led to a network of mistrust. Sheffer states, “Following a model of customized recruitment, they were to track and manipulate individual pressure points to retain citizens ‘working for conviction’”.5 The high amount of local Stasi informants creates a world of surveillance and suspicion that its citizens cannot escape. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Soviet Union fears the West’s ability to smuggle spies into its ranks. However, the same was not as easily perceived vice versa. Additionally, what makes these events in the film so shocking is that Mr. Haydon’s and Mr. Alleline’s actions lasted for so long and without question. With such high levels of compartmentalization within the agency, no one truly knew where the information came from, where it went, and what purpose it served. All those involved held Operation Witchcraft close to their chests and only shared with the Americans as their way back into the conflicts mainly shared by the United States and the Soviet Union. 

In reference to the structure of the Joint Intelligence Bureau, the fictional Circus holds historic origins stemming from the real organization officially founded in 1945, with even earlier unofficial origins beginning during World War II, according to Huw Dylan.6 Dylan posits that the original purpose of the Joint intelligence Bureau, tasked with intelligence gathering of both military and economic matters, was to centralize and streamline the process so that information flowed quickly. He writes that, “Centralizing the collection and analysis of intelligence relevant to more than one service had been proven beneficial in terms of efficiency and economy.”7 From this perspective and the perspective given to us by Edith Sheffer it seems that the life of a spy depicted in the film is far more romanticized compared to the real profession. However, because the Cold War brought with it so much paranoia it does make sense that a British spy turned author would create a vivid fantasy that saw the Soviet Union as a parasite infecting the Circus. 

We ask, do people only digest it as such? Can a viewer in 2011 who has no concept of the true facts look at this movie and understand its slight to the USSR? As more information becomes available to the public, and these narratives are constructed after the fact, spy literature and film themes come more into focus for people to consume. The re-creation of these events and professions in more romanticized forms also creates a false sense of excitement in terms of intelligence work. As Sheffer noted, many Stasi “agents” were simply citizens tasked with gathering information; while the characters in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy all made careers out of being spies, this category was not expansive, nor as glamorous as the film portrayed it. Even with le Carre’s experience as a British spy himself, one cannot help but wonder how much different his job was than the characters he created, as well as those as they were depicted in the film. Similar to the many layers of the Circus, the layers of this spy narrative complicate the truth, with everyone unsure of who to trust. 


 Alfredson , Tomas, director. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. 2011.  Directed by T. Alfredson. StudioCanal. 

Boghardt, Thomas., 2021. “The Cambridge Five”. [online] Spy Museum. Available at: <https://web.archive.org/web/20190419213900/https://www.spymuseum.org/education-programs/spy-resources/background-briefings/the-cambridge-five/> [Accessed 14 March 2021]. 

Corera, Gordan., 2021. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: John Le Carre and reality. [online] BBC News. Available at: <https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-14846154> [Accessed 14 March 2021]. 

Dylan, Huw, “All-Source Intelligence for the Post-war World: Creating the JIB,” in Defense Intelligence and the Cold War: Britain’s Joint Intelligence Bureau, 1945-1964 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). 

Sheffer, Edith. Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain, (New York: Oxford UP, 2011) ISBN 978-0199314614. chapter 7.