Filmmaker Spotlight: John Irvin’s Triple Play

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Welcome, friends, fans and aficionados of film and television.

As does happen occasionally. An excavation and exploration of one topic can take a hop and a turn in another completely unexpected layer of depth and direction. As I found myself recently breaking the topsoil and troweling around the body of work accumulated by the long standing, versatile character actor, Tom Berenger. And my first introductions to his talents as executive officer to mercenary, Christopher Walken in The Dogs of War. Which will receive due diligence later in this critique.

When I came across a name. One that I had come across more than thirty years ago. Didn’t connect with until very recently. As the director of one of the flagship mini series of the late 1970s. Courtesy of PBS in 1983. Creating the grist for this.

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John Irvin Triple Play

#1: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

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After making a small, though reputable name for himself in short films, documentaries and projects for television. Mr. Irvin was given the daunting task of translating John Le Carre‘s worldwide bestselling novel. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from paper to film.

A task that entailed seven full hour long episodes. With a sterling cast of talent populating the titled characters, From Sir Alec Guinness‘ Cold War, MI-6 operative, George Smiley. To Sir Ian Richardson‘s Golden Boy, Bill Hayden. Bernard Hepton‘s foppish, going nowhere, Toby Esterhase. Terence Rigby‘s perpetually broke Roy Bland. Anthony Bate‘s half way out the door, Sir Oliver Lacon and Michael Aldridge‘s prissy, arrogant and without a clue, Percy Alleline. All falling under suspicion for a years old failed and embarrassing mission into Czechoslovakia called ‘Testify’. Which would hopefully, flush the “mole” from MI-6’s Piccadilly headquarters (“Circus”). Redeem the tattered career of Alexander Knox’s “Control”. But instead would cost close to the life and career of always stalwart, Ian Bannen’s operative, Jim Prideaux.

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As mentioned earlier. No small task. In a tale that didn’t allow me to get past page 100. Until a third attempt. And then allowed me to then immerse myself. Once all the characters and plot were set in the oblique, sometimes frustrating mystique that is John Le Carre’s well renown stock in trade.

Thankfully, the thought of paring down the sweeping tale never crossed the writers’ or Mr. Irvin’s mind. Delivering in my opinion, the finest and detailed adaptation of a John leCarre novel on film. And yes, that includes Martin Ritt’s 1960s B&W The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

The characters, words and action seem to step from the pages. As a slight change in location from Hong Kong to Spain is hinted at in Hywell Bennett’s slimy take on discredited stringer, Rikki Tarr. And his persistent claim that there is indeed a mole in the circus. As mentioned by the wife of the Resident “Hood” Tarr had seduced. And who had died under lurid circumstances only days later. Creating the impetus to get first, Lacon. And Sir Alec’s George Smiley back in the saddle.

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Creating a fine example of what the British do best! Unraveling a mystery whose meat is the slowly revealed back stories, rivalries, adulteries and intrigues petty and large. Adding pieces large and small to the puzzle. That moves at its own sedate pace. Requiring sharp ears as well eyes for their revelation and proper place in the time line of spider webbed past events. Delivered by the likes of Beryl Reid’s Oxford Doyenne and “Russia Watcher”, Connie Sachs. John Standing’s razor sharp Sam Collins, who was babysitting the Circus’s Operations desk the night “Testify” blew up with the wounding and capturing of Jim Prideaux. And Joss Ackland’s retired spy and reporter, Jerry Westerby. Who had been in Czechoslovakia and found that sections of Russian infantry were prepared and waiting to spring that ambush.

And with that said. Is Mr. Irvin’s work better than the Thomas Alfredson directed re-make from 2011?…. Certainly! No doubt. Taken in perspective and with the availability of 1979 ‘A-List” talents available. Mr. Irvin does have the upper hand. And the luxury of time to spot locations and acquiring the novel’s author and Arthur Hopcraft to produce a remarkably faithful screenplay’ Which both adaptations adhere to. Though less so in the 2011 version. Which seems stripped down to key moments from the original seven episodes. And expounded upon and stretched to the next key scene. Creating an experience likened to a drive thru burger or fast food joint. When the earlier sumptuous original can just as easily be had.

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Kudos to the long list of producers, though. For acquiring Britain’s present assembly of top talent. Each works well within the confines of their characters. Some memorably. John Hurt’s “Control”. Toby Jones’ prissy Percy Alleline, David Dencik’s spineless, beholding to everyone Toby Easterhase. Tom Hardy’s equal to Hywell Bennett’s Rikki Tarr. Though Gary Oldman’s George Smiley and Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux just seem to fall short. Physically and dramatically.

Overall Consensus:

Required viewing. Not just for the layered tale itself. But just to relax and bask in what Greatness can truly be!


#2: The Dogs of War (1980)

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I have early 1970s political journalist, novelist and storyteller, Frederick Forsythe to thank for my next chance meeting with Mr. Irvin’s surprising talent. In Mr. Forsythe’s second political intrigue primer and thriller, The Dogs of War, a world wide Best Seller from 1974. Which goes into great and grand detail the United Kingdom’s proclivities for employing deniable mercenaries to stage coups and overthrow small backwater African countries. Which have nothing to offer but Empire expansion, precious metals and perhaps, natural resources. Exotic or otherwise.

With its minor political damage done. The novel sat on shelves and was allowed a few years of cooling off. Before having its right purchased by producer, Norman Jewison. Then lateraled to director, John Irvin. Acquiring Gary DeVore, George Malko and Mr. Forsythe to render a remarkably faithful screenplay. Prior to setting up a superlative multi national cast and preparatory locations in London, Manhattan and Belize. Subbing for Paris and the fictional African country of Zangaro.

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The film’s principal character, mercenary Jamie “Cat” Shannon. Played to coiled spring, issue laden, believably paranoid, handgun in every room perfection by a young Christopher Walken. Is approached obliquely at first. And less so later. By impeccably suited and manicured representatives of unnamed British conglomerates. Led by smooth talking Endean (Hugh Millais). With a proposal. One that will require a lot more time, subtlety, finesse, intelligence gathering and reconnaissance than Cat’s benefactors had even contemplated!

Cat starts putting the band back together with late night telegrams and calls. The first is it his Second In Command, Drew. Who is married, with two daughters. Always looking for any reason to get out of the house. And is played with equal parts charm, humor and frightening intimidation by Mr. Berenger.

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Confident, energetic and meticulous. Drew shares the same kind of elan and fresh faced, rugged good looks that dooms him to be killed towards the end of the final reel. The same ironic fate shared by Mr. Walken in his earlier role as “The Kid” in The Anderson Tapes nine years earlier.

But for his time on screen, Mr. Berenger holds his own with and without Cat. Who prepares for an overt infiltration and recon of Zangaro. Arriving as any American would. With a surfeit of Duty Free cigarettes and alcohol. Which are immediately and ceremoniously confiscated. Shannon is allowed to go about his business. Meeting a British documentary director, Alan North (Colin Blakeley). A walking font of knowledge of Zangaro’s corrupt, tortuous history. With emphasis on the installation of puppet dictator, General Kimba four years earlier. And later photographing key buildings (Armory, Garrisons, Motor Pool, stone walled jails) in the company of Evelyn (Isabel Grandin), an attractive local woman.

Cover is where you find or create it. And Shannon’s lasts about as long as can be expected. Before he’s pulled from Evelyn’s bed. Arrested. Tortured and tossed in a cell with Zangaro’s version of Nelson Mandela, Dr. Okoye (Winston Ntshona). Who tends to Shannon’s wounds between beatings and long oblique discussions.

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Shannon is released and deported after two days. With the help of North. Who smells a story, but the wrong one. As Shannon returns to London and brief Endean that Kimba’s grip is too tight on his equally corrupt, but too scared subordinates. An internal coup is impossible. And that there had better be a “Plan B”.

There is. Endean offers Shannon $100,000 to invade Zangaro. Destroy as much military as possible. Kill Kimba and await the arrival of Kimba’s ousted rival, Colonel Bobi (George Harris). Who still owns Zangaro’s mineral rights. As the country’s new puppet dictator. Shannon says no, but Endean forwards a million dollars in expenses a few days later, anyway. And Shannon goes to work. Bouncing between New York, South America and Paris to arrange transportation for smuggled firepower. WWII German MP-40 sub machine guns, magazines and ammo packed in Cosmoline in the novel. Uzis and tricked out MAC-10s in the film (Courtesy IMFDb). Good for pistol range, close up work. But some Fire Support would be needed. Claymor Mines. Several M-60 machine guns. Two Manville 25mm. Projectile Launcher. Known as the “XM-18”. Loaded with smoke, fragmentation, Anti-Personnel and White Phosphorus shells.

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All used to great explosive effect once Cat, Drew and their crew and about 75 Zangaran expatriates land by Zodic rubber boats and blitzkrieg Kimba’s military compound. Which ends with Mr. Walken’s Cat delivering an ending no one sees coming!

Overall Consensus:

In what could be considered a “How To” film on the details and intricacies of Military-Industrial wheeling and dealing. From Endean’s betters’ initially flawed concept. To recruitment, acquisition of firepower. Its covert and illegal transport. And slow, methodical reconnaissance under the noses of the Zangaran police. Few films are better at revealing “the nuts and bolts” of intended coups and political overthrows.

Mr. Forsythe cast his nets wide for his novel. And Mr. Irvin kept the flavor and feel of rummaging through the journals of Colonel “Mad Mike” Hoare and his “3 Commando” in Africa, Or Paul Renard’s failed attempt at a coup to unseat Haiti’s “Papa Doc” Duvalier in the early 1970s.

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Extreme Kudos to veteran Cinematographer, Jack Cardiff for brief, though telling locations. Especially the Customs stop at the Calais piers. Where smuggled in oil drums are inspected by uniformed officials amid banter ef Francais. Without subtitles. Letting the dark damp mood and close quarters claustrophobia speak volumes while the armed driver sweats bullets under a calm facade, While Geoffrey string chamber music maintains suspense and tension throughout.

Film editing by Antony Gibbs is masterful. In trimming away all that is not needed. While keeping plenty of slack for verbal and silent nuance. And with Endean, Saville Row suited British arms dealers (Terrence Rigby, David Schofield) there is plenty of nuance!


I’m going to side step two of Mr. Irvin’s films. Raw Deal (1986) and Hamburger Hill (1987). Which I had thumb-nailed for Michael, over at It Rains… You Get Wet as part of my premier guest post years ago. And focus some criminally over due attention to a small gem from HBO cranked out during Hollywood’s return to “The Greatest Generation” and World War II with Saving Private Ryan. And before HBO’s flag ship, Band of Brothers.

Encompassing around 95 minutes. And shot on location along the tank trapping “Dragon’s Teeth” of the Siegfried Line and the Hungarian Border. And Germany. Lake Balaton and strategic dams beyond. A 50 square mile area of forest, hills and mountains occupied by polyglot units of US and German Infantry and armor escaping the Fallaise Gap and creating a time and life consuming bottleneck. Though the Germans have the high ground and upper hand in artillery. And every inch of forest marked off and dialed in for high altitude “Tree Bursts” of 75, 88mm and larger caliber tanks, self propelled and dug in gun positions.

Basically. A meat grinder. And a campaign I’d never heard about until finding it featured in a “Sgt. Rock” graphic novel from Vertigo comics. Which sent me on the path of Mr. Irvin’s offering. Which, to my knowledge is the only film about this six month (August 1944 to February, 1945) Pyhrric exercise in futility.

So, without further ado. Let’s take a look at…

#3: When Trumpets Fade (1998) a.k.a. The Battle For Hurtgen Forest

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Which begins with B&W stock Army footage of divisions of “Class A” parade dressed G.I.s marching through the Arche de Triumph in Paris. To George M. Cohan’s “Over There”. Signalling the months old occupation of France. The containment of German forces within their own country. And that the war may be over soon. Perhaps, by Christmas?

Cut to the sound of far off artillery and a cold, snowy, sunless and gray fogged November day. Where we are introduced to three day in country veteran, Pvt. David Manning (Ron Eldard). G Company. 28th Infantry Division. Returning back to American held lines after a disastrous patrol around the industrial town of Schmidt. Of which, Manning is its sole survivor. After leaving a too badly burned and injured to travel squad mate (Jeffrey Donovan ‘Burn Notice’) to die.

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Expecting to be called before the platoon’s “Highers”, Lieutenant Lukas (Timothy Olyphant, ‘Deadwood,’ ‘Justified’) and Commander of “C” Company. Captain Pritchett (Martin Donovan ‘Insomnia,’ ‘Ant-Man’) to be debriefed. Or chewed out. Instead, Manning is informed that of the fifty plus men who went out on that morning’s patrol. He is its sole survivor. Promoted to Sergeant. And given five fresh new replacement Privates. Overweight and spectacled Warren “Sandy” Sanderson (Zak Orth). Andrew Lonnie (Devon Gummerssall). Doug Despin (Dan Futterman) and Sam Baxter (Steven Petrarca) to fill out the ranks of Manning’s rifle squad. And Sgt. Manning’s first order to execute. Get to know his men. And take them out on a patrol to get them acclimated!

An elongated and suspenseful scene that magically blends the eerie quiet of the forest. The odd addition of falling snowflakes mixed with swirling embers from recently exploded and smoldering trees, And the dismal, thick ground fog. Courtesy of Cinematographer, Thomas Burstyn. Which slowly swallows Pvt. Sanderson whole within minutes of his being assigned “Point”.

Sanderson gets out too far ahead and becomes lost. Mostly due to the fog and lack of any recognizable landmarks. Hears a sound. Hides in the branches of a fallen Soft Pine tree. Hears and later, glimpses a similarly armed and lost German patrol. Waits. Holds his breath. Waits for the Germans to move. Falls back. Retraces his steps. Finds Manning and the squad. As a strategic retreat is decided upon.

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Once back at base there’s hot food and mail. Which Manning and others read as another “Push” in the offing. Though, with poor visibility. No close by landmarks. Outdated maps.No air cover. No aerial reconnaissance or recent photographs.The plan is far from perfect. Tanks will be used on the road leading to the bridge head on the outskirts of Schmidt. Infantry will be off the road. Flanking from the woods.With German artillery, tanks and infantry defending their turf every inch of the way. Tanks are shelled on and off the road and are quickly bogged down and destroyed. Artillery is good only for breaking contact and buying time for the Americans to retreat into mne fields. Chaos and confusion reign as individuals and units regroup. Barely containing panic as German tanks and self propelled guns follow the retreat back to camp and open fire in a spoiling raid.

The Germans leave. The American wounded are tended to in open air Aid Stations. While the dead are stripped of ammo and gear. Covered. And stacked like cord wood for Graves Registration. While Captain Pritchett calls Manning aside and negotiates the Sergeant into “volunteering” for a suicide mission. Take a squad armed with flame throwers to attack the German artillery emplacements, powder charges and shells from behind prior to the next morning’s “Push”.

Manning balks. Pritchett counters with a “Section 8” upon successful completion of the mission. The attack goes off well enough. Panicking the enemy more than actually destroying large numbers of artillery pieces. But it does cause enough delay for the Americans to break the bottle neck at the Schmidt bridge head. At the cost of Bazter being executed by Manning for running away. His flame thrower alight and more of a danger to the squad than the Germans. Steeling the rest to hold their ground and give covering fire to Sanderson as he burns two 88mm. howitzers and their crews.

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The bottom seems to be falling out on both sides as fresh replacements are brought forward. LT. Lukas cracks under pressure. Captain Pritchett killed holding the bridge. The Lt. Colonel (Dwight Yoakum) shows up and is none too pleased. Captain Zenek (Bobby Cannavale, ‘Blue Bloods’) takes command of “C” Company and takes Manning aside. For a promotion to 2nd Lieutenant. His own platoon. And marching orders for tomorrow’s final “Push”.

But Manning has other ideas. Another pre dawn raid. With more men and bazookas. To create as much havoc and destroy as many tanks as possible before what’s left of “C” Company steps off. Creating another near trademark ironic ending for Mr. Irvin once the smoke starts to clear. With a seriously wounded and bleeding out Manning riding on Pvt. Sanderson’s back. As he tries to find friendly lines less than a mile away.

Overall Consensus:

Since there is so little known and put to paper about this campaign. Due to it being dwarfed by the far more intriguing and dramatic “Battle of The Bulge”. There are not alot of historic landmarks or date to attach to this six month meat grinder that accounted for 33.00 US casualties from a rotation of ten US Infantry and one Army Air Corps Wing. And 28,000 German casualties among Infantry. armor, one parachute and five Home Guard (Volksstrum) divisions.

In an Order of Battle that began much like Gettysburg. In a series of skirmishes between US troops and Germans fleeing France. And quickly became a salient and center of battle once the Germans began massing and organizing units. Doing what Germans have always done best. Counter attacking. Taking ground and buying time during one of the worst winters in Germany’s history. In hopes of possibly negotiating something other than unconditional surrender.

So, the idea of a Private being bumped to Sergeant and later, 2nd Lieutenant solely due to personal survival skills versus attrition may not seem so strange in filling out the TO &E of a nearly decimated Company. Manning adapts. Even though he doesn’t want to.Thinking on the fly and leading. Which is what NCOs and junior grade officers are supposed to do.

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Does the film work?… Oh, yes! As stated before. Cinematography by Thomas Burstyn performs minor miracles of foreboding and dread with varying shades of gray, black and white among the forests. While making the most of cramped, lamp lit interiors. Throwing shadows across men’s faces as they are told to perform the impossible. And perhaps, die in the event?

Music by Geoffrey Burgon is occasionally of its time. But shifts to orchestral to heighten dram and move action along. While Art and Decorating departments to numerous to mention press the illusion that you are in an Eastern European version of Hell. And that there is no way out!


Author’s Note:

All the films noted here are available on You Tube. And are fine examples that like his fellow director, Martin Ritt. Mr. Irvin can get the most from casts of character actors from both sides of the pond. While creating long enduring, sometimes elegant. Often down and dirty “Guy Flicks”.

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Check out Kevin G’s other posts and reviews


Agree? Disagree? Wish to offer personal choices? The Floor Is Open For Discussion!

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14 thoughts on “Filmmaker Spotlight: John Irvin’s Triple Play

  1. I haven’t seen any of those films other than the 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which I liked a lot. I have heard of The Dogs of War as Michael Cimino contributed to its screenplay and I think helped Christopher Walken get the role after he had finished his own stuff for Heaven’s Gate (which I think people should really check out).

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Ninvoid:

      And thank you for taking the time to peruse and comment so thoughtfully.

      John le Carre and Frederick Forsythe are exceptional written story tellers. Though their works are not the easiest to adapt to the screen. And Mr. Alfredson does execute a decent enough stand alone with his 2011 work. Mr. Irvin’s work for the earlier BBC excels.

      I’d read both works by the authors. And was primed and ready for The Dogs of War when it hit the big screens around Washington, DC and managed to stick around for longer than its acquired month. A quiet testament to Mr. Irvin and all involved. While his earlier, Tinker Tailor was an unexpected surprise through PBS. Which achieved impressively high viewer numbers. And blazed trails for later dramas, Danger: UXB!, Brideshead Revisited The Sandbaggers .

  2. Nice write up Kevin, I only saw The Dogs of War from your list there but I’ve seen many of Irvin’s other films such as Ghost Story, Raw Deal, Hamburger Hill, Next of Kin and City of Industry. I think he’s an interesting director, just never got to the level of a great director. I really enjoyed The Dogs of War though, one of the underrated action films of the 80s.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Ted:

      Great catches and perspective!

      Mr. Irvin has a diverse body of work that covers many genres. Though, I imagine he’s best remembered for exceptional “shoot ’em ups”, like Raw Deal . Which I mentioned in my recent spotlight on Darren McGavin. The kind of film from which Arnold Schwarzenegger should never have strayed! And Next of Kin .

      It’s nice to see Mr. Irvin’s take on upper aged and talented gentlemen letting their voices carry the back story and action with Ghost Story . And his wicked Harvey Keitel “Tough Guy” take on vengeance Noir with City of Industry . Getting a surprising amount of “Bang For The Buck!” in story telling. While also getting the most from exceptional casts and technicians. While The Dogs of War and Hamburger Hill excel. And have many trademarks of well budgeted and executed “You’ve Got To Start Somewhere” films. Especially regarding their U.S. casts.

  3. I enjoyed reading this, Jack. I’ve been known to enjoy Guy Movies but I had no idea there was a movie starring Christopher Walken as a mercenary & I’d never heard of WHEN TRUMPETS FADE. I actually re-watched some of the “Tinker, Tailor” mini-series and then read the book for the first time after I saw the 2011 movie, which I really liked. I think it might not be fair to compare a mini-series and a two-hour film both based on dense, detailed source material. I can only imagine how difficult it was to cram and edit it all into a couple of hours. For watchability I’m inclined to the TTSS movie but for accuracy & sheer Britishness I think the mini-series can’t be beat. There’s no question though about Irvin’s ability to work with a wide variety of actors. From Sir Alec Guinness to Dwight Yoakum. Holy cats.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Paula:

      Mr. Irvin’s Tinker Tailor and its later execution were tough challenges. With so much going on in both and creating tough juggling acts. More so for Dino Jonsater. The editor of Mr. Alfredson’s 2011 big screen version. Than Chris Wimble and Clair Trumble in the original mini-series. What to take out? What to leave in? must have weighed heavily on those shoulders!

      And you may have found your own catch phrase with the original’s “sheer Britishness”. A quality with which it seethes. Especially with most of the major cast members being stand off-ish. Until Sir Alec signed on as George Smiley. And Sir Ian Richardson’s flawless taking pompous Percy Alleline off at the knees during the “Witchcraft” briefing and his “Does that mean they like it, Percy?”.

      While Mr. Walken was just beginning his climb into stardom. After Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate and before Pennies from Heaven, Brainstorm and David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone .

      I’d read Mr. Forsythe’s novel and had chosen Harvey Keitel for the role of mercenary Shannon. But Mr. Walken took it. Made it his own. And ran for the bleachers with it!

      I didn’t know about When Trumpets Fade until a few months ago. An under rated tale that works more emotionally than visually. But, definitely one to remember for its economy of story, execution and surprising, eclectic cast and meticulous technicians.

    1. jackdeth72

      Thanks very much, Cindy!

      This post took a few twists and turns due to the size and scope of my first two choices. And the obscurity of last. With the end result of all three revealing a gifted director comfortable with details which add to the weight of exceptional, sometimes heavy hitting casts and crews delivering more than expected or asked for.

      Also pleasantly surprised by the positive responses from the ladies in attendance.

  4. Hi Kevin! This is fantastic. Now you’ve convinced me I need to watch the miniseries of ‘Tinker Tailor.’ The British film had a spectacular cast but for some reason it left me cold, not to mention confused.

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome. Ruth:

      Mr. Irvin’s Tinker Tailor… is some of the best work to come out of BBC Television in a very long time. And still holds up remarkably well today.

      Curious to see how well the proposed, Smiley’s People performs opposite the 1982 BBC Television mini~series.

  5. Another wonderful write-up, Kevin. Your top duo corals two of my favorites. Admittedly, I’ve yet to see ‘When Trumpets Fade’, but have heard many good things about it. I’ll endeavor to fix what I’ve overlooked care of this. Thumbs up, my friend.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Michael:

      The BBC mini series, Tinker Tailor… immediately rose into my personal, “Not to re~made, re~tooled, re~imagined or otherwise messed with!” category immediately after watching it back in 1981. It’s that good!

      Mr. Irvin’s The Dogs of War fills the gap nicely within Mr. Walken’s career. Since I’ve never been all that huge a fan of Cimino’s The Deer Hunter .

      Mr. Irvin’s adaptation of Mr. Forsythe’s novel always seemed to be more of its time with its British approach to a lucrative political problem. And worked very well for me.

  6. Very nice piece Kevin; on that covers a figure many of us wouldn’t probably be aware of. Tinker Tailer is such an amazing piece of television. Us Brits can knock it out of the park when we try hard enough!

    1. jackdeth72

      Cheers, Three Rows:

      You Brits do unraveling a mystery extremely well! And Mr. Irvin’s Tinker Tailor rates at the top of the scale.

      I missed the Inspector Morse invasion. Though, I do like Kevin Whatley’s Lewis and his interplay with Laurence Fox’s Sgt. Hathaway. Also, young Morse in Endeavour is starting to grown on me for its 1960’s Oxford universe.

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