Shortly before filming began, Alec Guinness asked author John le Carré to introduce him to a real spy to aid him in preparing for his role. Le Carré invited him to dinner with Sir Maurice Oldfield, who served as Chief of the British Intelligence Service from 1973-78. During their meal Guinness studied Sir Oldfield intently, noting any mannerisms/quirks he could use in his performance; when he saw Oldfield run his finger around the rim of his wineglass, and asked whether he was checking for poison, to Oldfield's astonishment as he was only checking how clean the glass was.
John le Carré has admitted that the vocabulary used in the novels/series (babysitters, lamplighters, the Circus, the nursery, moles) was made up. He was later amused to discover that real agents had begun to appropriate some of his vocabulary once his espionage stories were published.
Alec Guinness was very concerned that he wasn't the right type to portray the "frog-like" George Smiley. Three weeks into filming, Alec Guinness panicked and asked to be replaced, and recommended Arthur Lowe for the role of Smiley. However, he eventually overcome his doubts and went on to receive critical acclaim for his role.
During production, Alec Guinness complained that George Smiley's characteristic habit, polishing his glasses with the fat end of his tie, could not be done naturally because London's cold weather resulted in Smiley wearing three-piece suits. Thus a handkerchief was used as a substitute. John le Carré's sequel novel 'Smiley's People', mentioned a statement referring to this issue: "From long habit, Smiley had taken off his spectacles and was absently polishing them on the fat end of his tie, even though he had to delve for it among the folds of his tweed coat."
The code name for the British Intelligence secret service was "The Circus". John le Carré told the producer that the BBC offices matched his image of the Circus, and so parts of the Circus office interiors were filmed in the offices of the BBC.
John le Carré once paid an unexpected visit to the set during filming. Alec Guinness stopped acting immediately and asked that le Carré leave so he could continue. Guinness later maintained that it was disconcerting performing with le Carré watching, as he had based a lot of Smiley's performance on the writer himself.
In the United States, syndicated broadcasts compressed the seven British episodes into six (also the current U.S. DVD version), thus scenes were shortened and the narrative sequence altered. In the British version, George Smiley visits Connie Sachs before Peter Guillam's burglary at the Circus, while the U.S. version reverses the sequence of these events.
Source author John le Carré included 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' as one of his four best novels during an interview on 5 October 2008 on BBC Four. The other best works he selected were 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold', 'The Tailor of Panama' and 'The Constant Gardener'.
Alec Guinness loosely based George Smiley's look and behaviour on Sir Maurice Oldfield, a former head of British intelligence. John le Carré also claims that Alec Guinness "stole his hairstyle" for George Smiley.
The series's initial broadcast coincided with the UK Government announcing that Anthony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen's Pictures, was one of the Cambridge Five (a ring of spies in the UK who passed information to the Soviet Union during/post-World War II).
The 1974 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' novel is the first book in John le Carré's Karla or Quest for Karla Trilogy, the second and third parts being 'The Honourable Schoolboy' (1977) and 'Smiley's People' (1979).
Writer John le Carré partially based his famous George Smiley character on a friend, the Lincoln College tutor and Oxford University don, the Reverend Vivian Green. Smiley was also based on le Carré's boss at Mi5, Lord Clanmorris, who wrote crime novels under the pseudonym of John Bingham.
Alexander Knox and Ian Bannen play the eponymous "Control" and British spy Jim Prideaux, working to identify a Soviet mole in British intelligence. They would later appear as dedicated Soviet officials in Gorky Park (1983) - as the Soviet General and Prosecutor Iamskoy - there trying to identify three murder victims in Moscow whose identities have been removed.
In the United States, the PBS network broadcast the series as a Great Performances (1971) programme introduced by the Canadian journalist Robert MacNeil, who explained the workings of the British Secret Service.
While talking to Smiley about his encounter with Toby Esterhase, Ian Bannen's character Jim Prideaux says "He (Esterhase) said the Circus had nearly gone under due to Operation Testify and I'm currently the number one leper..." Years later, Bannen played a leper in Braveheart (1995).
As well as the series premiere coinciding with the revelation that Sir Anthony Blunt had been a member of the Cambridge Five spy ring, Ian Richardson, who starred in TTSS as Bill Haydon, would go on to portray Sir Anthony in the BBC production of Blunt: The Fourth Man with Anthony Hopkins as Kim Philby.
The synopsis of this mini-series' source novel "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (1974) by John le Carré on his personal website reads: "Smiley and his people are facing a remarkable challenge: a mole - a Soviet double agent - who has burrowed his way in and up to the highest level of British Intelligence. His treachery has already blown some of their vital operations and their best networks. The mole is one of their own kind. But which one?...".
The names of the titles of the seven episodes [in chronological order] which make-up this mini-series are as follows: "Flushing Out the Mole"; "Smiley Sets a Trap"; "Tinker Tailor"; "How It All Fits Together"; "Smiley Tracks the Mole"; "Tarr Tells His Story"; and "Return to the Circus".
Several actors from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) (TTSS) and its sequel follow-up Smiley's People (1982) (SP) also appear on the iconic comedy series Yes Minister (1980) (YM) and its sequel follow-up Yes, Prime Minister (1986) (YPM). Nigel Stock, who plays the role of Roddy Martindale in TTSS, appears in more than one episode as the prime minister's chief advisor in YM. John Wells, who plays the headmaster in TTSS appears as a TV producer in YPM. Michael Byrne, who plays Peter Guillam in SP appears as the Employment Secretary in an episode of YPM. The most ironic of these is probably Michael Aldridge. In TTSS, he plays Percy Alleline, the head of the secret service, who is finally brought down because of a mole. In YPM, he also plays the head of secret service, who is worried that his predecessor is a mole. Finally, Ian Richardson, who plays Bill Haydon in TTSS appears in a Grey Poupon commercial with Paul Eddington, both in their famous roles as prime ministers: Paul Eddington is Jim Hacker from Yes, Prime Minister, and Ian Richardson is Francis Urquhart from his House of Cards TV series.