Monday, 30 January 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Pen Spotting

There’s more than meets the eye in Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy, Tom Alfredson’s cinematographic story of espionage wars and betrayal. Behind Smiley’s (an Oscar-worthy performance by Gary Oldman) impenetrable face and in the dark recesses of MI6 many stories remain untold. There are furtive glances that connect like the tracks of the night train and there’s the incessant elevator that shifts documents in slowly clanking intervals. In between the lines and in between the scenes whole stories come to pass. Glimpses of death and torture, double talk, forbidden love, and love unrequited come to pass behind transcriptions of phone calls and the trembling nib of an Osmia pen with which Control (John Hurt) signs his resignation following the supposed death of an agent in Operation Testify.

Palimpsest could not resist, dear Readers, to notice, nay to celebrate, the writing instruments which also slipped unnoticed between takes. With the exception of the Osmia perhaps to which a whole screenshot is dedicated in one of the opening scenes of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A trembling C is the only mark the fountain pen’s 14K gold nib is seen to make on the white crisp typewritten paper. It is then laid down in all its black and gold magnificence bearing the Osmia name and diamond trademark on its body and the number 223F. The pen is not in time with John Le Carré’s 1974 novel but with the 1950s and 1960s Cambridge Five revelations (Osmia trademark stopped being used already in the early 1960s).

Another 1950s/60s classic the black leather desktop pen stand and golden perpetual calendar (identical in fact with this one) can be seen in two occasions: on Control’s desk and in front of the sleeping employee in the scene when Ricki Tarr communicates with MI6 from Instanbul. However, it looks like the second pen stand features a globe in the place of the rectangular perpetual calendar.

Back to the early 70s I think with the following writing instrument used by the female employee (a “Mother” you would call her) who listens in and transcribes phone calls. 

It looks like a plastic-tip disposable pen with fibre-fed ink – similar to Ball Pentel which first came out in the early 1970s. Correct me if I’m wrong.

And there is the teacher. A slice of Peter Guillam’s secret life – a glimpse so intimate in the comfortable familiar routine it describes – Peter Guillam’s partner correcting student essays on the kitchen table with a red Bic Cristal and crossing out the mistakes, and Peter standing there knowing that he has got to let him go.

And then there is a bunch of writing instruments in Prideaux’s apartment and lo and behold pencils too! Palimpsest detects a box of Faber Castell 9030 Grade H and a box of mechanical pencil refills Faber Castell 9071. A bottle of ink of unidentified make, perhaps a chinagraph pencil and do I detect a grey Conway Stewart?

A pen on a chain couldn't but make its appearance and this is used by Guillam who is on a mission to get some inaccessible file for Smiley. Guillam presses the tip  hard on the book, puts the pen back in the holder, the chain dangles for a moment, the heavy sellotape dispenser standing guard as Guillam hands in his suitcase to the man. The air is thick with tension.

The Osmia pen sits contented on the desk concealing, sealing, sanctioning. Writing instruments have their own small stories in the wars of meaning.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Director: Tom Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman (Smiley); John Hurt (Control); Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam); Colin Firth (Bill Haydon); Tom Hardy (Ricky Tarr); Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux). Responsible I assume for the selection of writing instruments: Simon Riley and Tom Riley (Props). Screenplay after the novel of John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 1974.


  1. I'd forgotten all about my Dad's perpetual desktop calendar, much the same as the one you show. Wow! We're a little spoiled these days with colorful and complex electronic displays, so I'd forgotten all about how exotic mechanical display devices seemed to a youngster. (My Dad also had an Arithma mechanical pocket calculator, a sleek instrument that fit into a brown leather slipcase.)

    Great eyeballs, Palimpsest, and erudition, and, yes, I've caught myself checking a television or movie character's choice of writing gear once in a while. Jack/USA

  2. What pen does Smiley (Alec Guinness) use in the original BBC production of the late '70s? It's a fountain pen that he uses with great care while writing a letter on a glass-top writing table.

  3. That, my anonymous friend, remains to be examined. A sleuth is in order, I should think.

  4. In the original BBC version, George Smiley nearly loses his Mont Blanc to the mole (SPOILER ALERT) Bill Haydon.

  5. Nearly loses his Mont Blanc! *heart stopping moment*

  6. Yes, it was definitely the climax of the series, right at the end of the seventh episode.

  7. Anyone know if Tomas Alfredson is a secret pen geek?

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