Peter Guillam is a fictional character in John le Carré's series of espionage novels. He first appears in Call for the Dead. He is the trusted right-hand-man of George Smiley, the protagonist of many of le Carre's novels, and is often the person Smiley turns to for assistance when he fears he cannot trust his peers or subordinates.
Guillam is half-French and half-English, and comes from a family that has worked for The Circus (le Carre's name for MI6) for generations. Although Call for the Dead indicates that he served in World War II, the later books in the series indicate that he was born around 1933. Although he has done observational "field work" in the past and recruited spies that report to him, Guillam himself is uncomfortable with getting personally involved in spying operations, preferring an administrative role. His hands-off approach to spy work places him on the periphery of the numerous cliques and rivalries that form within the Circus, allowing him to survive multiple bureaucratic shakeups that occur throughout the 1960s and 70s; nevertheless, he retains a secret loyalty to George Smiley, who functions as his mentor. He constantly finds himself reassigned to divisions and assignments considered mediocre or undesirable, including running The Scalphunters, the division of the Circus responsible for espionage operations requiring violence or assassinations. Guillam goes through a number of failed relationships, including an affair with a married musician twenty years his junior.
In the novels
Guillam first appears as a minor character in Call for the Dead. He is described as having been recruited and trained by Smiley during World War II. In the aftermath of the apparent suicide of a suspected communist whom Smiley had previously exonerated, Smiley quits the Circus in order to conduct his own private investigation, relying on Guillam to provide him inside information pertinent to the case. He appears again in a minor role in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, again in the role of Smiley's assistant.
Guillam is a major character in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which retcons the chronology of Call for the Dead to make Guillam only forty in 1973. At the outset of the book, the failure of a major operation called "Testify" has resulted in Smiley and the former head of the Circus, Control, being fired. Guillam survives the purge of personnel loyal to Smiley, but is demoted to the head of the "Scalphunters," fieldmen used in operations that require physical action and/or violence. The position is seen as one of the least desirable in the Circus, described humorously by Smiley as "cosh and carry". One of Guillam's agents, Ricki Tarr, inadvertently learns that the failure of Operation Testify--and Smiley's subsequent termination from the Circus--was due to the presence of a mole in the highest echelons of British intelligence. When contacted by Tarr and unsure of whom to trust, he goes to senior Civil Servant Oliver Lacon and, acting as his link man, Guillam facilitates Smiley's secret return from retirement in order to conduct a surreptitious investigation into the identity of the mole. Guillam is motivated not only by his loyalty to Smiley but also because, as a result of Testify's failure, a network of secret agents he ran in Former French North Africa were identified and executed. Guillam acts as Smiley's man on the inside in the investigation, which involves his actually stealing files from The Circus Registry at Smiley's request. Over the course of the novel, Guillam grows progressively paranoid and anxious regarding the investigation, at one point doubting the veracity of Tarr's allegations. When the mole is finally identified, Guillam loses his temper and physically attacks him, having to be restrained by the other men in the room.
By the time of the events in Smiley's People (the third book in the Karla trilogy) Guillam is married to a young Frenchwoman called Marie-Clare and is head of Circus operations in Paris, though this too is considered to be a minor post.
In The Secret Pilgrim Guillam appears as the Head of Secretariat for Leonard Burr, the chief of the Service, but their working relationship is conflicted. Burr describes Guillam as "a thoroughly idle officer," while Guillam says of Burr, "Bloody man seems to expect me to work in my sleep." Guillam is replaced by Ned, the protagonist of the novel.
Guillam is the protagonist and narrator of the events described in A Legacy of Spies.
In other media
In the 1979 BBC miniseries of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Peter Guillam was portrayed by Michael Jayston. In 1982, the BBC adapted Smiley's People into a miniseries, in which Michael Byrne played Guillam.
In BBC Radio's 2009/10 adaptation of the novel, Guillam was played by Ewan Bailey.
In the 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Guillam is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Guillam is portrayed as homosexual in the film (a departure from the novels), and is forced to make the painful decision to break up with his boyfriend. In speaking of this decision by the filmmakers, Cumberbatch said the necessity of the character's secrecy about his sexuality (for fear of blackmail) went well with the secretiveness of the spy world.
- Guillam contemplates having just turned forty in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which takes place in 1973
- Palmer, Martyn (13 July 2011). "Benedict Cumberbatch on fulfilling his acting dream". Daily Mail. London. Retrieved 22 September 2011.