Cambridge Circus - John le Carré's "the Circus"

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Cambridge Circus is the cross roads of the Charing Cross Road (north south) with Shaftesbury Avenue (east west). It is also the widely assumed fictional setting of "the Circus" - the headquarters buildings of "British Intelligence", as portrayed in the espionage thriller novels (and their resulting films and TV series) by John le Carré, e.g. Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People etc.


GPS grid coordinates:
Latitude: (WGS84) N51:30:47 ( 51.513116 )
Longitude: (WGS84) W0:07:44 ( -0.128802 )

See also this semi-live BBC Jam cam traffic camera image (usually updated every few minutes, unless there is actually some interesting incident, when the feed is censored) from the Charing Cross Road / Cambridge Circus camera, which usually points west along Shaftesbury Avenue towards Chinatown on the left.

N.B. it does not appear that "British Intelligence", certainly not the Secret Intelligence Service MI6, was ever really based at Cambridge Circus.

However, passages from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, perhaps point to a more likely candidate building, just north of the actual Cambridge Circus cross roads itself:

Allowing for some artistic licence, and the author's natural caution and espionage tradecraft, there do not seem to be any buildings actually on the crossroads of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road which fit the descriptions in the novel, which makes several references to the "fifth floor", where the senior members of the organisation had their offices.

[via Microsoft]



and all but knocked over Bill Haydon in his enthusiasm.

He was emerging from his room, an hexagonal pepper pot overlooking New Compton Street and the Charing Cross Road.



The Circus archives were not accessible from the main entrance. They rambled through a warren of dingy rooms and half landings at the back of the building, more like one of the secondhand bookshops which proliferate round there, than the organised memory of a large department. They were reached by a dull doorway in the Charing Cross Road jammed between a picture-framer and an all-day café that was out of bounds to staff. A plate on the door read 'Town and Country Language School, Staff Only' and another 'C and L Distribution Ltd'.




In Cambridge Circus the lighting was quite yellow and from where Mendel stood, on the third floor of the clothes shop, the wet tarmac glistened like cheap gold


From his window he covered most of the approaches: eight or nine unequal roads and alleys which for no good reason had chosen Cambridge Circus as their meeting point. Between them, the buildings were gimcrack, cheaply fitted out with bits of empire: a Roman bank, a theatre like a vast desecrated mosque. Behind them, high-rise blocks advanced like an army of robots.


The theatre had long emptied but why didn't the pleasure trade of Soho, only a stone's-throw from his window, fill the place with taxis, groups of loiterers? Not a single fruit lorry had rumbled down Shaftesbury Avenue on its way to Covent Garden. Through his binoculars Mendel once more studied the building straight across the road from him. It seemed to sleep even more soundly than its neighbours. The twin doors of the portico were closed and no light was visible in the ground-floor windows. Only on the fourth floor, out of the second window from the left, a pale glow issued and Mendel knew it was the duty officer's room; Smiley had told him. Briefly he raised the glasses to the roof, where a plantation of aerials made wild patterns against the sky; then down a floor to the four blackened windows of the radio section. 'At night everyone uses the front door,' Guillam had said. 'It's an economy measure to cut down on janitors.'

At the southwest of the Cambridge Circus crossroads, is what is now the HSBC Bank , which was formerly a bank back at the time the novel was written in 1974. This does have "hexagonal pepper pot" corner offices, but the building has only 3 main stories (apart from the ground floor and the attic garrets)

[image via Google Street View]

On the Western corner of Cambridge Circus, the Palace Theatre could be described as " like a vast desecrated mosque", but is obviously not "the Circus".

On the South Eastern corner, the block which actually displays the Cambridge Circus road sign, does not have 5 floors, and does not have any "hexagonal pepper pot" offices.either.


The same is true for the North Eastern corner block as well.

[image via Google Street View]

However if you go north up Charing Cross Road ,the building on the right, just before you come to the Blackwell bookshop at 100 Charing Cross Road, is a more likely candidate building for the location of "the Circus".

Google Street View: Old Compton Street - Charing Cross Road - Caxton Walk

[image via Google Street View]

[image via Google Street View]

This has 6 floors, including an attic garret floor, and a "hexagonal pepper pot" corner offices. These look out across the Charing Cross Road, to Old Compton Street, and also have a line of sight to the Palace Theatre and Cambridge Circus.

New Compton Street, as mentioned above, is not actually visible from any of the Cambridge Circus facing windows, but is, in effect a continuation of Old Compton Street north eastwards, along the line of Caxton Walk, from behind this candidate building.

[via Microsoft]

The the declining number of "second hand bookshops" are now mostly located to the south of Cambridge Circus, towards Leicester Square although the famous Marks & Co. 84 Charing Cross Road (which inspired a best selling novel and a Hollywood film etc), is on the corner of the North Eastern block of Cambridge Circus. i.e. the building next door to the south of the candidate for "the Circus".

Marks & Co.was not still in business when Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy was written 1in 1974. but would have been "the Circus" first appeared in the previous novels like The Spy who came in from the cold (1963)

[image via]

The picture on the left, taken on Saturday 13th February 1965, shows a view of Charing Cross Road. Marks & Co is on the extreme right (the area slightly darker than the rest of the photograph).

Note that the Centre Point sky scraper was still under construction.


I was a salesman for IBM office products (largely electric typewriters) from 1966 to 1970 and the Charing Cross Road was my "patch". On one occasion I was asked to instal an electric typewriter at an address in Cambridge Circus. When I turned up, I was surprised to find a small security office just inside the front door where my identity was checked and the reason for my visit was confirmed. I was then led through a narrow dusty corridor and into one of those creaky lifts with folding metal doors up to another floor, again with a range of tightly packed offices, linoleum floors and a general sense that this was a government department that had seen little investment over the years. For some reason I can't recall, I have always thought of this place as MI5. The building itself was not the one you have surmised above but was actually at Cambridge Circus. Next time I am in the area I will try to identify the building.

@ A Genower - the dusty corridor and the old fashioned lift are redolent of the film the Ipcress File starring Michael Caine as "Harry Palmer"

"The Circus" is supposed to be MI6 the Secret Intelligence Service, rather than MI5 the Security Service, but even the mere existence of those organisations was stupidly denied by the bureaucrats and politicians in those days.

Your building could, of course have been the real thing and the descriptions in Le Carré's novels could be deliberately slightly misleading.

BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera's magazine article prompted by the 2011 film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

is illustrated with a photo of this building with the caption:

"The Circus? 90 Charing Cross Road fits Le Carre's description - but it was never MI6's headquarters"

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