Irvin began his career as an assistant director with British Transport Films. After shooting shorts and documentaries for a number of years and working extensively for English TV, Irvin broke through to American audience with the serialized adaptation of John le Carre's George Smiley novel, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (1980). Thereafter, Irvin directed his first feature, "Dogs of War" a hot-headed (and some thought, racist) depiction of a military coup in Africa. He went on to handle a stream of mediocre "American" genre films: the sports picture "Champions" (1983), the Schwarzenegger vehicle "Raw Deal" (1986) and the sociologically-minded if somewhat reactionary Vietnam war film "Hamburger Hill" (1987), concluding with the negligible Patrick Swayze vehicle, "Next of Kin" (1989).
A brief respite was found in the delicately drawn but ultimately juiceless "Turtle Diary", which featured Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson as two lonelyhearts who convene to set giant turtles free. And in 1994, Irvin helmed "Widow's Peak", another production with "Turtle Diary"'s gentle tenor. Set in a an Irish town in the 1920s, it featured a somewhat confused story of three widows, played by Mia Farrow, Natasha Richardson and Joan Plowright, a formulation reminiscent of "Enchanted April" (1991). In between these two excursions into non-action pictures, Irvin directed a version of "Robin Hood" (1991) starring Uma Thurman and Patrick Bergin, which aired in the US on TV but was released theatrically elsewhere. Thurman was also featured opposite Vanessa Redgrave and Edward Fox in the charming "A Month by the Lake" (1995). The director went on to alternate between films (like the unsuccessful 1997 thriller "City of Industry") and prestige TV projects ranging from the biopic "Crazy Horse" (TNT, 1996) to the HBO war drama "When Trumpets Fade" (1998)