Richard Onslow Roper, we are told early into this classy BBC John Le Carre adaptation, is the ”worst man in the world.”
He is an arms dealer, a posh, plausible and fabulously smooth scion of the English upper classes whose cut glass accent belies a ruthlessness which is felt from the minute we first see him in a video espousing platitudes about some charitable cause he is fronting.
But the worst man in the world? It’s quite a billing and you may have trouble believing the description when you realise that he is being played by Hugh Laurie. Yep, that’s right, that Hugh Laurie. The posh boy pinheaded likable English larrikin of 1980s British comedy. Lieutenant George Hugh Laurie.
The Etonian actor wanted to play the part of the heroic Jonathan Pine when he first fell in love with the book back in the early 1990s. But it has taken a while to get this drama on TV (film producers tried and tried but the story was just too complicated to get into 90 minutes, I am told). And in the intervening years Laurie has matured into a seasoned star. The man who found global fame as the grouchy lead of hit drama House is now more than capable of playing the super sharp villain. Jonathan Pine, the eponymous night manager and decent cove, is played by Tom Hiddleston.
Or as Laurie put it at the press launch: “Twenty five years ago I dreamed of optioning the book in the role of producer which it turns out I am absolutely pathetic at. But back then I rather arrogantly dreamed of playing the character Jonathan Pine and now I have to sit back and watch Tom Hiddleston being really virile and charming and it’s really f***ing galling to watch.”
Galling, maybe, but it’s also a delight, as Hiddleston dominates the early scenes, working as the night manager of a posh Cairo hotel in the middle of an uprising.
He is handed a document from Sophie (Aure Atika), the mistress of a Cairo big wig and gangster, which reveals a plot to procure some very nasty weapons to quell the uprising. And the person he wants to buy them from is Roper.
The early scenes are hot with the flames of unrest and teargas but the Pine/Sophie liaison which flourishes into love provides a tender oasis of calm. Although it doesn’t last long. Vengeance is swift and Pine finds himself on the outside again, in another job among the snowy mountains of Zermatt in Switzerland.
But when a chance encounter with Roper here stirs up the whole sorry business again, he finds himself determined to commit to the cause of bringing the arms dealer down.
Pine will, it seems, infiltrate himself into Roper’s world, and that means a lot of high living, stunning locations, low dealing and violence. There is an unmistakably Bond-like excitement and glamour to this series which seems quite deliberate and which should get 007 fans salivating.
Leading the hunt for Roper is Olivia Colman’s bluff, northern secret service operative Burr. In the book Burr is a man called Leonard. Colman’s Angela Burr is not only clearly female, but she is also pregnant.
The budding life growing inside her seems emblematic of the essentially soft, nurturing decency of a character who looks like she will be the moral heart of the story, a kind of new incarnation for Le Carre’s great master spy Smiley.
But of course Burr’s bosses (some of whom are in hoc with Roper) regard her as trouble and her team has been confined to a draughty ill-equipped office in Victoria where the radiators don’t even work. Roper’s tentacles reach far and wide and he is not going to be an easy fish to land (if you’ll pardon the mixed sea life metaphors).
It is neatly set up, even if the opening fifteen minutes in Cairo seem quite slow (certainly by the standards of modern TV drama). And I reckon it will be a hit.
Pine is going to get sucked into Roper’s world and that means a lot of gorgeous locations, beautiful women, a life of high-living, low-dealing, violence and death.
It may have been hard for Laurie to see the role he dreamed of going to Hiddleston. But Laurie makes a creepy and powerful villain and, as he acknowledges, his young replacement is excellent. Who knows. Jonathan Pine may even morph into 007 if he plays his cards right….
The Night Manager will air on BBC1 later this month