The Night Manager: why does TV find spies so sexy?

Tom Hiddleston's inscrutable Jonathan Pine, just like Ben Whishaw in London Spy, has made viewers fall in love with spooks again. What's the secret?

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There’s a scene in the second episode of The Night Manager that tells you everything you need to know about why Tom Hiddleston has already captured Sunday nights as hotelier-turned-spy Jonathan Pine.

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Pine walks into a bar – this isn’t a joke, I promise – signals for a pint, sits at the table, downs the pint, and leaves.

Written down it sounds daft, inconsequential. Stranger comes in for a quick drink, locals look oddly at him, bloke leaves.

Yet somehow the scene prickles with suspense. You’re intrigued, intoxicated, and just a tiny bit terrified about what Pine’s planning next.

It helps that the man nursing the glass is Tom Hiddleston, of course. The actor whose fandom can’t even agree on the colour of his eyes, the hero with the inscrutable smile. But no matter how enigmatic his performance, it’s not all about him. So where does the power come from?

The Night Manager’s screenwriter has a theory. David Farr was in a peculiar position when he adapted the book for television, having had a chance to collaborate closely with the man who came up with the story in the first place – the spymaster himself, John Le Carré. 

“Much of Pine’s work is silent. He’s a listener, one of Le Carré’s classic quiet men. He sits behind a hotel counter and he listens, he picks up information,” Farr says. “I think Tom Hiddleston found it very liberating, because he had to be someone who could blend rather quietly into the background, rather than play the extrovert superhero. It’s a very unusual, very passive, form of leading man.”

Passive, but seductive.

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In the novel of The Night Manager Le Carré describes Pine as someone who “listens like a blind man, watches like a deaf one.” In episode two, it takes over 10 minutes for Pine to make his entrance, and even when he does, all we see is his eye, pressed to a door, watching, waiting to strike. 

It took courage to try to write this ‘quiet man’ for television, especially when Farr found out mid-way through writing that Hiddleston had agreed to be his leading man. More courage still, for Farr to meet with Le Carré and explain to him that the drama wanted to change the setting, change the era and change the sex of one of the key characters.

“I went to Le Carré and, nervously, sat down and proposed this,” said Farr. “It’s quite a big change, and I suppose I was expecting some resistance, but instead what I received was intense collaboration. He is interested constantly in modernisation and change, keeping his own work fresh. It was a very exciting three hours we spent plotting the political consequences of making such an alteration.”

The series, as we saw last week, began in the midst of the 2011 Arab Spring, rather than the early 90s of Le Carré’s novel. From here the action will shift from to the Middle East, whereas in the novel, Le Carré headed west to the cartel-infested jungles of Latin America.

And Angela Burr, the gruff, underfunded and undervalued intelligence officer played by Olivia Colman, was, in Le Carré’s world, Leonard Burr. A man.

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“I don’t think Le Carré would mind me saying that he really adores the character of Leonard Burr in the book,” Farr admits. “He’s very, very precious about him. But again, he proved remarkably flexible, and after thinking about it, he went, ‘Let’s do it’.”

Farr’s not kidding. Le Carré wrote in The Guardian last week: “Today, of course, I wish I’d written Mrs Burr into my novel instead of her ponderous husband. But I hadn’t, and that was then.”

Because making Burr a woman does something quietly – there’s that adjective again – brilliant. As Farr says, “It accentuates one of the key themes, which is the outsider desperately trying to bring down The Club, and how hard it is in England to do that.”

This is the spy’s game, you see. Walking unnoticed through the corridors of power. Bringing down the big boys with their big toys. Unearthing the roots of the Establishment and giving a heavy tug.

Bond may have the spy genre on lockdown on the big screen, but television has playing more interesting spy games.

Cold War throwbacks The Americans and The Game started it, but then there was London Spy with Ben Whishaw, which took the genre in a completely different direction. Coming up is World War II thriller SS-GB, written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the writers of James Bond’s Skyfall, which promises to do the same again.

Why has TV fallen for spies in such a big way?

“I think there is a very specific reason, which is 9/11,” he says. “The world in the 90s had seemed somewhat stable. There was talk of the end of history, a calm consensus around where we were all going. Consumer capitalism with some sort of social conscience.

“Then 9/11 happened, and that illusion was blown out of the water,” Farr explains. “Suddenly everything that had seemed solid and safe wasn’t. And then America’s reaction, which had seemed moral and correct, wasn’t moral and correct.

“Questions were being asked politically, and therefore personally and emotionally we also asked questions of our own lives. We don’t live in vacuums; we do care about the world, and we do want to believe our country is doing the right thing on our behalf.

What does all this have to do with spy thrillers?

“The thriller protagonist is really just us in extremis. He or she is this individual who is placed under enormous pressure, has huge moral dilemmas and decisions to make. In their case, they’re probably being chased, they might be being killed.

“But the fundamentals are us. The dilemmas are us. Whether it’s Bourne or Jonathan Pine, they represent all our concerns. It’s a fantastically exciting way of exploring our fears – and our hopes – for the world we live in.”

Farr saw this first-hand even before sitting down with Le Carré. He used to be a writer on Spooks, and while he admits it was “a much simpler drama compared to The Night Manager”, the high stakes moral games were the same.

“[Writing on] Spooks started before 9/11,” he said. “But when 9/11 happened suddenly the phenomenon of Spooks took off. It was still fantasy, still a place of adventure and moral heroism, but suddenly it had reality.”

No wonder we shiver when we see Richard Roper, “the worst man in the world”, touch down in that Swiss mountain hotel. He’s on top of the world, with enough wealth, weapons and influence to change the course of history. He’s everything we fear about the world we live in.

And standing in his way is Pine. The quiet, watchful man, the man who can stop a pub with a stare – or slip into the background unnoticed.

“Here is a character haunted by a past in Egypt, a past from a forgotten idealistic moment when people genuinely thought there was hope for freedom and change,” Farr says.

“And look where we are now.”

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The Night Manager continues Sunday 28 February at 9pm on BBC1