Who would have thought that the BBC’s dramatisation of The Night Manager, the very model of a modern spy story, should have had its genesis almost 70 years ago?
In 1947, a 16-year-old schoolboy is sent to Paris by his father to collect a debt from the Panamanian ambassador, Count Mario da Bernaschina. The debt is disputed, the boy is distracted by the count’s exotic female companion, and both his father and the count turn out to be con-men.
The boy is David Cornwell, who would later become a spy and later still, under his pen-name John Le Carré, light upon Panama as the ideal playground for The Night Manager’s arms dealer, Richard Roper – and indeed, for the ambiguous protagonist of The Tailor of Panama.
Le Carré’s new book, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, is a series of sketches and a companion – or counter – to Adam Sisman’s recent biography.
Here, the author reveals the people and places that inspired many of his best-known fictions, and his encounters with potent figures from the world of Cold War espionage and the field of entertainment: I’ll leave you to guess which are the more duplicitous.
The title refers to the tubes under the lawn of the Monte Carlo Sporting Club, through which birds were flushed to be shot. The image stands as a metaphor not just for the agents that security services send into hostile territories, but for the stories Le Carré sets loose into the world.
Some chapters are devoted to the tortuous process by which his books were brought to the screen. Or, more often, not brought to the screen.
We all know the successes – the peerless BBC adaptations of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People, and the estimable 2011 film of Tinker Tailor; 2005’s The Constant Gardener; this year’s double-top of Susanne Bier’s The Night Manager and Susanna White’s film of Our Kind of Traitor; the 1965 screen version of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, on which Le Carré had a troublesome relationship with both director Martin Ritt and star Richard Burton.
We know the screen flops, too – Fred Schepisi’s turgid 1990 take on The Russia House, or The Little Drummer Girl, which Le Carré wrote for his actress half-sister Charlotte Cornwell, only to see the part go to Diane Keaton. Later, director George Roy Hill confessed: “David, I f***ed up your movie.”
But it’s the phantom screen projects that really intrigue. What might Sydney Pollack’s proposed version of The Night Manager, with a script by Robert Towne, have looked like?
Or Stanley Kubrick’s take on A Perfect Spy, had the BBC not discounted him for fear he’d deliver the series late and over budget? Or A Murder of Quality directed by Fritz Lang, had he not been “not bankable” when he proposed the project.
Often, of course, Le Carré’s former and current occupations overlap. When Alec Guinness was preparing to play lugubrious spymaster George Smiley, Le Carré set up a lunch for him with the former security service chief Sir Maurice Oldfield.
He lovingly describes how Guinness absorbed and reflected back Oldfield’s manner and attitudes, conspiring with him to criticise Le Carré for his “misrepresentations” of the service, only to mine the old spy’s mannerisms and dress sense on screen. (Smiley’s rich but melancholic inner life, meanwhile, was inspired by Le Carré’s Oxford mentor, Vivian Green.)
We meet the models for The Constant Gardener’s noble heroine, for Congolese warlords and Chechen idealists. Some real-life figures and events have no direct link to his fiction but they are included because they were important to him, or to everyone.
There’s a witty lunch with the great dissident Andrei Sakharov; and a shorter one with Rupert Murdoch, who asks him who killed Robert Maxwell. Le Carré devotes a chapter to the double agent Kim Philby, concerned perhaps that we may forget the scale and murderous consequences of his treachery.
As Le Carré is at pains to point out, though, he himself was an active spy for a very short time. So he researches meticulously. In Vientiane, opium strikes him as a drug that, “smoked by sensible people in sensible proportions, does you nothing but good”.
On a 1993 trip to interview gangsters in lawless Moscow he takes his 20-year-old son along. A hazardous trip to Rwanda and Congo took place, amazingly, in 2006, when Le Carré was in his 70s.
A knowledge of deceit and the ways of fabulation were instilled in Le Carré by his father, Ronnie, an utter crook and a rotter who still casts a shadow over his son. Ronnie gets his own late chapter here, and it’s as elegantly, surgically and humanely written as Le Carré’s best work.
The Pigeon Tunnel is a delight because it’s fragmentary, a collection of highly polished oddments from a life, assembled to entertain and inform. It ends on a fabulously funny but downbeat climax, which I won’t spoil: some secrets should be kept.