The sons mak­ing John Le Carre hip again

The tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion of mas­ter spy­writer John Le Carre’s novel The Night Man­ager was a grip­ping, thrilling suc­cess. Jake Ker­ridge asks le Carre’s sons why they have cornered the mar­ket in screen ver­sions of their fa­ther’s works

The West Australian - - AGENDA -

John le Carre cel­e­brated his 87th birth­day last month and two of his sons gave him quite a gift — a beau­ti­fully made tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion of one of his best nov­els, The Lit­tle Drum­mer Girl (1983).

It cer­tainly puts the gar­den cen­tre vouch­ers that most of us buy for our par­ents’ birth­days to shame.

In 2010, Si­mon and Stephen Corn­well, the two el­dest sons of David Corn­well (the man bet­ter known to the world as John le Carre) founded the Ink Fac­tory, a pro­duc­tion com­pany that has be­come renowned for its adap­ta­tions of le Carre’s nov­els — the films A Most Wanted Man and Our Kind of Traitor, and the all-con­quer­ing tele­vi­sion se­ries The Night Man­ager.

The Corn­well broth­ers have ev­ery rea­son to be grate­ful to their fa­ther for pro­vid­ing such rich ma­te­rial. But he should be grate­ful to them, too — they have helped to make him hip.

The Night Man­ager was the first le Carre TV se­ries since the 1980s and it got peo­ple talk­ing by the wa­ter cooler, just as they used to talk about the BBC adap­ta­tion of Tinker, Tailor, Sol­dier, Spy as they gath­ered around the tea trol­ley back in 1979. The many le Carre movies that have been made in the in­ter­ven­ing years, ex­cel­lent though some of them have been, sim­ply haven’t had the same reach.

The Night Man­ager was a riv­et­ing romp, com­plete with ac­tion-man hero­ics and a Bond-style su­pervil­lain. The Lit­tle Drum­mer Girl has plenty of kiss-kiss-bang-bang mo­ments but it is a qui­eter, more psy­cho­log­i­cally as­tute piece. There is a star-mak­ing per­for­mance from Florence Pugh as Char­lie, the young ac­tress who is re­cruited by an Is­raeli spy­mas­ter to go un­der­cover in or­der to track down a Pales­tinian ter­ror­ist. Pugh per­fectly cap­tures the way in which Char­lie has just the right com­bi­na­tion of courage and self-doubt to ques­tion whether she is on the right side.

Af­ter watch­ing it, I meet Si­mon and Stephen Corn­well over cof­fee to talk about the way they have trans­formed the le Carre brand. Si­mon, 61, has the well-fed look of a for­mer ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist, which is what he was be­fore he set up the Ink Fac­tory with his brother. Stephen, 58, wear­ing a mi­graine-in­duc­ing multi-coloured shirt, has had a long ca­reer as a screen­writer.

Hav­ing es­tab­lished that they will not com­ment on the burn­ing is­sue of whether the sec­ond se­ries of The Night Man­ager is go­ing ahead, I ask them why they chose to adapt a less au­di­ence-friendly le Carre novel as a fol­low-up.

“It’s one of his great nov­els, cer­tainly up there in the pan­theon, but also I think it is both beau­ti­ful of its time and none­the­less very rel­e­vant to­day,” Si­mon says. “We em­barked on this be­fore the #MeToo move­ment but hav­ing a vi­tal, in­tel­li­gent, fe­male cen­tral char­ac­ter is very res­o­nant.”

Is it true le Carre based the char­ac­ter on his half-sis­ter, the ac­tress Char­lotte Corn­well? “To some ex­tent,” Si­mon says. “Her pol­i­tics were rad­i­cal, per­haps a lit­tle woolly, in much the same way when she was young. They’re more honed to­day.”

I sug­gest that show­ing the fin­ished se­ries to their fa­ther must be a nerve-rack­ing mo­ment; he does not come across as a man who would feign en­thu­si­asm for some­thing he didn’t ap­prove of. Stephen is con­fi­dent that he would never

rock the boat, how­ever. “I’m sure he has his own thoughts and opin­ions, but, well, he loves all his chil­dren,” he says.

There were re­ports that le Carre tried to beef up his brief cameo ap­pear­ance in The Night Man­ager by im­pro­vis­ing ex­tra di­a­logue. Did he do the same thing when film­ing his cameo as a waiter in The Lit­tle Drum­mer Girl?

“It’s more of a Hitch­cock­ian cameo. He was no trou­ble,” Stephen says. Si­mon adds: “The day of his cameo was one of the most com­pli­cated days of film­ing. We had taken over the en­tire town square of quite a large town in the Czech Repub­lic. We had peo­ple in build­ings and cam­eras on enor­mous cherry pick­ers and mo­tor­cy­cles roar­ing around ev­ery­where, and it was pour­ing with rain. He saw what was go­ing on and maybe re­alised this was not the day to ad lib.”

Stephen says: “Hav­ing Dad on set, it’s very pro­found. Dad has been a very close, good dad and we’ve had a very full re­la­tion­ship with him through­out life. But we’ve been very in­de­pen­dent in terms of our work­ing lives and so the past five or 10 years of the Ink Fac­tory have re­ally been the first time all of us have worked to­gether. There’s a real magic.”

The Ink Fac­tory owns the film rights to al­most all le Carre’s nov­els and I do won­der how healthy it is that we may never again see an adap­ta­tion that doesn’t have the Corn­well fam­ily stamp of ap­proval.

Le Carre has al­ways been a man who has taken great care over how his work is per­ceived, fa­mously fir­ing off let­ters to un­kind crit­ics. He crafts his pub­lic im­age care­fully, too. He saw off one would-be bi­og­ra­pher, Gra­ham Lord, with threats of le­gal ac­tion and although he col­lab­o­rated with Adam Sis­man on the bi­og­ra­phy that was pub­lished in 2015, he un­der­mined it on pub­li­ca­tion by an­nounc­ing that he would shortly pub­lish his own me­moir, The Pi­geon Tun­nel.

Now the Ink Fac­tory has bought the rights to Adam Sis­man’s book, so we may be treated to a le Carre biopic. But I won­der if all the le Carre warts would be in place. I ask the Corn­well broth­ers what they are plan­ning. “Le Carre — David, Fa­ther — has had an ex­tra­or­di­nary life, he’s lived what he’s writ­ten in many ways. It would be lovely to ex­plore that,” Si­mon says.

But I sug­gest, it does look like the fam­ily are ex­ert­ing con­trol over any fu­ture le Carre film, whether it be based on his life or his books. “Le Carre is a key com­po­nent of what the Ink Fac­tory wants to do but we do not in­tend that at all as a re­stric­tion on who we can and can’t work with,” Stephen says.

I imag­ine their for­mi­da­ble fa­ther keep­ing an iron grip on the adap­ta­tion process but they as­sure me this is not the case. “He par­tic­i­pates in con­ver­sa­tions as in­vited and then he stands back,” Stephen says. Si­mon adds: “What he likes to be dur­ing the writ­ing process, re­ally, is a re­source. He never sets out to de­fend or pro­tect the novel.”

The Lit­tle Drum­mer Girl screens Wed­nes­days from next week on BBC First

The Lit­tle Drum­mer Girl’s Michael Shan­non, Florence Pugh and Alexan­der Skars­gard.

Tom Hid­dle­ston in The Night Man­ager.

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