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
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.