Monday, 31 August 2009
I've just found online two websites created in tribute to the late film director Lindsay Shonteff, who died in 2006. The first is a general primer to his career as a (not altogether successful) film director of what would now be termed 'straight to DVD' movies; the second is a commercial site run by - one assumes - his son or daughter, where all his movies are available to download in .divx format for a small price.
Why this interest in an obscure Canadian filmsman? Well, because he was the - surprising, given his record - director chosen for the film adaptation of Len Deighton's Spy Story, often regarded as the fifth in the 'Spy with no name' series of films, starting with The Ipcress File in the sixties; however, despite the similarities in the characters - and the lack of definitive statements either way - it's clear that 'Patrick Armstrong' is not 'Harry Palmer'. Deighton describes him as a "close relative", presumably metaphorical. This film has never been made available on DVD in the UK before; indeed, my only copy is a Betamax tape! That's how rare - how unpopular - this adaptation was.
The lead character, Patrick Armstrong, is no longer at W.O.O.C.(P) but at the Studies Centre with his pal Ferdy Foxwell, programming war simulations and running them to test NATO strategies. He is forced to work with his new, abrasive american boss Colonel Schlegel. Upon finding his flat has been ransacked, and photos with his face replaced by another man's left behind, he starts to untangle a web of intrigue that takes him north to Scotland, where a group of conspirators is arranging the defection of leading Soviet general Remoziva, with the secret aim of ultimately discrediting him, as his sister is leading efforts to reunite a divided Germany.
The book has a complex plot which is challenging to follow at the best of times, and this is amplified in the movie treatment where little time is given to character development and plot twists are introduced with little explanation or effective joining of the different elements. Under Shonteff's direction, gone is the stylish shot design of the Harry Palmer movies directed by Sidney Furie and Guy Hamilton, with the sumptuous backdrops and stylish composition of the frame around Caine's character. Here, it's a lot of dreary (cheap to film) shots of London and the Scottish countryside, shot at a fast action pace with little real dramatic tension built in.
The acting is pretty ropy, let's be honest: Michael Petrovich as Patrick Armstrong is more Timothy Dalton than Daniel Craig; Don Fellows as Colonel Schlegel hams it up, and Philip Latham's portray of Ferdy Foxwell is notable for little other than an excellent pair of sideburns. My goodness, even TV's very own Nicholas Parsons steps into the picture, signifying instantly that this is now big-budget Hollywood adaptation; more a cheap and cheerful London effort.
But, it is a serviceable film and pretty faithful to the book; watching it again tonight, I discovered a certain surprising charm to it. The lack of a real budget - perhaps leading to its subsequent poor show at the box office - is shown up in the lack of impressive location, special effects and multi-camera shots. There are instead a lot of simple panning shots up and down busy London streets. It has the feel of an episode of The Professionals, shown in a made-for-TV film format which lacks a lot of the depth and detail of a properly cinematic format. It does capture well in seventies colour (or lack thereof) the grubby, shabby streets of seventies London, with their British Leyland cars with chrome bumpers, smartly dressed Bobbies and surly black cab drivers. So the film is, in this respect, a touching reminder of London in the seventies when the city had a slightly more down-at-heel sensibility, but much more zest and honest charm.
Which begs the question: what prompted the producers to think that the Canadian director of such lamentable films as Curse of Simba, The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole World and Licensed to Love and Kill would produce a BAFTA winner? Who knows?!
Wednesday, 26 August 2009
Interesting article in today's Guardian newspaper highlighting the top ten books about the Berlin Wall, the epicentre of so much Cold War fiction and the embodiment of the East-West tensions right up until its demise in November 1989.
The writer - Suzanne Munshower - has Len Deighton's Berlin Game - my particular favourite - as her number three choice, citing the centrality of the wall to lead character Bernard Samson's efforts to get to the bottom of the mystery of the apparent Soviet mole at the heart of London Central, necessitating numerous crossings, the last of which leads to his capture and interrogation by KGB major Erich Stinnes. She writes: "Out of several books set in Berlin, Berlin Game is one of his most compelling. Spymaster Bernie Samson crosses and recrosses East Berlin checkpoints as he schemes to get an operative out of the east and discover who's double-crossing him. Somebody's got to lose, but it won't be the reader of this sly, sardonic tale."
Of her other choices, she picks mostly books in the English language (or those which have been translated from the German), including Anne Funder's Stasiland - which highlighted the extraordinary lengths to which the Stasi would go to monitor suspect citizens, creating as they did so the ultimate big brother state where neighbour spied on neighbour - and also Peter Schneider's The Wall Jumper, a fictional account by a West Berliner's of the disparate lives of a group of Berliners, all affected in some way by the looming presence of the wall. It's not a book I've read, but I'll be seeking it out.
Expect, in the next few months leading up to the November anniversary, an increasing amount of media commentary on the Wall, its cultural significance and the new stories emerging from the files. Fascinating stuff.
Saturday, 22 August 2009
Fascinating days cricket at the Oval yesterday saw England, after an apparently shaky start, demolish the Australians for 160 leaving them in a commanding position and set fair to win the ashes.
According to this report of the second day's play, the uncertainty and the twists and turns of the day's play bore more than a passing resemblance to the spy novels of a certain British author. See the third paragraph.
In the blurb to the paperback edition of Funeral in Berlin in 1966, Len Deighton is pseudo-biographically described thus:
Experience - After working as a translator for the BBC Welsh service, clerk in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and manager of a chain of boutiques in Leeds, he became the Manchester stringer for The Times. He was unable to find a publisher for his first book which was lavishly praised by Kingsley Amis. Likes: being under the bonnet of a vintage motor car, public bars, ballroom dancing and cricket.
That's the end of the tenuous cricket-spy novelist connections.
Friday, 14 August 2009
The final book in the collection of four recently re-issued Deighton novels is - arguably - one of his greatest. Bomber. Certainly, in the opinion of the great English novelist Anthony Burgess, Bomber is one of the 99 greatest books in English published since 1939. The Sunday Times reviewer at the time described the novel as "quite literally - devastating".
Therein lies a clue to its reputation and its staying power as a popular novel, nearly forty years after being first published. It is excruciating in its detail of the technical aspects of the British night bombing raids over Germany in World War Two, and immense in its exploration of the impact of such hellish raids on both the pilots and air crews responsible for the bombings, and the civilians on the ground. The book is a devastating indictment of war and the inevitably of system failure in such a massive enterprise, with disastrous consequences.
The story arc follows Flight Sergeant Sam Lambert, 26-year-old pilot of an RAF Lancaster bomber. A pre-war recruit, he's one of the best flyers in the whole air force and based at the East Anglian bomber base of Warley Fen. His plane is the 'Creaking Door'. Lambert, 45 missions into his career, starts to question the sanity of the night bombing of German cities.
The narrative is subtitled 'Events relating to the last flight of an RAF Bomber over Germany on the night of June 31st, 1943' (naturally, of course, there is no 31 June, but without that one note the text is real enough to suggest you're reading a fictionalised account of an actual raid. Deighton captures well the essence of a typical raid - the fear, the boredom before getting down to business, the terror of fighter attacks, the youthfulness of the crews.
Lambert's fears about the impact of the bombings are not misplaced as, due to the jettisoning of a marker device during the raid, the German city of Krefeld is spared and it is the unfortunate inhabitants of Altgarten who suffer instead. Deighton caused some controversy at the time for being the first novelist to explore the British bombing raids from both sides, as much of the narrative explores the lives of a typical wartime German village. The bombing of German cities remains a sensitive and much-argued over topic with most war historians
In his introduction, Deighton recalls that he was the first writer to compose a book on what was then called a 'word processor'. After having had his secretary type up a chapter 25 times on an old Olivetti typewriter, Deighton was taken along by a keen IBM salesman to the Shell Centre to see the computers which produced their in-house manuals. He became the proud owner of an IBM MT 72 computer (indeed, the only private individual at the time to own one). A friend suggested that, as he liked machines so much, he should write a book about them.
It was on this computer that story ex machina was written. Deighton had always had an interest in the role of machines in warfare and had seen first-hand in London the devastation caused by the enemy's fighting machines during the blitz. War had become remote to the bomber pilots, high up in their flying bombers as they rained down phosphorous and high explosive. But a story about machines on their own would be dull; the human element was crucial, and Deighton recalls that he would have to create a cast of at least 100 believable characters, each of whom had a part to play in helping these machines to bring devastation down on the Germans.
Once he had the kernel of the story - a bombing raid and the hours leading up to it - Deighton recalls how he set about the immense amount of research required to get the story as authentic as possible:
"If 1943 German radar controllers and night fighter veterans were a complex challenge, then wait until I started to delve into the social life, scandals and Nazi-led politics of a small Westphalian town. Everyone seemed to have a war story. One lady found me some striped overalls that she had made from her nurse's uniform. A man I met in a restaurant had kept all his wartime documents and when I showed interest in them insisted that I kept them."
As well as ensuring he reflected the reality of German wartime life correctly, Deighton needed to get life on base flyers absolutely right. He went on visits to many RAF bases - many of which he'd known in his time in RAF intelligence after the war. The RAF veterans he met were great companions, he recalls, always full of anecdotes. He was lucky enough to be able to visit one of the very few Luftwaffe 'Opera House' command centres only days before it was due to be demolished.
Ultimately, while the detail of the raids and the German defences is impressive in its depth and variety, what makes the novel worthwhile is that in a story about massive, death-bringing machines it is the human stories that are at centre stage throughout. Deighton recalls in the final paragraph of the new introduction that this was precisely his intention:
"I wanted to emphasise the dehumanizing effect of mechanical warfare. I like machines but in wars all humans are their victims."
That is, sadly, still the case today.
If you only ever read one World War Two fictional account, you can't go far wrong by checking out Bomber. An immense work in so many way.
Thursday, 13 August 2009
Quentin Tarantino wants to re-make Game, Set and Match? That's what he's told the media in the UK today, according to the Press Association, Slashfilm, Screening Log, igm and many other sources.
This is the second time I've heard Quentin Tarantino quoted in a newspaper or magazine about his desire to remake Deighton's classic thriller. The first time was 2008 here, when Inglourious Basterds was starting production. Once? Well, you could put down to a directorial flight of fancy. Twice - and in the context of a press interview for the same film? Well, that suggests he's been thinking about this while shooting his current movie in Europe.
He's obviously a fan of the novels. Perhaps he's seen the 1988 original TV series which, while well made and true to the script, with over 13 episodes proved too much for the ITV-watching public back then as it was a ratings flop? As Deighton subsequently pulled the plug on any further showings, it seems unlikely.
Game, Set and Match (more accurately, Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match) is the story of British spy Bernard Samson, who has to deal with the consequences of the ultimate betrayal as he discovers his wife is not cheating on him...she's cheating on her country as a long-time KGB mole working at the heart of British intelligence. The story arc develops as the care-worn, family man copes with the idea of his wife living on the other side of the Berlin Wall, seemingly intent on finishing his career.
Tarantino is quoted thus: "One of the things I am musing about doing is the trilogy of Len Deighton books, Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match. The story takes place in the Cold War and follows a spy name Bernard Samson. What is attractive is the really great characters and the wonderful opportunities of British and German casting."
What can we read into that? I need to hear a bit more detail, or solid outputs from the movie rumour mill over the next six months before I give this credence.
But it's damn intriguing. Is Tarantino - not averse to subverting existing genres - the right man for a classic Cold War tale? Who would play Samson? What about KGB man Erich Stinnes (Daniel Brühl, the great young German actor, has been used by Tarantino in Basterds, but he must be too young, I think). Angelina Jolie as Fiona?
Is it feasible? The timing's auspicious - it's soon the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But then again, Berlin's changed out of all recognition - can the city be recaptured in all it's Cold War glory by CGI? Is Game, Set and Match do-able with lots of blood and guts and a mid-eighties, ultra-hip soundtrack.
Now I'm writing about it, the prospect intrigues me further. If we're never to see the original TV broadcast again (watching it on VHS-to-DVD copies is never wholly satisfying), then maybe a film is the next best thing?
Watch. This. Space.
Today's blogpost covers the third reissue XPD, originally published in 1982. It's one I'm actually reading right now, having not read the original novel for, ooh, at least sixteen years. It's already proving a cracking read, with a lot of the detail and characterisation leaping off the page along with the as-ever cracking dialogue. The plot? A group of ex GIs, charged with shipping back to the US the gold stored by the Nazi leadership in the Kaiseroda Mine, have in their hands something much more valuable ... and dangerous: documentary proof of Winston Churchill's wartime discussions with Adolf Hitler to seek a peace and cede control of Europe to the Nazis.
When these papers threaten to come to the surface after the GI's banking business set up with the stolen gold mysteriously starts to tank, MI:6, the CIA, the KGB and, it would appear, a group of Germans seeking to resurrect the Third Reich, are all drawn into a relentless - murderous - search for the papers in a story stretching from the Hollywood Hills to Hamburg. It was (is) one of Deighton's best sellers and remains, as he says in the introduction, "one of my favourite books."
XPD is a term coined by Deighton for the novel. It stands for 'expedient demise', sanctioned acts of murder or 'wet jobs' necessary to protect state secrets and security. In his introduction to this new edition, Deighton reflects (again) on the crucial importance of research and first hand evidence in creating believable characters and detailed, well-wrought plotlines. He recalls here discussions with "at least twelve" Germans who at some point had come face to face with Hitler. Similarly, the stories surrounding the hidden Nazi gold are as authentic as possible, drawing on official US and German archives; indeed, much of what he used was declassified on his request. The power of author celebrity, no doubt! He recounts days spent in the back of a police interceptor in LA, getting the details of police procedure exactly right and consulting with one of the leading figures in the LAPD Intelligence division.
As was the case with Fighter and Bomber, Deighton's skill as a historian - when applied to fiction and non-fiction - can create some ripples. Here he recounts the negative reaction to one of the advertising posters, mocked up to show Churchill and Hitler shaking hands, including questions in the House of Lords:
"The furore caught me completely by surprise. I was in California and found myself accused of running a cunning advertising stunt from afar. I did not know whether to be flattered or insulted. I had always been a devout admirer of our wartime prime minister and I remain so. In any case, it seemed a sad reflection on our times that these displays of frantic, if not to say antic, indignation were prompted by a story about Churchill attempting to negotiate peace. Could it really be defamatory to say that someone had tried to avoid the chronic misery and tens of millions of deaths in that terrible war?"
You get a sense of righteous indignation from Deighton caused by frustration when the facts of history - and their interpretation by historians or novelist - prove inconvenient for those for whom an established myth is important. This was certainly the case in the seventies when his assessment in Fighter of the Battle of Britain as a close-run thing, and not the glorious victory portrayed in the movies and post-war histories, led to clashes in the letters pages of the Telegraph from outraged flyers.
The front cover of this new edition shows this mocked-up photograph in a dossier montage by Alfred Schwartzman. In the context of everything we know know about the Second World War, it is still startling enough to make you ponder....'well, might it have happened'. Believability - that's one of the characteristics of Deighton's fiction which gives it staying power.
Wednesday, 12 August 2009
The second of the four recently re-issued novels I want to look at today is Goodbye Mickey Mouse, Deighton's fourteenth novel first published in 1982. The story follows a group of American fighter airmen based at Thaxted in East Anglia, flying escort missions over Germany in 1943-4 at the height of the air war when the Americans were bombing during the day, at great cost to their men. Central to the novel are two contrasting characters - the reserved Captain Jamie Farebrother and cocky yank Lieutenant Mickey Morse. It is his Mustang Fighter - Mickey Mouse II with the cartoon mouse on the cowling - which gives the novel its title (although Arnold Schwartzman's new front cover for the book shows a more conventional pilot's 'sweetheart' illustration with decals showing seven successful hits for the pilot).
Not surprisingly, for an author who was a former RAF intelligence officer and also flies his own planes and has a long-standing passion for aircraft and their intrinsic importance to modern military history, this book was heavily researched by Deighton. In his new introduction, he quotes with relish the feedback from an 8th Army Air Force veteran he spoke to in his research who talked about the missions of 'Big Week', when up to 800 planes crossed the channel in one of the most intense air battles of the war.
His closeness to flyers was crucial to his research. He recounts how the genesis of the novel came from first-hand research he'd done for a half-completed story about the air war in Vietnam, during research for which he'd spent a couple of weeks on an US air base, training, eating and flying with the aircrews in an F-4 Phantom. While the Vietnam story came to nothing, he writes that he used this research and experiences to look again at the novel possibilities in the air war in the second show, having also been prompted by lengthy correspondence with a historian of the US air force in the UK.
Spending time with veterans of the 91st Bombardment Group at one of their reunions, he recalls just how self sufficient these air bases became for the men: everything was there, dentists, theatres, barbers, shops. It was a self-contained community of men and women. This led him to develop the narrative arc, telling each chapter from the perspective of a different character, not just the pilots but the technical specialists and ground staff. This meant each chapters language and construction would be slightly different, and accuracy and consistency paramount - but he gave up trying to get exact details of all the different speech patterns of this diverse community of Americans.
Though based in wartime, the plot mechanic is simple. Deighton writes: "Goodbye Mickey Mouse is a love story. Almost every fiction book I have written is to some extent a love story; I suppose I must be some sort of closet romantic. This story is a somewhat prosaic tale. It depicts desperate wartime romances and the cruel anguish they bring to all concerned, the ordinary ebb and low of human frailty during extraordinary times."
That sentiment is characteristic of much Deighton's writing on the war, both fictional and fact - the immense impact it has on individuals and their relationships with those around them during a time of unprecedented violence and upheaval.
Tuesday, 11 August 2009
As set out the last blog entry, at the end of May Len Deighton's publishers Harper Collins re-issued the first four books from his catalogue, each of which now has a fantastic new cover by Deighton's long-standing friend and creative partner (they worked on Airshipwreck together in the 'seventies), Arnold Schwartzman. The new books each have a short introduction by the author explaining his writing process behind each book and the genesis of the story, and much of what is there on the three or four pages of each introduction is new information which gives the reader a new insight into these familiar books.
While for obvious copyright reasons - and because you really should by these books in paperback again if you haven't read them for a while - I'm not going to reproduce at length what we learn in these new introductions (the most recent writing Len Deighton's produced) I'll offer up some hints.
First up, is SS-GB, his celebrated novel using the 'what if...' historical re-imagining approach. Schwartzman has created for it a wonderfully shocking image of a smugly satisfied Hitler opposite Parliament after the Wehrmacht has conquered London (in reality, it looks like Schwartzman's used the famous shot of Hitler when he'd entered Paris in 1940 and was photographed in front of the Eiffel Tower). It's a cover that definitely is there to grab the reader's attention.
So, what of the new introduction from Len Deighton? The catalyst for the book was he writes a late-night drink with his editor at Jonathan Cape Tony Colwell and designer friend Raymond Hawkey, following a discussion about the book they were working on at the time, Fighter. 'No one knows what we might have happened had we lost the Battle of Britain', Tony Colwell said. That was the spark. There's a sense here that no sooner had Len put one book to bed, he was already thinking ahead to his next project (or more likely, projects!).
Deighton reveals how this remark led him to look at the official German documentation and publications, which indicated that much of the military planning for an invasion and occupation of the UK had already been made in 1940 and was in the archives. He'd already talked to a number of German veterans and officials for his acclaimed World War Two histories and novels, so there was already a deep understanding of what such an invasion and occupation would have entailed.
A diligent researcher and note-taker, Deighton gives an insight into how he fleshed out this kernel of an idea - a detective thriller in which a British policeman working under the SS is the hero as he uncovers a Nazi plot to grab the UK's atomic weapons secrets while the King is in prison and the government in exile - from scratch to create the labyrinthine plot and authenticity which it needs to be believable as re-imagined history:
"Using the German data I drew a chain of command showing the connections between the civilians and the puppet government, black-marketeers and quislings, and the occupying power with its security forces and its bitterly competitive army and Waffen SS elements. My old friend and fellow writer Ted Allbeury had spent the immediate post-war period in occupied Germany as what the locals called 'the head of the British Gestapo'. Ted's experience was very valuable indeed and I used his experiences and anecdotes to the full."
Deighton has long argued that one of the keys to his novels is getting the details right; from that, everything flows. Papers and histories only give you one perspective; to make characters and plots realistic and believable, you've got to go to the source - the participants, the observers, the eye-witnesses, the experts. This is what he did with SS-GB certainly. He gives a detailed explanation for example of his research into the Old Scotland Yard off Whitehall - one of the main locations for the novel - to understand the workings of the Metropolitan Police during the war, and drew upon the direct experiences of a former detective from the period who gave him a guided tour around the old nick. That sort of research comes across in the novel as Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer becomes embroiled in a tussle between two competing SS officers in command of occupied London.
SS-GB was always a book that begged to be filmed. London felt the touch of the Nazi hand through the Blitz bombings but - due to the bravery of the fighter pilots or Hitler's failure to see through the defeat of British forces at Dunkirk and his subsequent excursions in Russia, whichever theory you believe - we escaped occupation. This novel is the closest you can probably get to understanding what it might have been like!
Monday, 10 August 2009
Word from my editorial contact at Len Deighton's publishers, Harper Collins, is that following the initial release of the first four revised editions of SS-GB, Bomber, Goodbye Mickey Mouse and XPD - all with new introductions by Len Deighton himself (more details in future posts) - is that on 1 October this year the following books will be published in new editions, again each with new introductions by the author: The Ipcress File, Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain. These are the books which are really synonymous with Deighton as an author and their appearance should result in another spurt in media attention, one would imagine.
In addition, there are plans to issue for Father's Day 2010 the Bernard Samson novels Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match (my personal favourites), which I look forward to tremendously, particularly for any author insight on this key character. The next trilogy in this series, Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker, are also slated for publication later in 2010 along with the author's only collection of short stories, Declarations of War, some of which are among his finest works including the short story First Base - set in Vietnam - which was initially planned to be a full-blown novel. Len Deighton's French Cookery Course may also follow this year's republication of the Action Cook Book.
One thing they are also considering for the new novel reissues is to include commentary on the new cover designs by Deighton's great friend and design colleague Arnold Schwartzman. The four covers for the four classic Harry Palmer novels draw inspiration from Raymond Hawkey's originals, with a cornucopia of objects on each giving clues to the main themes in the story. They're excellent, and a great compliment to the story.
So - a lot to look forward to!
Monday, 3 August 2009
A couple of interesting items I've spotted on the Internet today. Firstly, the BBC's outgoing Washington correspondent Matt Frei recalls his previous visits to Berlin and the impact that the Cold War had on the divided city in terms of the two separate paths of development they took between 1945 and 1989, following the destruction reached in the second world war, the scars of which are still seen in the city's architecture and split personality. Berlin's always been my favourite European city and he's right when he points out that Berlin's always had a confrontational spirit, it's been at the cutting edge of change and, in the case of the Berlin Wall, that confrontation was manifested in concrete.
Secondly, on Radio 4 this morning Gordon Corera continues his history of MI:6 by interviewing Mikhail Lyubimov, who was sent to London by the KGB as a spy to recruit from within the Conservative Party, mostly because he looked a bit 'horse like' and could appear very English. It's interesting to hear his recruiting technique and how he was trapped in a 'compromising situation' in a London pub. You can also hear some new perspectives on Kim Philby's involvement in the Cambridge spy ring.
This is an intro into today's programme on the history of MI:6, which can be found here on iPlayer and will be playable for the next week. Gordon Corera, BBC security correspondent, looks inside Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. He talks to senior intelligence officers, agents and diplomats as well as their former arch enemies about the shadowy world of espionage. In the second part, Heroes and Villains, MI6 Chief John Scarlett describes his clandestine meeting with an agent and the Russian defector Oleg Gordievsky talks about his reasons for coming over to the other side.
Anthony Cavendish was the youngest agent recruited into MI:6 running agents in Vienna, and he describes in great detail how he recruited in a music hall where the sign for everything being okay for the recruitment was for the band to play a certain tune. Fascinating stuff. He tells of recruiting a girl he gave a lift to, and it went well for nine months, but in Berlin later she got frightened and was ultimately caught and executed. This was the memory that most upset him while in "the Firm".
Roderick Braithwaite, a naval officer, says it was just like the Third Man!, dealing with criminals and agents in Vienna. "It was a morally ambigous world", he says. Fascinating!