Friday, 12 April 2013

Bernard Samson back on TV - immediate questions this raises .....

Is this the face of Bernard Samson?
The good news of Clerkenwell Films' plans for an 18-part TV mini-series of the nine-volume Bernard Samson story means that, 25 years or more after Granada TV's excellent (but never repeated) Game, Set and Match, this greatest of Len's characters will be back in action.

In 1988, the 13-part Game, Set and Match was broadcast only once on ITV and removed from our screens, Len having withdrawn his rights to commercial distribution due to his dissatisfaction with the casting. It's never been on commercial DVD (only bootlegs available) and as a result, Bernard Samson has not had the same exposure as a character in British spy fiction as perhaps the depth of his story deserved. The planned TV series may change that.

The news yesterday is exciting if you're a fan of the original stories (and the TV series), but it also brings to mind a number of challenges and questions, the answers to which will shape the end result. Such as:


  • Who will play Bernard Samson? It was the (mis)casting of Ian Holm as Bernard Samson in the 1988 series which contributed to Len Deighton's decision to withdraw broadcast rights. The story pivots around Bernard, so the casting has to be right. Which British actor has the capacity to bring to life the character of a spy who discovers that all those he trusts have lied and betrayed him in some way?
  • How much more significant does Fiona's story become with all volumes being covered? Spy Sinker, the sixth book, replayed the story of the first five novels from Fiona Samson's perspective and reveals a number of truths about her decision to take on the task of deep-lying agent in Berlin, her relationship with her husband and her family relationships which arguably prepared her for the loneliness of being alone in the heart of the enemy.
  • Can the producers successfully recapture the grimy reality of Cold War Berlin? Most of the iconic sites one associates with Cold War Berlin - not least, the anti-fascist protection barrier or Berlin Wall as its was better known, are gone. CGI is clearly the way forward, but a good production designer will be needed to imagine what Leuschner's was like, the cells in the Normannenstrasse or the Kosinski estate in Poland, which has an important function in the latter part of the triple trilogy.
  • Dicky Cruyer's character is a crucial counterfoil and need to be done right. As the reader works through the nine books, the initial perception of Cruyer's character changes and one understands just how crucial his role in on Bernard's career and subsequent downfall and re-emergence, and just how much Bernard's critical opinion of his skills is off target.
  • The story is told largely from Samson's perspective. How will the screen writer and director address that point. We know, when the novels are read (particularly Spy Sinker), that Bernard is not always a reliable witness and analysis of what is going on around him - one of the factors in deciding to build a plot around his naiveté - so how much of the narrative will be driven by his perspective, and how much will the other characters be centre stage. Is this really the story of Fiona Samson, rather than Bernard?
  • How much of the back story will be foregrounded? In the last novel, Charity, the reader is exposed through Silas Gaunt to the full picture of the Machiavellian scheme dreamt up by Gaunt and the DG for which Fiona was the key and Samson the patsy she duped. How much of this plot developed will be revealed in sequence? Or, how much of the story which explains why field agent Bernard is stuck in a desk role (which the 1988 TV series covered extensively at the start of the story)
  • What gets left out? Even with 18 one-hour (45 mins effectively) episodes, there's still not enough time to cover all nine novels. The ITV adaptation took 13 episodes to cover just Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match! So, how does the screenwriter compress this multi-layered story? Will he downplay much of the Kosinski narrative in Poland? Will they pass over Spy Sinker and the hidden realities revealed in that book? Will the Prettymans be relegated to brief walk-on parts?
  • What is the core theme which the screenwriter will hook the story upon? Is it personal or matrimonial betrayal? The ruthlessness of London Central? The deceit at the heart of London Central? The love between Bernard and Fiona which shapes both character's responses to the actions played upon them? The ending of the Cold War?
  • Does the Cold War (which ended nearly 24 years ago) still have resonance for the general reader? Is the spy novel now all about the Internet, shadow cells, al Qaeda and North Korea? Will the average TV viewer remember the Cold War and its impact on the western world? Or does it really matter - is it actually the stories and the characters that will grab people's attention?
Any blog readers with their own responses to these questions, or their own ideas about how the new series could do the books justice, are welcome - encouraged, even - to share their views in the comments page.

38 comments:

  1. My apologies. My post which appears elsewhere should be here. Hence, I am copying it.

    Before you listed your 9 questions, I was thinking of questions similar to the following:
    “Can the producers successfully recapture the grimy reality of Cold War Berlin?”
    “Does the Cold War (which ended nearly 24 years ago) still have resonance for the general reader?”
    Taking the first question, the simple answer is NO, for the simple reason that the audience need to be middle-aged with a critical knowledge of the cold war. Very difficult to get that many , shall I say fanatic followers, who like the kind of story lines that emerge from Deighton novels. Nuances without Bond- like actions will hold very little interest to the younger generation. I know a few friends in the middle-age category, but even at that time only a small core of them were sophisticated in their understanding of the cold war. For example, in early 1980s, I went with two of those who had had general interest in the cold war to visit West Berlin, having dissuaded them from visiting Paris during the Whitsun Bank Holiday Week End. But after a brief visit to see the Wall, they were more interested in enjoying the nightlife in West Berlin! I was the only one who crossed into East Berlin having got a brief visit visa-based on my academic connections at the Technical University of Dresden. This was to savour the cold war eerie atmosphere of the place for a day! If that was the case with the above two, the answer to the second question now is evident.
    The story lines could be similar to the approach adopted in recent James Bond films- to fit the main characters, and more importantly contemporary menace manifesting in London/ England for example to justify deploying a MI6 spy to get involved in settings in those places outwith Britain. The excuse then could be - something similar to the deaths of two Russian expatriates in London- one of them recent, and the other was through Polonium-210 poisoning, the perpetrating cell moving to places to hide their involvement. They could also throw in the mysterious death of the MI6 officer in a Chelsea flat for example. This is at a time when Britain is disengaging militarily from Germany!! About, Mexico City and California? Could be industrial espionage by agents from Russia/China. Gets more complicated as we start thinking!!!

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  2. This is great news, although it would be forever before it would be available to see in the U.S. I haven't finished the 9 book series yet, still have the last trilogy to go. This has me eager to read those soon.

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  3. Simon, I completely disagree. I think the Cold War DOES still have resonance with viewers. Look at the success of The Americans on FX for proof of that in America, or the box office of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in Britain. The story just has to be framed in the right way. And the Samson books offer so many possible points of entry, I'm sure a successful screenwriter like Beaufoy will be able to find it. I can't possibly imagine this series updated. It IS the story of the end of the Cold War! Even as Deighton was writing the books, the final trilogy was already period pieces as they were published, and that didn't impact their power or popularity. I can't wait to see this series realized as a wonderful period piece covering that most fascinating and hitherto largely overlooked period of the Cold War, the 1980s!

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  4. Slightly off piste I expect and probably discussed elsewhere but I am disappointed that LD didn't like Ian Holm as Samson, I thought he was wonderful. Nearly as good Alec Guinness as Smiley ;-)

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    1. I totally agree. Ian Holm was perfect for the part.

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  5. Len told me that they got most of the other casting right except this. Ian Holm was just not the sort of person Len had in mind when writing the Samson character, and he felt the producers didn't get it right in casting Holm, and this coloured his whole view of the series. But, let's see what the new series is like when more details are announced!

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  6. Jason Statham for Samson. I've been saying this for years. Tough, honourable, underplaying, old fashioned, and very very British.

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  7. I am currently re-reading all ten books for the third time and will contribute more fully to this thread when I finish in a few weeks.

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  8. In his 1986 preface to Game Set Match, Deighton speaks of the error of those who imagine Bernard is right, but then seems to do a Bernard in his hostility to the Holm casting by your account. Worth noting for comparison that Le Carre was hugely impacted by the casting of Alec Guinness as Smiley, who took over his character entirely. It is surely the case with all art that the audience exercises judgement that will differ from that off the author. In this case the censoring of the Granada series belongs more in SS-GB than good reason. I am shocked now to learn that the unavailability of the excellent Granada show, with worthy interpretations by interesting cast is down to authorial caprice. Surely it would now be the time to relent and allow reproduction of the series... Unless, of course, Ian Holm should now want to cover up this career making performance I of his younger days.

    On the matter of whether Cold War is comprehensible, we seem suddenly back in a world loaded with chilling proxy war and heightened major power tension

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    1. Very good points, Dennis - it is a bit frustrating but if you want to see the series again, just look on eBay or on YouTube. It is available, and watchable. I understand from Len that there is some movement with regards to the planned TV adaptation of all nine novels, though nothing specific - one hopes this time that this series becomes defining and re-engages readers with the Samson character

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  9. Frustrating that there's still no evident action on this. Last conversation with Len about this and other 'projects' indicated they were still active, but clearly still at the 'pre-production' phase. Same with the elusive Bomber adaptation.

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  10. Just read the nine books for the first time. Really cannot see why Ian Hom was not considered perfect casting...

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  11. Check out the main website for the updated explanation from LD about why he retained the distribution rights.

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  12. Interesting the importance you give to why the Dicky Cruyer character should be portrayed correctly in the new adaptation, if it does go ahead Rob. I take it from this importance you attach to Dicky Cruyer, you believe he was involved fully in the Fiona defection operation - and helped actively with the duping of Bernard Samson?

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  13. I think he must have been or, perhaps, was so unwittingly. Certainly I think his buffoonish character is a devilish ruse for such an ambitious character who would want to be at the heart of the biggest operations. Can't be sure, though, and that's the beauty of the character.

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  14. Is this series going to be filmed? I'd love to see it on TV! I'm reading Game, Set And Match again, at least Game to look more closely how the Fiona situation seemed to evolve. I'm more interested in the Berlin scenes as ice been there when there WAS a wall!

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  15. In principle, yes. The rights are with Clerkenwell Films who are proposing to film all nine shows. However, it's still in pre-production stage; no shots have been filmed!

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  16. I'm going to start the Faith H & C series next, after the Hook, Line but not yet sinker. I really do hope they do it, but I suppose I'd better not hold my breath..

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  17. I read the 9 book series many years ago when I had time to read. I've always hoped to have time to re-read them. At this point, it will have to wait about 15 years until I am ready for retirement. Maybe by then the movies will be made!

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  18. I wonder whether that 'new' tv project to film all the Samson book is still active. Announced 3 years ago and nothing further has been heard about it.

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  19. Tweets and emails earlier this year to Clerkenwell Films hasn't elicited a response, which isn't hopeful. Presumably still in 'development'.

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  20. I hope you are right that it is still 'in development', Rob. Looking at what the writer has on his plate, I don't think we will see the Samson project anytime is the forseeable future. To adapt all the Samson novels will be a big task, and will need exclusivity by the writer which I doubt will happen. Three years on this is still a future project according to the writers agents, along with other projects.

    http://www.knighthallagency.com/client/simon-beaufoy/

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  21. I just dont understand how Len can hold the original TV series back, despite his concerns with casting. It does a complete disservice to his works and the considerable effort that a retinue of fine actors and actresses put into the series. I think Len would understand that it would be incredibly difficult to get his complex characters totally perfect as per the novels. His works were respected enough to attract an Oscar nominee to the lead role, the guy nominated for a BAFTA for this portrayal as well. But what of Michael Culver, Anthony Bate or Amanda Donohoe's performances or many of the others involved. I still think this was a wholly poor decision on Len's part, but its not too late to fix it. People should be watching this regularly on Netflix and many more would seek his books out accordingly.

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    1. I don't disagree with you John; sadly, it's author's prerogative. When I've chatted with Len about it, he still remains of the same view. I would like to see if digitally released if for not other reasons than to see what Berlin was like before it got ruined by the 'regeneration' after Die Wende. Who knows, in time, things may change.

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  22. I've been a big fan of Deighton from way back. Along with the craftsmanship I love his humor.
    Now, there's one aspect of the nine-parter for which I believe I've discovered something which for lack of a better term I'll say the author embedded a real world conspiracy inside his fictional conspiracy.

    I won't go much further other than to say Dodo is one of several clues.

    One response might be "Len and I know exactly what you're talking about, please don't go there.

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  23. Sir can anyone tell me the summary of that book (Berlin Game) in easy english.

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  24. You could try this http://www.deightondossier.net/Books/Samson%20series/berlingame.html

    Is it not published in your native language anywhere?

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  25. I read all the books, a couple of times, enjoyed the TV adaptation....is this gonna happen still?

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    1. The rights were awarded by Deighton's agent to Clerkenwell films a couple of years ago, and by all accounts they still retain the option and everything is in 'pre-production' phase. But, nothing concrete yet.

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  26. I recently re-read all of Deightons' collection of Bernard Sampson stories, for the 3rd time. Gosh, they are just as good now as back in the days of the cold war. Then I obtained a bootleg copy of the Game Set Match series shown on British tv.

    So. When I saw Ian Holm as Sampson, it was like hearing a nail thrown into a smoothly running motor or wretched squealing violins indicating a large case of The Creeps. Tore the fabric of the story for me, since he is the main character.

    Bernie just isn't a schleppy little fellow! It was almost like watching a familiar story, only the main character was re-written for someone else.

    Lastly, I didn't know anyone was considering a remake (thanks guys!) and hope that despite time passing, that the series will rise again. What with the new cold war ramping up these days, perhaps it will trigger more interest in how it was in 'the bad old days'.

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    1. Hi Jenny, would you mind sharing where you got the copy of G/S/M???

      THANKS!!!!

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  27. Hi Joe,

    http://www.ioffer.com/search/items/game+set+match+dvd

    Here is the offering page I found by doing a generic web search 'watch game set match'

    I did a search for 'ioffer' because I never heard of them before, and did find a few complaints about the site, so I went with the one that had the most positive feedback. I paid $35 to a fellow called CrazyKoi and am very happy with the dvd.

    It is obvious the original recording was from a dvd, but I thought I would die if I didn't find a copy, and I had no greater expectation than what one would expect from a vcr. Yes the picture quality is not great but is perfectly watchable, and the sound is just fine.

    I h a ve only watched Game so far and except for Mr Holm it is a great espionage fix!

    Regards, Jenny


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  28. Thank you!!! I've ordered a copy and can't wait to watch. I'm not familiar with the actor but I have always imagined Bernard to be a older, grey-ing gentleman. Of course I read the series when i was in my 20's, so 40's to me was old and grey! lol. Thanks again!

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  29. Hope you enjoy them! I imagine you will find Bernard well portrayed by Mr Holm. I saw him as not quite so middle aged, better dressed, and more agile. Just can't imagine Holm convincingly trekking up to Bernie's old room in the top of Lisl's hotel and relishing the memories! An earlier commenter suggested Jason Statham as Bernie and that I can get behind!

    Am finally getting to Set this evening and really looking forward to it.

    Regards

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  30. I've just finished listening to the 10 audiobooks about Bernard Samson and I love them. James Lailey the reader brings them to life wonderfully. If they are ever made into TV they will need an actor fluent in English and Germán (or 2 if you think of Werner Volkman). Not many of those around. May be Michael Fassbender with glasses and some extra weight.

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  31. Please please please remake these books as a tv series. I adore these books having been introduced to them by my late father who was a massive fan. I Agree casting was off in the original series but this story deserves another go. I would love to share it with my children who sadly are reluctant to pick up a Novel but will happily watch Rv!

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  32. I would love to see these books made into a series!! My late father introduced me to them and I have read the series at least 5 times!! I watched a little of the tv series that has been made and agree that the casting was all wrong and didn't do the characters justice.

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  33. I have read the series over and over and Ian Holm IS Bernard. I think Deighton based Bernard's features off of himself. Not unheard of with an author for whom the story is so intricate. The books are a masterpiece in Game Set and Match. The others are a reprise and revisit of beloved characters. The books do show how operations works and the complex politics involved in the office. I would love to see the miniseries released and think it's a shame that it hasn't been. I would enjoy a new version as well and would watch it. I'm sorry but Holm's portrail of Bernard was powerful and spot on.

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