Online Q&A interview with Len Deighton - May 2011
“I didn’t want simplicity. I didn’t want a spot-lit singer on a bare stage. I wanted an opera”
Len Deighton, on the Game, Set & Match triple trilogy:
Though he spends much of his time in retirement outside of the UK, Len Deighton still visits London regularly and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to catch up with him on a recent visit. Over lunch we talked about his writing past and present, his approach to characterisation - notably the development of the rough-around the-edges Bernard Samson - and setting, his recollections of central London in the ‘sixties ..... and the dipping headlights on his 1978 Cadillac. We also discussed his experiences in the film industry, and he talked positively about the putative Bomber production and hinted at a possible film of Horse Under Water, the ‘missing’ Harry Palmer novel.
Having failed spectacularly to capture this conversation on my iPhone recorder, I asked Len if he would be willing to do a short interview for the website and blog via email, in the form of the Q&A.
He agreed. The result is this three part online discussion, based on questions from me and from readers of the blog, the website and the related online forums. Given his infrequent appearances in the UK media, the Deighton Dossier is incredibly privileged to have this opportunity to engage with the author.
Deighton Dossier: You indicated to me that you're still writing regularly, every day (including Sunday!). A simple question: what are you writing about, and are you planning any new writing projects beyond your history of the ink pen and the aero engines?
Len Deighton: I write notes every day. It is a habit that comes of years of research and a poor memory. I was filling notebooks with material that interested me long before I ever thought of becoming a professional writer. This week I have been making notes based on scientific material: from synapses and the chemistry on which they depend, to dear old Professor Feynman’s theories of anti-matter.
Some people have the enviable ability of arranging their knowledge in a chosen sequence and having it at their disposal by means of their memory. I can’t do that. The only way I can retain and arrange material is by writing it down. This is why I have written The Anatomy of a Fountain Pen and The Secret History of Airplanes. The former work is subtitled ‘And things to remember when buying one old or new’ because it is not a history of pens or of writing. It describes the way that various pens work and the changes that have undergone to make them work better.
The aero-engine book is of a completely different format. It is a history of engines, written with an emphasis upon the social aspects, the graft and the greed and the success and failure of engines in war and in peace. It takes the necessary engineering developments step by step but simplifies it for people like me. Neither book was written for publication; they were written so that I could understand things that interest me.
Lately most of my time has been spent writing Introductions for the republished Harper Collins paperbacks [DD: see previous postings]. Long ago, at the 25th anniversary of the publication of Ipcress File, there was a Silver Jubilee edition of nineteen paperbacks. Now at the 50th anniversary a complete re-publication of all the books is about midway through. The Silver Jubilee editions all had a specially written Introduction, but when I was asked to write new ones for the entire Harper Collins edition I gladly agreed.
To design the new covers Arnold Schwartzman was commissioned. He has an international reputation as a graphic designer, did a memorable job of design for the Los Angeles Olympics and was awarded a well-deserved Oscar for a film he made. The covers are exciting and original and have already attracted attention in the design world including extensive coverage in Baseline, the international typographic magazine. Each paperback contains a note from Arnold explaining his working methods for each book separately and they make very interesting reading.
Meanwhile I continue writing the Introductions. I am a slow worker and it has been a more difficult and far more absorbing task than I thought it would be. But all life is like that.
DD: Let’s talk about some of your works. Horse Under Water: how close did you and Harry Saltzman get to turning this into a film, completing the cycle of the first four 'spy with no name' novels? (And were you aware that someone turned it into a concept album a few years back?)
LD: There was no specific opposition to making Horse into a movie. On the contrary, films with underwater sequences usually do well at the box office. But the order in which the books were published in the US was different to their publication in Britain. Each book was complete as a story (a rule I have always kept to). If the books could stand alone, so could films.
Harry Saltzman was attracted to the Funeral in Berlin story because Berlin was in the newspaper headlines. So in America the publication of Horse (which didn’t have Berlin spy story content) came later. There is now talk of a movie and I think it could be very effective on the screen.
Yes it was gratifying to hear about the Album [DD: This the the concept album The Seahorse by Robert Green & Carl Barber from 1996 - see the main Deighton Dossier website for more information] – it sounds good.
DD: Michael Caine's role as Harry Palmer has become visually synonymous with the 'unnamed spy', such that it's now very difficult to read the books without imagining his visage and especially the horn-rimmed glasses. What do you think Michael brought to the role that added to our understanding of your character from the first four books (his cockney accent for one thing, I imagine)? Did you know Michael before the role?
LD: I knew Michael before he made Ipcress File. Peter Evans, a mutual friend, introduced us and I found Michael an unassuming and entertaining friend. He was of course a tremendous asset; he developed the characterization and was largely responsible for the success of the film.
When Ipcress went into pre-production we conspired to persuade Harry Saltzman, its producer, to let Michael wear spectacles on the screen. Michael and I both wore glasses and so did Harry Palmer in my book. Harry Saltzman was opposed to this. One evening, when Harry and his delightful wife Jaquie entertained me and Michael to dinner in their Mayfair home, we brought it up again. Harry sighed. ‘No, no, no. What film star have you ever seen wearing glasses?’ he asked rhetorically. But wives are apt to answer rhetorical questions and Harry’s wife said: ‘Cary, darling. Cary Grant looks lovely in glasses.’ This was one of the very few times that I saw Harry at loss for words. ‘Very well,’ he said eventually. I looked at Michael. Michael looked down at his plate. We had won.
My disagreement with the depiction of Harry Palmer on the screen was the implausible suggestion that Harry was blackmailed into working for the secret intelligence service. Blackmailed! This is the old boy network. These are people with tailored shirts and lace-up shoes. Despite the disrepute it suffered from harbouring traitors such as Philby – Westminster, Cambridge and the Athenaeum – the SIS retained this policy. Blackmailing a Harry Palmer into the service would have been unthinkable.
DD: The Harry Palmer 'retreads', if you will, in the nineties - Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg - weren't universally acclaimed and it is debatable as to whether they are worthy successors to the first three films and the character. To what extent were you involved in these projects and what's your opinion now, looking back at them?
LD: When I was asked to give the OK for the Harry Palmer character to be used on these original screenplays my feelings were negative. I said, ‘If you can persuade Michael to play the lead I will let you have the necessary screen rights.’ I was quite confident that I would hear no more about it.
But I did.
They were not stories I had written. In fact I was not involved in any way other than my agreement to the character rights. When I eventually saw the films I thought they were both well above average. Michael was inspired as always and the locations were great.
DD: Winter provided the 'prequel' to the Game, Set & Match triple trilogy. Did you ever consider another prequel looking Bernard's childhood and early life in Berlin (perhaps up to the pivotal Karlshorst incident), when his defining friendships with Werner, Rolf and others developed - the impact of which on Bernard comes across so evidently in the books?
LD: No I never did consider it because I never thought of it. It’s a great idea!
LD: This is rather complicated. Bear with me. The basic idea behind Berlin Game etc was to widen the all-action format. It seemed to me that the straightforward blood and thunder stories, however well-written, were too predictable. I didn’t want simplicity. I didn’t want a spot-lit singer on a bare stage. I wanted an opera. I wanted dozens of people: friends and enemies, relatives and work-mates, wife and children, bosses and underlings. And unpaid bills, cars that broke down and awful in-laws. How would I find room on my little stage? A cast of this size wasn’t going to fit into one book. I would need a trilogy, maybe more. But once you embark on such a project the action becomes outweighed by the emotional needs of the characters and their interaction: ‘Stop worrying. Daddy will find a lovely school for our children, Bernard.’
The Stasi were going to sing the bass notes while Secret Service smoothies provided a dissonant ensemble behind the three principals: Bernard, Fiona and Gloria. It became the story of a strong and confident man slowly torn into pieces by his unfeeling employers, his brutal enemies and by the two women he loves. The twists and turns of Bernard’s torment became the most important element of the story. And it would be described from Bernard’s skeptical eye view.
The end of Charity was the end of that story (it had been signaled earlier by a careless angry word from Bernard during a row with Gloria). When I finished drafting the conversation that ended Charity I knew it must be the end of the whole story. I didn’t want to continue beyond it even in my own imagination. Bernard and Fiona, the children, Bret and Gloria, Dicky and Daphne, Werner and Zena: what happened to them? Were they all happy? I don’t know. You know as much as I do about what subsequently happened to all concerned. It’s better that way.
DD: The Game, Set & Match was transmitted as a TV mini-series by ITV in 1988 and directed by Ken Grieve and Patrick Lau and starring Ian Holm as Bernard Samson. What, looking back, were your reasons for withholding broadcast repeat rights for the series and your perspective on the production and casting.
LD: Putting together thirteen hours of television with a large number of characters in various locations at home and abroad is a titanic task. Thirteen hours! There was a generous budget, experienced technicians and no shortage of talent. The actors and actresses were, without exception, top-notch professionals. But while the very good script was being written, someone somewhere was inflicting a brutal wound upon the whole project. The casting was bizarre; the tall became short, the short became tall, the angry became weary, the brunettes became blond, the fat became thin, the Americans became English, the clean-shaven wore beards and those with spectacles shed them.
Most of the plot changes were well-considered, and smoothly incorporated but I was sorry to see Bernard’s caustic commentary on the failings of everyone around him had been minimized. Sustaining narrative energy over thirteen hours of screen time inevitably brought difficulties. The Mexican sequences - animated and colorful – brought from the actors their brilliant best. Some of the Berlin locations were very impressive and the logistics needed for the big scenes with lots of German extras, police vehicles and whole streets of traffic were awesome. But maybe the production team didn’t love the gritty, ugly and brooding Berlin that had drawn me back time and time again. On the other hand, maybe that was my infatuation. ‘The sky was blue and Berlin was heaven,’ I say to end the final book, and for me it was.
The Granada TV series was a massive undertaking. It was successful in Britain and America and many other territories. But it was a different interpretation of Bernard Samson’s Game Set and Match. With the greater part of Bernard’s story still to be written, I could not reconcile and rewrite the characters to fall into line with this alternative Bernard, and his associates. It was a world of images which contradicted much of the work I had done, the people I had described and the story I planned.
DD: Thinking beyond this, have you ever been approached about other adaptions of the series? Quentin Tarantino has publicly expressed an interesting in re-filming the first three novels, for instance. Or do you think - given its complex narrative structure, reliance on the narrator's inner thoughts to progress the story and number of key characters - a story on such a scale is perhaps un-filmable?
LD: I always advise writers to choose a publisher who is enthusiastic and the same goes for movie producers. It is drive and confidence in the material that brings satisfactory results. Written stories are different to filmed ones, very, very different, and we have to accept that. You part with the rights and you trust the production people to do a good job. Harry Saltzman and all concerned departed from the books but did a good job.
Writing books is a wonderful occupation because the author takes the reader by the hand and confides secret thoughts, hopes and fears to that reader. Film can’t do that; there isn’t enough time. Film is a very slow way to tell a story. ‘Voice over’ can help sometimes but I know from writing screenplays, and producing films, that you can’t hope to get more than one quarter of the average length book onto the screen and some choice elements go. So the most demanding task of the screenplay writer is dumping three quarters of a book into the trash can. A TV series is different and using a slower pace and more time a writer can squeeze more from a story. But it is a difficult task and even with 13 long episodes there was not room for everything described in three books.
While on the subject of films, I would like to say how successful I thought the two short films (made from my short stories in Declarations of War) were. Melvyn Bragg used then as part of The Lively Arts programme on the BBC many years ago [DD: a summary of this interview is available on the main website; the films will, no doubt, turn up at some point on YouTube!].
For writers the most rewarding interpretations are unabridged audio books read by a skilled and dedicated actor. I enjoy all sorts of unabridged audio books – I often play them in the car – and have been very lucky with the way my books have been done. Perhaps I should not select just one actor but the late Paul Daneman’s sensitive readings of my books, and where needed, his perfect German, gave me immense satisfaction.
DD: You considered a novel in the 'seventies around the Vietnam War, and indeed you started down that route in a sense with the short story First Base in Declarations of War. But you didn’t complete it. Did you just run into a narrative cul-de-sac in finding the right story angle on this conflict?
LD: No, I had the story roughed out when I asked the Pentagon to let me join a fighter squadron in Vietnam. Acclimatization first, they said. I spent many happy weeks with the fighter pilots. They dressed me in a flight suit and assigned me to Bentwaters, an American airbase in East Anglia, England. Living with the pilots for several weeks I made many good friends. I learned the jargon, enjoyed the laughs and chit-chat of the ready room and lingered in mess halls, offices and workshops. I flew back-seat in Phantom fighters, dropped bombs and refueled in mid-air. And I learned about casualties too when during my time with them a mid-air collision brought sad losses.
The glacial speed of Washington bureaucracy ensured that, as permission was finally given for me to go to where the fighting was, the peace talks in Paris began and the war fizzled out. My notes went into a box on the shelf. I must not be too resentful of the pen-pushers. Washington wanted to make sure I wasn’t some kind of male Jane Fonda.
DD: You used a lot of bird imagery in An Expensive Place To Die, for example in the names of the characters Byrd and Loiseau. What did you hope to achieve by this metaphorical device?
LD: Yes, I did. I am sorry. I am self-conscious about employing links and symbols of this sort but in my defence I can only say this affectation didn’t last long. On the plus side: I was gratified to be able to prise my way into the Paris police system and see some of the raw underworld. I don’t think I could have done it through official channels but (as I was told by an English expert on the Paris police) the French are notable for having laws and regulations that are customarily ignored. He said that if the police, in all their many manifestations, obeyed the regulations the whole of Paris would come to a sudden messy halt. I never saw Paris in the same way again; and if any of my shock and horror came through in the book I am happy with that result.
DD: ...and the secret dossier slipped into the first edition of the book: who's idea was that, and is the story about someone being arrested in New York as a result of having a copy of this dossier true, or apocryphal?
LD: At Jonathan Cape [DD: Deighton’s publishers] Tony Colwell told me that strange story and insisted that it was one hundred per cent true. Ray Hawkey designed and produced a beautiful little dossier containing facsimile documents from the White House etc. as a promotional enclosure for An Expensive Place to Die. It was all very convincing except that the documents were in miniature. Nevertheless, an enterprising Canadian of Russian extraction made contact with a Soviet Embassy official (presumably in Ottawa) and offered to sell it. The story becomes blurry after that. One version says that the Russian paid a large sum of money but others say the Canadian was collared by the Mounties as he kept the appointment. Tony was one of the most honest people I ever met so we can be reasonably sure that it was not a publicity stunt.
DD: You mentioned having built up a number of contacts in East Germany during the Cold War. To what degree did they help inspire story ideas and characters and encourage you to depict authentically life behind the Iron Curtain? As a reader, the city (and residents) of Berlin in the Game, Set & Match series is a character in itself, so well do you describe it.
LD: It all started well after midnight, when I was driving north from Prague towards Berlin in an ancient grey VW Beetle that was so basic that it was only sold in the domestic market. It had a crash gearbox and I liked it because few others could master it. As I neared Berlin a Russian military policeman stepped out and brought me to a halt waving one of those lighted batons that the Germans use. It was cold and he was buttoned to the neck in a heavy overcoat and spoke only what I assume was Russian but he made his instructions clear. A couple of command cars boxed me in while I drove a couple of miles to a big army depot nearby. I spent a couple of hours waiting for a Russian officer who could speak English.
In the interim the noise of heavy trucks, and the sight of brawny drivers signing a large book as they arrived or departed told me that this was a check point and barracks for Berlin-based Russian army trucks. The officer arrived unshaven and appeared to have dressed hurriedly. He took my passport, which had all the right signatures and rubber stamps for Czechoslovakia but – due to an incompetent civilian clerk in Prague - lacked the one for the East Berlin checkpoint. The officer told me to drive back to the Autobahn and take the road to West Germany. It was a long way and I explained that I had not got petrol enough to do it.
He took me outside to check my car and take its registration number. Berlin night air can drop to lethal temperatures and that night was very cold. While we were looking into the car he saw tucked under my suit-bag a bottle of Laphroaig. I explained that this single malt was a very rare and expensive drink that few foreigners had ever tasted. I had visited the distillery on the isle of Islay so my enthusiasm was informed and contagious. In view of the cold, we withdrew to his office and tasted this smoky restorative.
Benefiting from a more mellow atmosphere I suggested that I buy some petrol from his army depot, spend the night in his barracks or pour the rest of the whisky into my gas tank. He gave me a grim and knowing smile and did what many another administrator has done in trying circumstances; he picked up the telephone, called his superiors and said that, now that he had examined them carefully, the Englishman’s paper were all in order. You may ask me how I understood his Russian. I don’t know but I recognized the tone of voice. He hung up, gave me my passport and a conspiratorial salute. I left the whisky with him.
But all of this is leading up to the fact that my first experience of Berlin was East Berlin (the Russian Sector) to which the road led. Dawn was breaking. I knew no-one in Berlin – East or West – except for a film director named Kurt Jung-Alsen. He was a friend I had first met at an East German film festival in London. He showed no surprise at being awakened in the early hours (I suppose he was relieved to see it wasn’t some sort of policeman). He persuaded the Adlon Hotel to find me a room in what little remained of its ruined premises, and straightened out all sorts of formalities – such as what is this strange Englishman doing here in our communist country? His answer always was that I was a part of his film making. He gave dinner parties so I could meet his amusing and somewhat subversive friends. For a time, I knew only people living in East Berlin. I began all these new friendships by declaring that I was a capitalist not a communist or socialist. I had been told to do this by an experienced newspaperman and it was the best advice I could have had. Most writers learn how to become self-effacing and I wallowed in that strange society which had the fraternal social cohesion that senseless tyranny bestows.
DD: Your military histories are perhaps your most praise-worthy accomplishments and on a par with many other analyses of the period. Did you get a good reaction to your ideas and conclusions from professional historians and, more importantly, the veterans on both sides?
LD: Professional historians – and I must add, most critics – have been kind to me over the years. Of course I was equipped with a priceless gift: a monumental inferiority complex. It was this that made me check out everything three or four times and then check it again. I lacked the formal systematic basis of study that professional historians enjoy but I compensated for this by seeking out eyewitnesses and participants. There were many high-ranking people still alive at the time I began my researches and the war was fresh in their minds. I discovered a great deal of material that never went into the history books. I enjoyed talking to people from both sides; not only military people but also technicians and civilians. I kept my mind open, if not to say blank, and this encouraged revelations and indiscretions.
I had a great deal of material prepared before I ever thought of it being published. It mostly concerned Europe in 1940 and of course I had my own experience as a basis. A.J.P. Taylor was a particularly important person in my life and it was he who convinced me that my sort of ‘amateur history’ was just as valid as any other sort providing it was accurate. The result was three history books: Blitzkrieg and Fighter and eventually Blood Tears and Folly.
DD: Finally, who are the authors that you have particularly enjoyed and admired over the years?
LD: There are so many that I find it difficult to start. A.J.P. Taylor demonstrated a sardonic directness that I admired. I also learned from Taylor’s detractors that irony and provocative humour are sometimes taken at face value and totally misunderstood. John Ellis has produced some engaging and unsurpassed works of both statistics and social history e.g. Brute Force and The Sharp End of War. Roger A. Freeman, while running a farm, compiled such books as The Mighty Eighth and became the world’s greatest authority on the US 8th Air Force. Published in illustrated magazine form, the ‘After the Battle’ series under the direction of Winston G. Ramsey is in detail and accuracy the largest and finest record of World War Two.
Apart from war history books I like reading reference books of all kinds; from books about art and graphic design to ones about photography and cookery. I avoid literary novels as I find them too cryptic. At present I am reading The Penguin Book of Hollywood a 600 page anthology by Christopher Silvester and Some Sort of Epic Grandeur – The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a 700 page biography by Matthew J. Bruccoli. I find both books gripping and I have Volume One of the diaries of Christopher Isherwood (1,000 pages) on the shelf waiting for me.
DD: Len, thank you.