Saturday 14 May 2011

Exclusive to the Deighton Dossier: Q&A with Len Deighton

“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 adaptation.

Having failed spectacularly to capture this conversation on my iPhone recorder (see posts passim), 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.


Note: all text is (c) Pluriform 2011

Len Deighton Q&A - part one

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 books on 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 [DD: see postings below], 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. 


  1. Rob, well done for getting this great interview for your website.

    I've just finished re-reading Winter. If I had chance I'd love to ask LD a question regarding one of the points aired in that book. One of the characters mentions that one of the reasons the extermination camps were placed outside Germany was because it allowed the various life insurance companies a get out - they didn't have to pay out on deaths when the place of death was outside the Reich.

    This explanation is somewhat at odds with the more usual line - that the extermination camps were outside Germany so as to conceal the act from most Germans.

    LD's research is impecable, but I wonder where this came from?

    best regards
    Terry Kidd

  2. Perhaps that's a question for a later Q&A (one hopes!)