Sunday 15 May 2011

Q&A with Len Deighton - part two

Part one of the Deighton Dossier's exclusive Q&A chat with Len Deighton was yesterday. Now, in part two of the interview below, find out more about how Deighton approached the writing of the immense Samson triple-trilogy, and his feelings on the never re-broadcast TV adaptation of Game, Set & Match.

Deighton Q&A - part two

All text is (c) Pluriform 2011

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!

DD: Looking in the other direction, did you ever consider extending the Game, Set & Match triple trilogy to develop further the Bernard/Gloria/Fiona relationship, perhaps up to the fall of the Berlin Wall? What in the end decided you to stick with the denouement readers arrived at in Charity?

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: Game, Set & Match was transmitted as a TV mini-series by ITV in 1988 [available on YouTube] 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. 

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