Deighton interview Mar 2012

This interview is © Pluriform and The Deighton Dossier. It must not be reproduced in any form without express permission of the author and the website owner.

Len Deighton, London, March 2012
(c) Rob Mallows
This quote is actually from Michael Caine, the actor who’s brilliant portrayal of Harry Palmer helped sealed into the public consciousness the character of Len Deighton’s ‘unnamed spy’ who first appears in The Ipcress File, published 50 years ago this year and in print ever since. This book marked a definite literary turning point when it came out at the height of the Cold War.

It is arguably one of the twentieth century’s top spy thrillers, marking as it did a new step forward in the fictional portrayal of the spy game. Palmer was a phenomenon, a working class spy hero who ushered in one of the golden ages of British spy fiction.

Published only nine years after Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel Casino Royale, and only one year after John Le Carré’s debut Call for the DeadThe Ipcress File provided a counterpoint. The main character was from Burnley, a bit of a crook by all accounts, rough around the edges, a gourmet, plagued by his toff bosses and always needing his chit signed - a contrast to the debonair style and high living James Bond and the middle-aged, middle class bureaucrat that was George Smiley. Here was the spy as careerist, for whom petty paperwork is as much a part of everyday working life as holstering a pistol.

Over lunch in March 2012 and subsequently via an email conversation, Len Deighton kindly answered a range of questions about his book suggested by readers of the Deighton Dossier and me, the editor. He talks about the writing process for the book, his reasons for choosing the main plot device, his thoughts on the movie version and the influence of his Soho life as a young artist on key aspects of the film
Deighton Dossier: Len, The Ipcress File has stood the test of time as a novel: it remains popular and is regularly referred to as one of the top spy novels of the last century. To what do you put down its longevity and success?

Len Deighton: The short and simple answer is, my ignorance! Had I started writing after a creative writing course or a university degree in English Literature, Ipcress File would have been a more conventional book. As it happened, it started as an account of a man wandering through Soho, London as I did every day.

I wrote a long section of it while on holiday in France and then put it on a shelf. Again in France the following year – this time trying to earn enough as an illustrator to live there – I took my ‘book’ and slowly brought it to a conclusion. That ‘art student’ flavor was evident; perhaps that was a part of its appeal. It would probably still be sitting on the shelf except I met Jonathan Clowes, a literary agent, at a party. I remember him saying that he liked the ‘fragmentary’ style. He and his wife Ann, of course, still represent me!

DD: You started the book of as a film treatment. What was the prompt that led you to start to a novel format?
LD: What began as an episodic scribble (perhaps ideas for an amateur movie) became a short story and then rambled on – written, revised and rewritten many times - to become a book.

Screenplays deprive you of a chance to write personal descriptions and describe the environment. You can’t say what your characters are thinking and you can’t refer to memory, in-born prejudice or silent intention. In a screen play you must leave some room for the actors to contribute their skills and that also goes for the art director, set dresser and costume designer.

So a writer embarking a screenplay enjoys wonderful, but severely limited, opportunities. I therefore changed my play to a book. For anyone who flourishes in solitary confinement, writing books is a more suitable undertaking. Writing a fiction book demands a strict self-discipline and a planned structure but you are on your own – and when it’s not torment, it’s fun.

I have written screenplays such as Oh! What a Lovely WarFrom Russia With Love and Never Say Never Again. Of these only the first came to the screen as written, and that was because I produced the film of it and protected every word. The two Bond scripts were buried under re-writes.

DD: The narrative seems to twist 'social' norms: the hero is working class, rough around the edges, yet is more cultured, eats better food and better read than his bosses. Did the character's approach reflect perhaps your own worldview at the time in London, when attitudes were changing?
LD: Well, there were already plenty of class warriors around at the time I started writing. John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe and Arnold Wesker, who wrote Chips With Everything, were ‘angry young men’. I was of about the same age, but I wasn’t angry.

What did I have to be angry about? I had had spent six wonderful years studying art. My RAF time had included a long course in professional photography. My service experience included medical work using a Leica in an RAF hospital operating theatre and after that an assignment to the Fighter School where I spent many happy hours flying in Mosquito fighters operating cine cameras during mock combat. Now I was earning a modest living as an illustrator. London was warming up for the Swinging Sixties and I relished every minute of every day. I still do.

When I graduated from the Royal College of Art my diploma came from the hand of the Duke of Edinburgh. In the speech he made to us wide-eyed little van Goghs he said that artists were lucky. Artists, he said, could wend their way through all sections of society and all classes too. I took him at his word and despite being born in the Marylebone Workhouse I have found that a clean shirt and sober tie – plus a sense of humour – overcomes many social limitations.
I am not a class warrior. I respect and admire skills and education. Britain’s public schools have a long tradition of teaching the Victorian virtues; a belief in God, loyalty, modesty, justice, prudence, patriotism and sacrifice: I value those characteristics. When I poke fun at authority it’s not a matter of class, it is because authority is too often given to lazy and incompetent cronies. Prejudice of any sort is evil; it is illogical and destructive. ‘Give every boy an equal opportunity,’ I say. Never mind whether he comes from Eton or some workhouse in Marylebone. Girls too, of course!

DD: When you read through the book subsequently, were there any parts or themes which you’d love to re-write in full? If so, which?
LD: The dissatisfaction that comes with the completion of each book is the propellant that makes one start writing another one; vowing to make it better. So I try not to have second thoughts: I move on. My wife teases me about the way I try to find new routes back from anywhere we go. Finding new routes to familiar places is in every way my aim. In other words: no regrets, no second thoughts, no rewrites.

DD: Sidney Furie’s film of your book differs from the text in a number of ways (e.g. the downgrading of the atoll scenes and the confrontation with Dalby and Ross at the end). What did you think about these changes?
LD: I believe the film was ‘turned around’, which meant that new finance people replaced the original backers. According to what I was told at the time, the new budget was smaller and this meant deleting the proposed atoll locations. Hence, they were dropped from the film.

I try not to be a nuisance to the people who make films; they have enough troubles already! There have been films that have kept close to the original source. Eric Ambler’s screenplay for The Cruel Sea was a superb interpretation of the magnificent book. But for reasons of screen time, the average film has to sacrifice about three quarters of the average book. It is always going to be a painful cut for the author. And that was the case with The Ipcress File film.

DD: Do you think Sidney Furie captured what you were aiming for with your main characters (in contrast to what you’ve said about the casting and presentation of Game, Set and Match by Ken Grieve, which you felt didn’t)?
LD: I think Sydney Furie recognized the strength of Michael Caine and the ease with which Michael fitted into the Harry Palmer role. He always helped Michael by his skilful direction but he was clever enough to see what a loose rein could bring. It was a shame that he didn’t direct the other Harry Palmer movies.

DD: With Spy Sinker, you reveal how the main character and narrator Bernard Samson was not a totally neutral and reliable observer. If you were to have re-written The Ipcress File from the third person, what might the reader have learned about the 'unnamed spy' character?
LD: Harry Palmer is a loner in the tradition of heroes of fiction. Michael once summed up the character he was playing ‘Harry Palmer is a winner who comes on like a loser’. As with many of Michael’s verdicts on the world I can’t fault it. Harry Palmer is single-minded while remaining reflective enough to interpret what is going on.

Bernard Samson is a more complex personality formed by the people around him. His wife and his mistress, his children depend upon him. His superiors, such as the avuncular Frank and the abrasive Dickie, contribute to Bernard’s uncertainties. And while his patriotism is never in doubt, Bernard is more tentative than Harry Palmer. Although they both show a hard exterior to the world in which they live and work, Bernard sometimes finds his work distressing.
The well-known Horace Walpole quote: ‘This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel’ applies to them both. Harry is the former while Bernard is the latter.

DD: Your 'Jay' character is a peddler and dealer in information, offering it to the highest bidder. Was this character inspired – even in part – by anyone you met or knew about at the time in London?
LD: Yes, by several police informers. While an art student I lived in Soho, while it was a cesspit of crime, vice and general depravity. The police have a long tradition of paying for information and this is a recipe for corruption and distortion. It is not a good way to promote law and order.

DD: The Ipcress File is heavy on ambiguity. Do you think that’s what is at the heart of its success – that nothing ever seems certain, right up to the last page?
LD: It is exactly what I tred to do. My experience of life suggests that there is far more stupidity than there is evil (although much evil does exist) and stupidity is just as dangerous and harmful. In every person there is a measure of expertise and a measure of stupidity. I know brainy college professors who can’t work their dishwasher or their DVD player. I have seen incoherent cleaning ladies who total their cash accounts with consummate ease. I know indigent people who can interpret the literature of social welfare at one reading.

So I create characters made up of many conflicting abilities and inclinations, some of them illogical, some futile. I do this because that’s the way people are. Stories without the moral ambivalence of real life seem artificial to me.

DD: The brainwashing technique is central to The Ipcress File. What prompted you to use that as a device?
LD: When I wrote The Ipcress File there was a great muddle of ideas, theories and experience whirling around in my head. Battle For The Mind, a book by William Sargant – a very controversial psychologist – influenced The Ipcress File and its title*. I read it several times. But I have always suffered chronic skepticism in respect of Sigmund Freud and his theories although some of his books, such as The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, are entertaining.

But I have never discounted the benefit that counseling can bring and some psychiatrists have illuminating ideas. My friend David Stafford-Clark was perhaps the most famous psychiatrist of his time (he had also been a para-medic and a medical officer for both the RAF and the USAAF). But I have always believed that anyone who can count upon intelligent friends for advice is fortunate indeed.

* Readers’ note: William Sargent was a controversial British psychiatrist who promoted such treatments as psychosurgery, deep sleep treatment and electro-convulsive therapy. In Battle for the Mind, he discusses the process by which our minds are subject to influence by others. Although remembered as a major force in British psychiatry, his enthusiasm for discredited treatments such as insulin shock therapy and deep sleep treatment, his hatred for psychotherapy and his dogmatic approach mean much of his work is now discredited.

Having generously answered a number of questions about The Ipcress File, Len was kind enough to answer a few further questions submitted by readers of the Deighton Dossier blog about a range of topics.

DD: A number of blog readers has asked if you ever considered doing a second volume of Blood, Tears & Folly, from ’43 to ’45? If so, what do you think would have been your broad thesis about the military strategies of both sides during that period?
LD: Yes, I have drafted out a structure and made notes from meetings with individuals and with historians. My hard disk is loaded and I have a thick bundle of printed out material facing me.

The reason I think Blood, Tears & Folly is my most important book is because it revealed and proved that a significant amount of modern history is bunk, just as Henry Ford proclaimed it to be. Myths prevail because they provide the history that most people prefer to believe. And each nation embroiders and cossets its fables.

The second half of World War Two does not provide the unreported struggles and myths that are so evident in the first half of the war. Recent writings about the Russian and German fighting have been driven by Moscow archivists. The fingerprints of the Russian propaganda service are well in evidence but there are no great surprises. The Desert War, Italy and Northern Europe have been re-fought vigorously on land, sea and air with few dramatic revelations. The Pacific War is largely ignored by European historians and is not adequately covered by American ones.

The eye-witnesses who turned to fiction – such as James Jones and Norman Mailer – still provide the most convincing accounts of war in the Pacific. Perhaps there are still new facts hidden within the Army accounts and those of the US Navy.

DD: You’ve written a lot about military history and spent time in the RAF. What is the most salient lesson you’ve learned from both experiences about military strategy?
LD: The most salient lesson is that grave incompetence should result in immediate dismissal. Incompetence is a grave charge, which is why I spent so much time researching before writing Blood¸ Tears & Folly. But those given the power of life and death over hundreds of thousands of men women and children must expect to have their reputations scrutinised.

DD: Your production company produced the film for Only When I Larf as well as Oh! What a Lovely War. How did that come about?
LD: Paramount took a chance on me. They provided the big money for Oh! What A Lovely War on the basis of the screen rights - which I personally bought from Joan Littlewood - my film script and the efforts of my agent. But by the time the deal was settled winter was approaching. OWALW, using Brighton Piers and other outdoor locations, could not be started until there were longer hours of daylight.

As I had just finished writing Only When I Larf I suggested that Paramount also financed this because I could start immediately and film it during that winter. In fact I took the production to Manhattan and to Beirut, Lebanon where it was sunny, as well as building a plush apartment in a warehouse in the London docks where we shot the interiors. Thus no production days were lost to bad weather. Pre-production and post-production periods fitted nicely into my overall schedule and the overheads for my Piccadilly offices were covered.

I was moved by Joan Littlewood’s stage version of Oh! What a Lovely War. It was my ambition to make just that one film and then go back to writing. As things turned out I found it very interesting to make those two films. Was it Orson Welles who said making movies was like playing with a train set? Well, he was right, but there were too many people squabbling over who had the guards van when they should have been working and as the producer I was always in the middle of the childish squabbles for credits!

DD: Finally, any news on your aero engine and fountain pen histories?
LD: The text is complete for each of those books, but they both require many illustrations. I need to work with the photographer of the pens and the illustrator for the aero engines history. There remains a lot to do and publishers face the fact that they cater to minority interests. But, like The Ipcress File, and all my other books, I wrote them primarily for my own amusement, so I have no cause to complain.

This interview is © Pluriform 2012 and The Deighton Dossier. It must not be reproduced in any form without express permission of the author and the website owner


  1. How I love this author from the Ipcress File all the way through the Samson novels, the books are addictive, amusing, and engrossing. Most exceptional! Bravo!

  2. His texts are not consuming, but opens up to your own thoughts. In his fact books it gives occurences a new twist.
    It's very easy to get addicted, Outstanding!

  3. In addition to 'Victorian virtues', Britain's Public Schools also teach high standards of academic learning and analysis. This has resulted in the vast majority of pupils going on to higher education, usually university. The L.D. spy novels I read were enjoyable for the clever plots with all their twists and turns. I noticed that nearly all the ex-public-school characters come across as, at best moderately competent; at worst dim, incompetent or corrupt. Most of the people I've met in my life with these negative traits have been Grammar school or State-educated. But I don't think I would normally need or want to mention their education. I also do not think that it would give a fair reflection of these particular education systems. The generally very high standards of teaching mean that the vast majority of public-school educated go on to university. These are not dim people; nor do they usually lack common sense or respect for people from all walks of life. Obviously, L.D., has his own experiences of decision-making from the people-in-charge during the war. But during the 1960s, there was a backlash against what was seen as 'the Establishment', including the Middle Classes in general. And I believe, to some extent, this influence still applies today. I still think that Mr. Deighton writes great spy novels!