Deighton interview Nov 2012

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After catching up recently with him in London in November, Len kindly agreed to do another short Q&A interview, giving fans and blog readers more news and insight on his work and his life. We’re very grateful that he chose to do so - the third time for this blog - and I hope readers find the interview interesting. It’s split into two parts. 

Part one covers the topic of Berlin, one of the main ‘characters’ if you like in many of Len’s novels. I’ve just returned from there and the city retains it’s special aura, and the Berliner Luft is still present. The second part is Len answering questions submitted by readers of the blog.


Part 1 - ‘Berlin’

The Deighton Dossier: One of the most memorable phrases from Berlin Game I can recall instantly is this by Bernard Samson: “Did you ever say hello to a girl you almost married long ago? Did she smile the same, captivating smile, and give your arm a hug in a gesture you’d almost forgotten? That’s how I felt about Berlin every time I came back here.”

Alongside Fiona and Gloria, one can almost regard Berlin as the third woman in Bernard’s life, so strong is the pull of the relationship (with Tante Lisl the embodiment of the city, perhaps). What were your impressions of Berlin when you visited it for the first time? How did they change over time?

Len Deighton: At a London film festival I met an East German film director and we became close friends. When I first went to Berlin I was coming from Czechoslovakia in a very old VW and my destination was the East Sector. I came to know the East (communist) sector fairly well and made friends there, before spending any time in the West. The neighbourly cohesive atmosphere in the East reminded me of that of London during the war. Additionally there were the historical associations with the streets and buildings. Although Berlin was badly damaged many old buildings remained and so did the seemingly unquenchable good humour of its inhabitants.

It took a little time to fall in love with Berlin - its a grimy town with a lot of ugly buildings and a truly fierce winter - but it took a hold on me and I have never really shaken off my affection for it.

DD: You describe the character Major Erich Stinnes, the KGB major working out of Normannenstrasse, in a fantastically three-dimensional and believable way. Was he based on anyone you met? When you were in Berlin, how did you find out about or research how the Stasi/KGB operated in order to make it so believable?

Len: Yes, he was based upon a grim-faced East German pen-pusher who had lived in Moscow where he became a 'Germany specialist'; at least, that's what I was told. He turned up rather too often among the people I knew in Berlin. I don’t think he was assigned to watching me (he would have been more friendly had that been the case), but he was a dedicated Marxist while I was a self-confessed capitalist. We didn't become friends!

DD: When you spoke to East Berliners living behind the Wall, how did they regard the Wall and the regime? Did people generally get on with their lives or – as you depict graphically in the Lubars bolt-hole of Zena from the Western side - was the Wall a permanent physical part of their daily lives which had an impact in both complicated and simple ways?

Len: Well, of course people in the Eastern Sector had to be guarded in what they said, but one soon became used to reading between the lines and, considering how spiteful the East German regime could be, many people were bravely outspoken. Some stories were simple and very human, people would simply relate happenings and leave the conclusion unspoken.

One woman explained that she had been engaged to a young man living just a block away from her, with their marriage all planned, when the Wall went up and divided them. Berliners on both side of the Wall were brave and witty and many of their droll jokes revealed hostile feelings about all the authorities, with a particular emphasis on the Russians.

DD: The escape of Herr Dr von Munte and his wife via a sealed-in chamber in a truck via Berlin’s Muggelsee; the planned extraction of Colonel Stok by Kreutzmann through a hearse in Funeral in Berlin – were they entirely your own constructions or were both based on stories you’d heard about previous attempts to cross the Wall?

Len: Yes, there were many well-authenticated stories of that sort. I never met any of the escapers but the American military were very forthcoming about them and their methods.

DD: One of the recurring locations in the Samson series of stories is Leuschners Café, near the old Anhalter Bahnhof, where Bernard and Werner meet regularly. It’s also a piece of the old Berlin from their childhood. Was it based on a real café that you visited?

A. Leuschner's was a fictional eating place created from several real ones. Those old family-owned eating places seemed to be unique to Berlin and I loved to find them. I chose that location because I have always been fascinated by Anhalter Bahnhof and what it once had been. I have tried not to bore my readers but I immensely enjoyed my digressions into Berlin history; that sort of research became my favoured pastime. 

DD: Like in many of your books, food – and Berlinerisch food – features strongly in the narrative. What were your favourite Berlin delicacies?

Len: Berlin suffers cruel winters and the most delicious dishes are those based upon dumplings and pork. Not so welcome in summer, but wonderful in winter. There seems to be hundreds of different dumpling recipes and they are all delicious. For meat, the top of my list is Eisbein, a large braised pork knuckle served whole. (There are jokes about the double meanings of this name.) Hackepeter is ground raw pork, rather like steak tartare. Because German agricultural regulation is so strict, raw pork is safe to eat in Germany; I like it but I would not eat raw pork anywhere but Germany.

It wasn't difficult in those days to find family-owned cafes and restaurants where the cooking was authentic and rich with protein. Kraftbrühe mit Ei is clear beef soup with a raw egg dropped into; it was one of my regular pleasures. The little crescent-shaped cookies that Werner likes - Kipferln - are another weakness of mine; and in summer the 'red fruit' desserts can be wonderful.

Another favourite of mine is Weisswurst - a sausage made from veal and other 'white' meats. It is served with a sweet German mustard, but it is in fact a dish from Munich. Berliner Weisse mit Schuss is a pale beer with a shot of raspberry syrup. A Berliner is a doughnut (round not ring-shape) and the day after President Kennedy proclaimed 'Ich bin ein Berliner' Germany's many newspaper cartoons depicted talking doughnuts! A Berlin summertime dessert is Rote Grutze a mix of red fruits; an authentic one is superb but nowadays many are no more than jellied fruit. Last and least is currywurst a sausage liberally flavoured with curry; not recommended even to the hungry traveller.   

Part 2 - questions from Deighton Dossier readers

“Craig” had a number of questions for Len:

1. What does "W.O.O.C.(P)" stand for? Did you just make up the initials without actually having a name? I always thought the "(P)" meant "Provisional", but "W.O." presumably does not mean "War Office" since Dawlish and Ross clearly belong to different organizations.

Len: I confess, I can't recall! I think it must be somewhere in a footnote in one of the Harry Palmer books but I don't know where. I think WO was War Office and P was Provisional. I adapted the name from one of the wartime sub-departments with which the War Office was larded.

2. Is the character called "Pat Armstrong" in "Spy Story" really the unnamed protagonist from the early "Secret File" novels? There seems to be evidence both for and against, but I'd like to hear Len's view. Pat seems to me to have a lot in common with "Harry Palmer", whereas the unnamed hero of "An Expensive Place to Die" seems like a very different person.

Len: I was asked to use different names for the books because of the legal implications of 'character rights'. I took advantage of this in adapting their characters and their past history. Yes, the man in Expensive Place to Die is not quite Harry Palmer. But, generally, they are the same basic character. Years later, when I started planning the Bernard Samson stories I created a completely different character. I wanted a family man with a more complex attitude to his life and his work.

3. The closest that the Secret File protagonist ever gets to having a real heart-to-heart conversation with another person is his talk with Col. Stok near the end of "Billion Dollar Brain", after the death of Harvey Newbegin. How do you see the relationship between these two? On the one hand, they are obviously antagonists, but on the other hand, they know perfectly well who each other are and what they represent, which in an odd way gives them a certainty about each other that they probably rarely find with others.

Len: Yes, it came from some valuable conversations I had with an American (an agent, maybe?) who had been arrested and had a rough time detained in the East. He made light of what he had suffered and gave me no more than an outline about what he was doing over there. But he described a Russian colonel who wanted to know all about the pay and the expenses made to American agents. 'Do you get this and do you get that? Can you charge this?' etc., etc. This Russian colonel wasn't a potential defector, but simply an envious employee from a rival organisation. 

4. At the end of "Charity" we learn that Silas has been the mastermind behind everything since "Berlin Game". Did you have it planned that way from the start, and was the series always intended to be a "trilogy of trilogies" leading up to that final revelation?

Len: I didn't line him up as a black-hearted villain; I wanted him to be a complicated personality because such people were twisted in their thoughts. I started off with a wall chart outlining a series of twelve books but never wrote the final trilogy which would have been about the fall of the Wall.

In the chart Silas was the master-mind. At the end of writing Berlin Game I wasn't sure if it would all work out as planned. I was determined not to write the Samson books one after another without a break for fear I would go stale. For that reason I broke off to write and research other books in order to clear my mind. When I got to detailed planning for the third trilogy (Faith, Hope and Charity) I decided that the fall of the Wall was such an earthquake that it would obliterate the long line and progress of the personal relationships (which to me were the most important element of the books).

So I ended with Charity. Looking back, I still feel that Charity was the right ending. What happened to all those people afterwards is something for the reader to enjoy and create on the basis of the story as written.

Jeremy Duns (author of the Paul Dark series of novels, and a fan too):

1. Were there are any real-life espionage operations during the Cold War that influenced your fiction, and if so how did he find out about them and research them?

Len: There were some amazing operations - tunnels and so on - and in Berlin they provided endless stories and rumours. But I resisted the sort of thing that movie people call 'production values' because I wanted the characters to be more important than the headline-grabbing drama that was happening around them (although in the real world, it’s is exactly the opposite!) 

2. I’m very interested in your work on From Russia With Love – do you have any surviving drafts of your script and how do you regard it?

Len: I went to Istanbul with Harry Saltzman, plus the director and the art director. As with virtually all movies, the producer is the driving force who gets the idea, buys the rights, commissions the screenplay, chooses the actors and employs the director.

Harry demonstrated this creative power. We took breakfast together every day so that he could guide me and teach me how film stories worked. It was a wonderful course in movie making especially as the rest of each day was spent roaming around Istanbul with Harry plus the director and art director talking about locations and building the sets back in England.

I've always been rather careless about typescripts and notes  etc. And having a restless disposition I have packed, unpacked and repacked countless times as my family and I lived in different countries, I don’t have much written stuff left. 

“Giacomo” is a blog reader and asked: Did you know something about the Quentin Tarantino's proposal for an adaptation on screen of the "Game, Set, Match" trilogy? And what's your opinion about?

Len: I am always delighted to hear any proposal, but over the years I have rejected offers for filming single books from the Bernard Samson series.

Richard Corles (a wine distributor and fan) asked: What wines do you prefer to drink these days?

Len: I'm on the wagon these days!

“Daniele”, another blog reader, asked: Are you generally satisfied by the way your novels have been turned into films? What if anything would you change about them?

Len: A writer must not be too possessive about stories. You can't have your cake and eat it. If you sell the rights to someone you trust; you have to let them create their interpretation. One has to remember that, a 90-minute film can use about a quarter of the average length book i.e. 200+ pages. Film is to writing what a photo is to a painting; photos will all have a certain uniformity but paintings can be radically varied.

If you want to have a film exactly as you wrote it you must produce the film yourself and keep a tight grip on it (which is what I did a couple of times); even then you have to give everyone else a say in how it comes together.

Jeff Quest, blog reader, asked: I recently read The Ipcress File for the first time and what struck me was that the story was really about an office drone taking on more responsibilities and learning how to become a manager. The office politics aspect of it was what grounded the more fanciful elements of the book and feels valid even today. Was that portion of the book based on any of your experiences in the workplace or invented out of whole cloth like the rest of the story?

Len: Yes, many of my stories are boardroom dramas with other elements added. My experience in a small London advertising agency was a starting point, but only a starting point for the interaction. I enjoy boardroom fiction and films myself. Characterisation and dialogue are particularly interesting to me and board room dramas provide opportunities in this respect. Action scenes should be short and also support the characterisations.


© Pluriform 2012 and the Deighton Dossier.

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  1. I do enjoy these interviews.

    I've also been enjoying the new introductions that Len has been writing. I found the introduction to Spy Story and the inspiration to the Study Centre, wargaming, most interesting.

    In this one Len mentions a trip he made to a school in south London that had been taken over for the weekend by a wargaming group who were playing out a naval engagement. The Red and Blue teams were confined to seperate classrooms and each had a limited knowledge restricted to what could be gleaned by the lookouts of friendly ships. Only the onlookers looking down on the placement of all the vessels in the school gymnasium had a God's eye view and could see how all the forces were disposed.

    This is a fundamental difference between wargaming and chess. In chess each player has a perfect, comprehensive view, of the disposition of all the pieces. In this style of wargaming only what would be known to the players is revealed. The limitations of knowledge, in the real world, gives rise to the fundamental business of espionage (digging out more information than one's own side would normally have).

    Building a comprehensive view is also the business of historians. Wartime propaganda, deliberate misinformation and the activities of self serving leaders (some posing as historians) all cloud the real facts. The notion of a perfect, God's eye view is the goal of all historians, to produce a true record of the events.

    In the simulations that run in the Study Centre the actual disposition of all ships is presented. Some of the earlier readers of Deighton had complained about lack of clarity. The unreliable (unnamed) narrators didn't always suit a readership schooled on the certainty of how the post war allies saw their role in the world. Here Len may be playing with them; a true God's eye view can exist only in the contrived world of simulations and novels. Reality is clouded in fog and any realistic telling must be cryptic and incomplete.

    In Bomber, Len invokes the God's eye view via the radar plotting screen depicted in the Luftwaffe Opera House. Intercepts were managed by the men on the ground. They had to get the fighters close enough so that their very short range airborne radars could pick up individual targets. It's a specific, functional view of the battle that turns real men into symbols on a screen.

    Yet even the radar view is incomplete and later in the war it would be corrupted by electronic counter measures and counter-countermeasures. But even at this stage the radar plot, if it was a God's eye view, was the view of a God who saw the combatants not as men but as electronic symbols on a screen.

    A remarkable, prescient vision of warfare and a version that only Len Deighton could tell.

  2. I came across this fascinating interview when bored and 'Googling'. Len Deighton has long been a favourite author but I hadn't known why Bernard Sampson had 'retired' with the fall of the Berlin Wall. I do now

    I'd value a response from Len on 2 points:

    1 His writing style. Very Latin - would he agree? By that I mean short, simple sentences that carry a lot of meaning and complicated plots. I have often said to friends that LD wrapped complex plots in easy prose whilst Le Carre hides simple plots in lengthy obscure prose. Someone told me long ago that short sentences are devoured by the eye and brain. Conjunctions and longer sentences and paragraphs need to be re-read (Le Carre again)
    2 Bernard Sampson/Ian Holm. If ever there was a match made in heaven. Game Set and Match made brilliant TV. Why was Winter, Hook Line & Sinker, and Faith Hope & Charity passed over? Damn the end of the Cold War, I live in hope

    Thanks for entertaining me Len

  3. Thanks for long time entertainment. Berlin has a place of it's own.