Len Deighton, who turned 88 this month, is enjoying a revival of interest in his work as filmmakers are turning to his books again for inspiration.
A five-part mini-series based on his 1978 novel SS-GB is about to be aired by the BBC, and there has been talk for some while of the nine Bernard Samson novels – Deighton’s magnum opus – being adapted for television as well.
SS-GB is a counter-factual history adventure set in 1941 Britain where the Nazis have taken occupation. Deighton, a highly respected writer on military history, penned the novel after carrying out painstaking research on Hitler’s occupation plans, speaking to German army generals and senior SS officers.
It provides an exciting backdrop for a murder investigation by Scotland Yard detective, Douglas Archer, who uncovers a terrible truth at the heart of the British puppet government under Nazi rule.
The world renowned author claims that he never wanted to be a writer, but a chance introduction with the literary agent, Johnathan Clowes, turned jottings made while on holiday into The Ipcress File. This was 1962, the same year of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, and a year before John le Carre published The Spy Who came in from the Cold.
The three British masters of the spy novel were about to start vying on the silver screen. But while Ian Fleming’s James Bond won hands down in general public appeal the world over, Deighton and le Carre’s anti-heroes proved the perfect antidote to those filmgoers who hated the glamorous fantasy world of 007.
Harry Saltzman, who made Dr.No, had the good sense to hedge his bets about what the paying public wanted from their British spy and produced The Ipcress File in 1965, offering the sharp witted cockney Michael Caine as an alternative to the smooth talking Sean Connery.
The film helped to launch Deighton’s career as a major author, and more spy novels followed, including many books featuring the jaded middle-aged MI6 spy, Bernard Samson. In the 1970s he wrote Fighter, an account of the Battle of Britain, as well as deeply researched novels about the Second World War, including Bomber, and SS-GB.
His historical non-fiction has also been highly praised over the years, despite being criticised for interviewing German veterans at a time when the only point of view of the war was from that of the allies.
He also found time to become travel editor of Playboy while also writing and producing the film version of Oh! What a lovely War.
But his real passion in life was cooking, taught to him while growing up in London by his mother who was cook by profession. As a trained illustrator he also drew cartoon strips based on recipes for The Observer. Cooking books followed, including Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook, Basic French Cooking, and, ABC of French Food.
Before becoming an illustrator after studying at London’s top art schools, he spent 30 months in RAF intelligence during his National Service, followed by a stint as a railway clerk, a BOAC steward, and a press photographer.
In total he wrote 27 novels, 11 miscellaneous works including films and television scripts, and 16 non-fiction books. Several of his works have been adapted for screen, three starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, and a Granada Television mini-series starring Ian Holm as Bernard Samson.
But the success in his early career was to some extent helped greatly by his good friend Michael Caine who personified the working class hero probably better than the author could have ever created in The Ipcress File. Deighton admits he had no idea why he made the unnamed hero, who narrates the story in the book, a northerner, and supposes that it may have been his way of disguising the fact that he was a Londoner who spoke with a cockney accent.
Caine restored the balance by making the spy a cockney, and by also giving him a name for the audience. He was looking for the most common sounding name possible, starting with Saltzman’s first name. Caine brought Deighton’s hero to life, capturing both the time and mood of the 1960s. Deighton’s book was seen at the time as fresh and different largely because of the way the hero was insubordinate to his often untrustworthy superiors. In truth, this was a return to the wisecracking Philip Marlowe only with a cockney accent. A hero with his own code of ethics.
The success of The Ipcress File caught Deighton by surprise as he instantly shot to global fame. But he was not the only one surprised by his immediate success; his publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, had restricted the print order to only 4,000 books and were sold out in just a couple of days.
He claims he never had any intense literary ambitions despite being a voracious reader since childhood thanks to the encouragement of his father who was a chauffeur and mechanic. But luckily for us he decided to swap his day job as an illustrator to become one of Britain’s finest writers in the spy genre.
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