Deighton returns to the silver screen

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.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

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100 years of the modern spy thriller

This year marks the centenary of the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps, arguably the world’s first modern spy thriller.

When John Buchan wrote the book around the outbreak of the Great War, he set a template not only for today’s espionage novels but for all thrillers alike.

It was innovative for its time, with its fast and speedy style, drawing on all the latest technology of the era, such as the single-wing plane, fast cars, motorbikes, radio, telephone and probably the first reference in literature to a semi-automatic gun.

While some credit Erskine Childers’ 1903 Victorian novel The Riddle of the Sands, as the first spy thriller ever published, there are many who point to Buchan as the father of the genre because of his modern writing style that aligns him with 20th century thriller writers.

Childers’ adventure story certainly had an influence on Buchan who wrote on the same theme about the threat of a German invasion of Britain. It had become a popular storyline among many writers since the 1880s until the eventual outbreak of World War One in 1914. Buchan’s novel was in fact the last to be written on the subject.

Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland, and went to Glasgow University and Oxford. He was already writing at this stage of his life, winning awards including for poetry. Despite his constant ill health, he was a barrister, MP, solder, writer and publisher.

His first success as an author was the publication of Prester John in 1910. It tells the story of a young Scotsman named David Crawfurd and his adventures in South Africa, where a Zulu uprising is tied to the medieval legend of Prester John. The hero in this story is later reincarnated as Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Buchan was looking to write a best seller as he had a good eye for book trends as a publisher. It took him only a few weeks to pen The Thirty-Nine Steps just after the outbreak of war, publishing the short novel the following year in October 1915. It was an instant hit with the solders in the trenches because not only did it take their minds off the fighting, but it was the type of book they could read in short bursts. Buchan had hit on a winning formula.

The premise of an innocent man getting accidentally caught up in international intrigue has become the bread and butter of many latter-day thriller writers. It is the classic call to adventure that makes this theme so enduring.

But the set-up used by Buchan has such a contemporary feel, providing you can put aside the anachronistic characters he describes in Edwardian Britain. Richard Hannay, a Scottish mining engineer, returns to London from Rhodesia and is so bored that he’s at the point of returning to Africa when he stumbles on a murder that could have implications to Britain’s security. Suddenly, his world is turned upside down and he’s on the run.

Buchan realised that the stakes had to be high to be put the readers on the edge of their seat. And nothing could be higher than Britain’s secret naval plans possibly falling into the hands of German spies. This at a time when his readers already understood what it felt to be at war.

Twenty years after its publication Hitchcock brought new life to the book with a comedy thriller, improving the story, and setting new standards in modern film making. Hitchcock via Buchan had established the chase thriller and then went on to re-cycle The 39 Steps in the guise of Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, and North by Northwest.

I have to confess I’m a sucker of the man-on-the-run theme and in my debut thriller, HIDER/SEEKER, I have used it in an inverse way.

My favourite type of thriller is where an ordinary man, minding his own business, is suddenly put into jeopardy. In HIDER/SEEKER, the main character, Harry Bridger, is no ordinary man, but his nightmare begins when his client goes on the run.

I remember exactly where I first read The Thirty-Nine Steps. It was while on holiday in Torridon, in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland. We had rented a cottage and the landlord had left a pile of books for a rainy day. I sat down on a sofa after supper and never got up again until I’d finished the book. I can’t say that I’ve done that with many books.

The enigmatic title, which does not provide a credible pay off in the book, though Hitchcock does better, came from Buchan’s six year old daughter, Alice. She gifted him the title of his new novel while he was staying in a house in Kent with his family. It was the number of steps that went down to the beach from the house as told in the book’s finale.

Buchan was created Baron of Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and held the position of Governor-General of Canada until his death in 1940.

The British historian, G.M Trevelyan*, paid the following tribute to him. ‘I don’t think I remember anyone whose death evoked a more enviable outburst of sorrow, love and admiration.’

The book was published on 19 October 1915 by Blackwood & Sons of Edinburgh and the John Buchan Museum in Peebles, Scotland, will be celebrating its publication with a special exhibition. (See News)

* G.M Trevelyan’s work was much admired by Dr Rod Whitaker’s wife who suggested to her husband that he adopt the surname as his pseudonym, Trevanian. (See The countdown begins, 4 March 2015)

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk’.