Len Deighton has a lot to thank Harry Saltzman and Sir Michael Caine for.
It is undoubtedly thanks to Harry Palmer - the character the producer and star of The Ipcress File film jointly developed - that Len Deighton's career developed as spectacularly as it did in the nineteen-sixties and that he had the opportunity to produce other films. The three Harry Palmer Films - The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain - have wormed their way into popular culture positioning Harry Palmer as the sardonic 'anti-Bond'.
Deighton as a film producer enjoyed some success with first Only When I Larf and also Oh! What A Lovely War, but he found the film world a challenging and frustrating place, preferring in the end the solitude and control of writing. Spy Story is the rather lacklustre outlier in this section, as it made little impact on the big screen.
On TV, the picture is different. In 1988 Game, Set & Match was filmed by Granada TV as a thirteen-part series which was never released or shown again commercially, due to disputes between the producers and Deighton. However, in February 2017 BBC1 will be showing a five part adaptation of SS-GB as its major spring release, bringing Deighton's work back to the small screen after a long while.
See below the films which have successfully brought Deighton's characters from the page to the screen or check out the dedicated page examining the Game, Set & Match TV series
Deighton's working class spy still resonates in popular culture over fifty years since The Ipcress File was first released in cinemas.
Sir Michael Caine's iconic portrayal seems tailor-made for the character in the books, with his cockney banter, laconic manner, disdain for authority and swagger. Across three films - and two questionable nineteen-nineties re-treads - Caine created a fan favourite and the films producers and creatives developed a filmic style which has often been quoted by other film makers.
Find out below more information about each film and how the Harry Palmer character developed over time.
Harry Palmer, a British intelligence officer, is assigned to Major Dalby, whose unit has been investigating the disappearances of several well-known UK scientists. Their most recent case involves Dr. Radcliffe, who's been kidnapped by a 'dealer' in agents known by the codename 'Blue-jay'. Harry is an unconventional spy: although a sergeant in the army (drummed out on a charge of bribery and corruption), he is disrespectful of his superiors, yet also enjoys the finer things life has to offer - fine wines and Mozart feature.
Dalby is prepared to pay a reward to get him back. When they do so, they find that his mind has been wiped clean and he is totally is unable to function. Palmer also has an unfortunate encounter with a CIA agent whom he kills unintentionally. Now a target of the CIA as well as the kidnappers, Palmer thinks he has solved the mystery of what 'Ipcress' means and the identity of the person ultimately responsible for the kidnappings.
Before he can act, he is captured, and wakes up in what appears to be an Albanian prison, where he gets to feel the end result of the IPCRESS process for himself - the 'Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under strESS.'
This film adaptation stars the then relatively unknown Michael Caine; arguably, it gave a massive boost to his career making him a household name.
The film was released in 1965 and produced by the James Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman, assisted by several prominent members of the Bond production family. In the book, the hero is nameless; this clearly did not work in film, so Caine's character was given the name Harry Palmer.
Why? One theory: there is a scene in the book where the character is greeted by someone saying "Hello, Harry." which causes him to think, "Now my name isn't Harry, but in this business it's hard to remember whether it ever had been."
A more readily used reason is that it was simply a confection of Saltzman over lunch one day with Len Deighton. Harry was the most working class name his lunch companion could think of, and Palmer the surname of a friend. Ambiguity in everything is the watchword. Like Deighton's original book, the film's plot is never clear cut and the exact relationship between the protagonists, and a degree of moral ambiguity, can make the film a little challenging to follow. Certain important elements are missing, such as the detour to the south Pacific atoll where nuclear bombs are tested.
Stylistically, this film is a tour de force which screams sixties design and sentiment. It has elements of film noir throughout, like the use of distorting lenses, unusual angles and high contrast photography, but all set in 1960s swinging London. The camera is often out of focus, or shoots through objects, such as a pair of cymbals, lampshades, even a keyhole. It’s gritty and realistic look of the film - thanks to production designer Ken Adam - that matches the shift in the 'sixties away from the more staid sensibilities of the nineteen-fifties.
The introduction of a male character who is equally happy in the supermarket and the kitchen as he is in the pub was revolutionary at the time. Palmer (as was Deighton) is a gourmet cook, knowing that this is a way to be more successful with women. Famously, in the scene where Palmer cooks an omelette for Jean, it is actually Len Deighton's hands which are in shot breaking the eggs one-handed into the bowl, not Caine's.
There is also a reference to Deighton in the same scene; pinned to the kitchen wall is one of his 'cookstrips' which were published in The Observer at the time. [See picture, right]
Crucial to the film's atmosphere is John Barry's theme tune and incidental music, which are much more sparse in style than your typical Bond score.
Rank Films put a lot of effort into raising awareness of the film. Their 'Top Secret' dossier contained material targeting promoters, cinema owners and journalist, containing information about the film and its stars and ideas for creating public awareness. In the background information on the first page there are choice phrases used to describe the film which show how they were marketing it at a time when the Bond films were already successful:
UK release date: 18 March 1965
Producer: Harry Saltzman
Director: Sidney Furie
Screenplay: Bill Canaway
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Music: John Barry
Harry Palmer is assigned to Berlin to arrange the defection of Russian agent. In Berlin, through his contact Johnny Vulkan, he meets Israeli agent Samantha Steel, who seems to be interested in the same people he's after.
Palmer crosses into East Berlin to meet Colonel Stok to arrange the removal of someone. Stok tells Palmer he wishes to go west and has a few conditions; he wants a meager stipend, a house in the country, and his escape must be carried out by Kreutzmann, a master of escapes from East Berlin, because he wants the best.
Palmer negotiates an arrangement with Kreutzmann, who demands as part of his payment a set of travel documents in another name. From Hallam, the documents manager back at MI5, Palmer receives documents in the name of Louis Paul Broum. As he places the envelope in his briefcase for return to Berlin, he sees that name on the photocopy of Samantha's little black book, with the figure $2,000,000 next to it.
Palmer returns to Samantha's, handing her a set of pearls to replace the one in the fake robbery. He makes a point to show her the inside of his briefcase as he does this, so she can see Broum's name on his envelope. She is an Israeli agent, who steals the documents to prevent Broum from traveling out of Berlin to Switzerland, where he can claim $2,000,000 of Nazi war profits that were stolen from Jews.
Palmer has to admit to Ross that not only has he lost the 20,000 pounds, but the documents as well. Ross orders him to kill his friend Vulkan, as without those documents Vulkan's of no use to the British.
Palmer is faced with a moral dilemma, but finds a twist-laden solution. In doing so, he also unravels the complex undercover operations played out around the Berlin Wall by the melange of international agents, double agents and one-time innocents.
Berlin is the star of this film by British director Guy Hamilton along with Michael Caine as Harry. A divided city, still with the scars of war but now vibrant and growing, and teeming with people from all over the globe, meeting in intercontinental hotels and jazz bars. The city - and the wall - have a presence throughout.
Caine's performance is excellent, and he's well supported by Eva Renzi as Samantha Steel and the Johnny Vulkan character of Swiss actor Paul Hubschmid along with the return of Oskar Homolka's Colonel Stok.
As is the case with the book, the director seems to want to confuse the viewer with sub-plots, sleight of hand and a fast-paced narrative which can leave one confused at times as to exactly who is duping whom and for what. But it never detracts from what is an enjoyable film.
The role of Samantha Steel was originally assigned to Anjanette Comer. Due to her death shortly before the film was shot, Eva Renzi replaced her.
The novel was originally called 'My Funeral in Berlin' by Deighton, but a mistake at the production design stage at the publishers meant it lost the possessive pronoun and this was reflected in the film too.
UK release date: 23 February 1967
Producer: Charles Kasher
Director: Guy Hamilton
Screenplay: Evan Jones
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Music: Konrad Elfers
Harry Palmer of W.O.O.C.(P). has become a none-too-successful private detective. He receives a package of money which is followed by a mechanical taped voice that gives him his instructions over the phone.
He accepts the assignment and unknowingly enters the world of a Texas billionaire who thinks he can bring about a popular uprising in the Baltic republics in the Soviet Union with the help of a highly sophisticated computer managing a team of foreign agents.
In Finland he encounters his old acquaintance Leo Newbigen and establishes that the package contains virus-filled eggs that have been stolen from the British government's research facility at Porton Down.
Later, he is coerced into working once more for Colonel Ross and the British secret service. He becomes a member of the 'Crusade for Freedom' organisation – an ultra-right-wing group led by maniacal oil-billionaire General Midwinter – and is charged with thwarting its planned attempt at liberating Latvia from Soviet domination, which would cause a worldwide conflict; this also brings him into conflict with his old friend Newbegin.
Harry must also recover the stolen virus for the British. At times, Palmer is very un-Bond like in his approach to this mission; he is reliant on help from Colonel Stok; he gets captured; he gets framed by Ross and is forced to complete the mission to capture the eggs; and he relies on an old friend Newbigen, who demonstrates he is only out for himself.
Michael Caine was by this point apparently sick of playing the scruffy spy Harry Palmer and worried about type-casting; as a result, he ducked out of his five-film contract after this memorably bizarre third instalment, which has its action-packed moments but lacks the panache of the first two movies.
Despite Caine's reservations, there are some great supporting performances from the likes of Ed Begley's maniacal General Midwinter, Karl Malden as Harvey Newbigen - Palmer's pal, Oskar Homolka reprising Colonel Stok and Françoise Dorléac as Anya, the love interest. As an ensemble these actors provide some credibility to the story depiction, even with a script that at times is a little weak.
Nevertheless, the location shooting in Finland is spectacular and the battle on the ice as Midwinter's troops race to Latvia is pretty spectacular. What it lacks, maybe, is the cockney charm of London or the Cold War vitality of Berlin, both of which were integral to the two earlier films.
The musical score offers a relentless, harsh mood (like the Baltic weather), with a focus on brass and percussion, including three pianos. The score is constantly varying the main theme.
Director Russell brought some panache and a greater focus on action and movement to the film, and gained inspiration from the environment and closeness to the Soviet Union: the scene on the ice between the two armies is an homage to Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky film of 1938, as the armies converge on the frozen sea.
The opening sequence is, perhaps, the most inventive of the three films, with its - at the time - modern vision of a world run by computers. The computer consoles in the film opening sequence are Honeywell 200 mainframe consoles.
32 seconds were cut from the movie as there was a scene in which a Beatles song was playing in the background in Finland. The Beatles denied the producers the right to use the song in the movie, hence cuts had to be made.
You can read an excellent reassessment of the film by Mark Dellar on the Bright Lights website.
US release date: 20 December 1967
Producer: Harry Saltzman
Director: Ken Russell
Screenplay: John McGrath
Cinematography: Billy Williams
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
The film brings back from retirement film’s greatest cockney working class spy, Harry Palmer.
The conceit for the plot is to ask what does a secret agent do for work once the Cold War is over and the communists in Moscow are no longer the enemy.
Now working on a freelance basis for the Russians, Harry Palmer - still active, despite nearing retirement age - is hired to track down a deadly virus-based weapon - the 'bullet' in question - which is being delivered to the North Koreans via the Trans-Siberian Railway.
The film is not based on any of Deighton's books - just his characters - and it was generally panned by critics.
Although it's billed as 'Len Deighton's Bullet to Beijing' on the DVD box, the screenplay is actually by Peter Wellbeck (aka producer Harry Towers). Sir Michael Caine’s central performance as the ageing Harry Palmer lacks much of the verve and style of the first three outings in the sixties; also, the filming style is more TV mini-series than Hollywood blockbuster. So it's not a great film overall even if it has its moment. The acting and storyline lack zest.
Nevertheless, it has some charm. It's set and filmed in post-communist Russia - a luxury the previous producers did not have - and it does portray the rise of the oligarchs well; the producers obviously got permission to film in Russia, so the budget was clearly there for what could have been a half-decent film. There are some well-worked car chase sequences and the footage on the train is shot well and rather dramatic; as a result, one does get a sense of the chaos and cheapness of life at the time in the gangster's paradise of post-communist Russia.
Palmer's romantic squeeze from The Ipcress File - Jean Courtney, played by Sue Lloyd - makes a welcome reappearance, but rejects Palmer's offer of marriage. There are hints in the dialogue that Jason Connery's character Nikolai - with a Russian mother and a British father who 'worked for MI5' - might actually be Harry Palmer's son, though this is hinted at rather than made explicit.
One bonus is that the film does has the stunning actress Mia Sara, who played Ferris Bueller's girlfriend in the film of the same name a decade earlier, here playing Nikolai's girlfriend, so it's not all bad. However, overall the film is not a patch on the sixties' series and leaves the viewer disheartened to see what the franchise - like the Harry Palmer character - has been reduced to.
Seventies keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman provides the soundtrack, which suits the period of time with all its electronic keyboards, but lacks much of the panache of John Barry's earlier soundtracks.
UK release date: 1995
Producer: John Dunning & Alexander Golutva
Director: George Mihalka
Screenplay: Peter Wellbeck
Music: Rick Wakeman
Harry Palmer, after doing the job for Alex Alexovich in the first film, decides to set up a private security agency in Moscow (modelled by the producer on the real life agencies cropping up to protect the oligarchs, staffed by ex-KGB agents).
He gets a job to locate and recover a consignment of stolen plutonium, and with the help of colleague Nikolai Petrov (Jason Connery), he sets off to St. Petersburg to try and find it. Along the way he must deal with the violent Russian Mafia and also find Nikolai's girlfriend Tatiana (Tanya Jackson) who has been kidnapped.
Unlike the other modern adaptation, Len Deighton is - apparently - involved as a co-writer of the film script, though the book again is not based on any existing novel.
However, subsequently the author has confirmed to the Deighton Dossier that he was not involved in any way with the movie, beyond simply 'green lighting' it.
As he recalled: "I said ‘if you can persuade Michael to play the lead, I will let you have the necessary screen rights.’ I was quite confident that I would hear no more about it. But I did!"
There is ample evidence to suggest that much of this cobbled together film comprises edited-together out-takes from the earlier Bullet to Beijing filming; in truth, the storyline is a little threadbare and suggestive of patching together of spare parts.
The acting overall is pretty tame and Jason Connery's performance in particular is wooden. This film, nevertheless, has curiosity value as much as anything.
This made-for-TV movie was produced for a pay-TV channel in the states, Showtime. Part of the deal with Caine was that he would only make it if a big-budget movie - Bullet to Beijing - was made alongside it. It's not great, but it is fun to see Harry Palmer close to retirement but still full of character!
The film's tag-line is: 'No One Can Be Trusted. Nothing Is As It Seems. One Wrong Move Could Cost Everything.'
UK release date: 1996
Producer: John Dunning & Alexander Golutva
Director: Douglas Jackson
Screenplay: Peter Wellbeck
Music: Rick Wakeman
The Harry Palmer character, created (but not named) by Len Deighton, has become embedded in popular culture and is for most people the one connection between the author and cinema.
That is largely true but there are other films based on Deighton books, or which Deighton himself produced - namely Oh! What a Lovely War - that have some cinematic value even if they did not create the same sort of impact as The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin or Billion Dollar Brain. Some, like Spy Story, rather sank without trace and have rarely been shown on TV since.
Deighton's success as an author in the 'sixties gave him a certain amount of cachet and pull within the Hollywood system, allowing him to secure financing and to produce himself two films, Only When I Larf and Oh! What a Lovely War, both done in partnership with his friend Brian Duffy. As Deighton recounts on this website below, the experience of being a film producer left him somewhat aggrieved and thankful to return to his typewriter.
Find out below more information about these lesser known films.
This is a rather pedestrian but nevertheless charming adaptation of the novel of the same name.
With a stellar cast, it tells the story of three con artists - Silas, Liz and Bob - who, after a close-run thing with a job in New York, are seeking to go up in the world by defrauding the general of an African nation facing civil war. When that goes awry, and they turn to defrauding a Middle Eastern bank, the whole job tests the three’s relationship to its utmost, as the younger Bob becomes increasingly attracted to Liz.
Inevitably, they start to get under each other's feet and begin feuding and distrusting one another. As a result, the ending in the deserts of Syria contains a good twist which the viewer doesn't see coming.
The direction by Dearden is upbeat and enthusiastic, bright and brisk. Though it's a US-financed movie, it does have a distinctly British feel to it, not least through some of the hamming up Attenborough is required to do for his part as Silas. The locations are shot well - in particular, the opening sequence in New York where the finance fraud requires the gang to keep to a tight schedule, and to escape Manhattan by helicopter - and the catchy whistled theme tune does add to this jaunty atmosphere on the film which is part comedy drama, part heist movie.
The acting is accomplished right down to the supporting cast and does draw upon the repertory company of top quality British TV and film actors of the time. A number of actors were up for the part of Silas, including David Niven, but Sir Richard Attenborough was determined to get it. Alexandra Stewart, relatively unknown in the UK and Hollywood, was nevertheless a very well known actress in France.
The film does have a great sixties free-wheeling feel to it - David Hemmings as Bob sees to that - and Deighton has secured a significant budget for the movie, allowing for a significant amount of location filming. Dearden also catches onto the decade's cinematic fashions, with jerky jump shots, zoom-ins and hand-held shots something like out of A Hard Day's Night.
Ultimately, it lacks a compelling script, and loses something from the novel, where Deighton's constant switching in the narration between the three main protagonists helped shape the story and keep the tension. Too much of the acting is poor and Richard Attenborough - surprisingly - isn't that great as Silas. His 'disguise' as the Arab financier Hamid is laughably poor, the viewer is led to think that the mark deserves to be defrauded if he can't see through it.
Prior to the publication of the book in 1968, Deighton was already seeking a movie deal for the story. He had 150 copies of the book privately printed and bound in a plastic comb binder to establish copyright; these have now become the most sought-after item for collectors of books and ephemera associated with Deighton.
The novel itself wasn't published in the States until 1987.
UK release date: 1968
Producer: Len Deighton & Brian Duffy
Director: Basil Dearden
Screenplay: John Salmon
Cinematography: Anthony Richmond
Music: Ron Grainer
A screen adaptation of the well-known stage play and musical of the same name, this is a mix of fact-based drama and musical fantasy about the ‘great game’ of the first World War, highlighting the isolation of the top-brass from the fighting man, and the ultimate futility and absurdity of the ‘strategy’ of trench warfare.
The Smith family goes off to war in 1914 with much ballyhoo and laughter. Through a series of tableaux, the fate of the Smith sons on the battlefields of the Great War, at the mercy of the decisions of the aristocratic diplomats and the pitiless generals is played out. All of this is accompanied by a series of songs redolent of tunes
Brighton is used to portray 'Blighty', and the action such as it is of the war is played out theatre-style on the pier and in the Sussex countryside, both of which stand in as fantasy representations of the continent.
Much of the action in the movie revolves around the words of the marching songs of the soldiers, and many scenes portray some of the more famous (and infamous) incidents of the war, including the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the Christmas meeting between British and German soldiers in no-mans-land and the wiping out by their own side of a force of Irish soldiers newly arrived at the front, after successfully capturing a ridge that had been contested for some time.
So, the film does not shy away from dealing with some of the hard-hitting truth of war, but it then leavens the bread by interspersing harrowing scenes with light-hearted songs.
Deighton's coup in asking first time director Attenborough to direct meant the latter was able to use his fantastic list of contacts in the British theatre to persuade a long list of acting's top brass to appear in the film. This is what saves it as a piece of film theatre - some of the cameos are splendidly over the top but also sinister in the portrayal of the disregard for the common man at the front.
Deighton was dissatisfied with the process of producing this film and the outcome, hence his name was removed from the credits, something which he now describes as childish. But he was closely involved with Attenborough in getting it produced, and his ideas - such as the plight of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ seen in many of his books - come across in the script.
During the filming of the movie, at one point Deighton hot-wired twenty parked cars in a Brighton street in order to be able to clear it for filming as they were in the way of the shot.
Sir Laurence Olivier won a BAFTA award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of British Expeditionary Force leader General Sir John French and Sir John Mills portrays Field Marshal Haig very well. The film itself won a Golden Globe award in 1970 for best English-language foreign film.
Ian Holm, who played French President Poincaré, of course went on to play Deighton's Bernard Samson character in the ITV adaptation of Game, Set & Match.
[In an exclusive for the Deighton Dossier, Len Deighton recounts his experiences making this film]
The radio play
"When Charles Chilton created 'The Long Long Trail,’ his musical play for BBC radio, he used only the words that were spoken or written by the participants of World War One. The programme was entertaining but it was an important record too. In a typically British light-hearted way, it brought the facts, figures and first-hand opinions of the war to a wide audience.
The stage production
On 19 March 1963, Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop opened their production. Joan had transformed the radio programme into a musical entertainment for the stage. Her Theatre Royal was a lovely old music hall and Joan's instinct told her to adapt a line from one of the songs - 'Oh, its a lovely war' - to make her more exclamatory title ‘Oh What A Lovely War'. Joan's production adopted the variety theatre format, and even used the illuminated numbers at each side of the stage to distinguish each act.
The Theatre Royal was small and the audience was mostly local people, but the heavy irony of Joan's new title attracted wide attention. Theatre critics, always curious about Joan's startling and unpredictable talent, came to Stratford in London to see what it was all about. Kenneth Tynan, the theatre critic of The Observer, gave the show a rave review. I read his verdict a day or two later, in Portugal. The production was obviously an important historical record and I made plans to go to London and see it. I went to London, saw the show and bought the LP recording of the songs and music.
After seeing Joan's Theatre Workshop production at Stratford East the show remained in my mind, and I had played the songs over and over again. I bought a published copy of the stage play to see if I could make it into a screenplay. Harry Saltzman warned me that other admirers of the show had bought movie options previously, but failed to get deals; but I persevered. My determination was driven more by the wish to make a permanent record of the show than by a wish to become a film producer.
The stage show - many years previously - exploited the variety theatre: one act after another. I knew that no movie production company would accept such a structure: they would demand a story. Rejecting the vaudeville and the Pierrot costumes, I considered a circus, a pantomime, a magic show and other ideas but finally decided to represent the war by means of a seaside pier, its entrance garlanded with World War One signs and flashing lights.The pier's sideshows would be used to introduce changes of scene. General Haig would be selling tickets for the pier and his ticket office would grow and grow and become more luxurious. Safe and comfortable, well-dressed civilians on the pier would look down (and the camera pan down without cutting) to see the soldiers in the mud (i.e. the beach). I visited several seaside resorts but Brighton was by far the best and by using its two piers I would be able to build sets on one, while shooting on the other.
I scribbled my annotations into a published edition of the stage script; I still have it. I amalgamated individuals to create the Smith family and followed their fortunes through the war. I retained almost everything that was in Joan's show but some acts would not fit in. I thought the Christmas truce, as the Tommies fraternised with the Germans in no-man's land, was an important historic incident and I had some eyewitness accounts of it so that I could keep to the discipline of using only words that were spoken at the time.
What of the deaths? I didn't want blood and guts, or sentimentality; the shocking power of the show was in the way the soldiers knew their fate but put on a relentless show of fun and laughter. The deaths would come from a cheerful and avuncular photographer; each death marked by the red poppy. The photographer would hold the film together. I spotted Joe Melia in a play at the Aldwych Theatre and went backstage to sign him immediately. Joe was a fine actor and his contribution was a vital asset.
Most importantly, I wanted to show how the war began. So I devoted a great deal of time to researching the words of the politicians so that some responsibility could be assessed. I wrote this as a prologue. It was my carefully considered attempt to answer the question: 'How did all this horror start?'
The other major screenplay decision was creating a cinematic and dramatic finale. My father had served in the trenches and been gassed and severely wounded. The Machine Gun Corps suffered very heavy casualties. I truly loved my hard-working parents. My father, like so many of the men who had served in the trenches alongside him, was uncomplaining in a way I much admired. So many men were disabled; so many died; so many mothers, wives and children grieved. And in 1939 it began all over again. As a teenage civilian, I had in 1946 visited Paris where I got into conversation with a group of British soldiers on a brief leave there. They comprised a burial party appointed to dis-inter war dead from the battlefield and rebury the bodies. What they told me, and what I saw at that time, remained in my mind. When I wanted a final scene that would show the cost of the war, a seemingly endless expanse of war graves came immediately to mind. As the last of the Smith family wanders across a smoke-filled no-man's land, he passes a group of civilians signing the Armistice and finds a family picnic waiting. It is a happy moment: the war never took place, it was just a bad dream. But as the camera pulls back it reveals endless fields of crosses on war graves.
It was only when my screenplay more or less finished that it occurred to me that, unless I owned screen rights, all this work would be useless. So in the summer of 1966 I went to Joan Littlewood and negotiated an option on the film rights. She kindly gave me dinner at her home in Blackheath. I was alone with her and her partner Gerry Raffles and the three of us negotiated the terms on the spot. They were tough but fair bargainers and insisted that the option period should be no more than six months. This lit a fire under me; I had to move quickly; I had to find financial backing or lose my deposit. The money was entirely my own and their screen rights option was assigned to me. Joan explained in some detail how she converted
Charles Chilton's radio musical 'The Long Long Trail' into her stage production 'Oh What A Lovely War'. On the stage with her (and the cast of her Theatre Workshop) as she planned the stage movements, entrances and exits, she had the highly-regarded historian A. J. P. Taylor. She suggested that I asked him out to advise me too. This was a wonderful suggestion. Taylor made sure that I stuck to historical accuracy, just as Charles Chilton and Joan Littlewood had done. I appreciated his vast knowledge and he became a close friend. I went on walking holidays with him and his family, and he encouraged me to write my military history books.
Entirely by chance, John Findlay, a senior executive of the world-famous William Morris Agency, was present when I joined a German actress friend, Eva Rienzi for after-lunch coffee at The Dorchester Hotel (she starred in the film of Funeral in Berlin.) Joan's stage show had such an impressive reputation that, having listened to my ideas, and even before reading my screenplay, John Findlay suggested that William Morris represent me (personally) and try for a movie deal. Within days he had given my screenplay to Bud Ornstein at Paramount Pictures.
Bud Ornstein was much-admired in the film world. He was a relative of Mary Pickford, the silent-screen star. He was Paramount Picture's driving force behind a list of memorable films and, to my delight, a pilot and aviation enthusiast. Bud's approval of me and my screenplay was enough for William Morris to make a deal with Paramount with me as the sole producer. I had by that time had a budget assessment made by an approved professional so money was agreed. (Some years later, I was to work with Bud on a James Bond film that brought Sean Connery back into the role he created.)
I leased impressive offices overlooking Hyde Park Corner at 142 Piccadilly. The site is now that of a luxury hotel. My 'landlord' was Wylton Dickson a close friend. I engaged office staff to man the phones and also took there my video tape recorder. I instructed the receptionist in using it, so that actors applying for the smaller roles could be put on tape. I was able to study the filmed interviews each evening. This may have been the first time that such video casting was done in England. John Findlay left William Morris and came to work for me full-time as a special adviser. His lifetime of experience in the offices where the big decisions were made proved a great asset to me.
I had already produced one film and now asked the Production Manager, Mack Davidson, to be my Associate Producer for Oh! What a Lovely War. In the war he had flown photo-recce Spitfires. He was experienced and unflappable. I depended upon him for making my ideas happen. If there was one person who produced the film, it was Mack. Apart from myself he was the only other person with a producer's authority and he always miraculously fixed all the unforeseen problems. On the last day of shooting, Mack had a heart attack and died. It was completely unexpected and I was devastated. So was his devoted family. The end of the shooting was a very sad time for me. I miss his friendship still today.
I had decided that, for many of the less important roles it is better to teach a dancer to act than to teach an actor to move gracefully. I wanted the body movements of the cast to be a part of their roles so I signed as many dancers as possible even in non-dancing roles. I was lucky in securing Eleanor Fazan to not only choreograph the dance sequences but also to extend her influence to the whole film.
I engaged the highly regarded Tony Mendleson as the costume designer and I appointed May Routh, who had been a fellow student at St Martins School of Art, to be his assistant. In effect, I arranged that she should be responsible for the (male and female) uniforms while Tony would design all the civilian clothes and supervise everything his department did. Tony was a delightful man and a top professional and he was happy to have someone else do the uniforms for him, so this pairing worked well. The 1914-1918 war lasted long enough for civilian clothes and uniforms to change through the years, and I wanted this change to follow the chronology of the film. (May was eventually to become a very successful costume director in Hollywood.)
As word about my screenplay and my deal with Paramount went around, I heard from half a dozen directors who wanted the job. I had a message from Gene Kelly saying he would like to direct it. No one admired the work and talent of Gene Kelly more than I did but I felt that Oh! What A Lovely War (OWALW) was a British story and must have a British director. For my previous film - Only When I Larf - I had used Basil Dearden, a dedicated professional who had directed many fine films; but he had never directed an all-location film before and I found him hesitant, although not opposed, to using new ideas: overhead lighting that permitted 360 degree camera pans and indoor location scenes lit by daylight without coloured gels, for instance.
OWALW was designed as an all-location and largely outdoor shoot. It was unconventional in theme and method; the poppy man was a fantasy element and there were several others. An experienced director was not what I wanted.
From my short list I chose Attenborough because he was very keen and seemed to have learned my screenplay by heart. He said his acting days were over and he needed a new career. Although he had never directed a film, he had seen it from the other side of the camera. From my point of view his receptive mind and determination was an advantage. But, before giving Attenborough the director's job on OWALW I told him that I would want him to stick exactly to my script, word for word and scene for scene, and that I would have a story-board artist proposing each days camera set-ups. The story board artist was Pat Tilley, an old friend of mine and a very successful illustrator and writer. Attenborough welcomed these conditions. He was a dedicated and hard-working professional and kept to his promise.
The people at Paramount, notably Bud Ornstein, expressed doubts about my signing Attenborough. They kept reminding me that he had never directed a film before. Charlie Bluhdorn, the top man there, also worried about having an inexperienced director tackling an expensive musical film (and the fact that I had produced only one film added to the doubts). But I persuaded them to my choice by reminding them that the screenplay was tight and complete: no re-writes, re-thinks or unwritten ending. (At this time many films were written and rewritten as shooting progressed.) I told them too that I would be using a story-board artist and I promised that if things went badly in the early stages, we could switch directors and put in some very conventional director of whom they totally approved.
With me, Charlie and Bud were taking even more of a chance; for in the film world producers are a fixture and can't easily be fired or replaced. But when I brought Only When I Larf in on budget and on time, they were somewhat reassured. 'But this is a musical, Len!’, they told me a hundred times.
When I bought the screen rights from Joan these rights didn't include permissions to use the music, much of which was still controlled by executors who were reluctant to allow their music to be used in conjunction with parody lyrics. I had two experienced lawyers who devoted all their working hours to obtaining the needed agreements. It was a complicated business with seemingly endless exchanges of letters and phone calls. They worked hard and, as I watched our shooting schedule moving forwards, there were several worrying days and nights.
Finally there was only one song permission outstanding: 'They Didn't Believe Me,’ a 1914 hit.
The lyrics, by Herbert Reynolds were in the public domain but the music was still copyrighted. Right from the first draft of my screenplay I had visualised this haunting melody with its parody lyrics - 'We'll Never Tell Them' - as my powerful finale; the lost soldier, the picnic and the ever-widening screen revealing the vast landscape of crosses. Now it began to look as if I would not have permission for the music - or not have it in time. Keeping this impending crisis as something between the lawyers, Mack and myself, I spent anxious days, and sleepless nights, as we manufactured thousands of polystyrene crosses and watched the filming date coming closer. Permission was eventually granted by the Kern Estate and we both breathed easily once more.
In Paris I had become friends with a Canadian prospector who had found uranium. With his new wealth, he made generous contributions to Bertrand Russell's charities. He told Russell that I was an expert in the legal small print of publishing contracts. With this in mind, Russell's secretary phoned me and asked me to visit 'Bertie' at Plas Penrhyn his home in Wales. My wife and I were happy to oblige this world-famed mathematician and philosopher. During our stay there he asked me what were the contractual obligations arising from an old letter he'd written to a publisher, and its present day bearing on the autobiography he was writing. I told him that, since the letter had no mention of payment, it was not valid. Just to double-check, I arranged for my accountant friend Anton Felton to visit Lord Russell. (This proved a fruitful meeting; Felton became Russell's legal executor and, working with Ray Hawkey, supervised publication of the Russell archives.)
At the end of my days with 'Bertie' he told me that the Beatles (with whom he had had meetings) wanted to make an anti-war film and would like me to write and produce it. This came as something of a bombshell as I was deeply involved with OWALW. But I was delighted to talk with Paul McCartney and, back in our home in the Elephant and Castle district of south London, my wife and I cooked an extensive Indian curry dinner for him and we enjoyed an entertaining evening. We talked into the small hours of morning but to our mutual regret the Beatles ideas wouldn't fit into OWALW and they didn't want to wait for me to finish it. Sometimes I look back and wonder what OWALW would have been like with the Beatles as the Smith family and the film directed by Gene Kelly.
I didn't want well-known faces as members of the Smith family; I felt it would undermine the truth of the words spoken. But I did want well-known faces in the prologue sequence. By casting an array of Britain's greatest stars of stage and theatre I was reasonably sure that no one at Paramount would scrap the sequence or cut it. Furthermore, it would give the film's publicity an almost unprecedented promise. I engaged Miriam Brickman as casting director. Miriam was not only instinctive; she spent her weekends travelling the country looking at small drama companies to find new talent. I admired her dedication very much.
She immediately understood why I wanted film stars in order to protect my prologue from the cutting shears, and, largely due to the widespread goodwill that Joan's stage production had created, we had no trouble getting them. As far as I know, no one declined and it became a remarkable gathering of stage and film stars of that period. But my determination to keep a tight hold on the budget meant that I negotiated personally with the agents of these big stars. I did not enjoy that experience; the talent agents were more touchy than their clients, and sometimes more venal too, but eventually I got the services of everyone I needed and at a fee within my budget.
Once filming starts the director is working all day and every day and has to use whatever is supplied to him. As I see it, the task of the producer is to ensure that the sets, the vitally important set-dressing, the actors, the make-up and costumes are faultless by the time the camera is ready to turn. I thought it was important that all the actors - and the extras too - looked physically right for the 1914-18 period. I checked the costumes and made sure the uniforms, arms and equipment were right for all stages of the war. I had a qualified nurse to keep an eye on the bandages and wound-dressings. I approved all the locations with my hard-working location manager well before they were to be used.
I felt that a musical film must have great attention paid to the overall visual feeling. The art department is responsible for a great chunk of budget expenditure so I watched how the money was spent on construction and adaption. I rented a real railway train instead of a couple of bursts of steam; a superb replica airplane instead of engines noises and the Band of the Irish Guards marching along Brighton Prom instead of noises off. I wanted each scene to be visually in harmony with the words and music. I stipulated that the colour sketches that Don Ashton submitted had attached to them small pieces of the material used in the major costumes. I did this more to ensure that Tony Mendleson and Don Ashton discussed each of the sets and set-ups; (on some movie productions the two departments have little spoken contact, let alone coordination).
When producing Only When I Larf, I soon found that the best way to learn how movies are made is to be the producer and sign the checks. I established a routine. My contractual position with Paramount stipulated that I was the only person authorised to sign checks. So once a week I sat down with my unit accountant, fountain pen poised, as he put each check before me and told me exactly what I was paying for. I needed explanations, for many of the checks - even those for individuals in the crew - were made out to limited companies.
This ceremony was instructive in many ways. I was able to watch every penny spent, before it was spent! It was no secret that unit accountants report back to the cashiers of the production company any irregular use of the budget (in case producers buy themselves a yacht or private jet, as has happened more than once). On the other hand, these ongoing accounts can be an assurance, and when my film needed a little extra money to pay for my line-up of big stars, Paramount nodded it through without argument.
Brian Duffy had been a talented student in the fashion department at St Martins School of Art at the time I was there. I went on to the Royal College of Art and didn't see him again until I was somewhat shocked to come across him working in a cafe in Dover Street. He was looking for another job and I knew that Adrian Flowers, a commercial photographer (I had been a photographer with him in the RAF), was looking for an assistant. Although Duffy knew nothing about photography I persuaded Adrian that Duffy's knowledge of fashion would be useful to him. Duffy proved an apt assistant and pupil too. Eventually he went off to work for himself and became a well-known fashion photographer. I remained in touch with him.
When Duffy heard that I was writing a screenplay of OWALW and intended to make a movie of it, he was very enthusiastic. He craved to be a movie director and offered to help me in any way he could. When I formed a production company he said he could work for me on the production. I named him as a partner but he had no financial involvement.
The first film I produced was directed by Basil Dearden and on the first day - filming in New York City - Duffy had a sudden verbal clash with him. Duffy refused to have anything to do with him or come near the filming. When I signed Attenborough to act in Only When I Larf - Duffy had an even more bitter argument with him. As a result, Duffy refused to come anywhere near either of the film productions and went back to work at his photography business. Duffy was an immensely creative talent and I was sorry about the quarrels but the movie-making is expensive and time-consuming so I pressed on with the production work, assisted by the indefatigable Mack Davidson. I didn't hear anything from Duffy until I was sitting in the cutting room watching OWALW being prepared for release (Attenborough took no interest in the editing) and Duffy sent a message wanting a producers credit.
Richard Attenborough was my employee as an actor and then as a director. I had negotiated his contract with his agent as I had for the actors. In the early days of shooting OWALW, Attenborough asked me to put his name on the call sheets as a producer. I should never have done this. Attenborough said it was merely to give him more authority with the crew. He was a man of infinite charm and I didn't want to argue about it. But it was really a first step before coming to me asking for a producer's credit, which he did as the shooting ended. He explained that it would boost his new career.
Duffy and Attenborough were not the only ones who wanted credit for work they had not done. I even had people asking me for credit for the screen play: 'I hear you are removing your name from the credits and a screenplay credit would help me.'
I was angry and appalled that people should ask credit for things they had not done, or even come near to doing. Some well-meaning people told me that getting credit for other people's work was common in show business, but I cannot see that that makes it any less distasteful. It was in a fit of anger that I told Ray Hawkey to put Brian Duffy's name on the titles along with the name of Richard Attenborough and remove my name completely. Ray Hawkey was a close friend from our days at the RCA and the titles he prepared were superb. Ray was always a good and loyal friend; he told me that I should not give way to the absurd claims of Duffy and Attenborough, but I didn't heed his advice. When, some years later, a DVD of the film was made I was invited to contribute an interview. I agreed, but person or persons unknown contrived that no interview by me was on it.
For me, OWALW was not just another film, or a step in my career, it was my small token of love to my father, my respect for the men who had served with him and a tribute to those who didn't come back. The words of such men had been eclipsed by those of ambitious politicians and self-justifying generals. The parody lyrics of OWALW provided a rare glimpse of the thoughts of the men who were sent to do the fighting. They shared the words of their songs to say the things they would never say to those at home:
And when they ask us, and they'll certainly going to ask us, The reason why we didn't win the Croix de Guerre, Oh, we'll never tell them, oh, we'll never tell them There was a front, but damned if we knew where.
Who could not admire these men who fought in the trenches, obeyed orders they knew were stupid, and were self-effacing in their sacrifice. As the song says, they would rather pretend that they had a cushy billet than talk about their troubles.
I saw the movie as being about soldiers with mud up to their waist remaining humourous and stoic. Arguing over credits seemed like a disservice to everything the movie was trying to portray. Although no sacrifice was made, the people who actually did the work on the movie were like these troops. The others who sought credit and recognition for work they hadn't done were the antithesis of what I admired about my father and his brothers in arms.
I didn't want to argue about movie credits. I pushed the ambitious fantasies of the contenders out of my mind. I was already drafting out the shape of my next book Bomber and this demanded a long research trip to Germany with my wife. I wanted to move on.
The final irony of the scramble for screen credits was that each and every one of those who wanted them had to come to me. I was the only one with the power to decide who got which credits, because I was the one and only producer!"
UK release date: 10 March 1969
Producers: Len Deighton & Brian Duffy
Director: Richard Attenborough
Screenplay: Len Deighton
Cinematography: Gerry Turpin
Nuclear war specialist Pat Armstrong and his colleague Ferdy Foxwell return from a six-week mission aboard a nuclear submarine gathering data on Soviet communications and electronic warfare techniques in the Arctic Ocean.
Armstrong travels back to London, where he finds his flat has been broken into and mysteriously re-decorated. Back at work at the war games research centre, he has to get used to a new boss, US Colonel Schlegel. What follows is a complex plot involving an ill Russian general, a corrupt Tory MP and a denouement on the ice in the Arctic where Armstrong narrowly escapes being killed. Linking back to the earlier Harry Palmer films, the Soviet Colonel Stok makes another appearance in this film.
It was originally billed in the film’s PR material in the following way: “stunning, cunning, spy-thrilling...in this deadly game of east-west politics, ‘super spy’ Armstrong is an expendable man.” Despite the excellent PR spin, the film by all accounts did little with theatre audiences in the UK and overseas.
The book draws parallels with the so-called 'spy with no name' films; however, Deighton has corroborated that the Patrick Armstrong character is not the unnamed spy who became Harry Palmer. As such, it’s not as widely recognised as one of the Harry Palmer films and there is little dramatic connection back to the earlier films.
Michael Petrovich, a relatively unknown actor, plays the main character with a new identity and role outside of the secret service - it appears - doing war gaming for a London-based defence research agency. Petrovich does try to replicate the character of a tough-guy spy. His work on the film isn't bad and there are performances from a range of British actors which add something.
Similarly, the actor playing Colonel Stok - Derren Nesbitt - is fine, but lacks Oskar Homolka's bulky, vodka-fuelled bonhomie and knowing expression from the earlier films. The film script is quite labyrinthine at key points and the viewer is not always clear who's doing what to whom, why, or what their back-story is. But, the narrative of the original story is followed pretty closely and it is a good solid drama.
Visually, this has the appearance of a TV series rather than a feature film, which means this film lacks some of the dramatic impact you'd hope for. Nevertheless, it feels very much of its time and has a lot of seventies style and panache to it.
This film has never, as research seems to indicate, been released commercially on DVD in the UK or the US markets since its release - suggesting that the audience response in 1976 was an arbiter of an future audience interest in buying or renting this movie. Interestingly, it did come out in the UK briefly on Betamax Video. It has rarely if ever been shown on terrestrial TV.
Deighton wrote Spy Story after a letter from a wargamer, who thought that Bomber would make a very good basis for a wargame. They exchanged a few letters and Deighton became interested in the idea of a story in which people were playing a wargame. He thought it would require a sort of massive board to explain it to the audience (sort of like the boards used by the RAF in the Battle of Britain. This is the aspect of Spy Story that professionals have pointed out to Deighton is inaccurate, as there would be only a lot of data being churned out by machines.
The director, Lindsay Shonteff, who died nearly a decade ago, was quite a cinematic maverick who fell out with a number of studios but continued to make a wide range of films.
UK release date: 1976
Producer: Lindsay Shonteff
Director: Lindsay Shonteff
Cinematography: Les Young
Music: Andrew Hellaby