In 1988 Granada TV broadcast a 13-part TV adaptation - in prime time - of the first three novels in Deighton's Samson series: Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match. The series was presented as Game, Set and Match.
It was replete with an all-star cast of top British actors and received well - mostly - by critics. However, the ITV adaptation - with Ian Holm as Bernard Samson - failed to match Deighton's expectations and the producers, evidently, had their own vision for how things would proceed. As a result, Deighton declined to license further broadcasts or DVD distributions, instead buying up the rights.
Twenty-six years later, a new TV adaptation of all three trilogies in the series has been optioned by Clerkenwell films, although no information on the progress beyond pre-production development has yet been made available in the three years since the options were purchased. Let's hope it's not going to be left on the shelf.
As a result, this original series is your only chance to see Bernard Samson on the small screen … for now.
This 13-part mini series follows the plots of the three books pretty much to the letter: the discovery of the mole; Fiona's flight from London to Moscow; the turning of Erich Stinnes and then the dramatic end-game in Berlin, when Bernard inadvertently plays the pawn in a Kremlin power game.
There is one significant difference in the screenplay which does nevertheless work dramatically on-screen in helping move along the initial storyline. The first 40 minutes of the series goes back to 1978 and Bernard's escape from Poland with the help of members of the Brahms network. In the book, this back story is introduced intermittently. In the TV series, it frames the story right from the start, making more of Bernard's status as an ex-field guy and his reluctance to move from his safe desk in London to the dangerous streets of East Berlin.
This series was, at the time, the highest-priced TV mini-series on British TV with a budget of £8 million, much of it spent on location filming. It also employed a good range of quality British and German actors, so the omens appeared to be right that it would be a hit.
It was received well critically - Ian Holm, playing Bernard Samson, went on to receive a BAFTA nomination for best actor (and the series also received a nomination for best film editing) - and was promoted heavily by Granada TV and ITV as one of their hit autumn series for 1988.
The creation of thirteen cohesive and self-contained episodes did require significants parts of the dialogue in the original books to be trimmed or cut and new material added in where it was required to give Samson some instant background characteristics. For example, the mission to Poland in 1978 to rescue Yuri Rostov, which was the reason Samson was desk-bound, is a story which is referred to in the book through narrative flashbacks but which is shown in full in episode one.
Of particular note is the extent to which the directors play up the close relationship between Bernard Samson and Werner Volkmann - how they both look out for each other against enemies on both sides of the Wall - and the lengths to which Bernard will go to wind up and annoy his boss Dicky Cruyer, who despite being portrayed as a bit of a twit is shown to be clearly the master of the dark arts of office politics which Deighton portrays him as in the books.
Nonetheless the adaptation is faithful to the books on the whole but therein lies a weakness. In covering all three books, it ended up at nearly fifteen hours of broadcast programming. That required a lot of the pre-Christmas TV audience on ITV (not, one would have thought, its natural station) and clearly many did not last the pace.
The £8 million budget allowed for significant location filming in Mexico and West Berlin. Granada TV was interestingly the first company allowed to stage dramatic action in and around Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin and the Oberbaumbrücke, although a studio set of the checkpoint - which used to be in situ next to the Coronation Street set on the Granada lot - was built.
The company was not allowed to film in East Berlin itself, so different sets in Manchester and Bolton, England, doubled convincingly as Eastern bloc settings - not a great endorsement of these two towns at the time!
It has always disappointed fans that this show, though transmitted, has never been re-transmitted or released on DVD. The reason is Len Deighton bought all the rights to the series to prevent re-transmission. Casting issues were, as Deighton advised the Deighton Dossier, behind much of his decision:
"It was not the case that I gave Patrick Lau or anyone else a free hand with the TV adaptation. The exact contrary is the case. The producers offered me a veto on casting and some other aspects of the production, which I accepted. But they totally reneged on the agreement. I was never consulted, invited along to the filming or even informed about the progress of the production. It was a typical case of the writer being despised and dumped as soon as the contract is signed."
Perhaps he knew something - it was in the end of a bit of a ratings disaster for ITV (the main commercial channel in the UK at the time). Copies were available for hire in some UK video shops but this series has never been shown again, which is a definite shame. Granada TV no longer holds the broadcast rights or the copyright, which has reverted to Deighton, who has confirmed that he will not release a commercial version, though he recognises the quality of the production. Bootleg copies have been available for sometime on online market places.
First transmission: 3 October 1988
Production Company: Granada TV
Directors: Ken Grieve (8 episodes); Patrick Lau (5 episodes)
Screenplay: Len Deighton/John Howlett
Music: Richard Harvey
The Game, Set & Match TV series bought together a stellar cast of British and German film and television actors.
On the face of it, the appointment of Ian Holm as Bernard Samson should have guaranteed this series a smash hit rating, not to mention the range of British character actors such as Frederick Treves in supporting roles. Yet it was in part the castings - in particular, of Ian Holm - and the challenging relationship between Deighton and the producers over how the characters were portrayed that meant, stellar cast notwithstanding, the series did not perform as well as expected.
Find out below more information about the main characters and the actors portraying them.
Important to the storytelling success of the TV adaptation of Len Deighton's Game, Set & Match series is the haunting soundtrack by Richard Harvey.
Harvey's soundtrack for the series adds terrifically to the TV adaptation and, with its minor key main theme, captures perfectly the bleak atmosphere of Cold War Berlin and the tension and treachery that is impressed upon each page of the book.
Following the trilogy, Harvey wrote three movements for the soundtrack, the first of which is Berlin Game. This track lets the haunting tension built up through the solo cello introduction, leading into the main theme of the whole TV series developed on the viola - played by Roger Chase - which is a musical metaphor for the Bernard Samson character - nervous, tense, full of intrigue, never trusting. This is the theme which was played at the start of each showing on the TV.
Other tracks - such as track two, The Wrong Side of Charlie - build on this tension, with the single viola melody developing the main theme and a three tone, almost morse-code-like lead-in to the main theme which all together conjure up the city at the centre point of world tension. Sharp snaps of snare drums, staccato violin sweeps, mournful cello tritone crescendos and a minor key pattern on the pattern - together with what sounds like a harpsichord - help build the story one sees on the screen, as Bernard is forced - reluctantly - to return to Berlin.
The second movement - Mexico Set - starts with a track Tianguis, which moves the soundtrack across the Atlantic to Mexico, so we hear a Marimba theme to depict the jungle and exotic location the story has shifted to. Domingo's Path has a haunting oboe theme, the viola adapting the main theme and crashing cymbals, brings to life the moves to 'turn' Major General Erich Stinnes, the key KGB agent in a city now controlled by Bernard's wife, all taking place in the blistering heat of Mexico City and the seas of the Yucatan peninsula.
The final movement - London Match - is musically a denouement, following the arc of the TV series and the books. A Christmas Spy has a french horn-led theme - perhaps symbolising the idea of a spy being hunted. The last track - End Game - starts with legato strings in a rather chilling and mournful opening, with the piano picking out sparse descending notes and the french horn picking out the core theme. This is a track that is building up to something - as the TV series builds up the tensions on the border between East and West Berlin.
Cold-War Berlin is arguably one of the main characters in the books and the TV series.
Beautifully portrayed, the divided city in 1988 looks dramatically different from the modern city it is now, with many areas of the city still bombsites and the looming presence of the Wall around every corner. It provides a dramaticc backdrop for the story to unfold.
This gallery shows a range of locations in Berlin used in the TV series, as they appeared in 2012.
If you're visiting Berlin, you can find the locations of these and other places in the series/books by using this dedicated Google Map.