In recent years, the Deighton Dossier has been pleased to host a series of exclusive Q&A-style interviews with Len Deighton himself, which you can read in this section of the website.
As media interviews with Deighton have become increasingly rare over the last two decades or so, these interviews are a rare opportunity for readers to find out in more details some of the stories behind Deighton's most popular books and the films derived from them. Candid and honest in his responses to readers' questions, in each interview Deighton provides new insights and understanding and regales some super stories.
Also hosted on this page are links to audio and TV interviews which Len Deighton has done over the years, which further inform and entertain.
If you want to read some of the fascinating stories which lie behind the books, then check out the interviews below.
“I didn’t want simplicity. I didn’t want a spot-lit singer on a bare stage. I wanted an opera.”
Len Deighton, on the Game, Set & Match triple trilogy.
Deighton Dossier: You indicated to me that you're still writing regularly, every day (including Sunday!). A simple question: what are you writing about, and are you planning any new writing projects beyond your history of the ink pen and the aero engines?
Len Deighton: I write notes every day. It is a habit that comes of years of research and a poor memory. I was filling notebooks with material that interested me long before I ever thought of becoming a professional writer. This week I have been making notes based on scientific material: from synapses and the chemistry on which they depend, to dear old Professor Feynman’s theories of anti-matter.
Some people have the enviable ability of arranging their knowledge in a chosen sequence and having it at their disposal by means of their memory. I can’t do that.
The only way I can retain and arrange material is by writing it down. This is why I have written The Anatomy of a Fountain Pen and The Secret History of Airplanes. The former work is subtitled ‘And things to remember when buying one old or new’ because it is not a history of pens or of writing. It describes the way that various pens work and the changes that have undergone to make them work better.
The aero-engine book is of a completely different format. It is a history of engines, written with an emphasis upon the social aspects, the graft and the greed and the success and failure of engines in war and in peace. It takes the necessary engineering developments step by step but simplifies it for people like me. Neither book was written for publication; they were written so that I could understand things that interest me.
Lately most of my time has been spent writing Introductions for the republished Harper Collins paperbacks. Long ago, at the 25th anniversary of the publication of Ipcress File, there was a Silver Jubilee edition of nineteen paperbacks. Now at the 50th anniversary a complete re-publication of all the books is about midway through. The Silver Jubilee editions all had a specially written Introduction, but when I was asked to write new ones for the entire Harper Collins edition I gladly agreed.
To design the new covers Arnold Schwartzman was commissioned. He has an international reputation as a graphic designer, did a memorable job of design for the Los Angeles Olympics and was awarded a well-deserved Oscar for a film he made. The covers are exciting and original and have already attracted attention in the design world including extensive coverage in Baseline, the international typographic magazine. Each paperback contains a note from Arnold explaining his working methods for each book separately and they make very interesting reading.
Meanwhile I continue writing the introductions. I am a slow worker and it has been a more difficult and far more absorbing task than I thought it would be. But all life is like that.
DD: Let’s talk about some of your works. Horse Under Water: how close did you and Harry Saltzman get to turning this into a film, completing the cycle of the first four 'spy with no name' novels? (And were you aware that someone turned it into a concept album a few years back?)
LD: There was no specific opposition to making Horse into a movie. On the contrary, films with underwater sequences usually do well at the box office. But the order in which the books were published in the US was different to their publication in Britain. Each book was complete as a story (a rule I have always kept to). If the books could stand alone, so could films.
Harry Saltzman was attracted to the Funeral in Berlin story because Berlin was in the newspaper headlines. So in America the publication of Horse (which didn’t have Berlin spy story content) came later. There is now talk of a movie and I think it could be very effective on the screen.
Yes it was gratifying to hear about the album [the concept album The Seahorse by Robert Green & Carl Barber from 1996] – it sounds good.
DD: Michael Caine's role as Harry Palmer has become visually synonymous with the 'unnamed spy', such that it's now very difficult to read the books without imagining his visage and especially the horn-rimmed glasses. What do you think Michael brought to the role that added to our understanding of your character from the first four books (his cockney accent for one thing, I imagine)? Did you know Michael before the role?
LD: I knew Michael before he made The Ipcress File. Peter Evans, a mutual friend, introduced us and I found Michael an unassuming and entertaining friend. He was of course a tremendous asset; he developed the characterisation and was largely responsible for the success of the film.
When Ipcress went into pre-production we conspired to persuade Harry Saltzman, its producer, to let Michael wear spectacles on the screen. Michael and I both wore glasses and so did Harry Palmer in my book. Harry Saltzman was opposed to this. One evening, when Harry and his delightful wife Jaquie entertained me and Michael to dinner in their Mayfair home, we brought it up again. Harry sighed. ‘No, no, no. What film star have you ever seen wearing glasses?’ he asked rhetorically. But wives are apt to answer rhetorical questions and Harry’s wife said: ‘Cary, darling. Cary Grant looks lovely in glasses.’ This was one of the very few times that I saw Harry at loss for words. ‘Very well,’ he said eventually. I looked at Michael. Michael looked down at his plate. We had won.
My disagreement with the depiction of Harry Palmer on the screen was the implausible suggestion that Harry was blackmailed into working for the secret intelligence service. Blackmailed! This is the old boy network. These are people with tailored shirts and lace-up shoes. Despite the disrepute it suffered from harbouring traitors such as Philby – Westminster, Cambridge and the Athenaeum – the SIS retained this policy. Blackmailing a Harry Palmer into the service would have been unthinkable.
DD: The Harry Palmer 'retreads', if you will, in the nineties - Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg - weren't universally acclaimed and it is debatable as to whether they are worthy successors to the first three films and the character. To what extent were you involved in these projects and what's your opinion now, looking back at them?
LD: When I was asked to give the OK for the Harry Palmer character to be used on these original screenplays my feelings were negative. 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. They were not stories I had written. In fact I was not involved in any way other than my agreement to the character rights. When I eventually saw the films I thought they were both well above average. Michael was inspired as always and the locations were great.
DD: Winter provided the 'prequel' to the Game, Set & Match triple trilogy. Did you ever consider another prequel looking Bernard's childhood and early life in Berlin (perhaps up to the pivotal Karlshorst incident), when his defining friendships with Werner, Rolf and others developed - the impact of which on Bernard comes across so evidently in the books?
LD: No I never did consider it because I never thought of it. It’s a great idea!
DD: Looking in the other direction, did you ever consider extending the Game, Set & Match triple trilogy to develop further the Bernard/Gloria/Fiona relationship, perhaps up to the fall of the Berlin Wall? What in the end decided you to stick with the denouement readers arrived at in Charity?
LD: This is rather complicated. Bear with me. The basic idea behind Berlin Game etc was to widen the all-action format. It seemed to me that the straightforward blood and thunder stories, however well-written, were too predictable. I didn’t want simplicity. I didn’t want a spot-lit singer on a bare stage. I wanted an opera. I wanted dozens of people: friends and enemies, relatives and work-mates, wife and children, bosses and underlings. And unpaid bills, cars that broke down and awful in-laws. How would I find room on my little stage? A cast of this size wasn’t going to fit into one book. I would need a trilogy, maybe more. But once you embark on such a project the action becomes outweighed by the emotional needs of the characters and their interaction: ‘Stop worrying. Daddy will find a lovely school for our children, Bernard.’
The Stasi were going to sing the bass notes while Secret Service smoothies provided a dissonant ensemble behind the three principals: Bernard, Fiona and Gloria. It became the story of a strong and confident man slowly torn into pieces by his unfeeling employers, his brutal enemies and by the two women he loves. The twists and turns of Bernard’s torment became the most important element of the story. And it would be described from Bernard’s skeptical eye view.
The end of Charity was the end of that story (it had been signalled earlier by a careless angry word from Bernard during a row with Gloria). When I finished drafting the conversation that ended Charity I knew it must be the end of the whole story. I didn’t want to continue beyond it even in my own imagination. Bernard and Fiona, the children, Bret and Gloria, Dicky and Daphne, Werner and Zena: what happened to them? Were they all happy? I don’t know. You know as much as I do about what subsequently happened to all concerned. It’s better that way.
DD: Game, Set & Match was transmitted as a TV mini-series by ITV in 1988 and directed by Ken Grieve and Patrick Lau and starring Ian Holm as Bernard Samson. What, looking back, were your reasons for withholding broadcast repeat rights for the series and your perspective on the production and casting.
LD: Putting together thirteen hours of television with a large number of characters in various locations at home and abroad is a titanic task. Thirteen hours! There was a generous budget, experienced technicians and no shortage of talent. The actors and actresses were, without exception, top-notch professionals. But while the very good script was being written, someone somewhere was inflicting a brutal wound upon the whole project. The casting was bizarre; the tall became short, the short became tall, the angry became weary, the brunettes became blond, the fat became thin, the Americans became English, the clean-shaven wore beards and those with spectacles shed them.
Most of the plot changes were well-considered, and smoothly incorporated but I was sorry to see Bernard’s caustic commentary on the failings of everyone around him had been minimized. Sustaining narrative energy over thirteen hours of screen time inevitably brought difficulties. The Mexican sequences - animated and colorful – brought from the actors their brilliant best. Some of the Berlin locations were very impressive and the logistics needed for the big scenes with lots of German extras, police vehicles and whole streets of traffic were awesome. But maybe the production team didn’t love the gritty, ugly and brooding Berlin that had drawn me back time and time again. On the other hand, maybe that was my infatuation. ‘The sky was blue and Berlin was heaven,’ I say to end the final book, and for me it was.
The Granada TV series was a massive undertaking. It was successful in Britain and America and many other territories. But it was a different interpretation of Bernard Samson’s Game Set and Match. With the greater part of Bernard’s story still to be written, I could not reconcile and rewrite the characters to fall into line with this alternative Bernard, and his associates. It was a world of images which contradicted much of the work I had done, the people I had described and the story I planned.
DD: Thinking beyond this, have you ever been approached about other adaptions of the series? Quentin Tarantino has publicly expressed an interesting in re-filming the first three novels, for instance. Or do you think - given its complex narrative structure, reliance on the narrator's inner thoughts to progress the story and number of key characters - a story on such a scale is perhaps un-filmable?
LD: I always advise writers to choose a publisher who is enthusiastic and the same goes for movie producers. It is drive and confidence in the material that brings satisfactory results. Written stories are different to filmed ones, very, very different, and we have to accept that. You part with the rights and you trust the production people to do a good job. Harry Saltzman and all concerned departed from the books but did a good job.
Writing books is a wonderful occupation because the author takes the reader by the hand and confides secret thoughts, hopes and fears to that reader. Film can’t do that; there isn’t enough time. Film is a very slow way to tell a story. ‘Voice over’ can help sometimes but I know from writing screenplays, and producing films, that you can’t hope to get more than one quarter of the average length book onto the screen and some choice elements go. So the most demanding task of the screenplay writer is dumping three quarters of a book into the trash can. A TV series is different and using a slower pace and more time a writer can squeeze more from a story. But it is a difficult task and even with 13 long episodes there was not room for everything described in three books.
While on the subject of films, I would like to say how successful I thought the two short films (made from my short stories in Declarations of War) were. Melvyn Bragg used then as part of The Lively Arts programme on the BBC many years ago.
For writers the most rewarding interpretations are unabridged audio books read by a skilled and dedicated actor. I enjoy all sorts of unabridged audio books – I often play them in the car – and have been very lucky with the way my books have been done. Perhaps I should not select just one actor but the late Paul Daneman’s sensitive readings of my books, and where needed, his perfect German, gave me immense satisfaction.
DD: You considered a novel in the 'seventies around the Vietnam War, and indeed you started down that route in a sense with the short story First Base in Declarations of War. But you didn’t complete it. Did you just run into a narrative cul-de-sac in finding the right story angle on this conflict?
LD: No, I had the story roughed out when I asked the Pentagon to let me join a fighter squadron in Vietnam. Acclimatization first, they said. I spent many happy weeks with the fighter pilots. They dressed me in a flight suit and assigned me to Bentwaters, an American airbase in East Anglia, England. Living with the pilots for several weeks I made many good friends. I learned the jargon, enjoyed the laughs and chit-chat of the ready room and lingered in mess halls, offices and workshops. I flew back-seat in Phantom fighters, dropped bombs and refueled in mid-air. And I learned about casualties too when during my time with them a mid-air collision brought sad losses.
The glacial speed of Washington bureaucracy ensured that, as permission was finally given for me to go to where the fighting was, the peace talks in Paris began and the war fizzled out. My notes went into a box on the shelf. I must not be too resentful of the pen-pushers. Washington wanted to make sure I wasn’t some kind of male Jane Fonda.
My time with the US Air Force was a valuable basis for the research that eventually led to Goodbye Mickey Mouse, a story of American fighter pilots in World War Two. My wife and I kept in touch with Captain Johnny Jumper, the pilot who had been burdened with me and my endless questions. At intervals we visited him and his family as he went from one assignment to the next. Eventually Johnny was promoted to become the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force: the man at the very top of the tree.
DD: You used a lot of bird imagery in An Expensive Place To Die, for example in the names of the characters Byrd and Loiseau. What did you hope to achieve by this metaphorical device?
LD: Yes, I did. I am sorry. I am self-conscious about employing links and symbols of this sort but in my defence I can only say this affectation didn’t last long. On the plus side: I was gratified to be able to prise my way into the Paris police system and see some of the raw underworld. I don’t think I could have done it through official channels but (as I was told by an English expert on the Paris police) the French are notable for having laws and regulations that are customarily ignored. He said that if the police, in all their many manifestations, obeyed the regulations the whole of Paris would come to a sudden messy halt. I never saw Paris in the same way again; and if any of my shock and horror came through in the book I am happy with that result.
DD: ...and the secret dossier slipped into the first edition of the book: who's idea was that, and is the story about someone being arrested in New York as a result of having a copy of this dossier true, or apocryphal?
LD: At Jonathan Cape [DD: Deighton’s publishers] Tony Colwell told me that strange story and insisted that it was one hundred per cent true. Ray Hawkey designed and produced a beautiful little dossier containing facsimile documents from the White House etc. as a promotional enclosure for An Expensive Place to Die. It was all very convincing except that the documents were in miniature. Nevertheless, an enterprising Canadian of Russian extraction made contact with a Soviet Embassy official (presumably in Ottawa) and offered to sell it. The story becomes blurry after that. One version says that the Russian paid a large sum of money but others say the Canadian was collared by the Mounties as he kept the appointment. Tony was one of the most honest people I ever met so we can be reasonably sure that it was not a publicity stunt.
DD: You mentioned having built up a number of contacts in East Germany during the Cold War. To what degree did they help inspire story ideas and characters and encourage you to depict authentically life behind the Iron Curtain? As a reader, the city (and residents) of Berlin in the Game, Set & Match series is a character in itself, so well do you describe it.
LD: It all started well after midnight, when I was driving north from Prague towards Berlin in an ancient grey VW Beetle that was so basic that it was only sold in the domestic market. It had a crash gearbox and I liked it because few others could master it. As I neared Berlin a Russian military policeman stepped out and brought me to a halt waving one of those lighted batons that the Germans use. It was cold and he was buttoned to the neck in a heavy overcoat and spoke only what I assume was Russian but he made his instructions clear. A couple of command cars boxed me in while I drove a couple of miles to a big army depot nearby. I spent a couple of hours waiting for a Russian officer who could speak English.
In the interim the noise of heavy trucks, and the sight of brawny drivers signing a large book as they arrived or departed told me that this was a check point and barracks for Berlin-based Russian army trucks. The officer arrived unshaven and appeared to have dressed hurriedly. He took my passport, which had all the right signatures and rubber stamps for Czechoslovakia but – due to an incompetent civilian clerk in Prague - lacked the one for the East Berlin checkpoint. The officer told me to drive back to the Autobahn and take the road to West Germany. It was a long way and I explained that I had not got petrol enough to do it.
He took me outside to check my car and take its registration number. Berlin night air can drop to lethal temperatures and that night was very cold. While we were looking into the car he saw tucked under my suit-bag a bottle of Laphroaig. I explained that this single malt was a very rare and expensive drink that few foreigners had ever tasted. I had visited the distillery on the isle of Islay so my enthusiasm was informed and contagious. In view of the cold, we withdrew to his office and tasted this smoky restorative.
Benefiting from a more mellow atmosphere I suggested that I buy some petrol from his army depot, spend the night in his barracks or pour the rest of the whisky into my gas tank. He gave me a grim and knowing smile and did what many another administrator has done in trying circumstances; he picked up the telephone, called his superiors and said that, now that he had examined them carefully, the Englishman’s paper were all in order. You may ask me how I understood his Russian. I don’t know but I recognized the tone of voice. He hung up, gave me my passport and a conspiratorial salute. I left the whisky with him.
But all of this is leading up to the fact that my first experience of Berlin was East Berlin (the Russian Sector) to which the road led. Dawn was breaking. I knew no-one in Berlin – East or West – except for a film director named Kurt Jung-Alsen. He was a friend I had first met at an East German film festival in London. He showed no surprise at being awakened in the early hours (I suppose he was relieved to see it wasn’t some sort of policeman).
He persuaded the Adlon Hotel to find me a room in what little remained of its ruined premises, and straightened out all sorts of formalities – such as what is this strange Englishman doing here in our communist country? His answer always was that I was a part of his film making. He gave dinner parties so I could meet his amusing and somewhat subversive friends. For a time, I knew only people living in East Berlin. I began all these new friendships by declaring that I was a capitalist not a communist or socialist. I had been told to do this by an experienced newspaperman and it was the best advice I could have had. Most writers learn how to become self-effacing and I wallowed in that strange society which had the fraternal social cohesion that senseless tyranny bestows.
DD: Your military histories are perhaps your most praise-worthy accomplishments and on a par with many other analyses of the period. Did you get a good reaction to your ideas and conclusions from professional historians and, more importantly, the veterans on both sides?
LD: Professional historians – and I must add, most critics – have been kind to me over the years. Of course I was equipped with a priceless gift: a monumental inferiority complex. It was this that made me check out everything three or four times and then check it again. I lacked the formal systematic basis of study that professional historians enjoy but I compensated for this by seeking out eyewitnesses and participants. There were many high-ranking people still alive at the time I began my researches and the war was fresh in their minds. I discovered a great deal of material that never went into the history books. I enjoyed talking to people from both sides; not only military people but also technicians and civilians. I kept my mind open, if not to say blank, and this encouraged revelations and indiscretions.
I had a great deal of material prepared before I ever thought of it being published. It mostly concerned Europe in 1940 and of course I had my own experience as a basis. A.J.P. Taylor was a particularly important person in my life and it was he who convinced me that my sort of ‘amateur history’ was just as valid as any other sort providing it was accurate. The result was three history books: Blitzkrieg and Fighter and eventually Blood Tears & Folly.
DD: Finally, who are the authors that you have particularly enjoyed and admired over the years?
LD: There are so many that I find it difficult to start. A.J.P. Taylor demonstrated a sardonic directness that I admired. I also learned from Taylor’s detractors that irony and provocative humour are sometimes taken at face value and totally misunderstood. John Ellis has produced some engaging and unsurpassed works of both statistics and social history e.g. Brute Force and The Sharp End of War. Roger A. Freeman, while running a farm, compiled such books as The Mighty Eighth and became the world’s greatest authority on the US 8th Air Force. Published in illustrated magazine form, the ‘After the Battle’ series under the direction of Winston G. Ramsey is in detail and accuracy the largest and finest record of World War Two.
Apart from war history books I like reading reference books of all kinds; from books about art and graphic design to ones about photography and cookery. I avoid literary novels as I find them too cryptic. At present I am reading The Penguin Book of Hollywood a 600 page anthology by Christopher Silvester and Some Sort of Epic Grandeur – The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a 700 page biography by Matthew J. Bruccoli. I find both books gripping and I have Volume One of the diaries of Christopher Isherwood (1,000 pages) on the shelf waiting for me.
Published only nine years after Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel Casino Royale, and only one year after John Le Carré’s debut Call for the Dead, The Ipcress File provided a counterpoint. The main character was from Burnley, a bit of a crook by all accounts, rough around the edges, a gourmet, plagued by his toff bosses and always needing his chit signed - a contrast to the debonair style and high living James Bond and the middle-aged, middle class bureaucrat that was George Smiley. Here was the spy as careerist, for whom petty paperwork is as much a part of everyday working life as holstering a pistol.
In March 2012 Len Deighton answered a range of questions about his book suggested by readers of the Deighton Dossier. He talks about the writing process for the book, his reasons for choosing the main plot device, his thoughts on the movie version and the influence of his Soho life as a young artist on key aspects of the film
Deighton Dossier: Len, The Ipcress File has stood the test of time as a novel: it remains popular and is regularly referred to as one of the top spy novels of the last century. To what do you put down its longevity and success?
Len Deighton: The short and simple answer is, my ignorance! Had I started writing after a creative writing course or a university degree in English Literature, The Ipcress File would have been a more conventional book. As it happened, it started as an account of a man wandering through Soho, London as I did every day.
I wrote a long section of it while on holiday in France and then put it on a shelf. Again in France the following year – this time trying to earn enough as an illustrator to live there – I took my ‘book’ and slowly brought it to a conclusion. That ‘art student’ flavour was evident; perhaps that was a part of its appeal. It would probably still be sitting on the shelf except I met Jonathan Clowes, a literary agent, at a party. I remember him saying that he liked the ‘fragmentary’ style. He and his wife Ann, of course, still represent me!
DD: You started the book of as a film treatment. What was the prompt that led you to start to a novel format?
LD: What began as an episodic scribble (perhaps ideas for an amateur movie) became a short story and then rambled on – written, revised and rewritten many times - to become a book.
Screenplays deprive you of a chance to write personal descriptions and describe the environment. You can’t say what your characters are thinking and you can’t refer to memory, in-born prejudice or silent intention. In a screen play you must leave some room for the actors to contribute their skills and that also goes for the art director, set dresser and costume designer.
So a writer embarking a screenplay enjoys wonderful, but severely limited, opportunities. I therefore changed my play to a book. For anyone who flourishes in solitary confinement, writing books is a more suitable undertaking. Writing a fiction book demands a strict self-discipline and a planned structure but you are on your own – and when it’s not torment, it’s fun.
I have written screenplays such as Oh! What a Lovely War, From Russia With Love and Never Say Never Again. Of these only the first came to the screen as written, and that was because I produced the film of it and protected every word. The two Bond scripts were buried under re-writes.
DD: The narrative seems to twist 'social' norms: the hero is working class, rough around the edges, yet is more cultured, eats better food and better read than his bosses. Did the character's approach reflect perhaps your own worldview at the time in London, when attitudes were changing?
LD: Well, there were already plenty of class warriors around at the time I started writing. John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe and Arnold Wesker, who wrote Chips With Everything, were ‘angry young men’. I was of about the same age, but I wasn’t angry.
What did I have to be angry about? I had had spent six wonderful years studying art.
My RAF time had included a long course in professional photography. My service experience included medical work using a Leica in an RAF hospital operating theatre and after that an assignment to the Fighter School where I spent many happy hours flying in Mosquito fighters operating cine cameras during mock combat. Now I was earning a modest living as an illustrator. London was warming up for the Swinging Sixties and I relished every minute of every day. I still do.
When I graduated from the Royal College of Art my diploma came from the hand of the Duke of Edinburgh. In the speech he made to us wide-eyed little van Goghs he said that artists were lucky. Artists, he said, could wend their way through all sections of society and all classes too. I took him at his word and despite being born in the Marylebone Workhouse I have found that a clean shirt and sober tie – plus a sense of humour – overcomes many social limitations.
I am not a class warrior. I respect and admire skills and education. Britain’s public schools have a long tradition of teaching the Victorian virtues; a belief in God, loyalty, modesty, justice, prudence, patriotism and sacrifice: I value those characteristics. When I poke fun at authority it’s not a matter of class, it is because authority is too often given to lazy and incompetent cronies. Prejudice of any sort is evil; it is illogical and destructive. ‘Give every boy an equal opportunity,’ I say. Never mind whether he comes from Eton or some workhouse in Marylebone. Girls too, of course!
DD: When you read through the book subsequently, were there any parts or themes which you’d love to re-write in full? If so, which?
LD: The dissatisfaction that comes with the completion of each book is the propellant that makes one start writing another one; vowing to make it better. So I try not to have second thoughts: I move on. My wife teases me about the way I try to find new routes back from anywhere we go. Finding new routes to familiar places is in every way my aim. In other words: no regrets, no second thoughts, no rewrites.
DD: Sidney Furie’s film of your book differs from the text in a number of ways (e.g. the downgrading of the atoll scenes and the confrontation with Dalby and Ross at the end). What did you think about these changes?
LD: I believe the film was ‘turned around’, which meant that new finance people replaced the original backers. According to what I was told at the time, the new budget was smaller and this meant deleting the proposed atoll locations. Hence, they were dropped from the film.
I try not to be a nuisance to the people who make films; they have enough troubles already! There have been films that have kept close to the original source. Eric Ambler’s screenplay for The Cruel Sea was a superb interpretation of the magnificent book. But for reasons of screen time, the average film has to sacrifice about three quarters of the average book. It is always going to be a painful cut for the author. And that was the case with The Ipcress File film.
DD: Do you think Sidney Furie captured what you were aiming for with your main characters (in contrast to what you’ve said about the casting and presentation of Game, Set and Match by Ken Grieve, which you felt didn’t)?
LD: I think Sydney Furie recognized the strength of Michael Caine and the ease with which Michael fitted into the Harry Palmer role. He always helped Michael by his skilful direction but he was clever enough to see what a loose rein could bring. It was a shame that he didn’t direct the other Harry Palmer movies.
DD: With Spy Sinker, you reveal how the main character and narrator Bernard Samson was not a totally neutral and reliable observer. If you were to have re-written The Ipcress File from the third person, what might the reader have learned about the 'unnamed spy' character?
LD: Harry Palmer is a loner in the tradition of heroes of fiction. Michael once summed up the character he was playing ‘Harry Palmer is a winner who comes on like a loser’. As with many of Michael’s verdicts on the world I can’t fault it. Harry Palmer is single-minded while remaining reflective enough to interpret what is going on.
Bernard Samson is a more complex personality formed by the people around him. His wife and his mistress, his children depend upon him. His superiors, such as the avuncular Frank and the abrasive Dickie, contribute to Bernard’s uncertainties. And while his patriotism is never in doubt, Bernard is more tentative than Harry Palmer. Although they both show a hard exterior to the world in which they live and work, Bernard sometimes finds his work distressing.
The well-known Horace Walpole quote: ‘This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel’ applies to them both. Harry is the former while Bernard is the latter.
DD: Your 'Jay' character is a peddler and dealer in information, offering it to the highest bidder. Was this character inspired – even in part – by anyone you met or knew about at the time in London?
LD: Yes, by several police informers. While an art student I lived in Soho, while it was a cesspit of crime, vice and general depravity. The police have a long tradition of paying for information and this is a recipe for corruption and distortion. It is not a good way to promote law and order.
DD: The Ipcress File is heavy on ambiguity. Do you think that’s what is at the heart of its success – that nothing ever seems certain, right up to the last page?
LD: It is exactly what I tried to do. My experience of life suggests that there is far more stupidity than there is evil (although much evil does exist) and stupidity is just as dangerous and harmful. In every person there is a measure of expertise and a measure of stupidity. I know brainy college professors who can’t work their dishwasher or their DVD player. I have seen incoherent cleaning ladies who total their cash accounts with consummate ease. I know indigent people who can interpret the literature of social welfare at one reading.
So I create characters made up of many conflicting abilities and inclinations, some of them illogical, some futile. I do this because that’s the way people are. Stories without the moral ambivalence of real life seem artificial to me.
DD: The brainwashing technique is central to The Ipcress File. What prompted you to use that as a device?
LD: When I wrote The Ipcress File there was a great muddle of ideas, theories and experience whirling around in my head. Battle For The Mind, a book by William Sargant – a very controversial psychologist – influenced The Ipcress File and its title*. I read it several times. But I have always suffered chronic skepticism in respect of Sigmund Freud and his theories although some of his books, such as The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, are entertaining.
But I have never discounted the benefit that counselling can bring and some psychiatrists have illuminating ideas. My friend David Stafford-Clark was perhaps the most famous psychiatrist of his time (he had also been a para-medic and a medical officer for both the RAF and the USAAF). But I have always believed that anyone who can count upon intelligent friends for advice is fortunate indeed.
(* Readers’ note: William Sargent was a controversial British psychiatrist who promoted such treatments as psychosurgery, deep sleep treatment and electro-convulsive therapy. In Battle for the Mind, he discusses the process by which our minds are subject to influence by others. Although remembered as a major force in British psychiatry, his enthusiasm for discredited treatments such as insulin shock therapy and deep sleep treatment, his hatred for psychotherapy and his dogmatic approach mean much of his work is now discredited.)
DD: A number of blog readers has asked if you ever considered doing a second volume of Blood, Tears & Folly, from ’43 to ’45? If so, what do you think would have been your broad thesis about the military strategies of both sides during that period?
LD: Yes, I have drafted out a structure and made notes from meetings with individuals and with historians. My hard disk is loaded and I have a thick bundle of printed out material facing me.
The reason I think Blood, Tears & Folly is my most important book is because it revealed and proved that a significant amount of modern history is bunk, just as Henry Ford proclaimed it to be. Myths prevail because they provide the history that most people prefer to believe. And each nation embroiders and cossets its fables.
The second half of World War Two does not provide the unreported struggles and myths that are so evident in the first half of the war. Recent writings about the Russian and German fighting have been driven by Moscow archivists. The fingerprints of the Russian propaganda service are well in evidence but there are no great surprises. The Desert War, Italy and Northern Europe have been re-fought vigorously on land, sea and air with few dramatic revelations. The Pacific War is largely ignored by European historians and is not adequately covered by American ones.
The eye-witnesses who turned to fiction – such as James Jones and Norman Mailer – still provide the most convincing accounts of war in the Pacific. Perhaps there are still new facts hidden within the Army accounts and those of the US Navy.
DD: You’ve written a lot about military history and spent time in the RAF. What is the most salient lesson you’ve learned from both experiences about military strategy?
LD: The most salient lesson is that grave incompetence should result in immediate dismissal. Incompetence is a grave charge, which is why I spent so much time researching before writing Blood¸ Tears & Folly. But those given the power of life and death over hundreds of thousands of men women and children must expect to have their reputations scrutinised.
DD: Your production company produced the film for Only When I Larf as well as Oh! What a Lovely War. How did that come about?
LD: Paramount took a chance on me. They provided the big money for Oh! What A Lovely War on the basis of the screen rights - which I personally bought from Joan Littlewood - my film script and the efforts of my agent. But by the time the deal was settled winter was approaching. OWALW, using Brighton Piers and other outdoor locations, could not be started until there were longer hours of daylight.
As I had just finished writing Only When I Larf I suggested that Paramount also financed this because I could start immediately and film it during that winter. In fact I took the production to Manhattan and to Beirut, Lebanon where it was sunny, as well as building a plush apartment in a warehouse in the London docks where we shot the interiors. Thus no production days were lost to bad weather. Pre-production and post-production periods fitted nicely into my overall schedule and the overheads for my Piccadilly offices were covered.
I was moved by Joan Littlewood’s stage version of Oh! What a Lovely War. It was my ambition to make just that one film and then go back to writing. As things turned out I found it very interesting to make those two films. Was it Orson Welles who said making movies was like playing with a train set? Well, he was right, but there were too many people squabbling over who had the guards van when they should have been working and as the producer I was always in the middle of the childish squabbles for credits!
DD: Finally, any news on your aero engine and fountain pen histories?
LD: The text is complete for each of those books, but they both require many illustrations. I need to work with the photographer of the pens and the illustrator for the aero engines history. There remains a lot to do and publishers face the fact that they cater to minority interests. But, like The Ipcress File, and all my other books, I wrote them primarily for my own amusement, so I have no cause to complain.
After catching up with him in London in November 2012, Len kindly agreed to do another short Q&A interview, giving readers more news and insight on his work and his life. It’s split into two parts: Part one covers the topic of Berlin, one of the main ‘characters’ in many of Len’s novels. Part two is readers' questions.
Part one - ‘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?
LD: 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?
LD: 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?
LD: 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?
LD: 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?
LD: 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 - reader questions
'Craig posted a number of questions for Len:
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?
LD: 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.
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.
LD: 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.
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.
LD: 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.
At the end of Charity we learn that Silas has been the mastermind behind everything since. 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?
LD: 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): 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?
LD: 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!)
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?
LD: 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 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?
LD: 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?
LD: I'm on the wagon these days!
Daniele asked: Are you generally satisfied by the way your novels have been turned into films? What if anything would you change about them?
LD: 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 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?
LD: 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.
This interview includes a mixture of questions asked by Deighton Dossier readers, and those asked by the website creator.
Questions from the Deighton Dossier
Terry K asked: Len, from what I read you’ve always seem to have had a keen interest in technology: you were one of the first people in London to have car phones, IBM word processors etc. Did you ever consider a career in engineering and do you still try to keep up with the latest technologies, smart phones and suchlike?
Len Deighton: I admire engineers, but I am not clever enough to be one. As an example of engineering genius take Admiral H. Rickover, who put together the world’s first nuclear generator, installed it in a submarine and then master-minded the amazing stabilizing system that enabled missiles (with newly-developed solid fuel) to be fired from thirty feet under a rough sea and still be on target.
When I wrote Blood Tears & Folly, a history of WW2, it was the technology, (some of it primitive, some of it just common sense and some of it amazing) rather than the monumental stupidity that motivated my research and was the purpose of my book. I feel that historians do not give due importance to the role of technology in war. Neither do politicians. I wish more engineers and technically literate people wrote history books.
On another aspect of this same narrow-minded attitude, I could never understand the opposition so many writers showed in respect of the word processor when it first appeared. Far too many writers still regard technology as an enemy. Word processors, like all technology, have to be used with care and respect. Properly used, technology can do the tedious work. Recently I got into my son’s car and it parked itself at the kerb, nicely positioned in a small space between other cars. I thought that was wonderful; I still do. My elder son worked on voice recognition computers but I wasn’t attracted to that idea because I find the shuffling and changing text on the screen works better for me than speech. But in the light of what is happening to phones, the use of voice recognition is likely to expand.
Terry K also asked: I understand from Rob’s blog that you’ve written a text for a history of the aero engine. How’s that going, and where did this interest in aeroplane technology begin for you?
LD: Yes, have written a history of aero-engines. I have kept the technical aspect to basic facts and simple machinery. I have included some almost incredible stories of the vendettas, the government graft and other human failures, as well as the astounding courage and dedication. I tracked down the truth about some myths and controversy’s i.e. whether the British or the Americans were first to put a Rolls Royce Merlin engine into a Mustang fighter plane (the answer is complicated). But my publisher Harper Collins thinks no one will buy books of that sort, so it’s on the shelf until some publisher with more faith in the intelligence of the reading public comes along.
I started the aero engine book when I discovered that airframe manufacturers have to go sniffing around the engine designers long before they start designing their aeroplanes. Engines have led the way, and called the shots, throughout the history of flight, and when the story is laid out in simple form, the history becomes logical, obvious and gripping.
When writing Fighter I came across the fact that because of inadequate power that the Pratt & Whitney engines provided to the early versions of the Boeing jumbo there was an interim solution whereby steam was injected into the engine. This gave a sudden powerful boost. It seemed to me that with an overabundance of heat produced in the engines, and surrounding cold air producing condensation, the power of bypass jets could be supplemented free of charge by combining the two and creating steam in the bypass.
My sons – both pilots - who know far more about these things say that, with today’s much improved jet engines, the steam would not provide enough extra power to make it worthwhile.
Giacomo Pueroni asked: In the ‘eighties, Glidrose Publication [The James Bond library estate] started a new series of book about James Bond, written by John Gardner. Some informed sources say that other British writers were "in the running" for this books, before Gardner accepted. Were you one of them?
LD: No, I was never asked to write a James Bond book. When John Gardner – a very good and experienced writer – took it on, I thought the job would be his from then on; that he would become the new Ian Fleming. I was surprised that they shuffled many different writers around.
Recently I was asked to write an Introduction to a reprinted Bond paperback. I wrote it, and although the publishers were happy, the Fleming executors said it was not suitable for the Bond reprint. I am not sure what they objected to, but he who pays the piper calls the tune so I let it go.
Sometime afterwards Amazon asked me to write a non-fiction ‘Kindle short’ and I wrote James Bond my search for his father. It is only available in e-book format. I enjoyed writing it, for it brought back many memories – mostly happy ones – of the film world into which I have briefly ventured as an author, producer, and as a screenwriter. The little book tells of my several remarkable engagements with the Bond empire; and friendships with Cubby Broccoli, Sean Connery, Ian Fleming, Harry Salzman and Kevin McClory. I wrote the screenplay of From Russia With Love and Never Say Never Again. I learned a great deal and enjoyed the travel and the technical knowledge I gained but in each case that old Hollywood axiom “screenplays are not written; they are rewritten” proved right. It wasn’t until I produced a film using my own script that I was able to ensure that the entirety of my story ideas went on to the screen. Meanwhile I am hoping that someone will offer to publish my little James Bond memoir and illustrate it.
Craig Arthur asked: Is it right that in one of his Bond books, John Gardner wrote that you (along with James Joyce) were read by Bond? Bond’s favourite author in Gardner's Bond novels is Eric Ambler, but I believe the heroine in his novel Scorpius is a huge Deighton fan! Also, which, if any, is your favourite Fleming novel?
LD: I am not very well informed about the Bond books! I had never read one until I was asked to go to Istanbul to write From Russia With Love. I read it very carefully. I can’t remember which of the others I read but – subsequent to us talking at length about Japan – Ian gave me one of the first file copies of the story set in Japan, [You Only Live Twice], and I found that interesting and informative.
Matthew Bradford asked: I believe you’re friends with writer John Gardner. There seems to be some interesting similarities between your careers: writing similar novels around the same time as each other, both of which were followed by dystopian thrillers - Golgartha and SS-GB - and then 1980s spy trilogies - Herbie Kruger and your Samson novels - and then historical spy novels - The Secret Families and Winter. Had that occurred to you? Was there a friendly rivalry, perhaps?
LD: Yes, although I didn’t know him very well John was a good friend of mine. Knowing my interest in airships he very kindly arranged for me to fly in a blimp and after the flight he persuaded someone from Rolls Royce to let me drive one of their latest cars back to London. I found it rather stressful to have a RR expert sitting next to me watching my driving techniques.
As for our working programs I seldom talk about my ongoing writing projects. I very rarely use researchers, and even then they tend to be family or friends. John seemed to be equally reluctant to discuss his work (we talked about everything else) so if our writing coincided in any way it would have been entirely by chance.
Matthew also asked: What did you think of Robert Ludlum’s work, since you reference him directly in Spy Sinker: Brett sees his wife reading a spy thriller with a critic's quote declaring it “Better than Ludlum!" written larger than the actual author's name on the cover. I always wondered if this was a tribute to him, or if you were slyly commenting on some cover that had declared another spy thriller "Better than Deighton!" in huge letters, obviously capitalising on your name, but swapped yours for Ludlum because obviously you couldn't exist in Samson's world!?
LD: I suppose it was intended as an ironic joke that the wife of a senior SIS official would read the extravagances of a fictional spy. I confess that I have from time to time mentioned the titles of other writers but it is only in fun and I certainly do not intend any disrespect. I have always found writing books to be immensely time consuming and moderately stressful. It remains an uncertain way of earning a living. So I give every good wish to anyone who has gone through the torment and doubts that are part of completing a full-length book: however good or bad it is.
Cameron Duncan asked: How do you feel about contemporary spy fiction? There is a great deal of nostalgia surrounding the Cold War. You, obviously, wrote contemporaneously about it. Do you think the current geo-political and intelligence world holds the same level of intrigue? Current spy fiction is very tech-focused, detailing global communications and all about counter terrorism scenarios, rather than the intensities of interpersonal relationships in that intelligence world you brought so vividly to life.
LD: When Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, criminal detection was changing drastically. Alphonse Bertillon was starting hisService d’Indentité Judiciaire in Paris and Hans Gross had just finished that masterpiece of criminology System der Kriminalistik. A more scientific approach to scene-of-crime evidence was bringing photography, X-Rays, infra-red and ultra-violet light into forensic labs. Chemical analysis and Hollerith file cards came into use. Dust samples were analysed. Physical categorization and fingerprint classification was transforming police methods everywhere.
But, although Sherlock Holmes makes passing reference to science, and in A Study in Scarlet even visits a laboratory, his methods are human and relatively commonplace. He uses his eyes, his nose and his brain. He recognises typefaces, mud stains and tobacco ash, and conjures a convincing life story after looking at a well-worn gold watch with pawnbroker’s marks. Holmes’ dramatic conclusions were done without chemical analysis, without spectroscopes or even microscopes. It was the observation, common sense and reasoning power that kept the pages turning.
Doyle knew that his readers wanted dialog and characterisation. They wanted to read about bizarre millionaires, exotic nobility, nocturnal beasts and horrible villains, not about quiet men dressed in clean white coats in laboratories using litmus paper, test tubes and Bunsen burners. And Doyle even made sure that his hero was an eccentric, even if his reasoning power was cold and logical. The only normal character is Watson. He is exactly like us, and like his author, except for having this very strange friend in his Baker Street home. I found it interesting that the writer and critic Hugh Greene said: “Even physically Conan Doyle resembled Watson, and when I occasionally caught a glimpse of him in Crowborough in the last years of his life one might have been looking at Dr. Watson.”
Conan Doyle got it right. For authors, people matter. Holmes outwitted his opponents in dramatic and dangerous conclusions. Modern futuristic stories that depend upon excessive technology have a hard up-hill struggle no matter how diligent the research.”
Questions from the Deighton Dossier on the Samson series of novels
Deighton Dossier: Spy Sinker is published in 1990, but clearly written in the late eighties when there was Glasnost but still no obvious signs of the Wall coming down. It’s very prescient in its imagining of how East Germany could be brought down by Bret’s Sinker plan, which in the end was very close to what happened with the role of the churches and middle classes in the DDR crucial. Was that whole story arc just lucky happenstance, or did you get guidance on what might happen from ‘sources’, shall we say?
LD: First, let me say that Washington and London had no idea that the Wall would fall: soon or ever. I had the advantage of spending a great proportion of my time in the DDR and in East Berlin. My biggest mistake was in thinking the collapse would come sooner than it did, and perhaps I became a bore about this. I was friendly with several DDR officials who became more and more outspoken every day. I also befriended West Berlin radio taxi drivers who were always the first to sniff what was happening across the whole city. And yes, the churchgoers – especially those in the DDR, the Lutherans - were very brave and resourceful in their opposition to the regime and monumentally patient.
In the DDR the professional middle class, and academics in particular, remained in support of the communist regime right up to the very end. (Many similar people in the West shared their views.) When the day came, it was these people in the DDR who spoke English and had contacts in the West. These intellectuals promptly and deftly rewrote history to give themselves the major heroic part in the revolution. And the western press and TV – mostly monolingual and ill-prepared - carried that untrue account. (The same thing happened in Poland where the Catholic Church and the workers were deprived of their rightful place in the story.)”
DD: Related to that, did you plan the nine novels in one long story arc? Or did you plan out Game, Set & Match as one trilogy, then Hook, Line & Sinker as another trilogy, similarly with Faith, Hope & Charity, all planned from the start? And on the latter three, they were all written four years after the Wall fell and the Warsaw Pact had opened up. Did the change in Europe prompt you to add to the previous two trilogies, or did it just give you more justification to build on the original angle about George and Poland, which you’d explored only briefly in describing his and Tessa’s marriage?
LD: I like diagrams (I suppose that’s something to do with my six years studying art). I like to have them on the wall so I can be constantly reminded of what progress I am making. I had a firm plan for the first trilogy and a ghost plan for the next three trilogies (the final one describing the collapse was ‘ghosted’ but never written).
I didn’t write all ten books in succession. I was afraid I would go stale if I did. So I deliberately planned, researched and wrote other books of a completely different kind in between the Samson books (much to the frustration and opposition of my publisher). But this enabled me to come back to the Samson story with fresh energy and a new eye.
Of course the opening up of Germany gave me a chance to approach more and more East Germans of a different kind and in a different way. With less danger they were more open. I relished some new anecdotal materiel but there were no revelations that brought changes in the ‘ghost’ plan.
Yes, George was there to give me a foothold in Poland. I almost got carried away by the Polish episodes: it is such a mysterious country both in the national psychology and the landscape. It was a long term interest: several of my friends – since my days at school - are Polish.
DD: Spy Sinker is in the third person, not Samson’s narrative voice. Challenge or welcome relief, to tell this story in a new way?
LD: Samson is a character in the books; he is not the ‘authorial voice’. I wanted to emphasize this device. I wanted the reader to see Bernard as the people around him saw him. Writing Sinker gave me a chance to expand the writing style beyond the limitations of the first person (ie taking the reader only where Samson goes).
Spy Sinker provides an overview. Now the reader knows things that still puzzle the characters. In the same way as Spy Sinker, the prequel Winter can be read as part of any sequence of the Bernard Samson series. If you read it before the nine Samson books, you learn the earlier life of many characters. For instance, you will know all about Inge Winter, and will perhaps guess who Ingrid Winter might be, while Bernard puzzles about both of them. Read Winter after the other nine books and it is like opening a security file and finding all the secrets buried there. Either way, the whole series is designed to provide a long and slowly unraveling story with shocks and surprises – plus a little history and geography.
DD: That twelve year period during which you were writing the Samson novels were a time of great political change - from the coldest period of the Cold War to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the freedom of the East European states. How much were your stories influenced by this changing history, i.e. did things like Gorbachev’s election in the USSR encourage you to change the story or the characters in ways in which you’d not envisaged before?
LD: The changes in East Europe and the USSR were almost entirely based upon Russia’s growing shortage of Western money. This was needed to prop up the satellites – which were in debt to Western Banks - and buy ever more expensive wheat to supplement continuous crop failures. With skill and prescience President Reagan pressed the Western Banks to harass the Eastern government for repayments of their loaned money. And he manipulated the markets (for that, read Saudi Arabia) to bring down the price of oil (upon exports of which the USSR depended). All this impoverished the USSR economy. So the political changes were an inevitable consequence of the battle for economic health. (This is a complicated story that I might one day write as a non-fiction book.) On a more local scale, visible even to the tourist, the Russian army was soaked in vodka, ragged in attire, months behind with soldier’s pay and deprived of vital equipment.
DD: The characters in the novels are what give them their edge; they’re so rounded and believable for that period. To what extent were any of the characters inspired by people you’d met, say in East Berlin or in London? I’m thinking for example of Stinnes and Werner Volkmann.
LD: Conan Doyle pointed out that basing fictional characters upon real people is limiting. Doyle said, the author will always know more about the characters he creates – their history, motivation, and secret thoughts – than he can ever know about real people.
It is true. And I have always claimed that all the characters I write about are created from my imagination but every now and again I find an example that contradicts that. When Sinker was published there was a small, bookshop poster showing all the characters in the books. The artist was Adrian Bailey a brilliant painter with whom I had been at art school. Discussing this project with him, I mentioned various mutual friends and acquaintances who filled the physical descriptions of the cast of Spy Sinker.
That made me realise that I had taken many of the appearances of real people but given them entirely different characteristics. Werner was physically and sartorially based on an Austrian lawyer friend living in London. But much of Werner’s clear thinking, his sense of duty, unstinting generosity and view of the world was that of Leslie Kaye with whom back in the fifties I had managed a dress factory in East London.
Again, in spirit rather that in physical appearance, the indomitable, unpredictable and often illogical Lisl Hennig (always determined to have the last word) is my Irish mother. In appearance Lisl is like the owner-manager of a cramped old-fashioned Berlin hotel I liked. Cold-blooded Stinnes was more like a Russian-born East German official who didn’t like me and was keen to make that plain. Leuschner’s café, complete with broken juke box, was a meeting place where many confidences were exchanged. More than one of my friends have asserted that Bernard is just like me.
DD: Where and when does Winter fit into the nine trilogies (it was published between London Match and Spy Hook). That is, did you originally plan to publish it to support the Samson novels; was it an afterthought by you after developing Samson’s background in the first trilogy; or was it perhaps a suggestion from your editor or someone else to pursue this as a one-off?
LD: My wife and I were living in the cramped garret of a popular Gasthof in a village on the Ammersee, a lake just outside Munich. Our sons were attending a nearby German school. For some time I had been scribbling notes about a story that would be in effect a history of Germany 1900-1945 but I kept putting it off.
When writing a letter to a friend in Vienna, I impulsively added a PS asking him to visit a newspaper library and tell me what the weather was like in Vienna on the last day of 1899. At about the same time it occurred to me that a story with an earlier Germany-Austria setting could be a prequel for the Bernard Samson stories.
My friend’s weather report became the basis of the first page of Winter. I like to get things right and had my friend not come back so promptly I might never have written Winter. As it happened the first draft was mostly done in that attic. Living in an attic with a low sloping ceiling encourages work because every time you stop and stand up you hit your head.
In the same village I became friendly with a man who turned out to be a close relative of General Gehlen. (War buffs will know that Gehlen’s WW2 intelligence files and network concerning the USSR gave him an exalted role in the postwar US Intelligence system.)
During our prolonged stay my wife and I became friends with the two owners and for relaxation we enjoyed helping in the Gasthof kitchen. By the time the first draft of Winter was complete we had a working knowledge of Bavarian and Swabian cooking. To say nothing of the christenings, weddings and other celebrations which were a part of Bavarian village life. It was a wonderful experience.
DD: The cover designs for the UK first editions. Ray Hawkey produced the excellent ‘apple’ themed images for Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match, which provided a unity to all the novels.
But then Spy Hook had the wall motif, Spy Line was just a title and Spy Sinker included a Fiona character. Any particular reason for this loss of a trilogy design, which sort of reappeared with Faith, Hope and Charity with jacket illustrations by Joe Partridge of Bernard and Gloria, Dicky and Werner? Publisher’s prerogative?
LD: First let me say there are many covers. Hardbacks, trade paperbacks, paperbacks, foreign editions etc. US publishers like to offer their own graphic ideas which are usually inferior. Then there are reprints. It adds up to hundreds of covers. Sometimes there have been publicity campaigns to which the designs must fit. These decisions are often a matter of compromise.
I have admired Ray Hawkey’s work ever since we were at art school together and Ray did some groundbreaking work on The Ipcress File and then my subsequent covers. The designs he provided for the three Game Set and Match covers had the unprecedented success of being on the three UK hardbacks, the three US hardbacks and the three UK paperbacks and three US paperbacks too. This was probably a unique record.
Subsequent covers differed. I don’t remember exactly which titles were which but the publisher, Rosie Cheetham, one of the finest editors I ever worked with, was unhappy with the proposed three covers all using a very similar wall motif. I separately had the same feeling, and the artwork for the second and third Wall was scrapped.”
I am depending upon my memory and perhaps forgetting some superb covers, but Ray’s use of the landscape painting for Bomber was striking and so was the broken champagne bottle for Close-Up and the dead bird in the snow that went on the hardback Winter.
Despite all the doubts I had about computer graphics, the paintbrush style cover designs based upon Joe Partridges photos were superb. I was watching with close interest when the in-house designers were working on some of them. A large part of the striking success came from the casting of the photographer’s models – Dicky, Gloria and Bernard etc – and I can claim no part in that.
My old friend Arnold Schwartzman produced the mammoth series of covers for the recent reprints using his amazing collection of Cold War ephemera. He reproduced authentic air tickets so that the spines spelled out BERNARDSAMSON.
When – albeit rarely – they are to be found on bookshop selves, the result is dramatic. But my years studying art left me in awe of the painter’s skill, and the eight magnificent realistic covers Gordon Crabb painted with such care and research for the paperback editions of Expensive Place, Declarations of War, Twinkle Twinkle, SS-GB, Close-Up, Spy Story, Yesterday's Spy, Billion Dollar Brain and Horse Under Water remain my favourites. It has always been my belief that depicting people on covers for fiction works is better than any other graphic solution.
Coming soon are three covers for the reprints of my history books: Blitzkrieg, Fighter and Blood Tears & Folly. They depict women in the war and extend the notion of the war in a way that is striking and thought-provoking and no author can ask for more than that.
DD: Finally, was there every any temptation after Faith, Hope and Charity to explore the fall of the Eastern Bloc from the perspective of Bernard, Fiona, Dicky, Bret and Sir Henry, i.e. to see through to the end what they’d all been involved in across nine novels?
LD: Well, the final trilogy was a ‘ghost’ idea but I never moved very far in writing it. I did think of telling the whole story again in one volume but I couldn’t decide how to do it; eg in the first person, third person or some entirely different viewpoint, for example, Bernard’s son. I’m still thinking about it.
This interview again includes a mixture of questions asked by Deighton Dossier readers, and those asked by the website creator.
Questions from the Deighton Dossier
Deighton Dossier: As an author, what’s been your relationship or perspective on book reviewers? Are they crucial to an author’s success? Does a bad review get you down? Do you think over the year’s your books have been well reviewed?
Len Deighton: Critics or reviewers earn their living, and keep their jobs, by entertaining their readers rather than by accurate judgment. I understand this and, as a general policy, I avoid reading reviews. It is better to get on with the next project than to dwell upon the past. Like most authors, I usually finish a book with a vague discontent and a desire to start again and do it differently. But I don't do that; I send it off to my agent and listen to what she has to say about it.
DD: One of the books of yours I like, but which is perhaps less well known now, is Declarations of War, your collection of short stories with a military theme. Each story and main character is different but together, they provide a nice sense of continuity throughout history of man as soldier. What was the prompt for writing that book?
LD: For me, writing is a long, slow business. In the year or more while Declarations of War was written we were looking for a home. The ups and downs and running around that is a part of house-hunting made me feel I needed to write separate stories. I wrote them in flashy hotels, cramped apartments and the homes of friends but I kept to my military theme. For some stories I used the experiences of people I met and places I visited. Thus the book was planned and and written as a whole (although a recent reprinting added 'The Man Who Was a Coyote’, a story written later).
But be warned: publishers hate short stories because they persist in believing that immediately people think they are ancient odds and ends that have been published elsewhere eg in magazines. No amount of explanation will convince them otherwise.
DD: I read somewhere that when you were writing The Ipcress File, first as a screenplay, you put it down for a while before returning to it. I guess you could easily have left it on the shelf and got on with you life - but what prompted you to go back and finish it and, as a result, change your whole life?
LD: I met a literary agent at a party in Swiss Cottage in North London. After our friendly conversation at the party I went home and dusted off what I had written and, during a lengthy but failed attempt to live in the French countryside, knocked it into better shape. I had never had an ambition to be a writer, and I was perfectly happy, and adequately paid working as a free lance illustrator. But my book found a publisher and I devoted all my time and energy to becoming a professional writer.
DD: Your book Blitzkrieg has a forward by General Nehring. He seems an interesting character to know, to say the least. In your research for this book, you clearly engaged with a number of German veterans. I’d be interested, given what we know about the war as a whole, in your impressions of the German veterans who helped inform your work. What did you make of them? Were they, essentially, the same as British or US veterans, or did the German army create a particular sort of soldier?
LD: It was my good luck to start writing about WWII - and in Blitzkrieg about the rise of the Nazi Party - while the top people (British, American, German and French people too) were still alive. Apart from the post-war military interrogators, historians ignored the Germans. Even German historians avoided them. This worked in my favour; high-ranking people such as General Walter Nehring (Chief of Staff to General Heinz Guderian) were pleased to be questioned by someone who had a basic knowledge of the war. On the Allied side, I knew Major-General Francis de Guingand (Chief of Staff to General Montgomery).
Albert Speer (Hitler's Minister of Armaments) was unstinting in his help and advice. He was Hitler's architect and became the Minister of Armaments. He spent more time talking with Hitler than most of the other top Nazis. Speer served 20 years in prison in Spandau Berlin and was released in 1966. His two books provide the only serious inside look at Hitler and the criminals who ruled Germany from 1933 until the end of the war in 1945. Working on autobiographical notes after his release, Speer needed to remember some dates concerning him and his family in the early thirties. He could however remember that a Zeppelin flew over and this would enable him to confirm a time and place.
Someone told Speer that I was an expert on the Zeppelins and he contacted me. It wasn't exactly true but I had co-written two specialist books about Zeppelin flights: The Orient Flight of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin and The Egypt Flight of the Graf Zeppelin and published articles about Zeppelin airmail in philatelic magazines. For my own amusement I had drawn maps showing the airships many flights, But there were many others who knew more than I did. Most notably there was Hans von Schiller, who was living in Stuttgart not far from Speer's home in Heidelberg. I knew Schiller well; he had served with the Zeppelins over many years and had commanded the Graf Zeppelin on numerous transatlantic flights. But I was dedicated to 20th century history, to German history and to World War Two. I had written about it and planned to write more; a chance to meet Albert Speer was irresistible.
It was easy for me to date Speer's sighting of the Graf Zeppelin and it began an exchange of letters and then an invitation for my my wife and I to visit him and his wife Margarete at his family home.So much has been written about Speer that I can't add much of great value. He was quietly spoken, polite and rather withdrawn. My primary impression was of a great calm. By the time I met Speer I had questioned countless veterans of the war, but I had never met anyone with comparable calm demeanor. Whether this was the result of 20 years solitary confinement, or whether this calm and capable demeanor had played a part in his becoming Hitler's confidente, was impossible to guess. He met my questions with full and frank replies.
I must explain that my questions for Speer were devoted to facts rather than opinions. The war and German armaments were my prime interest. Sometimes the facts came unasked. One evening the four of us went out to dine in a local restaurant with Speer at the wheel of his Mercedes. It was, he explained to me, a special model that Mercedes supplied only to him.
'In what respect?' I asked.
'It has a Wankel engine,' he replied.
'During the war I supported the work done on the engine. I was very keen on it. They supply this special model as an appreciation.'
'Why did you support the work?'
'I wanted Wankel engines for bombers,' he said. 'They are so quiet.'
As someone who had survived three months of uninterrupted Luftwaffe bombing raids the thought made me shiver. I have written a book about the history of aero-engines (which still needs illustrations and a publisher) so this revelation was of major interest to me. The Wankel engine was a radical development in engines and I was interested in hearing about this little-known use of it.
Being with Speer gave me a chance to kill off one of the most infantile myths of the war (although in 1995 it was still being offered in the 'Macmillan Dictionary of the Second World War'). This was the story that the Rudolf Hess imprisoned in Spandau was an imposter. As I expected, Speer confirmed that his fellow prisoner was undoubtedly the man he'd known in Hitler's Germany. I was able to include this in a contribution I wrote for 'Flight From Reality - Rudolf Hess and his Mission to Scotland' published by Pimlico in 2002 for the University of Edinburgh.
I tried to persuade Margarete Speer to write a book describing what domestic and social life was like in Nazi Germany with all the wives and children of the Nazi elite to socialise with. She smiled knowingly and politely said yes yes but I could see that it was something she would never do.
Albert Speer had a dry sense of humour and I remember him saying that his book never got to number one on the NY Times bestseller list because 'There was a book called 'Everything you always wanted to know about sex but were afraid to Ask' which stayed at the top for ever.'
I think it was a joke but he kept a straight face so I nodded sympathetically.
Through veterans associations I met many other men who had fought in the war. These lower ranking soldiers were explicit and brutally frank. The list is very long and I remain grateful to them all. There were many surprises; but of course I always cross-checked and double researched anything even slightly contentious.
One thing I noticed about German veterans was a determination to get everything exactly correct; had I written it down? Was my spelling right? (My wife speaks German fluently but they still liked to be sure there were no misunderstandings). 'The Italians alongside us fought like demons' said one Africa Corps veteran. 'D-Day was, in other words; a typical Luftwaffe balls-up' said a Waffen-SS veteran in perfect English. The failings, victories, defeats and even disgrace had to be recorded precisely.
DD: On the lighter side, your time as travel editor of Playboy in the sixties sounds like a very interesting period. How did that come about and what was the grandest tour you got to go on while editor?
LD: In the late sixties Playboy was run by an energetic man named Spectorsky (Hugh Heffner was a sort of super chief who spent most of his time in the 'Playboy Mansion' where I stayed when in Chicago. 'Spec' had seen the Continental Dossier and the London Dossier which I had compiled from other people's expert writings. 'Spec' wanted to attract big international advertisers such as airlines, and he needed travel articles that would help to do that. He asked me to become Travel Editor: travel anywhere with a very generous expense account. Had I not been committed to the pre production work on my two films - Only When I Larf and Oh! What a Lovely War - I might have enjoyed this assignment more than I did. But it was a demanding and interesting appointment.
The grandest trip was to Hawaii where I had a helicopter to use like an air taxi hopping from place to place. But most enjoyable was the time my wife and I spent in a tiny rural town in Japan. No one there spoke English. The locals were curious about these two tall round-eyes who had suddenly appeared. But the food was wonderful, the beds remarkable and everyone was polite and friendly. It was almost magical: so perfect that I never wrote about it.
Craig Arthur: I’m interested in your writing process as author. How have you approached the generation of ideas, the research, the structuring of your books. How much pre-planning went into your fiction projects, such as the nine-books of the Samson series?
LD: I have met authors who like to make up their stories as they go along. That idea fills me with horror. I like to plan slowly and carefully. I use wall-charts to which I can refer easily and quickly. For Bomber my work-room was papered with charts and diagrams, maps and target maps, photos and character notes. A sectional drawing of a Lancaster bomber was valuable to me. For some major characters, both German and British - I clipped photos of people from newspapers, magazines or snapshots.
For me, writing a book is a lengthy process so I spend a long time in preparation before committing myself to the writing. I am always ready to dump material that is not going the way I planned. The Samson series was sketched out roughly as a chart even before Berlin Game was started. I prefer to decide upon the setting first. I don't want to write stories that could have happened anywhere: I like stories that could only have happened in the place or places I have chosen: in this case communist Berlin, West Berlin and London. I had lived on both sides of the Wall and come to know Berlin rather well over the years; and I was born in London. I wanted these places to be important. Over the nine books there were episodes in such places as Mexico and Poland where I also had friends and relatives.
Of course characterisation and dialog is the make or break element of most books.
The Bernard Samson stories were devoted to him and to the people around him. Here is a man troubled by his sincere love for two women. In an old Berlin hotel Tante Lisl is like a mother to him, and his immediate superior Frank feels responsible for Bernard and all his problems. But the relationships are a tangle of emotions and in London Bernard's sardonic relationship with his immediate superior - Dicky - gives the story its lemon-juice flavour.
Eero Ranio: Your cooking books are very well known. I’d like to know if you still cook regularly at home the meals you wrote about in your books, and what would be your dream meal - any dish, any restaurant?
LD: Yes, my wife and I share the cooking, and we prefer to eat at home rather than in restaurants. At present I am publishing a cookstrip in the Observer Monthly Food Magazine. I am greatly helped in cooking and experimenting for the strip by my younger son. Both my sons are accomplished cooks and I am often in awe of what complex recipes they will tackle.
My own tastes are simple; I enjoy the dishes that my mother made so perfectly: Lancashire hot-pot, stewed eels, steak and kidney pudding, bread and butter pudding and my mother’s wonderful sherry trifle.
Brian Miller: Continuing the food theme, there are really strong food and wine elements in many of your novels which are as important in many ways to the reader as the guns and the espionage action. What do food and wine give to an author in terms of how they help reveal characters and themes?
"Man is what he eats" the Romans told us. It is true; our bodies and our minds require nourishment. and we are the product of that intake. We observe our friends, and their choice of clothes, food, drink. We notice their conversation and sense of humour, which conjures up our image of them. So it is with the characters in a book. All of these blending elements - and sometimes contradictory ones - paint a coherent picture for our readers.
But food is also a battlefield of pretension and bewilderment. Restaurants spend more time writing menus than cooking food. More and more meals arrive in cardboard boxes. Liberal salt prolongs shelf life, and amazing colour photos lift expectations that stall. Dinner party scenes abound in my books: I can't resist the opportunities they provide for double-meaning dialogue.
Simon Clark [Simon had many questions so I picked the best!]: If you hadn’t been successful as a fiction or food writer, what occupation would you have chosen. Did you envisage a long career in illustration and advertising?
LD: Yes, at one time I wanted nothing other than a career as an illustrator. Photographers, illustrators and art directors are a congenial fraternity; a little world of cheerful friends. Writers are far more competitive.
SC: You moved to America many years ago. As an Englishman, what attracted you to the life in America?
LD: In the nineteen fifties New York was the place to be for an illustrator. A dazzling array of magazines and advertisements showed the work of a lively, witty and creative new wave of artists and photographers too. Eventually London caught up, and by the sixties the flow reversed and many American creative people enjoyed working for London agencies.
SC: Your first novel, The Ipcress File, was published in 1962, at a time when the Beatles were starting to grab attention. In the ‘sixties, both you and the Beatles were arguably at the top of your professions. What recollection did you have of the Beatles at that time?
LD: It’s a long story. I was enjoying a prolonged stay in Paris researching An Expensive Pace to Die. They assigned a plain clothes policeman to show me around and he seemed to delight in shocking me as we went into the strange underworld of Paris at that time.
But I had a more normal social life too and one of the friends I made was Lloyd Chandler, a Canadian prospector who had struck uranium and come to Europe to enjoy his sudden wealth. Although Lloyd's lifestyle was modest, he was generous and eccentric. He threw to me the keys and made me a present of his rather battered Jaguar E-Type when his local taxi service had closed for the night and I needed to get back to central Paris. I was able to return it to him only with the greatest difficulty and with the aid of a third party.
Lloyd's uranium windfall persuaded him to donate money to Bertrand Russell's 'Ban the Bomb' movement and the two men became friends. During a visit to Russell at his home in Wales, Lloyd was told how worried he was about a letter he'd written in the nineteen thirties promising his autobiography to a publisher. Now he was writing his autobiography: must he take their first offer? Who would advise him? Lloyd said Len Deighton would know the answer. What made him say this I have no idea!
I knew nothing of any of this when some months later in London I had a call from Russell on the rather primitive radio phone that I had installed in my VW Beetle. Deciding it was a hoax I ignored it and the calls that followed for a week but eventually decided I should respond. Who could resist an invitation to visit the world's most famous philosopher? My wife and I spent a couple of delightful days with Bertrand Russell and even my slight grasp of copyright law enabled me to set his mind at rest about the letters. He had other problems: his papers, and archives covering his long life, were scattered in various grand houses and private libraries in Britain and he would like to have the material collected, sorted and made into a catalog.
I suggested that he should meet my friend Ray Hawkey and my accountant Anton Felton. It worked out well. There were about 100,000 items and a limited edition catalog was published in an edition of 300. Anton Felton became Russell's Executor.
It was on the second day of our visit that Bertrand Russell mentioned the Beatles to me, saying that they wanted to make an 'anti-war film' and wanted me to produce it. My wife and I cooked an elaborate curry meal, with all the side dishes and accompaniments. It covered the long bare dining-room table at our home in Merrick Square, in south London.
Paul McCartney came and we devoured the vast curry, drank beer and talked and talked until the small hours of the morning. I was writing and producing Oh! What A Lovely War. To create a narrative I had made the central characters into the Smith Family and the four Beatles could have fitted into this role. But understandably, they wanted to have their own music and their own lyrics. The two projects just wouldn't fit together and, although Paul and I hoped that we could do something together at some future date, we never did.
Robert ‘Raki’ Rakison: In some American first editions of your novel *XPD*, there was a laid-in copy of a postcard of the Hindenburg. As a reader and collector I’d be interested to know: why was such a lagniappe included?
DD: I am completely baffled by what you tell me, Publishers are apt to do very strange things - quite often.
Despite being an internationally renowned author and a celebrity - of sorts - much in demand by the media, Len Deighton has kept a relatively modest media profile, particularly so in the last two decades or so, when interviews with him have become very scarce.
Set out below are a selection of broadcast and print interview with Len Deighton.
This is an excellent thirty-minute biographical piece on Deighton in his eighty-second year, which is produced in the typical BBC Radio 4 style.
The programme is still available to listen to on the BBC's website here and a full transcript is reproduced below.
Narrated by Patrick Humphrys, this radio piece explores Deighton's life and his play within the canon of British thriller writers. While adopting a linear narrative, what makes this programme interesting is the frequent contributions from other people alongside interview extracts with Deighton himself.
These include food writer Henrietta Green, spy thriller writer Jeremy Duns and historian Sir Max Hastings.
A TV documentary broadcast on BBC4 made by Lion TV, this interview is probably the most comprehensive undertaken by TV or print media in recent decades.
It includes extensive contributions by Len Deighton and other friends, writers and historian, including Sir Max Hastings and Sir Michael Caine.
To mark his 80th birthday, the Daily Telegraph's books editor Jake Kerridge talked at length to Len Deighton about his career and his books, which were at the time being re-published by Harper Collins to mark this 80th anniversary.
The article can be read available online.
Journalist Robert Dawson Scott interviewed Len Deighton ahead of the broadcast by BBC4 of The Truth About Len Deighton (see above), the first major biographical documentary on the author.
In the interview he focuses particularly on Deighton's working-class upbringing and the impact this had on his work.
As The Times is behind a paywall, the article is reproduced below.
An interview from this Trevor Hyatt-fronted magazine programme on London's Thames TV channel.
Broadcast as part of the PR push around the launch of Berlin Game, we learn from it that Deighton doesn't read his books again one they're published; that the low budget of The Ipcress File film was the secret to its success; and that he's not at all resentful of the fact he's never won the Booker Prize.
A BBC1 profile which was transmitted around the time of the publication of Fighter, Deighton's history of the Battle of Britain.
Interviewed by BBC arts supremo Melvyn Bragg, Deighton discusses his most famous books.
Until a video is available online, readers can review a full transcript of the interview by clicking the button below.
Journalist and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge interviews Deighton - still, then, a relative newcomer to the literary scene despite the successful launch of The Ipcress File and subsequently Horse Under Water and Funeral in Berlin - over lunch in a fascinating article written up as a dialogue.
King Magazine was in the 1960s a male interest magazine akin to the modern GQ.
In his own words
According to others
Did you know?
Understanding Deighton's writing
Deighton at 90
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