The Night Manager: shaken, not stirred

The BBC set the standard for John le Carré adaptations in the 1970s and 80s. But its attempt to play keep-up in the era of the globalised TV drama shades close to the fantasias of a very different spy master…

Theo Tait

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Tom Hiddleston as hotelier turned undercover agent Jonathan Pine and Hugh Laurie as arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper in The Night Manager (2016)

Tom Hiddleston as hotelier turned undercover agent Jonathan Pine and Hugh Laurie as arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper in The Night Manager (2016)

Spoiler alert: this feature mentoins details from all six episodes of The Night Manager including the denouement.

The BBC’s lavish new production of John le Carré’s The Night Manager has been received like a returning hero. It has been obvious to many that since the turn of the century, when the open-ended ten- or 12-part drama serial became the signature art form of the time, the Corporation’s drama output has lagged behind the front runners in ambition and originality.

Now it has brought out a six-part series which both harks back to its glorious adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982), starring Alec Guinness, and – with its unprecedented budget of £20m, starry cast and US cable co-production deal – keeps pace with the vast, all-conquering TV dramas of today. It has pulled in good ratings, and very positive press. “This is what we want Auntie to be for,” sighed AA Gill in The Sunday Times. “It reminds us that once we had the best TV in the world.” Glossy and expertly shot by the Danish director Susanne Bier, it provides the viewer with an orgy of luxurious foreign locations, helicopter shots and visual fireworks; with convoys of choreographed speedboats and SUVs. It features a highly professional cast at the top of their game. It is cleverly paced and undeniably gripping. But, all in all, it is about as unexpected – and about as challenging – as casting Olivia Coleman as your female lead.

The Night Manager, published in 1993, was le Carré’s first post-Cold War novel; it was an attempt to show the world that, though his fictional territory had been demolished with the Berlin Wall, he wasn’t finished. In fact, the book didn’t represent such a sharp change of direction. The Little Drummer Girl (1983), for instance, is about the Middle East rather than the Eastern Bloc, and arguably represents the real watershed in his career. It was the point when the taut, shadowy, morally ambiguous stories that made him famous in the 1960s and 70s gave way to his later style: international, exotic, extensively researched and informed by a fierce moral indignation. In his last appearance, in The Secret Pilgrim (1990), le Carré’s master spy George Smiley is heard remarking that the right people had lost the Cold War, but the wrong people had won it. “Now we had defeated Communism,” thinks one of his acolytes, “we were going to have to set about defeating capitalism.” And so le Carré entered what might be called his John Pilger period: furious with corporate Britain and America, and convinced of their moral bankruptcy. The Night Manager, in which Richard Onslow Roper, a public-school-educated Brit with the covert backing of the Whitehall establishment, sells arms to the embattled Third World, embodies this world view.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley in the BBC’s 1975 serialisation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Alec Guinness as George Smiley in the BBC’s 1975 serialisation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Like most of his novels, it was a commercial success. Various attempts were made to film it in the 1990s. Stanley Kubrick considered it – a strange thought – but decided he couldn’t squeeze it into a two-hour movie “without flattening everybody into gingerbread men”. Sydney Pollack paid a large amount of money for the rights, and hired Robert Towne of Chinatown fame to write the screenplay; it never appeared and Pollack lost interest, as was apparently his wont. After a long period in the cinematic doldrums, le Carré has experienced a big-screen renaissance in the last decade or so, led by foreign directors – first, Fernando Meirelles’s operatic and effective film of The Constant Gardener (2005); more recently, Tomas Alfredson’s hyper-stylised, sepulchral remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) and Anton Corbijn’s version of his War on Terror drama, A Most Wanted Man (2014) – a good film if you don’t mind that strange convention of British and American actors speaking in German accents.

In a recent article about his film career, le Carré identified, surely correctly, the best films of his work as: the faithful, bleak black-and-white Martin Ritt movie of The Spy Who Came in from The Cold (1965), starring Richard Burton; and the BBC’s Tinker, Tailor. He had ambiguous words of words of praise for Alfredson’s recent version – again, I think, quite rightly: it looks great but it is seriously, if subtly, unfaithful to its source material. Reinventing Smiley, an unremarkable little man with a mind like a steel trap, as the terrifying wordless wraith played by Gary Oldman will never please someone with a real sympathy for the original. Of the recent films, le Carré clearly loves The Constant Gardener, and now, The Night Manager. This despite the serious liberties taken with the novel by David Farr’s screenplay.

Colin Firth in Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 feature version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Colin Firth in Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 feature version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Farr has given the story a thoroughgoing 21st-century upgrade. The original was set around the first Gulf War, and hinged on Roper’s plan to sell arms to Colombian drugs cartels; the TV version begins during the Arab Spring in Cairo, and is about his attempts to traffic weapons to Arab despots. In the book, the hero Jonathan Pine has a background in covert army work in Northern Ireland; in the series he is a veteran of the second Gulf War.

His handler is originally a bluff Yorkshireman by the name of Leonard Burr, with a straight-backed former army officer for a sidekick. Now she is Olivia Coleman’s Angela Burr, a bluff, pregnant Yorkshirewoman with a surrendered husband, and an Asian assistant in specs and bad knitwear played by the reliable Adeel Akhtar. Burr’s sympathetic opposite number in US intelligence, an American ‘Slav’ named Joe Strelski, becomes Joel Stedman – David Harewood, reprising his highly suspicious American accent from Homeland. Nevertheless, Farr’s is a faithful adaptation: the characters and their motivations remain the same, and most of the crucial dialogue is kept intact.

Le Carré’s big selling point always used to be his authenticity, informed by his background in the, ahem, foreign service. He maintained a rhetorical opposition between James Bond and the dumpy, cuckolded George Smiley, who is introduced in his most famous outing thus: “Small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.” Kim Philby, something of an authority on the Cold War, read all le Carré’s early books and enjoyed them: “Although his plots were more complicated than anything within my experience,” he remarked, “they were good reading after all that James Bond nonsense…”

Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle in The Constant Gardener (2005)

Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle in The Constant Gardener (2005)

What’s very noticeable, though, watching The Night Manager, is how close it comes to the James Bond model. There is a surface plausibility, and a nod to serious current affairs. Hugh Laurie’s red-trousered, pink-shirted Roper is a villain nicely disguised: he looks and sounds like a posh banker taking his holidays in the Med. But on closer inspection, he is pasteboard villain of the Bond type. He is a man so evil that he kills Turkish grannies during his arms displays – and when their families complain, he has them shot.

He is given to brief Nietzschean outbursts (villainous ‘monologuing’, as they call it in The Incredibles): “Me, I’m a free man,” Roper tells Pine. “Free to think, free to work, free to climb a mountain or lie in bed all day eating peppermint creams without any bugger telling me how.” Becoming a man, he says, “is realising that it’s all rotten. Realising how to celebrate that rottenness – now that’s freedom.”

There are throwaway lines that Blofeld could have been proud of, were they a bit more original: “Nothing is quite as pretty as napalm at night.” And of course he lives in splendid lair – a converted fort on Mallorca – with an array of sinister henchmen. Equally, Pine follows the Bond pattern: he infiltrates the snake’s nest, shagging the baddies’ women as he goes, and blows everything up at the end. At one point he even orders a vodka Martini in a casino.

The Night Manager (2016)

The Night Manager (2016)

There are so many implausibilities in the plot that one hardly knows where to start. Do illegal arms dealers really write out itemised lists of their dreadful wares – napalm, cluster bombs, sarin and so on? Is everybody of the upper echelons of the civil service really on the take? Do the corrupted mandarins openly try to suborn and threaten the few honest men and women? And do they really, like Tobias Menzies’s Geoffrey Dromgoole and his henchmen, make so little effort to disguise their evil ways? The whole set-up irked me considerably. The thing is, you don’t need to be a master-villain like Roper to sell arms to Egypt’s military rulers, despite their horrendous human rights record; British and American firms have a thriving trade. There’s no need to buy up the British civil servants; they happily and openly give their assistance. It’s how the world works.

I could go on. Would a legendarily cautious uber-villain like Roper really not smell a rat when a man, with a bizarre backstory involving cocaine dealing and murder in a Devon holiday village, turns up in the middle of a kidnap? Given that Roper knows he has a mole, why does he not put two and two together? Would government lawyers approve an armed kidnap of a child as part of an undercover operation? Are there really American forces on the Turkish-Syrian border, stopping convoys? (I hope not, unless Obama’s trying to start World War III.) And why does Pine’s consummate, world-class hotelier always end up with the night shift? The Night Manager is a story with its mind nowhere near the real world. It’s like the final scene, in which various generalised third-world rotters show up to take their weapons away – Arabs, Africans, whatever, it doesn’t matter. As long as the basic storytelling grammar is right – good vs evil, kiss kiss bang bang – then everything is apparently fine.

The Night Manager (2016)

The Night Manager (2016)

It’s a testament to the professional direction and an excellent cast that it stands up as well as it does. The producers have really gone to town with the old trick of redeploying comedians as baddies, so much that it provides a certain amount of white noise for fans of British sitcom. There’s Tobias Menzies, from The Thick of It and Pulling; Tom Hollander, from Rev (always in danger of bumping into his screen wife, Olivia Coleman); Neil Morrissey; and of course Hugh Laurie, Prince George himself, as Roper. But Laurie does a very good job of alternating charm and menace, deploying his goggle-eyed stare in new and exciting ways. Hollander, as ever, is wonderful. After he finds Pine supposedly working as a sous-chef, his delivery of the line “Were those saucy mussels really all your work?” is a delight to hear.

Best of all is Tom Hiddleston, in a difficult, unwritten part with practically no good lines; the old le Carré thing of the conflicted public schoolboy. (As ever, it’s all about being English; “Something stirred I suppose,” he says, to explain his heroic behaviour. “Listen, if there’s a man selling a private arsenal to an Egyptian crook and he’s English and you’re English and those weapons can cause a lot of pain to a lot of people, then you just do it.”)

The Night Manager (2016)

The Night Manager (2016)

In the book, a recurring motif is Pine’s “hotelier’s passionless smile”. Hiddleston has that down to a T. He’s so good at playing confused posh boys – his character could be a grown-up version of his gap-year type in Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago (2010) – that I fear he will spend his whole career playing them. Nearly handsome, blandly enigmatic – or is that just blank? – he is a true hero for the Cameron years.

In a recent interview, the BBC director general Tony Hall revealed that the BBC is being massively outgunned in terms of drama budgets by HBO and the other US cable firms, by Amazon and Netflix. It wants to compete, but it has to go carefully; it wants to be challenging, but with big budgets it probably can’t afford to be too challenging. As a result, I suppose, The Night Manager is the sort of thing you get: proven, BBC-branded, escapist Sunday-night telly. It deserves that slightly awful word ‘classy’ – but not much more.

  • Sight & Sound: the April 2016 issue

    Sight & Sound: the April 2016 issue

    Tom Hiddleston and the cast and crew of High-Rise talk class and violence past and future – and the rise of cinema’s Ballardian worldview....

Read our Tom Hiddleston interview

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