Biography by Adam Sisman

I’ve been reading and very much enjoying Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carré. It’s excellent, highly readable and formidably long. It also has as subtle a piece of writing in the foreword as you could wish for about the difficulties of writing the  biography of someone who is still alive. He states there that he intends to update the book when le Carré has died so it’ll be interesting to see what gets added. Incidentally le Carré is due to publish The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life in September 2016 and presumably he must have held some things back from his biographer to put in his autobiography.

I particularly enjoyed reading about The Spy Who came in from the Cold one of my all time favourites, especially when feeling a bit disillusioned with life. So here are a few facts:

  • it was originally going to be titled The Carcass of the Lion but Victor Gollancz, the publisher, decided SWCIFTC would be better; it comes from a piece of dialogue in the beginning of the book between ‘C’ and Leamas depicted in the clip below
  • Gollancz had the idea of publishing the book under the name of Alec Leamas the name of the main character in the book who dies at the end. Le Carré sent a telegram stating RELUCTANT PUBLISH AUTOBIOGRAPHY DEAD SPY
  • the initial advance offered was £150, later increased to £175; the advance he got for his next book The Looking-Glass War was £145,000
  • the original suggestion for the actor to play Leamas in the film was Burt Lancaster; Richard Burton was eventually cast
  • the character of Leamas was based on a Peter Finch-like man le Carré  sat next to in a London airport bar who slammed down a handful of change from many different countries and ordered a large Scotch. He looked much travelled, exhausted and down on his luck. Le Carré and the barman sorted through the change to find the correct sum in the correct currency
  • the disillusionment in the novel comes partly from le Carré’s disillusionment with his own marriage. In fact he cut large parts of the original draft which were concerned with Leamas’s failed marriage
  • Le Carré was working for MI6 at the time in Germany but the book was OK’d by them partly because the FO knew that the book was not based on le Carré’s actual experience. Maybe they also didn’t believe that the public would think they behaved in such a cynical manner. Of course the opposite happened. Everyone thought this is exactly what had happened to the writer and how the secret services did behave. The book was lauded as being a believable spy thriller in comparison to the James Bond books
  • Le Carré was to describe the success of the book as like ‘being in a car crash’
  • He had written two books before – one (A Murder of Quality) featured the character Mundt who figures so prominently in SWCIFTC
  • There were problems with the casting of Claire Bloom as Leamas’s girlfriend because she and Burton had history. They had become lovers 15 years earlier acting opposite each other in The Lady’s not for Burning. A decade later their affair resumed during filming of Look Back in Anger. Burton was now married to Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor did not approve and turned up in Dublin where some of the film was shot with an entourage of 17 to keep an eye on them.
  • Other scenes depicting the area around the Berlin wall were filmed in London docklands, at that time an industrial wasteland
  • The name of the character Bloom played  had to be changed from Liz Gold (in the book) to Nan Perry in the film to spare Elizabeth Taylor’s sensibilities!

If you haven’t seen the film or read the book I highly recommend both of them, perfect for the end of January, especially if you’re feeling a little cynical about life. Richard Burton is at his best in the film. Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner are pretty good as well.

Here’s the clip of dialogue from which the title is taken. A nimble piece of acting by that wily old fox Cyril Cusack.

What do you think of book and film?


Where Eagles Dare

Where Eagles Dare or as the Daily Mirror put it ‘a real humdinger’.

When I was writing my book Far Away, which is set during the Second World War, it got me thinking about the influence war films had on me as a child. As I remember it, there was hardly a moment during my childhood when they were not being shown. The most memorable ones were: Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape, The Dambusters, In Which We Serve and later A Bridge Too Far (1977). I loved them indiscriminately.

This was probably because Where Eagles Dare was the first film I ever saw at the cinema and therefore is seared into my imagination in the most vivid way. At some point my mother had refused to take me to see the musical of Oliver Twist which came out about the same time but she had taken my two older sisters. I had sulked and raged and consequently I don’t think she could stand the fuss of leaving me behind. Or maybe my father, who had been left with me in a towering sobbing tantrum, just didn’t fancy going through all that again. Who can blame him?

So there I was staring at the biggest screen I had ever seen in my life and I have to say that ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING THRILLED ME. The splendidly curly, red, German font of the opening titles, Schloss Adler (‘the Castle of Eagles’),  the dramatic film score, the beautiful snowy scenery and obviously most memorable of all, the stunt sequences on top of the cable car. Unlike in the book, where hardly any Germans are killed and Major John Smith (Richard Burton) and Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood) are really rather gentlemanly, the film has a very high death count (100 according to the website movie body counts boards. 89 according to one clip on you tube).

This was ironic because the reason my mother had given for not taking me to see Oliver Twist had been that I might be traumatized by the scene near the end of the film when Bill Sykes falls off a roof and accidentally hangs himself. It’s amusing that not long after she then took me to Where Eagles Dare, a film in which 100 people are killed. Of course the violence is actually quite cartoonish, certainly nothing like the kind depicted later in Saving Private Ryan. However at that point in my life I had not seen one person killed on screen let alone 100! In fact the only moving images I had seen were on a neighbour’s black and white TV,  a bit of  Dr Who, involving a dalek with a croaky voice in need of an oil can. I wonder what state I was in when the film finished? I have no recollection of that but this early viewing did give me an abiding affection for the film. I suppose it was my first experience of how exciting and dramatic cinema could be and it also left me with a permanent longing for a retro white winter anorak.

Where Eagles Dare Trivia:

  • It started as a film script (written in six weeks) and was turned into a book later
  • Due to the amount of stunt work on the film Burton nicknamed the film Where Doubles Dare
  • The stunt man who stood in for Richard Burton and did the stunts on top of the cable car had the very lovely name of Alf Joint. He was the same man whom Sean Connery electrocutes in the bath in Goldfinger. He was also the man who dived off a cliff in the Cadbury Milk Tray ads.
  • Clint Eastwood was paid $800,000 and Richard Burton $1,200,000
  • The film’s budget was $7.7 million. At the box office it earned $21 million
  • Clint Eastwood did not initially like the script and he asked for his part to be cut and clunky exposition to be given to Richard Burton. Lucky old Richard! So Burton got to do more speaking and Eastwood got to do more killing. Probably about right.
  • Burton admired Clint’s “dynamic lethargy.” If only someone would admire mine.

What was the first film you remember seeing at the cinema? What kind of impression did it make?


Where Eagles Dare

Richard Burton doing a bit of bird spotting


It was my first author event and the bottle of Rescue Remedy I had glugged down on the train was not having the desired effect on my nerves. I was one of five or six new crime writers sitting in front of a large audience in Heffers Bookshop  in Cambridge. One of our number had been published slightly earlier than the rest of us and was therefore an old hand. Although already in the bookshop, he had taken his seat last, strolling through the audience like Billy Graham (BG) at a revivalist meeting.

The first question we were asked was about writers who had influenced us. BG went first and expounded at length on John Steinbeck.

What, not dear Agatha, or Dorothy, or Margery? I mused.

Suddenly, I didn’t like the look of my choices anymore. They looked a bit lack lustre. Not very Nobel Prize-ish. I began to race through other options: Bukowski? B.S. Johnson? Dostoevsky? Chandler? Hammett? The only trouble (apart from the alarming sex-change of my influences) was that I could determine absolutely no link between my writing and theirs. To claim it would have been laughably arrogant not to mention misleading.

Then I remembered Sara Paretsky, the progenitor of the female private investigator novel. A writer I very much like and admire. But I immediately realised that I had no idea how to pronounce the name of her main character, V. I. Warshawski. Try it yourself now and then imagine saying it in front of a large audience with your heart beat skipping along at the rate of a marathon runner on her last legs. I knew that if I attempted that I would sound like a woman with a sock filled with marbles in her mouth.

And then I heard those rough-gruff tones of Richard Burton: ‘Broardsword calling Danny Boy, are you receiving?’ Well, yes I was. Loud and clear. Thank you very much, Richard.

And I saw a young man with a quiff (not Clint Eastwood although he does sport a very fine quiff in Where Eagles Dare), a white dog and an irascible, sweary captain. The audience was looking at me expectantly.

Captain Haddock meets Tintin for the first time in Herge's The Crab with the Golden Claws

Captain Haddock meets Tintin for the first time in Herge’s The Crab with the Golden Claws

‘Alistair Maclean and Tintin,’ I blurted out.

BG looked bemused. I can’t remember much of what I said after that. No doubt something about the importance of pace and whizzing along, throwing a few jokes in there to keep the reader going and remembering that they may be reading you on the train on the way to work and just before they fall asleep so it’s important to ENTERTAIN THEM and KEEP THEIR ATTENTION! I gabbled and whizzed along myself.

BG went on to win prizes and occupy platforms all by himself; I went off to contemplate my influences and do a course on public speaking.

Here are some questions to end on.

1. Where does the quotation at the beginning of the post come from? Clue: Not a bad influence to claim!

2. Who or what has influenced you? High brow or low brow – in art or in life?