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?