Saturday 27 December 2014

Len Deighton – In Spy Ring Writer

As 2014 draws to a close, Kim Vertue talks to Len Deighton about his long and successful writing career and, amongst other things, his 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War and its screenings and stagings this year to mark the centenary of the First World War. 

The long career of Len Deighton holds some surprises: he was a pioneering food columnist and is a respected chef, he enjoyed success with an earlier career as a sought-after illustrator and graphic designer, he is an accomplished modern historian and researcher, a film-producer, dramatist and novelist… probably most widely known for his debut novel, The Ipcress File, made into the iconic film starring Michael Caine as British spy, Harry Palmer – the 'working class James Bond’.

Len Deighton photograph courtesy of Jonathan Clowes
Len Deighton was born in a London workhouse in 1928.  His mother was a cook and his father a chauffeur.  As Len grew up, his father would let him play truant from school so long as he read - which he did, voraciously, at Marylebone public library, developing passions for art and history.

He joined RAF special operations as a photographer, an experience that would later provide primary research for some of his books. After the war he followed one of his passions and studied at the Royal College of Art.  He would work as a chef to supplement his income and this confirmed his lifelong interest in good food.  When he graduated he had a successful career as a graphic artist, designed posters for the London underground and book covers which included the first UK edition of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

First UK edition of Kerouac's On The Road,
with cover art by Len Deighton
Here his love of literature and visual art went hand-in-hand. Has this partnership remained in his creative approach? Does art inspire aspects of his writing, and does he continue to sketch as well as write?  

“Not as much as I would like,” he admits, “Drawing is so difficult and so rewarding, but I don't set aside time for it. I can never find enough time in any day to do all the things I enjoy. But yes, I can't write a scene without having it visually in my mind, even if that vision is of my own creation. I studied art full-time for six years and art, rather than literature, is the basis of all my outlook.”

The Ipcress File was his first novel, published in 1962 and an instant best seller. The film of the book made a star of Michael Caine and is still classic cold war 1960s London chic (if such a genre exists). He helped persuade the director to allow Michael Caine to wear glasses on screen which created a new brand of masculine cool. He showed Michael Caine how to make an omelette for the scene in the film when Harry Palmer first has a chance to woo his female colleague. The conversation between Harry Palmer and his boss while he is shopping in the supermarket is a great insight into how food was regarded in post war Britain and Harry Palmer as a new working class ‘foodie’ hero must have helped pave the way for Heston Blumenthal!

The Ipcress File was followed by Horse Under Water (the only one of the quartet to not be adapted for cinema), Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain - the film version starring Michael Caine was directed by Ken Russell... apparently he really did have Michael Caine leaping onto an iceberg in that  iconic fur hat.

Michael Caine stars in the Harry Palmer cinematic trilogy
As well as the ‘Harry Palmer’ novels, Len Deighton has written two Bernard Samson trilogies; Game Set and Match and Hook Line and Sinker - mainly set in the London and Berlin of the 1980s - which were also bestsellers and adapted into a TV series. When a writer invents convincing, fully-fleshed-out characters, they often contain parts of that writer’s personality, or if they did not, perhaps parts of their personality stays with their creator. Is there much of Len Deighton in the characters of ‘Harry Palmer’ and ‘Bernard Samson’?

This is something he has considered before, “I say no: but my wife, my sons and my friends say, ‘yes’.”

Len Deighton giving Michael Caine some cooking tips
on the set during the filming of The Ipcress File
The film of The Ipcress File launched Michael Caine as a new style of spy hero onto our screens and celebrated sixties London. The spy who had remained nameless in the books became 'Harry Palmer' - a 'new man' - working class with no airs and graces, but also intelligent and cultured, confident enough in his good looks to make a statement with his spectacles, a bon vivant who could win the hearts of women with his sensitivity and prowess in the kitchen. Len Deighton now lives far away, in both time and place, from that London and when he visits from his home in sunny Southern California he admits, “I find England almost unrecognisable from the days when I lived in Soho. Perhaps I have lived abroad too long.”

A theme of communication and the lack of it pervades particularly the Samson books, and it is the essential romance of Bernard that he perseveres despite the difficulties he faces.  Do such characters ever ‘talk back’, asking for a reprieve from the conflicts Deighton decides to fling at them?

“This leads to an ever-present question for all writers. Do we control the characters or do they control us? My feeling is that the characters cannot be made to do something we need for the story but that no reader will believe. At the same time, they must act within the needs of the plot and overall structure. Characters must surprise the reader with their behaviour but not test the reader's credulity. It's what the economists call the 'snake in a tunnel' - they wriggle but they can't break away.

“I will admit that writing of, thinking of, and living with the same characters day and night for nine books - or ten books counting Winter - was undeniably disturbing at times. That's why I wrote other books, with other locales, between some of the Bernard Samson books. I was afraid I might go nuts.”

Bernard’s descriptions of Berlin and his childhood there read like a love letter to the place – how important are the locales and personal experience of them to Deighton’s stories and writing process?

“I like Berlin and Berliners too. The city and its history is deeply embedded into Bernard's mind and he takes Berlin with him wherever he goes. All through the Samson books I had to describe things and places not as I saw them, but as he did.”

Game, Set and Match
In addition to the many spy novels Len Deighton has written he has crafted unique histories of the Second World War – including Fighter and Bomber. His work was highly acclaimed by historian A J P Taylor.  Bomber was dramatised for BBC Radio in 1995 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World war. The adaptation was narrated by Tom Baker and the action reported as if in ‘real time’ over one weekend within Radio 4’s schedule. It was repeated more recently in 2011 on Radio 4 Extra and it is available as an adapted audiobook on CD.

With his books becoming best-sellers, garnering critical credibility and being validated by historians, is there a single piece of writing that he sees as his greatest achievement, one that he is particularly proud of or holds any particular personal meaning?

This is a challenging question for him, “Dissatisfaction is the springboard that makes a writer end one book and begin another vowing that it will be better. Goodbye Mickey Mouse, about American fighter pilots in World War Two is one of the few books that came out exactly the way I envisaged and planned."
One of Len Deighton's personal favourites
"As for pride - I see it as a sin, but when I completed the last book of the Bernard Samson series it represented well over a decade of work and I was pleased and satisfied to have completed the massive task I had set myself back when I started Berlin Game.

Dissatisfaction can drive a writer… Does Deighton have any other advice to writers starting out?

“Every book is different and every writer is different. My advice to anyone starting to write fiction books is to be ready to devote a great deal of time to it. Write every day, even if its notes and research. I have never completed a book in less than a year and most took longer than that. If you are waking up at four o'clock in the morning wondering if it’s all going wrong, it's probably all going well.

“I have found meetings and dinner party chat drastically interrupts my writing progress, so I have over the years become a recluse - or so I am told. For a fiction book: get the research done beforehand - especially listen to the speech patterns of the sort of people you plan to write about - and don't stop to go off on a research trip. Skip forward and keep writing. John Masters taught me this and I have found it a valuable rule.”

Len Deighton also wrote the screenplay for Oh! What a Lovely War, which uses popular songs of the time interspersed with facts about the First World War to movingly portray the plight of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ at the hands of the upper classes.  The film was shot on Brighton pier, involved an impressive cast including Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, John Gieguld, Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave… and was directed by the late Richard Attenborough.  In a recent interview for Radio Times, Sir David Attenborough said this was his favourite film of those his brother Richard directed. “I think probably the most imaginative film he made as a director was Oh! What a Lovely War.  Shadowlands was a very powerful film, but Oh! What a Lovely War was out there on its own – no cinema film that I know of had anything like the bravura and the energy and the invention as he put into that.”

Oh! what a Lovely War was shown earlier this year by the BBC as part of the centenary events for the First World War and Joan Littlewood’s landmark production also returned to the stage in the spring. Instead of ‘celebrating’ war, the plight of the men who had to follow orders is movingly portrayed. Does Len Deighton have faith in human nature to learn from the carnage of the First World War and the atrocities of the Second?  His established role as historian seems very important in this process.

“My father fought in the First World War trenches and was wounded and gassed to an extent that the War Office told his mother was 'severe'. He recovered - or so the Pensions Dept told him - and worked hard all his life… and I never heard him complain. The other day on TV, I watched a history professor telling us that the sacrifice of a million lives in World War One was worthwhile! I was appalled. Appalled too that he didn't know that the total casualties were far, far higher."

Sing along... Oh! What a lovely War
“I added an initial sequence to my Oh! What a Lovely War screenplay to show how the war began. I researched this energetically and decided that World War One could have been - and should have been - avoided. I later asked both A J P Taylor and Bertrand Russell their opinion. They both told me that they believed that the war could have been avoided. Of course few, if any, of the politicians and generals who started it thought it would be more than a sharp engagement over by Christmas.

“It was the writer and critic Julian Symons who told me that I was the only person he knew who loved machines - he didn't say ‘better than people’ and I appreciate that - and suggested that I should write a book about this feeling. 'Machines fighting a war without humans?' I said frivolously and, along with other influences, his remark prompted Bomber.

“I had flown in Lancaster bombers and Mosquito fighters when I was an RAF photographer so I had some background. In Central London in 1940-41 I was under German bombing every night for three months, followed by V1 missiles and V2 rockets. I knew what the air war was like. Perhaps Bomber was not the right title, because much of the story is devoted to the Germans - fighter pilots, radar operators and civilians - I spent months in Germany getting all those details right.”

Len Deighton can count Lemmy amongst his fans, who has said that the Motorhead track, Bomber, was inspired by reading the book! Bomber was later followed by Fighter

First edition cover of Bomber,
featuring detail from a painting by Turner
“When I wrote Fighter, one critic was outraged that I had included the words of the Germans we were fighting. That was the cloud-cuckoo land so many were still living in. I am not a pacifist by any means but killing people you have never met is not something to be done thoughtlessly.”

The ‘cold war’ spy thriller, An Expensive Place to Die, takes its title from an Oscar Wilde quote. After being involved with writing for the screen for Oh! What a Lovely War and overseeing the screen adaptations of many more of his novels, does this mean that Deighton still admires Wilde as a dramatist?  

“Yes, Wilde's writing endures. When very young, I learnt the Reading Goal poem by heart. Wilde's skill as a dramatist is masterful. Writing for the stage is entirely different to writing for the screen or writing fiction books. I once said that a screenplay writer is to a novelist what a taxidermist is to a lion tamer. Perhaps I was hasty in that judgement but it was prompted by the fact that few screenplays are the work of one writer - whereas many, stage plays are - and so screenplays are usually a compromise. For this reason, I made sure that I was the sole producer of the Oh! What a Lovely War movie, and made sure it was shot exactly to conform to my screenplay.”

Over such a prolonged and consistent career, how has the approach to writing and his writing routine changed? How do Deighton’s approaches to fiction and non-fiction differ?

“I have always planned - and sometimes abandoned - my outlines, and extended drafts, for books. My non-fiction works, such as, Fighter, Blitzkrieg, Blood Tears and Folly - and also the historical fiction works Bomber and Winter - required travel and talking to participants. Fiction cannot be done to such a specific schedule and its looser plan requires discipline enough to toss away days of work when writing has gone in the wrong direction."

Many writers learn their craft by reading… are there any ‘stand-out’ favourites in terms of works or authors?

“Yes…” he considers, “I admire and enjoy the works of many authors and I frequently turn again to books I have enjoyed. I hesitate to name one from so many. Writing a book of fiction is a very demanding task and I see most fiction books in terms of the way the elements have been tackled - plot structure and the way it interacts with pushing the narrative along, dialogue and characterisation. Additionally, I read many non-fiction books.”

The many non-fiction books penned by Len Deighton include three influential cook books. He was home-taught the basic techniques by his mother, who was a professional cook, and then learnt ‘on the job’ after being given a chance in the kitchens for the Festival of Britain where he had started as a cleaner… In 1965 his book Où Est le Garlic (recently revised and re-published as Len Deighton’s French Cooking for Men) attracted favourable attention when it was published to coincide with the rising sales of his spy novels. The following year, Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook showcased the graphic ‘cookstrips’ he did for the Observer in the days before food journalism had really been invented. 

These infographic style recipe recaps, are great for quick reference and are to be re-launched in the Observer Food Monthly through 2015, starting in January. He also wrote a book to guide chefs and home cooks through and his basic course in French cookery and this also used his signature ‘cookstrips’ - well illustrated infographics that contain sound sources of knowledge to the novice and more experienced cook alike. The really observant may spot some of these pinned to the wall in Harry Palmer’s kitchen in the film version of The Ipcress File - still more informative than the current plethora of ‘eye candy’ recipe books launched every Christmas!

Deighton’s cook books are entertaining and clear, a great way to demystify cooking… does he have a favourite dish to cook or enjoy?

“Very lightly cooked new-laid eggs, in any shape or form, make a wonderful dish and, since I am choosy about unsalted butter and we make our own wholemeal bread, I am simple in my tastes. But I admire and appreciate skilled cooking especially French dishes.

What other chefs or food writers would he recommend?

“I admire the chefs who have devoted their working lives to cooking and who have worked in the great restaurants. The books and words of such men as Pierre Koffmann, Anton Mosimann, the Roux brothers, Anton Edelmann, Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers... and others of the same dedication… are inspiring. To understand what I most believe, read, the autobiography of Jaques Pepin - from whom I was privileged to have some lessons. It's a gripping book.”

Finally, is there a particular ingredient or gadget that is essential in the Deighton kitchen?

“I have a kitchen crammed with gadgets few of which (apart from the dishwasher) are much used. Two or three high quality kitchen knives are all one needs. I prefer old- fashioned carbon knives rather than stainless steel ones. Oh yes, I almost forgot - my electric knife sharpener - Chef's Choice 3-blade position model - is an essential for me.”

Len, Lights, Action!
As you can see Len Deighton is pretty cool - an inspiration on how to avoid being pigeonholed, to follow what interests you or makes you passionate, and to have a perennial, compassionate regard for humanity which is at the heart of any good writer.

Thank you, Mr Len Deighton!

- Len Deighton was talking with Kim Vertue

There is a full bibliography and plenty more info at the Deighton Dossier - a comprehensive fan-run website

Oh! What a Lovely War is discussed in this episode of Radio 3’s Night Waves (BBC iPlayer)

Lots of Len Deighton books available from


Terry Kidd said...

Great quote from Len,
"I once said that a screenplay writer is to a novelist what a taxidermist is to a lion tamer."

Deighton Dossier said...

Great interview - thanks