Despite all of my travels to give my new Across Canada By Story show (more than 40 performances so far, only one of them involving a death-defying fall off the stage) I have been able to see a spectacularly good TV series. It is “The Night Manager”, based on the 1993 novel by John Le Carre.
Long before that book appeared I was telling anyone who would listen that John Le Carre was not “just” a spy novelist, but the best novelist in Britain. I’m happy to note that this heretical opinion is now gaining acceptance. Ample proof is provided by the recent book, John Le Carre: The Biography , by Adam Sisman, who is, of course, “an Honourary Fellow of (aha!) the University of St. Andrews”. His account of the life of David Cornwell, the man behind the nom de plume, is full of admiring quotes from major sources. For example, Philip Roth called A Perfect Spy “The best English novel since the war. ”Ian McEwan in 2013 called Le Carre “perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the 20th century in Britain.” I agree.
Certainly, in my mind, Le Carre/Cornwell was behind the best TV series of all time, the 1979 BBC adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley. Watching the superb plot unfold on the screen drove me back to the book, and I had a strange extra-dimensional experience as the same events were subtly revealed in two art forms.
With that background, I was excited to learn about the new TV series, “The Night Manager”. I have not been disappointed, and await the final episode with keen interest. One curiosity is that the villain of the piece – “the worst man in the world” – is a shameless arms dealer named Charles Onslow Roper, played by Hugh Laurie. Yes, Hugh “Bertie Wooster” Laurie, the pop-eyed idiot kept afloat by Jeeves, and later the star of the American TV series, “House”. For a Scot, there’s a special pleasure in seeing Hugh Laurie (and we all remember the old Scottish song “Annie Laurie”) become the world’s idea of a drawling English villain, when his features are almost a caricature of The Scottish Face.
For Canadians, there’s a special curiosity in the TV version of “The Night Manager”. In the book (and, again, I was drawn back to the book) when our hero, Jonathan Pine , has left Cairo, then Switzerland, then Cornwall, and is creating a new identity, he ends up for some months in Quebec. In the mining town of Esperance he ends up working at le Chateau Babette, hired by mighty Madame Latulipe, who unfortunately gives him a room near her daughter Yvonne, whose fiancé, Thomas, is off studying First Nations in the North.
Madame is convinced that Pine/alias Beauregard is French.“Or perhaps Belgian. She was not an expert, she took her holidays in Florida. All she knew was, when he spoke French she could understand him, but when she spoke back at him, he looked as insecure as all Frenchmen looked when they heard what Madame Latulipe was convinced was the true, the uncorrupted version of their tongue.”
There are about 30 pages set in Canada, while Pine seduces his way to a new passport. But they don’t appear in the TV series. Making a film or a TV series out of a novel always involves great deal of reduction, and, in truth, the Canadian episode is not central to the book. Le Carre (who is involved in this screenplay) has written ruefully about how much cutting is required to prepare a novel for the screen, saying that you have to watch your oxen being turned into a bouillion cube. I’m sure that in the original quote, it was an Oxo cube.