Wednesday 11 December 2019

BBC adaptation of John le Carre's The Night Manager is going to make plenty of people very happy

The Night Manager
The Night Manager

Emily Hourican

Given how popular and well-loved John le Carre is as a writer, given too how atmospheric and topical his books are, it is surprising that only four have been made into TV series. The best was undoubtedly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, made into a brilliant BBC seven-part series with Alec Guinness as George Smiley in 1979.

Now though, it is the turn of The Night Manager, written in 1993 and the first of his post-Cold War novels, to be given the TV treatment, in a £20m six-part co-production between the BBC and AMC Network, the company behind Breaking Bad and Mad Men. The book was originally optioned for a film, and at least two attempts were made to get it into production, one involving Brad Pitt, but the complexity of the story proved too much to be condensed successfully into 90 minutes of screen time.

And yes, everything about that last paragraph will have fans of le Carre, of spy dramas, of good TV in general, drooling in anticipation.

For this series, the action has been shifted forward from the original early-1990s, to 2011, and from Central and South America, to the Arab Spring, while Secret Service investigator Burr has become female, played by Olivia Coleman. However, the essence of the plot, and the typically-excellent characterisation, are all le Carre's.

The story revolves around Jonathan Pine (played by Tom Hollander), an ex-soldier turned hotel night manager, a man who knows how to get things for the spoilt guests of the smart hotel. One night, doing just that, he stumbles into a world of industrial espionage and some truly foul people. Fired by revenge and guilt, he turns informer, working himself deep inside the empire of Richard Roper, a British arms dealer, played by Hugh Laurie. Roper is charismatic and ruthless, described by lover Jed (played by Elizabeth Debicki) as "the worst man in the world," but in Pine he believes he has found a soulmate. Between the two is Olivia Coleman's straight-talking agent Burr, determined to get Roper, whatever it takes: "You'll be in so deep, you'll worry you'll never get out," she warns Pine. "I've got nothing to lose," he responds.

Hugh Laurie actually tried to take out an option on the book years ago: "I fell in love with the book when I first read it back in 1993," he says. "I'd worshipped John le Carré since I was a teenager and was enthralled. I've no skill or instinct for producing, but this was the only time in my life I've ever tried to option a book. I was unsuccessful, of course. And I can't claim any credit for getting the thing off the ground. I just told the producers that I would be happy to take any job on the production, as actor, caterer, anything!" Originally, he wanted to play Pine, but, judging by the trailer, is properly menacing in a very rare bad-guy role.

The plot carries all the usual le Carre hallmarks - forensic understanding of the intelligence community and the ruthlessness of big business, along with genuine disgust and indignation at their vicious objectives ("war is a spectator sport," says Roper in the trailer. "We are Emperors of Rome"), and the way the two occasionally work together; common interest and expediency obliterating all natural sense of revulsion.

The Night Manager is directed by Susanne Bier, the Danish Oscar-winning film director who made Serena and After The Wedding, and whose distinctive visual style is likely to make this something known for its look as well as content.

After the success of the recent War and Peace, BBC drama is clearly on a roll, one that looks likely to speed right up with The Night Manager.

The Night Manager starts on BBC1 tonight at 9pm

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