I loved the idea behind this event (which happened several days ago at the Emmanuel Centre, in Westminster, and was organised by Intelligence Squared): a debate in which two respected writers tried to convince an audience that either Ian Fleming or John Le Carré was the greatest espionage novelist. I envisaged a jolly, literary version of an MTV Celebrity Deathmatch. The ying and yang of British espionage fiction would somehow duke it out on stage. For those who came to the debate with a partisan preference (like me, JLC of course) there would be the chance to see the other writer in a more sympathetic light.
To begin with, it was all that. Anthony Horowitz made the case for Ian Fleming, and did so with real delight. I can’t think of another writer who looks so dazzlingly happy up on stage. He was followed by David Farr, the screenwriter behind the recent adaptation of The Night Manager, who, although not quite as comfortable as Horowitz, got his points across well.
Yet as the night wore on some of the initial bonhomie wore off. I came away knowing more about the supposed weaknesses of each author than their many virtues. Fleming was too much of an entertainer, we heard; Le Carré too heavy, too European in his sensibility, his characters not nearly as famous today as Fleming’s.
Everything else about the night seemed to work. The readings by a series of actors were particularly good. So too was the point made by one of them, Simon Callow, when asked to explain the difference from an actor’s perspective between playing a character written by Fleming and Le Carré. The former were much easier, as they tended to be off-the-peg archetypes, whereas the latter required more of you, as you had to look harder at the original work and interpret it more carefully.
Surely no coincidence that the adaptations of Fleming’s work have been spectacularly successful, whereas most attempts to put Le Carré’s work on screen (apart from The Night Manager, The Spy Who Came in From The Cold and the TV version of Tinker, Tailor) have not fared so well.
And who won the debate?
Le Carré, I’m glad to say. At the start of the night 43% of the audience were disciples of his. By the end of the night that was up to 60%.
Here’s a link to the podcast of the event.