The Night Manager, starring Olivia Colman, Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, is a co-production with company behind Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
A new BBC adaptation of a John Le Carré spy thriller – the first by the corporation for nearly 30 years – will be the “most radical ever done”, according to the author’s son.
“British television has stepped back up to the plate” with this project, said Simon Cornwell, noting that his father, now 84, “always loved the original treatments of his work”, in which Alec Guinness played taciturn spy George Smiley for the BBC.
The lavish six-part adaptation of le Carré’s 1993 novel The Night Manager sees Olivia Colman star as “a 21st-century version of Smiley” alongside Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston and Tom Hollander, and arrives on screen later this month.
Published in 1993, the novel was quickly optioned by Paramount Studios, but two attempts to make the movie – the second involving Brad Pitt – fizzled out because of the story’s complexity and the difficulty, Cornwell now believes, of cramming the action into a 90-minute movie.
The rights then reverted to The Ink Factory, a company set up by Cornwell with his brother Stephen. “When the rights came home we set out to find a partner,” said Cornwell. “We knew it would be a huge, ambitious journey – the BBC had set the bar high with the first adaptation of Tinker Tailor – [but] they came on board unequivocally.”
The plot revolves around three memorable characters: Jonathan Pine, a former soldier, now a suave hotel manager – who turns informer out of disgust, revenge and guilt; his nemesis, Richard Roper, a bewitching arms dealer dubbed the “worst man in the world”; and the British secret service investigator, bluff, straight-seeing Leonard Burr.
In this new adaptation, le Carré’s spy becomes female, with Olivia Colman playing Angela Burr. The setting has also been shifted to 2011 and the Arab Spring, rather than focusing as the book does on murky Central and South American drug warlords.
Cornwell said he wondered how his father might react to Burr becoming a woman: “I was steeling myself for an awkward discussion with my father, but he saw instantly it was completely appropriate.”
Stephen Garrett, creator of BBC1 hit Spooks and an executive producer on The Night Manager, explained: “Women have been running many of our security services for decades. Le Carré works, in general, are very British and they are very male. Bringing it up to date, it seemed important to have a strong female presence. Essentially, Olivia’s character has become a 21st-century version of Smiley.”
During their first casting meeting, Colman informed the programme’s Oscar-winning Danish film director Susanna Bier, making her first venture into TV directing, that she was pregnant.
“To be perfectly honest, it was a fantastic opportunity because she is the moral heart of the piece,” said Bier. “It gave her a vulnerability – though it worried the insurers.”
Costing $30m (£20m), the BBC is partnering with the AMC Network, which made Breaking Bad and Mad Men, on the adaptation – and has put up a third of the budget. Strong international sales are expected. It means the drama is at the top end of global, glossy adaptations: British with international brio. The money can certainly be seen on screen.
A fan of Le Carré, Laurie said at a recent screening of the drama that many years ago he had unsuccessfully tried to buy the rights to the book. His aim had been to play the hero, Pine, because the story was “so romantic, noble, stirring and thrilling”. Now, more than 20 years later, he is cast as Roper, playing the older villain, while Hiddleston plays Pine.
Laurie explained: “You could, if you chose, read this story as a very ferocious indictment of a particular class, of privilege, money.” His challenge has been to avoid playing the pantomime villain, while exuding superficial charm and a glamorous no-expense-spared lifestyle. “It’s a case of the devil has the good tunes.”
He was also specifically asked by the show’s lawyers to desist from approaching arms dealers as he prepared for the role, he revealed.
Le Carré has never sanctioned an extension of his works, beyond the books, as returning series – though that is now the great prize for successful TV drama creators. “We are very happy with this collaboration,” says Cornwell. “The BBC is a wonderful, natural home. If it blossoms further, that would be great.”
Might that mean a second series of The Night Manager? “I cannot be drawn on it. It’s not off the table, not ruled out. There isn’t an answer,” said Cornwell.
That may depend on the reaction of viewers, in Britain, and around the world.