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Le Carré…the spy writer who came in for a cameo

As seen in The Times

Published: 28 Sep 2018

For an author often described as reclusive, John le Carré seems to be developing a taste for fame.

The former spy turned master of the espionage novel has given himself a cameo role in a new BBC adaptation of his 1983 thriller The Little Drummer Girl, The Times can disclose. Le Carré, 86, plays a waiter in the drama, attending to customers on a café’s terrace. His blink-and-you-miss-it part will pass under the radar of many viewers, but the character’s expressive eyebrows and shock of white hair may ring a bell with some fans.

For a while Le Carré, real name David Cornwell, spent much of his early writing career shunning public attention, in recent years he has slipped himself into screen versions of his books, making a series of Alfred Hitchcock-style cameos. Viewers of the BBC’s 2016 adaptation of The Night Manager caught a glimpse of the novelist playing a disgruntled diner; Tom Hollander’s character spoils the older man’s meal by taking his lobster salad and punching a waiter.

Hollander’s associate Jonathan Pine, played by Tom Hiddleston, seeks to placate Le Carré by offering to re- order his food and buy a bottle of champagne. “I think you bloody well should,” the author replies. Hiddleston later said that Le Carré refused to stick to the script, improvising extra lines to make the scene more testing. “Like any great actor, he made me try harder to achieve my objective,” he said.
Le Carré’s son Stephen Cornwell, who produced the BBC series, said that his father was “not always the most patient” and thought the dialogue needed improving. “Dad was right: it didn’t make sense if your food had been stolen that you’d smile when the transgressors came to discuss it with you,” he said later. “Dad felt his character had to speak out. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise; the author had rewritten his own scene and made it better.”

The novelist also had a silent cameo role in the 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, standing next to a spy dressed as Lenin at an MI6 party. That was followed by a fleeting role in the 2014 film of his novel A Most Wanted Man, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, in which he played an extra in a bar scene. The earliest known Le Carré cameo dates back to a 1984 US film version of The Little Drummer Girl. The novelist played a police officer under his real name of David Cornwell.
The team behind the new BBC drama refused to be drawn on whether Le Carré’s waiter was a speaking role. His scene is understood to have been filmed in the Czech Republic. Set in the late 1970s, The Little Drummer Girl weaves a story of international intrigue, love and betrayal, according to its creators. The BBC adaptation, a collaboration with the US network AMC, stars the Big Little Lies actor Alexander Skarsgard as an Israeli intelligence officer, Becker, and Florence Pugh as Charlie, an actress who becomes ensnared in the world of global espionage. It will air on BBC One this autumn.

Le Carré worked for British intelligence in the 1950s and 1960s before quitting to write full time. His bestselling novels include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Smiley’s People.

Alfred Hitchcock is known to have played cameos in more than 35 of his films, although the exact number is disputed because some were so brief. He was frequently carrying a musical instrument.

Edward St Aubyn, the notoriously private novelist, stepped out of the shadows with a cameo appearance in the recent Sky TV adaptation of his Patrick Melrose novels. He was a guest at a high-society party attended by Princess Margaret, in episode three.

Michael Morpurgo, the former children’s laureate, made a cameo in the Broadway production of his novel War Horse. He cast himself in the crowd watching an auction during a 2011 matinee. Stephen King, the horror writer, has played several cameos, notably as a religious minister in the 1983 film adaptation of his novel Pet Sematary.