Right from its Bond-like opening credits — a rocket-launcher blossoming flames and turning into a martini glass, the spread of missiles from a Super Hercules aircraft becoming delicate strings of pearls — it was clear that the team behind this £20m adaptation of John le Carré’s novel did not mean to do things by halves. There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in the kind of dour Cold War spy dramas that le Carré, more than anyone else, helped to create and popularise. Even leaving aside the all-star adaptation of his novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, both Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” and the dimwitted BBC2 thriller “The Game” are nakedly indebted to his shadow-world of dead-drops, lamplighters and Moscow Rules.
For their adaptation of le Carré’s first post-Cold War novel, however, writer David Farr and director Susanne Bier chose to bring the action unnervingly close to the present, kicking off proceedings in Egypt during the Arab Spring (the drama begins on the night of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation) and flashing forward to a Britain in which the fork-tongued posh boys selling the weapons are in cahoots with the fork-tongued posh boys selling policy in Westminster. Admirers of the book (published in 1993) will have noticed changes, some major, but the outraged cynicism is vintage le Carré. You could smell the disgust and bad faith from moment one, when the weapons dealer Richard Roper, a marvellous performance from Hugh Laurie, appeared on screen boasting about his sponsorship of a “safe haven” project for the very refugees his armaments helped to displace.
What a classy endeavour this was, from cast to glossily impeccable locations. Tom Hiddleston is superb as Jonathan Pine, the night manager of the title, an ex-Forces supervisor in a Cairo hotel with a world of violence and emotion sizzling behind his helpful public-school manner. Pine’s patriotic sense is agitated when the mistress of a local gangster turns up with evidence of an arms deal brokered by the “worst man in the world”, and he passes the details to his friend at the British Embassy, who passes it on to Angela Burr (the excellent Olivia Colman), a hardbitten spy doggedly pursuing Roper from a freezing office in Victoria. But Westminster and MI6 are both leaky ships: “arming certain key players whose mobile phone numbers we happen to have in our address books”, as one spymaster wearily explains, “might be preferable to indulging a whole new bunch of religious lunatics about whom we know nothing.” In short order, Roper gets the tip-off from his pals in the UK, the deal is cancelled and the girl, a Woman in Fridge if ever I saw one, gets killed off. Pine retreats to a new hotel in Zermatt to lick his wounds, where all goes well until, four years later, in the middle of the night, the worst man in the world and his pals arrive by helicopter.
Texture is crucial to this kind of thing, and texture is something that this adaptation nailed. It wasn’t just the believable argot it cultivated for the modern spy world, where secret operations are conducted by cryptically named satellite bureaux such as the “International Enforcement Agency” and MI6’s headquarters on the Thames cause it to be known universally as “The River House”. It was there also in the figure of Richard Roper — “Dickie” — the lizard-skinned Old Etonian sole trader who swans about with a sinister boys’ club of international chaps and a tragic trophy partner (Elizabeth Debicki) on what might resemble one long après-ski were it not punctuated by shadowy deals for napalm and bunker-busters. The tone here was perfectly caught, from Laurie’s steel-in-glove patrician jollity to Tom Hollander’s camp-sinister performance as his lieutenant “Corky” Corcoran (“Play golf, do we, sweetheart?”); calling the two burly and murderous hired guns Frisky and Tabby was the cherry on top. I could have watched this for hours — and, since I was sent the first three episodes, I did. Believe me, it only gets better.
The Night Manager continues on Sunday nights on BBC1. It premieres in America on AMC on April 19th