The Night Manager review: the BBC has gone all James Bond with Le Carré

The spy writer’s 1993 novel has been updated and sexed up – I’m not complaining

Cairo, January 2011, the Arab spring. Firecrackers are going off, bricks thrown, cars torched, automatic guns fired in the air. An Englishman in a blue shirt walks through it all, ducking and weaving a little, but not scared, more thrilled; he has seen worse, in Iraq when he was a soldier there. Where is he going? To work, at the Nefertiti hotel, where he is The Night Manager (BBC1, Sunday).

Tom Hiddleston is a perfect Jonathan Pine – polite, calm, charming, confident but self-deprecating, a little mysterious, very English and astonishingly handsome (in many ways, he reminds me a bit of myself). A beautiful woman called Sophie Aleka flashes her secret documents at him, about her wicked boyfriend Freddie Hamid buying an arsenal of weapons from an even wickeder man – “the worst man in the world”, she calls him – named Richard Roper, in order to crush the popular uprising.

Jonathan does the decent thing – did I mention he was decent? – and shows the documents to his chum at the British embassy. Then he takes Sophie to a safe house out of town. “Why do you sit so far away?” she purrs. Out of respect, he says. “Is that why you came all the way here, to respect me?” I don’t think so. She tells him he has many different voices, he’s always changing. Anyway, “I want one of your many selves to sleep with me tonight, you can choose which one,” she says. He does, decently.

Is it all getting a bit Milk Tray ad, circa 1973? Or Fry’s Turkish Delight maybe, because of Sophie, full of eastern promise? No, because Sophie is then murdered. And we pop back to Blighty, where no-nonsense Angela Burr, head of a mysterious intelligence agency that operates separately and seemingly at odds with MI6 and has an ongoing vendetta against Roper, brings things back to earth and England, with a bump. Literally later, she’s pregnant (because Olivia Colman who plays her is). That couldn’t have happened in John le Carré’s original; his Burr is a he; Leonard.

The alterations and updates are skilfully and almost invisibly tailored by David Farr, who has adapted the novel. Burr’s sex change; the Arab spring (which fits so perfectly with Cairo, I’m sure Le Carré would have done the same had the Arab spring happened by 1993 when his book was published), Pine’s previous tours of Iraq instead of Northern Ireland; the switch from Zurich up the road to Zermatt. Zermatt’s better on the screen – prettier, a bit more Bond.

Yes, it has all been nudged about 10% – 007% perhaps – in that direction. (That Farr was a Spooks writer isn’t surprising). But Le Carré can get knotted en-route from page to screen (certainly this television long form suits him); I’m not complaining about any loosening going on, sexing-up of documents or anything else. Nor was Le Carré - complaining - in the Guardian on Saturday. It gets really fun in the Alps, four years on. Pine now works at the rather lovely Meisters hotel, where guess who is helicoptering in with his entourage for a visit – Richard Roper, the worst man in the world, remember. Hugh Laurie is the best worst man, a splendid villain, bullish and bullying, not overdone though, just right. Tom Hollander is on fabulousness, as Roper’s camp fixer. Roper’s beautiful American missus, Jed, stretches a bubbly leg out of the freestanding bath, demanding more champagne. Not enough naked wet Jed for the night? Here she is again, having a late-night skinny dip in the pool.

Time for Pine to snap into action, show what he’s got under that understated posh English charm. Show her? No … yes … not yet. But he hasn’t forgotten Cairo; he must avenge Sophie’s death. He takes out the book (the Letters of TE Lawrence, of course, it might have been Kipling) where he put Angela Burr’s number and gives her a call. She heads out, to recruit him.

No need to recruit me, I’m already thoroughly signed up for the duration. Sunday night War and Peace void filled. Splendidly.

Next, briefly, a handsome blond English former soldier in a blue shirt strides confidently along a bustling street in a hot Muslim country … hang on, haven’t we done this? Not Cairo, but Lahore in Pakistan, and not The Night Manager but Kipling’s Indian Adventure (BBC2, Saturday). Patrick Hennessey totally is the real Jonathan Pine but with a different mission: to repair the damage done to the reputation of his literary hero, Rudyard Kipling. Not an apologist for the ills of the empire, says Hennessey, but a man who mocked it mercilessly and had a deep understanding of (what was then all) India, its people and culture. Plus, he wrote exceedingly good stories.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
TV review | The Night Watch

The Night Watch turned sirens, fear and desire back to front but left me unmoved, writes Sam Wollaston

Sam Wollaston

12, Jul, 2011 @9:39 PM

Article image
Us review – divorce drama offers warmth and wanderlust
Based on the novel by David Nicholls, this gentle series about a family embarking on one last holiday proves especially poignant with travel largely off-limits

Rebecca Nicholson

20, Sep, 2020 @9:00 PM

Article image
Bloodlands review – James Nesbitt digs up the Troubles in tense thriller
Produced by Line of Duty creator, Jed Mercurio, this four-parter is enjoyably dense with enough black humour to let it breathe

Lucy Mangan

21, Feb, 2021 @10:00 PM

Article image
The Durrells review – a welcome vacation from our island of nightmares
It’s one last push for the cockle-warming Corfu Brits as a barn owl, an ‘idle walrus’ and the ever-wonderful Keeley Hawes kick off the drama’s final series

Chitra Ramaswamy

07, Apr, 2019 @8:00 PM

Article image
The Secret Agent review – worryingly one-dimensional
So much is lost from Conrad’s strange, complex and deeply ironic novel. This adaptation reduces it to a psychological thriller – and proves the curse of TV

Stephen Moss

18, Jul, 2016 @6:02 AM

Article image
TV Review: Women in Love; Toughest Race On Earth With James Cracknell
Smouldering lust set against the class struggle – shocking once but pretentious now, writes Sam Wollaston

Sam Wollaston

24, Mar, 2011 @10:30 PM

Article image
Patrick Melrose review – a brilliant portrayal of addiction
Benedict Cumberbatch had long wanted to play Edward St Aubyn’s character – and David Nicholls’s adaptation shows the actor’s deep understanding of the role

Sam Wollaston

13, May, 2018 @9:10 PM

Article image
Cider With Rosie review: ‘it captures the poetry and the spirit of Laurie Lee’
I don’t believe many viewers won’t have been taken back to their own childhoods, adolescences and early loves by Rosie and Loll’s pastoral romance

Sam Wollaston

28, Sep, 2015 @6:30 AM

Article image
Vanity Fair review – this adaptation fizzes with all the energy of its social-climbing heroine
Yes, it’s yet another version of Thackeray’s novel, and it has its sights set on a modern audience, but Olivia Cooke is an ideal Becky Sharp – and the sumptuous sets are worth tuning in for all on their own

Emine Saner

02, Sep, 2018 @9:05 PM

Article image
TV review: One Night; A Very British Holiday; Angels of Mersey
One Night is a low-key British version of Falling Down

John Crace

26, Mar, 2012 @8:40 PM