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.

Contributor

Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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