The Night Manager is a compelling take on John le Carré’s novel of the same name

The mini-series gives viewers a glimpse into the highly secretive world of weapons trading with a stellar cast including Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2016, 12:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 9:45am

John le Carré is standing in the corridor of the Hotel de Rome in Berlin. One should take this as a good sign.

The esteemed 84-year-old author of such classics as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Smiley’s People has travelled to the German capital for the Berlin Film Festival premiere of The Night Manager, a six-hour, eight-part adaptation of his 1993 novel.

While he’s here for moral support, preferring to let the actors and director Susanne Bier do the talking, Le Carré’s presence is like a blessing from on high.

Still, the English author has every right to be delighted. The Night Manager is a compelling take on his novel – more James Bond than John le Carré – with a budget said to be about £20 million (HK$217.5 million), making it the most costly drama the BBC has ever been involved with.

“It’s not a cheap show. It’s an expensive show,” shrugs Bier, the 55-year-old Dane whose past credits include After The Wedding and Open Hearts.

“In order for us to tell that story… that world has to be lavish and real, and you can’t really cheat an audience with that.”

In the lead is 35-year-old British star Tom Hiddleston, who plays Jonathan Pine, a thoroughly decent employee in a five-star hotel in Cairo who becomes embroiled with Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), an international arms trafficker dubbed “the worst man in the world” by one character.

An ex-soldier, Pine is recruited by spymaster Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) to penetrate Roper’s inner circle, where he suddenly finds himself living a dangerous lifestyle most would find hard to resist.

For Hiddleston, known for his role as Loki in Marvel movies Thor and The Avengers, he was hooked as soon as he read the script of the first episode.

“I really related to Pine’s sense of right and wrong, his sense of decency, his good manners and also his principles. Pine is invested with all of Le Carré’s anger, which is righteous – about Roper and about people who get away with doing very bad things. The commitment I had to make was to invest Pine with my own anger about the world, and that was exciting.”

Bier admits it was the “morally complex” nature of Le Carré’s work that drew her to the story.

“When we look at Richard Roper, we want to be next to him. He’s the guy who you want to be seated next to at a dinner. Does Jonathan Pine get seduced and can we trust him to do the right thing? That was so interesting to me, and so compelling. That is the core of the book, it’s the core of the television show and it’s the main reason why I wanted to do it.”

David Farr has impressively updated Le Carré’s first post-cold war novel for the 21st century.

The original novel had Roper selling arms to South America; this was felt to be outmoded and was changed to the Middle East. Pine is no longer a former soldier who patrolled Northern Ireland, but one who completed tours in Iraq. And, crucially, the story begins in 2011, with Pine in Cairo just as the Arab Spring is under way.

Other changes included moving one of the key locations from Zurich to Zermatt (allowing for some breathtaking shots of the snowy Matterhorn) and changing Pine’s contact Burr from a man to a woman.

Le Carré admits female officers were “a rarity” in his days, when he was plain old David Cornwell, working for the British Security Service. “I dearly wish I had written her into the novel instead of her ponderous husband,” he stated recently. “But I didn’t.”

Another female character given more substance was Roper’s younger girlfriend Jed.

“I think that the version of Jed in the novel is interesting but at times she’s rather one-dimensional,” says Elizabeth Debicki, who plays her.

“There’s a flippancy to her – an airiness, breeziness, you’re never really sure how much she cares about things, how much things affect her.” This is considerably changed in the show – with Jed a woman who harbours almost as many secrets as her lover.

Casting the utterly likeable 56-year-old Laurie as Roper is another inspired move. The one-time comic actor best known to international audiences for playing the lead role in medical drama House has never had the opportunity to play a real villain before.

“When I first read this novel, I fancied myself as Jonathan Pine, 23 years ago,” says Laurie. “And then my hair fell out and I’ve got to watch Tom Hiddleston being all virile and strapping, which is annoying! But that’s the passage of time for you.”

Laurie admits he found Roper hard to resist when he first read the character. “I loathed him – he plainly is a very wicked creature – but there is something seductive about him. There’s something intoxicating about someone who has put themselves beyond the bounds of normal behaviour, beyond the bounds of laws,” he says.

“He just has the confidence, the daring, the madness… but the devil, of course, must be charming, otherwise we’d never go near him. The devil has the best tunes.”

Talk to any of the actors and they all felt like they were living in a spy fantasy of Le Carré’s making. A considerable portion of the action is shot in Roper’s stunning cliff-top villa in Mallorca.

When Hiddleston asked a local where it was, “he told me that nobody he knew had ever been allowed to go there. So suddenly this location turned into a place of opaque mystery – which can’t help but put you in the context of glamorous spy worlds.”

Luxury living is one thing; what really gives The Night Manager its authenticity was having the support of Le Carré.

“John has an incredibly well-developed network of people who he talks to… experts,” says Bier, who used the author’s contacts to explore the highly secretive world of weapons trading.

“Once you start studying it, you realise it’s frighteningly easy to deal in horrific weapons. And it’s frighteningly difficult to get to people dealing in horrific weapons.”

Le Carré even popped over for a cameo – playing a disgruntled diner in a restaurant scene opposite Hiddleston and Laurie.

“It was good!” says Hiddleston with a chuckle, when asked what it was like to act with him. “He was very spontaneous and hard to win over… the job of the scene is that Pine is so charming, he easily wins over this other guest and Roper is impressed by that. He has this amazing ability to pacify people and be charmed. But Le Carré was not easily charmed! So he made me work hard.”

Already fans are claiming Hiddleston’s turn in The Night Manager is the perfect “audition” for the next James Bond, as and when current 007 Daniel Craig leaves the role.

The Eton-educated, Rada-trained star is certainly easy on the eye, admits Bier.

“Tom Hiddleston is super-handsome, super-sexy, super-everything,” she says. “It works well for the story… because of his angelic features, there is something about him which is utterly seductive.”

So does she think he’d make a good Bond? “Yeah,” she smiles. “I do.”

The Night Manager screens on AMC, i-Cable (channel 46), on Mondays at 10pm.