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Inside spy-thriller writer John Le Carre's 'vulnerable' final interview

Le Carre sat down with acclaimed American documentary filmmaker Errol Morris in 2019, neither knowing that it would be the author's last interview before his death the following year

Published: Oct 20, 2023 05:32:20 PM IST
Updated: Oct 20, 2023 05:40:43 PM IST

Inside spy-thriller writer John Le Carre's 'vulnerable' final interview British writer John Le Carre in 2016 Image: John Macdougall / AFP©

The master of the spy novel—and a man of mystery himself—John Le Carre offers an emotional account of his life in his final interview which airs on Apple TV from Friday.

Le Carre sat down with acclaimed American documentary filmmaker Errol Morris in 2019 neither knowing that it would be the author's last interview before his death the following year.

"I don't think he had any intention of dying at all," said one of Le Carre's sons, Simon Cornwell, who helped produce the film, "The Pigeon Tunnel".

"His death really changed the dynamic of the film—it's his final interview, his final legacy on camera," he told AFP.

Le Carre's books have sold more than 60 million copies and been endlessly adapted for film and TV, from "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" to "The Constant Gardener" to "The Night Manager", with more in the works.

More than just popular page-turners, his books helped define an era of post-colonial decline in Britain and the dirty spy games of the Cold War—something he knew intimately as a former spook himself.  

Morris "was the ideal conversation partner", said his son, since the writer was a huge fan of his Oscar-winning film "The Fog of War", an astonishingly frank account of the Vietnam War by one its architects, former US secretary of defense Robert McNamara.

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Betrayal

Morris similarly draws out unexpected emotion from Le Carre, whose real name was David Cornwell, a famously reserved and private individual.

The former British intelligence officer chokes up when discussing his mother abandoning him as a child. All he inherited from her was the suitcase she took when she left.

"The movie captures some things about our dad that are unique and have not ever seen before: his humanity and vulnerability," said Cornwell.

He also looks back on his studies at Oxford, where he spied on other students for MI5, Britain's security service.

He covers the betrayal by Kim Philby, a double-agent who revealed the identities of many British spies to the KGB.

Perhaps his most painful memory is when he outed his Oxford friend Stanley Mitchell as a communist.

"Of course it was horrible. I betrayed Stanley," he said in the film, but added that "someone had to do it" and that Mitchell was "on the wrong side of history".

"Are you sure you were on the right side?" Morris asked.

"Of course not," the writer replied, and then paused for several seconds, visibly moved.

His son said this is the moment in the film when he was "truly uncomfortable".

The film also touches on his creative process, which the "modest" Le Carre usually felt uncomfortable discussing.

But one aspect that gets little screen time is his relentless womanising, recently exposed in excruciating detail by one of his mistresses in a tell-all memoir.

Though he has in the past described his affairs as "a necessary drug for my writing", to Morris he remained tight-lipped on the topic: "I'm not here to talk about my sex life."

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