David Cornwell, or as he’s better known as John le Carré, has captivated readers and filmmakers for years with his works. The legendary novelist, who transitioned from being a spy to a writer, is now the subject of a riveting documentary, The Pigeon Tunnel, by Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris.
Spanning six decades, the documentary is based on le Carré’s own 2016 memoir The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories of My Life. It gives a fascinating insight into his journey of switching tracks from the high-octane world of espionage into one of the bestselling authors of spy novels of all time.
Morris interviewed him over four sessions in late 2019, a little under a year before the author passed away in December 2020.
In an exclusive interview with HELLO! India, Morris says, “I had read The Pigeon Tunnel, and it remains my favourite book by le Carré, and I wanted to capture this in film. It occurred to me during the making of this film that John le Carré was a documentarian, each of his books is based on history, and current history, and he endlessly investigated the political situations around him”.
Everyone loves a good spy, and the hero of le Carré’s many books, the bright intelligence officer George Smiley, has gripped the imagination of readers across the world. But did you know, the many themes of betrayal and duplicity, the astute ability to discern friend from foe, could have well been inspired by his own early life?
The son of a bankrupt conman and jailbird Ronnie Cornwell, le Carré weaved elements of his personal life into fiction. Describing his subject as a kindred spirit, Morris confesses he understood a lot more about the author’s writing during filming.
“I expected someone cynical, but realised the man sitting opposite me was a powerful moral force, who was a believer in the truth and the right from wrong.”
The film’s co-producers, le Carré’s sons Stephen and Simon Cornwell, say it was a wonderful experience as they not only got a deep insight, but learnt of several surprising, amusing, and profoundly moving anecdotes during filming. Since most of his novels such as The Spy Who Came From The Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and A Perfect Spy were set against the Cold War, Simon also revealed a little known fact about his late father.
“Not many people know at the end of the Cold War when the American and Russians refused to have bilateral talks, our father was having dinner and secret discussions with the diplomats from both countries in an Italian restaurant in Hampstead, London. Soon after the Soviet Union was dissolved, what I didn’t expect was that in his 70s, my father was a top international diplomat,” divulges Simon.
While it’s emotionally powerful to see their father talking through the screens, Stephen says the memory that he cherishes most was taking walks with him, especially in the last 15 years of his life. “He was vivid, always lived in the moment and was aware of the world. Also, he always fixed himself a cup of tea before he started writing and would bring me one too, and the sound of him walking to deliver the tray to me, and just chat with me, remains very dear.”
Many of le Carré’s works have also been cinematically adapted such as Russia House, The Tailor of Panama, The Constant Gardener, and The Night Manager. The latter even got an Indian adaptation, starring Anil Kapoor, Aditya Roy Kapur and Sobhita Dhulipala earlier this year.
“Sadly he died before the Hindi language version of The Night Manager came to our screens. But he was thrilled to know that it was being adapted, and he was still alive when the initial work on the show had begun and was incredibly excited to see that happen,” shares Simon.
The Pigeon Tunnel is available to be streamed on Apple TV+