Little Drummer Girl’s author is just as complex as his characters

A real international man of mystery: As the adaptation of a John le Carré novel, The Little Drummer Girl, keeps audiences on the edge of their seats, Christopher Stevens discovers that the author himself is as complex as any of the characters he created

  • Latest show is set in Seventies as Cold War and international terrorism collided
  • Author John le Carré, real name David Cornwell, is as mysterious as his books
  • By age 30, he’d been working for British intelligence services for seven years
  • As a compulsive story teller, the legend often obscures the truth in his life

Sunday night is le Carré night. Ever since Tom Hiddleston soared to superstardom in The Night Manager, all glamorous resorts and high-tension thrills, the nation has been agog for more spies, seduction and gun-play.

The Little Drummer Girl – set in the brutal Seventies as the Cold War and international terrorism collided – has gripped millions with its complex double-crosses and deceptions. 

As we await the penultimate episode tomorrow, the thriller has proved to be vintage John le Carré, with a twist: none of his other novels has a heroine at the centre of the story, taking on the macho world of espionage and beating the spymasters at their own game.

The intensely stylish start was, perhaps inevitably, baffling. Israeli secret agents trailed Palestinian bomb-makers, while an ominously silent stranger stalked a British actress on a Greek isle. It all ended in a high-speed ride as wary romantic Charlie (Florence Pugh) found her date in Athens with the monosyllabic Gadi (Alexander Skarsgard) turning into an abduction.

But patterns have gradually emerged. The machinations of Mossad masterspy Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon) have propelled Charlie deeper into the murderous world of Middle East politics. 

The Little Drummer Girl, starring Alexander Skarsgard and Florence Pugh (seen together), has gripped millions with its complex double-crosses and deceptions

The author behind the show – John Le Carre, picture with his son Simon Cornwell (left) and star Alexander Skarsgard (right) – is just as complex as his characters

Last week saw her interrogated at gunpoint, then kidnapped in Beirut and thrown into the boot of a car – taken to meet shadowy figure Fatmeh (Lubna Azabal), who seems to wield more control over the terrorist cell than anyone had guessed.

As the credits rolled, viewers were desperate for more, if somewhat baffled by some of the smoke and mirrors. But while the TV drama has sometimes been difficult to fathom, the life of its creator is ten times more mysterious.

Le Carré is a compulsive storyteller – and as his sons Simon and Stephen explain today, that can make him hard to know. The legend often obscures the truth… sometimes deliberately.

For a start, John le Carré, now 87, is not the writer’s real name. He was born David Cornwell, in 1931 in Poole, Dorset, but by the time he published his first novel, aged 30, he’d been working for British intelligence for seven years, ostensibly with the Foreign Service. 

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His controllers didn’t like to see their agents writing books – he once revealed, ‘Even if it were about butterflies, they said, I’d have to choose a pseudonym.’

With typical sleight of hand, Cornwell claims he chose le Carré because he saw the name over a tailor’s shop and liked it – then admits, in the same breath, that this is a lie he tells to satisfy nosy parkers.

His father Ronnie was a small-time fraudster and serial philanderer who liked to boast he was friendly with the Kray twins. When David was two years old, his father was sent to prison; when he was five, his mother Olive walked out on the family. 

After a series of brutal boarding schools, he went to university in Bern, Switzerland, where he was recruited in 1950 by the British Army Intelligence Corps.

‘One of my jobs was trawling through displaced-persons camps in Austria, looking for people who were fake refugees,’ he has said. They were actually Communist spies, and the Army sent some back behind the Iron Curtain as double agents. 

This notion of recruiting and inverted loyalties would become a constant theme of his novels.

Cornwell switched to MI5 while studying at Oxford, where he mingled with Communist activists and reported what he heard. After a stint teaching German at Millfield and Eton public schools, he returned to ‘diplomatic duty’, first with MI5 and then MI6 – a period that he now dismisses disingenuously as ‘a few years spooking around’.

Le Carré (pictured with his family in 1964) was born David Cornwell, in 1931 in Poole, Dorset, but by the time he published his first novel, aged 30, he’d been working for British intelligence for seven years

After his third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, became a bestseller, he left the intelligence services to become a full-time writer, leading a nomadic life around Europe with his first wife Ann and their three sons Simon, Stephen and Timothy. 

Divorced in 1971, he remarried the following year to Valerie, an editor with his publishers. Today, the couple live near Penzance in Cornwall.

After more than half a century of producing bestsellers such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carré is intensely protective of his work. The idea of updating his novels for television might seem too daunting, but was made easier because the production company that owns the rights is run by two of his own sons.

Simon and younger brother Stephen set up The Ink Factory, a production company for video games as well as TV and films, in 2010. They made Our Kind Of Traitor, another le Carré adaptation, for the cinema in 2016, but it was The Night Manager that brought the breakthrough, in the same year.

Le Carré was initially dubious. He disliked the idea of giving arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) a Majorcan villa for his HQ instead of a superyacht, and of turning his villainous customers into Arab warlords instead of Colombian drugs barons. 

Most of all, he was concerned to see his chief spy Leonard Burr become Angela, played by a heavily pregnant Olivia Colman.

But the novelist was eventually persuaded by his sons, and became so keen on the mini-series that he played a cameo – as a wealthy tourist, drinking a vodka martini at a restaurant table who is stunned by a Roper tantrum.

Vodka martini, of course, was James Bond’s drink of choice. That’s a typically subtle le Carré joke: he despises Bond, dismissing him as a an international gangster’ and insisting that Ian Fleming’s novels shouldn’t even be classed as spy thrillers. In the world of John le Carré, even the drinks aren’t what they seem.

So what was it like, growing up with such a brilliant but complex man for a father… and then going into business with him? Here, his sons reveal their ambitions and fears in bringing le Carré’s work to the TV screen, and what it was like growing up as the sons of the Tinker Tailor man… 

The Little Drummer Girl, tomorrow, 9pm, BBC1.

Life with Dad is a thriller

by le Carré’s sons, Simon & Stephen Cornwell  


Every child loves listening to stories. We were lucky – our father told them for a living. We travelled around Europe as we were growing up, living for a while in Crete and other places, and Dad told us stories.

Sometimes he made them up. Sometimes he took them from books. Occasionally, as we got older, he would read to us from the novel he was working on… It was a very special part of our upbringing.

He was always a master of anecdotes. But we weren’t properly aware until we were a bit older that Dad wasn’t only our father, David Cornwell: he was also somebody called John le Carré. 

That didn’t affect us at the time: le Carré was a remote notion to us, just Dad’s nom de plume. 

John was eventually persuaded by his sons to play a cameo in the Night Manager – as a wealthy tourist, drinking a vodka martini at a restaurant table who is stunned by a Roper tantrum. Pictured: Le Carré (centre, in blue shirt) in his cameo role in The Night Manager

It wasn’t until we were much older that we realised what a deep effect his storytelling had on us and the way we saw the world. That’s how our family communicated, and still does: through stories.

As we were growing up, Dad taught us how to see the narratives that exist in the real world. Stories aren’t just for fiction. There are characters all around us.

And now we have children of our own, we hear them asking him questions – there’s a difference to the questions that grandchildren ask their grandparents – and Dad is open with his answers. It makes us realise how smart and self-aware he actually is. 

Any reader can guess he’s a clever man, but his emotional intelligence is extraordinary. All of that is crystallised in The Little Drummer Girl.


After we had such a success with The Night Manager in 2016, we wanted to make something equally ambitious. The Little Drummer Girl is a big book, about 660 pages, and like The Night Manager it travels all over the place – from West Germany to London, Greece and beyond.

It has amazing characters that leap off the page, and in particular – uniquely for a le Carré novel – it has a strong female protagonist at its core.

That gives the story a timely, relevant feel. But at the same time, it’s deeply rooted in the late Seventies, when the novel is set. We updated The Night Manager to the present day, to keep it innovative.

We didn’t actually sit down and discuss the choice with our father. We didn’t have to: we knew that this novel is very close to his heart, and he’s eager to see it brought to new audiences. 

That could only be done properly through television. A feature film is too short to do it justice.

Like almost all Dad’s writing, The Little Drummer Girl is prescient, and although it’s set 40 years ago it feels contemporary and very relevant to today. That’s because, although he draws on his past experiences, our father lives very much in the present. 

John Le Carre taught his sons how to see the narratives that exist in the real world, and that stories aren’t just for fiction

He’s 87, and he’s constantly surrounded by the day’s papers as well as history books. He has a double perspective, and that enables him to see where things are going.

If you sit down for a conversation with him, you’d better be prepared to talk about what’s happening now. He’s been a hugely successful and influential novelist for more than half a century, and a major reason for that is his constant focus on the here and now.

It’s the current choices that humanity faces, the immediate dilemmas we face, that fascinate him and always have done.


Getting a major TV series right is always nerve-wracking… especially when the author is your father. We always want to work closely with authors when we adapt books, and we want to get it right because you only get that one chance. 

But we wouldn’t be human if extra pressure was not added by the fact these are our dad’s books. It definitely adds an extra dimension. If things went wrong, the next family dinner might be awkward!

Luckily, this is a golden age for television drama. Only five years ago, it was rare for major films stars to want to do TV. Now, they all do. 

We’re able to get great directors – on The Little Drummer Girl, it was the brilliant South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. He was able to attract a stellar cast, including Florence Pugh as Charlie, Alexander Skarsgard as the mysterious stranger who lures her into danger, and Michael Shannon as Kurtz the spymaster.

This golden age is the perfect foundation for adaptations of le Carré. A big budget mini-series with high production values enables us to bring out all the subtleties of the characters and the tale-telling.

The books deserve it. Spending lots of money isn’t an automatic recipe for success, but it’s such a privilege to be translating our father’s work to the screen that we couldn’t hold back. These books are in our DNA, after all.

Le Carré’s sons would love to do a second series of The Night Manager, but the stars, including Tom Hiddleston, are in high demand and scheduling is too tricky at the moment


Everybody asks whether there’ll be a second series of The Night Manager. The answer is, we don’t know – at the moment. 

The stars – Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman, Hugh Laurie – are all in such demand that scheduling is tricky. And the story has to be a really good one. 

Of course we’d love to do it though! Meanwhile, we’re also getting excited about the prospect of making The Spy Who Came In From The Cold for television.

That is a challenge, because there is already a film version, starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom. It came out more than 50 years ago but many still say it’s one of the greatest spy movies ever. The bar is set high.

We love the idea of a TV version, as it comes very close to the start of the George Smiley series that forms the core of le Carré’s work. And if The Spy Who… was a success, we’d inevitably want to continue – and remake The Looking Glass War, Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People, as well as tackling the other great books in the series such as The Honourable Schoolboy and A Legacy Of Spies.

The challenge would be to capture the period detail, and retain their relevance to today, just as with The Little Drummer Girl.

To do that, we’d have to find an actor who could match Alec Guinness as Smiley. Who might that be? Suggestions on a postcard please…   

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