So, basically – I’m about to do a series of posts on the three Harry Palmer spy movies, The IPCRESS File, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain, and the novels they are based on.
I’ve been a long-time Lee Deighton fan, and his books are certainly an influence on my writing – and my cooking!1 – and I’ve always loved the Michael Caine movies.
And while I was looking online for resources for those next posts, I found out that you can view the whole 12 episodes of Game Set & Match on Youtube.
And so I said to myself, why not make a post on that, too? And here it is.
The whole story begins in 1983, with a novel called Berlin Game. In in we meet Bernard Samson, a British born and raised in Berlin during the war years, that has spent most of his life as a field agent for the British intelligence in the city where he grew up.
As the novel opens, Bernard is middle aged and bitter, or maybe just sad. He’s facing a desk job, the Cold War is taking a new different turn, and his bosses are a bunch of dimwits, their career a product of their college networking, not of their true skills.
To make things worse, Bernard’s wife is also working in intelligence, and is certainly better placed than he is -. She knows how to go with the flow, has the right family background and all that.
Then things get complicated, and dangerous.
Berlin Gamer is a tight spy thriller, and the start of the first Bernard Samson trilogy – which also includes Mexico Set and London Game.
Two more trilogies follow, the first including Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker, and the third the novels Faith, Hope, and Charity.
A tenth volume, called Winter acts as a prequel to the other nine novels, and is a historical thriller set in Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
A Cold War work written as the Cold War was winding down, the Bernard Samson cycle is a good, tight tour de force, with a huge cast and a lot of twists and turns.
Deighton uses a Chandleresque first-person narrative in most of the books, and while we see the world through Bernie’s eyes, it soon turns out he’s not so reliable a character.
But there’s more, because while tracing the end of the Cold War and the first days of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Deighton mixes the spy story with the family saga – making this whole Cold War business seem very up close and personal.
In 1988, Granada Television produced a TV series based on the first trilogy, called Game Set Match and featuring Ian Holm as Samson and Mel Martin as his wife Fiona.
Wikipedia tells me that it was a huge project (well, it shows on screen), that cost 8 million at the time, and that it was crushed by very poor ratings.
A pity, because the quality of Deighton’s novels is there, and while the start is slow, it’s the sort of slow burn that really pays back.
Also, we get location shots of Berlin beck before the wall fell, and a ton of atmosphere. This is really the most ambitious spy thriller ever put on screen.
And I was particularly surprised finding out a critic accused Ian Holm of being miscast. True, it is almost automatic to associate Deighton’s voice and his characters/narrators with Michael Caine, but Ian Holm has the right face for Samson – he’s not young, he’s not “cool”, he’s definitely not James Bond material. But that’s perfectly fine.
And in case nobody noticed, Mel Martin is gorgeous and once again, just right for the part. And it’s really a pity there are so few good production photos online, and there’s no trailer available.
As I said, you can find the 13-hours long series on Youtube. The quality is nothing to write home about, but it’s still worth a look.
In 2008, Quentin Tarantino expressed an interest in turning the trilogy into a 3-hours-long movie. He also proposed to “ignore all this Maquis double agent stuff.”
Maybe we will be spared the experience.
- we’ll discuss this, too ↩