‘The threat of nuclear annihilation has not gone away’ – the timely return of The Ipcress File | Television


As the CIA and MI6 try to predict the unstable Kremlin leader’s next move, the British recoil from reports of the possible use of nuclear weapons.

But we are in 1962; Khrushchev not Putin. ITV’s new adaptation of Len Deighton’s Cold War novel The Ipcress File – which was a defining Sixties film starring Michael Caine as working-class spy Harry Palmer – was meant to be a play period for 2022 viewers. But the Russian president’s invasion of Ukraine and pointed reminders to the world about the size of its nuclear weapons gave Sunday night’s drama new context.

“I thought I was writing the story, but it turned out to be news,” says screenwriter John Hodge. “When you present a scenario, you are always asked: ‘What is relevant about that? Why should we do it now?’ And with The Ipcress File, we feared that this stuff was so long ago. Our line has always been that during the Cold War people were very aware of the threat of nuclear annihilation, but it didn’t go away due to the number of warheads and rogue players and the like. But it’s terrible to be right.

While Hodge’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting was on screen within three years of Irvine Welsh’s novel, and his 2000 adaptation of Alex Garland’s The Beach appeared just four years after the hardback, Deighton’s 1962 novel is by far the oldest source. material that Hodge never brought to our screens – and the first that has ever been a movie.

His version of The Ipcress File, however, is very different from Caine’s 1962 book or 1965 film about a kidnapped British nuclear scientist. The novel is a first-person narrative and the film dominated by Palmer, but Hodge “gave voices to other characters.” Six hours of television requires huge amounts of story compared to a film. You need more central characters.

The TV version splits the action between the new Palmer, played by Joe Cole), British agent Jean (Lucy Boynton), his spymaster Dalby (Tom Hollander), and CIA agent Maddox (Ashley Thomas). The fact that an African-American spy was plausible (albeit rare) at this time, when the English secret service was horribly white, also allows the series to achieve both historical realism and diversity: “C It’s a balance between being true to the times and writing something a modern audience can relate to.

Cole, after some clever work with the thick black-rimmed glasses that were Caine’s visual signature, takes the role in a new direction, aided by a new backstory featuring heart-pounding scenes in Berlin that Deighton would never have. imagined. Hodge and director James Watkins (Black Mirror, McMafia) “felt we needed something to introduce Harry,” says Hodge. “I think in a movie you can just say here’s a spy and go with him. But viewers need to know a bit more about the characters… so I wrote a sequence about how Harry got involved, rather reluctantly, in espionage.

The new Harry Palmer…Joe Cole. Photography: Ben Blackall/ITV

In the 1960s, the Cockney boy dining confidently at the highest tables was seen as a symbol of England’s social evolution. But now, says Hodge, we see it differently. “This comes at a time when the next five British Prime Ministers [Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major] are going to be public schools, and it feels, at that point, that the Old Etonians are finished. But obviously we now know that they weren’t.

Hodge also did a lot of plot renovations. “I think Deighton lost interest in the plot halfway through the novel, and it’s a series of comedic riffs after that.”

He sees in it the story of the emergence of a modern culture in Britain, after the still literally and metaphorically rationed 1950s: flying to Rome or Paris seems incredibly glamorous, and exotic delicatessens offer unimaginable foods like pomegranate.

The show covers 1962-63, and older viewers and history students will be delighted to try and anticipate how Hodge might bring what he calls “60s moments” – the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Profumo sex scandal, the presidency of John F Kennedy: “One of the pleasures of writing recent historical fiction is that you can aim for those landmarks that some viewers anticipate.”

Michael Caine and Sue Lloyd in The Ipcress File, 1965.
Michael Caine and Sue Lloyd in The Ipcress File, 1965. Photography: Aliyah

The brazenly meritocratic ghost of Deighton was widely seen as an anti-James Bond and, oddly enough, working on The Ipcress File was also post-007 for Hodge. He and Boyle (his director on Trainspotting, its sequel T2 and Shallow Grave) were employed on “Bond 25”, which subsequently became No Time to Die last year; they co-wrote a screenplay before being fired.

“I think it was me they really wanted to get rid of, but Danny also took the ball,” Hodge said. Do non-disclosure agreements cover their departure? “No. Just decent British discretion!”

By the time Hodge and Boyle learned they wouldn’t be writing another day, there were suggestions that they had scared off producers by pitching an incredibly subversive script. But the released film contains an equally dramatic twist, which seems to debunk the rumor that they’ve gone too far. “I understand that this turn was decided before we even got on board because Daniel Craig wanted it. I think back home it was that old cliché of “creative differences”. It was very dramatic at the time, but it was just another obstacle in the way of the Bond franchise.

Since Hodge says he’s stingy with directing (“I don’t like telling directors what to do”), I wonder about spectacular action sequences in a Bond film. Do you just write “the island rises in the air and explodes” and let them?

“I kinda hoped that was the case because in a great action movie, the action is between the director and many departments. But for some reason they want you to write the action. C is the thing I hate the most: “The car skids around the corner, bounces on the sidewalk. Inside the car, Jack Wiley lights a cigarette” etc. And you can only be wrong: either they tell you it’s too expensive, or they tell you it’s too unambitious because a plane once flew through the Deptford Tunnel in Fast and Furious 7, or whatever.”

Lucy Boynton and Ashley Thomas in the Ipcress file.
Lucy Boynton and Ashley Thomas in The Ipcress File. Photo: Nikola Preovic/Altitude Film/ITV

Hodge still has his Bond script on a laptop. When he saw the film, he discovered that a “half line” of his dialogue had survived. What is that? “Aaargh, I can’t. It’s their movie. I don’t want to sound like the guy who got paid and tells stories about them. He didn’t even tell his family what the half line was. “Listen, it’s the screenwriter’s life. If you’re lucky, you get a job, and sometimes that job doesn’t end well.

If this ITV show is successful, Hodge would like to adapt Deighton’s 1965 novel Billion Dollar Brain (also a film starring Caine), which deals with viral warfare, and which may also have reached an interesting time for a remake.

He doesn’t expect Trainspotting to become a trilogy, though. “I think it’s done. In this exhilarating atmosphere of T2 production, we talked about getting back to it. But the second movie wasn’t as exciting as the first, and to me that reflected the fact that life isn’t as exciting in your 40s and 50s as it is in your 20s. I was at peace with that. Any idea of ​​bringing the gang together for more hijinks just seems wrong to me.

He and Boyle “develop an idea for a feature film, which is a pretty old-fashioned idea these days. And, like most writers in the UK right now, we’re trying to think of ideas that we can pitch to a big streamer for a massive international multi-season show!”

The Ipcress file starts the March 6 at 9 p.m. on ITV. The full series is available on ITV Hub

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