I do have jokes about viruses, but I’m not going to tell you any, ‘cos I’m afraid you might spread them. Okay – sorry about, I know, terrible joke. I’m sure someone is going to get offended by it, but no one’s telling jokes about the most devastating infection to hit these shores since the bubonic plague, that’s if our government and press are to be believed.
Now regular readers of this blog will know I don’t normally comment on current news topics, unless they’re linked to the arts in some way. Believe it or not this has a tenuous link with one of my all-time favourite authors – Jean le Carré.
I love reading any Jean le Carré novel. When a new one is announced I can’t wait to get a copy – my wife, who with an uncanny foresight into its release date, normally has bought me one before I’ve even got online to Amazon. This all stems from 1974 when I read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I’d never read anything quite like it before. The plotting, the characters, the detail – everything was brilliant. I could feel those characters and every page was distinctive and original. When the BBC did an adaption in 1979, which if you haven’t seen, I urge you to do so, it was one of the few times that an adaption of a great book, lived up to the original work. Alec Guinness was exactly how I saw the book’s central character, George Smiley. How often does that happen?
But what was also intriguing about it was the machinations of the Cold War, that suddenly felt very real. Carré had worked at both MI5 and MI6 in the 50s and 60s and the book was peppered with little nuggets of authenticity. It was a world full of subterfuge, but with little violence. This was as far removed from James Bond as the Secret Seven. I’d already developed a liking for thrillers, not sure when or how, but I knew if I had a choice of which genre to write it would be the thriller.
Whilst I was still at drama school, I remember trying to dissect the thriller Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton. Written in 1938 but set in Victorian London it’s a psychological thriller which gave birth to the term ‘gaslighting’, meaning a type of psychological abuse. What made the play a perennial success? I thought there must be some ingredient that I could isolate, which would give me the route into writing a good thriller. If there was or is – I couldn’t find it. It was just a great play, with great characters, telling a story in a unique way. And maybe that’s the ingredient I was looking for – uniqueness.
Writing a good thriller must succeed at one thing – it must thrill. How you achieve that is anybody’s guess.
I always start with a story and build from there. The process could take hours, days, month – in some cases even years. Then sometimes the stars just all collide at the same time.
Over the years I’ve written a number of films for Silent Witness, the BBCs long running show about pathology. I can’t remember which year it was, but one particular season I’d written the first of what in those days were three or four films in the entire season. It was set around a rogue RUC officer in Northern Ireland and despite me flagging this up to all and sundry (dramas about The Troubles have always been difficult), one person, who happened to be quite crucial in the whole set up, hadn’t been forewarned and by the time they saw the script I’d already done 4 or 5 drafts. For totally understandable personal reasons, they thought the story was problematic and might have an adverse effect on their family. I got it immediately and understood why the script had to be shelved. Nothing wrong with it all, just the stars weren’t aligned. It had been decided to move the second script up into the slot mine was intended for and I was asked if I could do the last film in the season, because that film had yet to be commissioned.
All this information was imparted to me on my mobile while I was in Marrakesh. I was naturally upset, which is the polite way of putting it, after all writing a two-hour script takes a bit longer than two hours to write. Still that’s the way it goes, so I thought fuck it – it wasn’t the first time I’d be screwed over and I didn’t think it would be the last – it wasn’t.
Then a few days later the phone went again and it once again it was the Silent Witness production office – they had a problem. The script that had been moved up to replace my Ireland story script, wasn’t working and they had a director sitting down in a couple of weeks. A new script was needed immediately – did I have anything? I didn’t have anything off the top of my head, but I said I’d give it some thought and get back to them. I hung up the call. At this point we, that’s Jan my wife and I, were walking from our hotel to Jemaa el-Fnaa, a large square in the medina quarter of Marrakesh. The phone call had come and gone and I was more than happy to forget all about it. What could I do? I didn’t have an idea. It was Jan that said, “What if we find an old Jewish guy dead?” Now to this day I have no idea where that came from. My retort was that finding some dead guy, Jewish or not, was not a story. It was an incident. We continued walking for a few more minutes and Jan said, “How about we find two old Jewish guys dead?” Again I have no idea where that came from or why two guys dead appealed to me more than one guy dead. But it did. By the time we reached the Square, we’d bashed out a story.
I had for a long time wanted to write something about the Holocaust. Ever since learning about it in school, I’d had great difficulty coming to terms with it. How the hell did it happen? Not long before I was born, in a so called civilised western society, virtually the entire population turned on a minority community and tried to wipe them off the face of the earth. What the fuck happened?!! I knew it must never be allowed to happen again and I knew the only thing I could do to help prevent that was to in some way to write about it. But that wasn’t easy. I wrote contemporary TV drama, where the hell did the Holocaust fit in with Albert Square or Sunhill Police Station. But suddenly I had the mechanism to tell a story I was desperate to tell. The idea that started on that walk in Marrakesh turned into Silent Witness – The World Cruise. It was the story of an Auschwitz survivor, played brilliantly by Andrew Sachs, who we find out eventually has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and like a lot of people that discover they have a limited time to live, he wanted to go on a world cruise, only this character’s world cruise was a metaphor for him settling all his old scores. His twin brother had been killed by Josef Mengele and he’d decided to deal with all those involved in his death.
I loved the piece. Directed superbly by Coky Giedroyc it brought the Holocaust into the modern day. Even to this day when I see it on TV, I’m proud of it. But it came about because of an unusual unforeseen set of circumstances.
So what has this to with the coronavirus and Jean le Carré?
I’m not a great believer in conspiracy theories. I believe Neil Armstrong did walk on the moon and Princess Di died because of an unfortunate accident. But I can’t help think we’re not being told the whole truth about the coronavirus. While there were still only a few hundred cases been diagnosed in China, panic was setting in. There are nearly 1.4 billion people in China and they were panicking about 400 people getting a ‘flu’ virus. It is estimated, at the time of me writing this, that world-wide there has been diagnosed approximately 120,000 cases which is less than 0.0016 of the world population of 7.53 billion. But Italy is now closed for business and how long before other countries follow suit.
If this were a Jean le Carré novel it would go something like this …
… An old hand from the Circus (that’s Cambridge Circus) George Smiley, has arranged to meet a sleeper agent from the far east, but before the meeting can take place, the agent is whisked off a plane in Bangkok straight into an isolation hospital, where he dies from a new undefined virus. Using a number of his contacts Smiley traces the agent’s steps and ends up at little known city in China called Wuhan.
When he arrives, he discovers the city is being closed off and no one is being allowed either in or out. As the plot unfolds Smiley pits himself against an old adversary, Wu Li Wei, a Chinese agent he believed to have been executed after his handling of the Tiananmen Square debacle in 1989. Smiley discovers that Li Wei has been involved in developing a virus to quell the masses, which was part of a much larger germ warfare programme. Now after an act of terrorism, which the Chinese won’t admit to, the virus has leaked into the general population and it’s such a virulent strain, it is rapidly moving across the globe. After Smiley makes Whitehall aware of the situation, he’s shocked to discover that the first thing Whitehall does is gag the press. This is not going to be made public. The reason being is that the UK and the USA believe they can use the incident as a bargaining tool over China in future trade and territorial negotiations.
Smiley is more concerned about the effect on the global population, but is forced to stand by as the crisis worsens. He knows he has a decision to make, go public and sacrifice his career, or just keep quiet and let the situation take its own course. He also believes that Wuhan is hiding further secrets. Is it all going to get worse and if so how much worse? But he can’t get through the conspiracy of silence.
Any of that sound familiar? Maybe not the covert agents, but the rest …