'The Night Manager': Fast-backward to the Arab Spring

In a new series, 'House' star Hugh Laurie uses his do-gooder façade to sell arms and drugs against the backdrop of the Arab Spring.

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Tom Hiddleston in 'The Night Manager.'
Tom Hiddleston in 'The Night Manager.'Credit: Courtesy

For some time now I’ve been writing about our freedom to download or stream whatever we want to see on screen whenever and however we wish. At the same time I’ve been fully aware that nine times out of ten I just switch the TV set on, sample the choices and settle on watching anything that catches my eye and holds my attention span. That is also why, nine times out of ten, I opt for eating out, be it in a restaurant or a fast-food outlet, over cooking my own meal (OK, make that ten out of ten).

In the viewing mode described above, the chances are that whenever you tune in, you find yourself in medias res, which means, in Latin, “into the midst of affairs, into the middle of a narrative.” There are characters there, on your little screen, arguing about something, dropping names or bombs, and you haven’t the faintest idea what it’s all about. As this has been the state of affairs between me and my screen, I’ve developed a relatively long attention span for watching events unfolding without understanding why or what for, with an ability to guess what it all is supposed to mean. Then I discovered the red dot.

On my TV screen, when it’s set to HOT, there’s a space on the upper left, with the words “Start Over” in red. As I’m naturally both inquisitive and impulsive, I pressed the red button on my remote, and lo and behold, the episode of the series rewound itself to its beginning, supplying me with all the hows and whys and wherefores I was missing.

Having tried it once or twice or thrice, I wondered how I had managed to live without it (I’m sure other TV providers have it on offer as well). It then struck me that such a thing, if it could be applied to our lives, would make them somewhat better. How often do you enter a room or approach some of your fellowmen and women “in medias res” (a fair definition of life in general – two or more characters who meet while each is in the middle of his or her own narrative), and wish you could hit a red button and get the situation to rewind itself a couple of minutes back, so you’d know how the argument (or the love – or hate – affair) reached the point it has now. How many misunderstandings might have been avoided if each of us could have a personal red button to push when at a loss about what is going on and why.

So, now that you know about this, HOT customer, when can you sample it? If, for instance, you turn your TV on and zap to HOT AMC (channel 19) on Wednesday, June 15, at 21.15, you will find yourself in the midst of the first episode of six in the miniseries “The Night Manager.” You may see a very mysterious woman asking a handsome young man – the eponymous night manager, played by Tom Hiddleston – to photocopy a list of weapons (RPG, Sarin gas, napalm).

Or, if you tune in a couple of minutes earlier, you will see him – at this point of the plot his name is Jonathan Pine, but don’t take his, or my, word for it – walking the streets of Cairo in the spring of 2011, on the day Mubarak gave in. Hitting the red button will start the series ab ovo (“from the egg,” Latin again) with missiles shot from a plane dissolving into glittering necklaces and then into a chandelier crashing down. This is an intriguing opener for the first miniseries in 20 years based on a John le Carré novel, to compete with the fame of the BBC miniseries “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (1979) and “Smiley’s People” (1982), starring Alec Guinness.

After the war

Le Carré’s real name is David Cornwall; he is a former MI6 and MI5 operative turned writer. His main claim to fame is his ability to let readers (and then moviegoers and TV viewers) into the deceptive, shadowy world of spies and spooks of the Cold War, with good people being crushed by the ideologies and interests of powers larger than they. “The Night Manager,” published in 1993, was his first post-Cold War novel, and it had to answer a very loaded question: How would he survive the demise of the conflict that provided a backdrop for his work, while his texts offered the human underpinning of the era’s emotional and political texture. The answer was a resounding “very well.” In Le Carré’s fictional world, the warring East and West (or communism and capitalism) were replaced by arms and drug dealers. The various spy and counter-spy agencies still bickered and double-crossed each other, while the unlucky, perplexed and usually innocent (or slightly flawed) human beings payed the price.

The new series, produced by the BBC with AMC, had to deal with the fact that a post-Cold War novel was being adapted into a TV series in post-post-Cold War times, and it brought the plot forward to the days of the Arab Spring. The villain of the piece is the British philanthropist Richard Onslow Roper (played with relish by Hugh Laurie, in his first major TV appearance since “House”). Roper uses his do-gooder façade to sell arms and drugs worldwide, doing very good business with a major Colombian drug cartel. The knight to fight this particular dragon (“the worst man in the world”), in the novel, was a former Secret Intelligence Service chief, Leonard Burr, who set up a small counter-arms proliferation office and was planning an elaborate sting operation against Roper. In the spirit of the times (the series is directed by a woman, Susanne Bier), Leonard becomes Angela (played by Olivia Colman), and she is pregnant with her first child. She is the one who manages to recruit Pine, and convince him to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle in order to bring him down. Both Burr and Pine have to fight Roper and an army of moles of various secret services, who work very hard to outmaneuver each other, all playing dirty, with the personal becoming political, and vice versa. For the next six weeks we will be pining for the success of Jonathan Pine against the Ropers of the world.

David Cornwall (aka Le Carré) is making a cameo appearance in the series, as he did in “A Most Wanted Man” and the “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” movies. The series got rave reviews in Great Britain. If all of this is not enough Le Carré for you, you have “Our Kind of Traitor,” currently showing in local cinemas, or his autobiography, “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life,” to be published in September.

So, view and read on. In the world of fiction, there is the Red Dot, the antidote to suspense. In real life there is none.

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