Stephen Garrett: Spooks producer on his obsession with spy stories and working with John le Carré

TV producer Stephen Garrett specialises in spy dramas but, he reveals to Ian Burrell, technology is proving quite a challenge

Having devoted so much of his career to making shows about spooks, it makes sense that Stephen Garrett should be working with the greatest spy writer of all.

It was John le Carré’s work that first convinced the co-founder of television company Kudos that an MI5-based series could be “a bit like” a cop show “only bigger”, and Spooks, one of the most successful TV drama and film franchises of the 21st century was the result.

When Garrett surprised the TV industry by walking out of Kudos two years ago, he was promptly approached by The Ink Factory, a company set up by Le Carré’s sons Stephen and Simon Cornwell and advised by the great author himself. The result of that collaboration is The Night Manager, a major BBC drama starring Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston, based on Le Carré’s 1993 novel. It is the first TV series to be shot in super-high definition 4K.

“That was the most wonderful conversation to have,” Garrett says. “It was genuinely Le Carré who gave me the idea for Spooks and I have always been faintly obsessed with spy stories.”

There is something “quintessentially British” about espionage, he says. “Because of Bond and because of Le Carré’s work, the world associates Brits with spying; we are perceived as having a genuine talent for duplicity, deception and telling lies. It’s something we should be incredibly proud of!”

Working with David Cornwell, to give Le Carré his real name, has been inspiring. “He is 85 and he has not just been the godfather of the project but actively involved at key stages.” Le Carré attended the day-long read-through of all six scripts in the series, then went to the two-hour notes session that followed. “He even came to a cast and crew dinner afterwards and throughout it all was the sharpest, smartest person in the room, giving immensely classy notes about story structure, character and spycraft.”

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From left: Keeley Hawes, Matthew Macfadyen, Jenny Agutter, Peter Firth, David Oyelowo and Lisa Faulkner starred in Spooks (Joss Barratt / BBC)

Le Carré was willing to accept a “radical reinterpretation” of his work, including even a change of sex of a central character. The intelligence operative Leonard Burr, a gruff Yorkshireman in the book, is played in the series by a heavily pregnant Olivia Colman, best known for the ITV series Broadchurch. The brave casting by the Danish director, Susanne Bier, presented a “huge challenge” in getting insurance to take Colman for filming in “Morocco and Majorca in the late stages of pregnancy”, Garrett says. “But it struck us as a really inspired notion that a woman vulnerable in this dangerous male preserve [of spying] should be additionally vulnerable by virtue of being pregnant”.

Le Carré himself was “thrilled” by the change, Garrett says. “He said to Olivia that if he were writing the novel again he would write it with Burr as a woman.”

Garrett has founded his own production company, Character 7, and has other projects in development that also feed his spying fixation. The Rook, which he is developing with the Twilight creator Stephenie Meyer and her company Fickle Fish Films, is based on a fantasy novel by the Australian author Daniel O’Malley about an intelligence agency that combats supernatural threats.

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Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Lawrie star in The Night Manager (BBC)

Garrett is pitching another Character 7 project, Shadow Play, as “Mad Men meets Casablanca”. It’s another spy series – of course – and set in Beirut in the 1950s, when that city was both one of the playgrounds of the Mediterranean and a hotbed of espionage.

We are, says Garrett, living in a great time for television drama.

“There is now an extraordinary opportunity for organically international dramas that are sweeping in scale and not parochial,” he says. “Because of the new world order, with the Amazons and Netflix and Hulus who have seemingly unlimited resources and not fixed [schedule] slots, there’s no shortage of opportunities.”

Spooks, which began in 2002, was based on “self-contained episodes” in an era before viewers enjoyed bingeing on entire series, when tablets weren’t yet invented. 

Such formats now “barely exist and no one is really looking for them”, says Garrett.

However, he adds that technology isn’t always helpful to a TV producer. It has made the creation of suspense so much harder.

“There’s no doubt that new technology in general, and computer screens in particular, make a certain kind of storytelling very difficult,” he says.

Cybercrime has become the “greatest manifestation” of modern villainy yet “no one has yet found a way to make that interesting” on film. Similarly DNA was a great breakthrough for mankind but a setback for spy and crime writers, and would make a classic tale such as Dial M for Murder unworkable, he claims. “Technology has messed with storytelling in quite a big way.”

The ubiquity of mobile phones in real life has made it hard for a suspense writer to create any sense of a character being alone. 

“Jeopardy and that sense of genuine isolation has become much harder to create in the modern world. That classic scene of the girl in the nightdress alone in house ... you end up establishing in some very clunky way: that her phone has run out of juice or she’s in a mobile black hole,” he says. 

“Pre-1985 is a good time to tell stories where you want genuine tension, because you can get rid of these hideous devices.”

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