Simon Cornwell: The secret agent’s son

Simon Cornwell: The secret agent’s son

Friday, 31st August 2018
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Andrew Billen meets Simon Cornwell, whose production company, The Ink Factory, is best known for adapting the novels of his father, John le Carré

In the treacherous world of espionage there may no trickier riddle, wrapped in no greater mystery, inside no more elusive enigma than the following question: will there be a Night Manager II? Some doubt there can be a follow-up to the 2016 BBC One thriller because John le Carré did not write a sequel on which it could be based. Others, just as cogently, argue that the BBC and The Ink Factory, the production company which made it to such acclaim and ratings, will not be able to resist.

“Actually, not being cute, I really don’t know,” says Simon Cornwell, The Ink Factory’s Co-Chief Executive and son of le Carré. “We don’t have scripts for it yet, and we would only think about making a second series of The Night Manager if it was going to be really good.

“And I’m sure that Hugh [Laurie] and Tom [Hiddleston] and Olivia [Colman], who are not exactly underemployed actors, won’t want to come back unless it’s excellent, frankly. And, you know, we have all of le Carré’s body of work to pick from.”

We are sitting, mid-heatwave, in The Ink Factory office in Covent Garden, not far from the Circus, the fictional intelligence HQ in le Carré’s Smiley novels. Cornwell, 61, a tall, well-built man, is wearing – unbuttoned – a long, oat-coloured waistcoat.

I have a sensitive question. How is it that le Carré’s screen rights have fallen into the laps of Simon and his writer brother Stephen (the company’s other Co-CEO, who works from LA)? Was it a gift? Their inheritance? If so, what about the novelist’s two other sons?

Did he have to negotiate the deal, I ask. “Yes, furiously.”

It wasn’t just done over a brandy one night? “I wish it had been done over a brandy one night. For all kinds of appropriate reasons to do with fairness within the family and, actually, to do with the law of the land, it needed to be a bona fide, arm’s length deal. And so it is.”

The Night Manager (Credit: BBC)

Whatever the future of The Night Manager II, the Cornwells do have two BBC le Carrés in gestation. The first, emerging this winter, and now in post-production, is The Little Drummer Girl, starring Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgård, and directed by Park Chan-wook.

It is the story of how Pugh’s character, an actress, is recruited on a Greek beach by Mossad to bring down a terrorist ring. The similarity to the premise of The Night Manager, in which British spooks employ a civilian, has not gone unnoticed by Cornwell.

Otherwise, he assures me, it will be very different: “From an early view of the results it is, in a good way, unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television. It’s stunningly, beautifully, amazingly shot, hugely cinematic.”

Drummer Girl will be followed, with filming starting “next year”, by The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, based on le Carré’s first great novel. It was published in 1963 and swiftly made into a film starring Richard Burton. I suggest that the movie’s greatness carries its own problems.

“It was, absolutely, a perfect film,” he agrees. “I mean, to drop names for a moment, we made a movie a couple of years ago with Ang Lee and Ang would cite The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as, in his view, a formally perfect film in lots of ways, and I think that’s right.

“I guess the beauty of revisiting it is that we have a completely fresh approach to it. Last year, my father published A Legacy of Spies and a big section of that is essentially a prequel to [The Spy Who Came in from the Cold]. It fills a several-year hole in Smiley’s life between the end of what is actually his first novel, Call for the Dead, and the start of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.”

But what of Smiley? Can anyone fill Alec Guinness’s BBC costume department brogues? “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a long time ago and the Smiley in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is much younger. He’s in his late thirties, early forties, I guess.”

Does that mean casting an actor who will continue to play him in subsequent Smiley adaptations? “I hope we cast a Smiley who stays with us. Obviously, it’s a big ask of any actor to stay with us over multiple stories, multiple years and, of course, Smiley himself grows quite a lot older over the sequence – but I think that it’s certainly fun to try.”

Both of the new serials have been secured by the BBC. Cornwell fears, however, for public service broadcasters’ ability to afford such series in the future. The Night Manager cost £3.5m per episode. Thanks largely to the demand for drama from Netflix and Amazon, costs have since risen by 40%.

“I do enjoy it but, at the end of the day, it is all about the quality of what we do. No volume of smart deals ever turned a bad show into a good one.”

The solution for The Ink Factory has been co-productions with AMC in the US and its own fundraising, recouped through foreign sales. As things stand, Cornwell estimates that the BBC’s tariff for Drummer Girl would finance just one and a half episodes.

Cornwell loved the national obsession that The Night Manager became on the BBC and knows his series would not have made an equivalent impact had it been dumped on Netflix as a box set.

“It’s a wonderful thing and it’s lovely. On the other hand,” he reflects, “we might have made more money. So, it is a trade-off.

John le Carré (Credit: German Embassy London)
Simon Cornwell's father, author
John le Carré (Credit: German Embassy London)

“It is a real challenge for the public service broadcasters because so much of the conversation in any given year is probably around half a dozen really good TV shows and, you know, we want to have one of those shows and the BBC needs at least half of them.”

I ask if, after years in finance, he enjoys making deals. “I do enjoy it but, at the end of the day, it is all about the quality of what we do. No volume of smart deals ever turned a bad show into a good one.”

Things are not always as they appear on a spreadsheet, or, for that matter, on a CV. On paper, Simon’s childhood looks a disaster. He is the son of an adulterous ex-spy who got famous and whose strained marriage ended in divorce in 1971 when Simon was barely in his teens.

What he recalls, however, is a happy start in life, travelling around Europe and settling for a while in a town in Crete where his father pursued the writing dream à la Lawrence Durrell.

By the time his parents’ marriage broke down he was boarding at a rural prep school, whose name he cannot for the moment recall. After that came Westminster School, which he loved.

“I think that we were one of those strange families – I know this is disappointing to journalists – that was superficially utterly dysfunctional but, in reality, highly functional.”

“It’s a very public-school kind of thing to say but, if your parents have split up, then, from the age of eight or whatever it is, you’re basically looking out for yourself,” he suggests. “You probably spend more time at school than you do with either parent.”

Did it damage him? “Well, you’d have to ask other people that. Rather annoyingly, I probably thrived on it, to be honest. And it was good fun.

“I think that we were one of those strange families – I know this is disappointing to journalists – that was superficially utterly dysfunctional but, in reality, highly functional.”

After Oxford, where he switched from physics to modern languages, he went to the Thai-Laos-Cambodia border to work for the International Rescue Committee as it dealt with the horrors of Pol Pot. For the UNHCR, he helped build Khao-i-dang, a temporary refugee camp that became the second largest Cambodian city in the world, at its peak sheltering almost 500,000.

“We had 5,000 unaccompanied children, and that number grew over time to 12,000 or 14,000. So we set up a programme to try to track down the families of those kids. Some of their parents, obviously, had been slaughtered in the killing fields but, actually, a lot of them hadn’t been.”

In the end, more than 4,000 children were reunited with their parents. A senior member of Cornwell’s team was a Thai woman working for the UN called Mimi. They fell in love, married and have two sons. He left for Yale to study management with the intention of bringing his skills back to refugee relief, “but, like many of the best intentions, it got waylaid – actually by the need to pay off my debts”.

Cornwell got a job at Boston Consulting. By the end of the 1980s, he believed he had spotted that interactivity was the future of television. For nine years, he battled away with his company, Two Way TV, trying to tempt customers to buy additional boxes so that they could combine games with live television.

It was pre-digital, and way ahead of its time. In the dotcom crash of 2001 Cornwell joined the “10% club”, a club whose only membership requirement was to wake up one morning and find your company worth a tenth of what it had been the night before.

So he went to bed as a millionaire, and woke up as…? “Someone with a very large mortgage.”

He crossed the negotiating table and became a venture capitalist at Amadeus Capital but, in 2011, he and his brother set up The Ink Factory; Stephen worked more closely with screenwriters and Simon more closely with investors. Its aim was not just to make TV and feature films but to spin off computer games and virtual-reality products from them.

The problem, they discovered, is that “good is no longer good enough”. In a crowded and pricey market, only excellence gets noticed and makes money. Having nursed a few failures – including a big-screen adaptation of his father’s Our Kind of Traitor – film, he judges, is even more hits-driven than television.

“I think that more than half of all films released lose money but a relatively small proportion then make enough money to pay for the mistakes.”

Has Ink Factory made one of the latter? “Actually, A Most Wanted Man, which we did in 2014, is a small movie, but a commercially very successful movie – as well as, I think, quite a good movie. Hopefully, the two things correlate. But we haven’t yet had a big, breakout-hit film.”

He says he is obsessive about his work, which, he believes you have to be in his business. Yet, as I have discovered, there is another side to Simon Cornwell, a side, I suggest, that could be spotted in The Night Mana­ger’s moral fury at Hugh Laurie’s arms trader Richard Roper.

“I suppose at one level it is kind of important to me, and important generally, to care about people,” he says cautiously, for he is not at all pompous, “but my work is also enormous fun and very exciting.”

Cornwell’s career

Simon Anthony Vivian Cornwell, joint CEO, The Ink Factory

Born 7 March 1957, Somerset, oldest of three brothers

Brought up in Crete and Essex

Father David Cornwell, spy and, as John le Carré, novelist

Mother Alison Ann Veronica Sharp

Married To Mimi, two sons

Education Frilsham Prep, Berkshire; Westminster School; Wadham College, Oxford; Yale School of Management

1978-81 Works on a tracing programme for Cambodian refugees

1985 Boston Consulting Group

1989 MD of interactive TV, Granada Group

1989 Founds Two Way TV

2001 Joins Amadeus Capital

2011 Founds The Ink Factory with brother Stephen

Hits The Night Manager (BBC One), A Most Wanted Man (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film), Message from the King (a Netflix top movie mainly because it features Black Panther star ­Chadwick Boseman)

Misses Our Kind of Traitor

Watching Norwegian thriller Monster

Not watching ‘I’ve been intrigued by Love Island but not intrigued to the point where I’ve actually watched an episode’

Reading Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney and Devil’s Day