Why the new John le Carré documentary is worth a watch

Why the new John le Carré documentary is worth a watch | Soho House

‘The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life’ is screening at our Houses now

Saturday 21 October 2023   By Hanna Flint

I have to admit something. I have never read a John le Carré novel. Partly because they weren’t the sort of books written before I was born that I was taught in English classes. But mostly because my reading tastes cross the genres of dystopian sci-fi, comic books and romance, and I leave it to film and TV to fill in the espionage gap.

So, my introduction to le Carré’s spy games has solely come from screen adaptations like The Constant Gardener, The Tailor Of Panama and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which makes it rather fitting that a new documentary about the author has piqued my interest in his literary work.

Taking its cue and title from his autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life, le Carré, real name David Cornwell, speaks to lauded American private eye-turned-documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, American Dharma) in his final interview before his death in December 2020.

We don’t see Morris (he conducts his interviews using an Interrotron), but we do hear him at times responding to answers or throwing in a question that reveals a comfortability with le Carré, who had been notoriously private about his life after his secret-stealing background was revealed in the early 1980s at the height of his literary fame. However, the strength of this film lies in the author’s voice as he discusses his relationship with his father, his time as a spy, his written work, and the guiding philosophies that have influenced his life and career. 

That voice is presented two-fold; in the answers and anecdotes he provides via the talking head set-up of the film, and through his narration of his novels and memoir. It’s rather remarkable just how aligned his manner of speaking and writing are. His conversational voice is as literary as his written; both offering a controlled candidness that can only come from someone who has lived a life more extraordinary, more morally and ethically questionable than most. Yet there’s an underlying sense that he is only giving you an edited version, using the smoke and mirrors of language to deflect from really getting under his skin. He’s a very self-aware man, curating his image as much as he might curate that of his characters.

Why the new John le Carré documentary is worth a watch | Soho House

His father Ronnie comes up a lot as a major influence on who le Carré became. Ronnie was a fraudster and con artist who spent his life on the run after duping nearly everyone he met, so it seems fitting that deception would ultimately become his son’s bread and butter. Yet there’s a sense that le Carré did not want to become his father, even after he got a taste for playing the part of the upper class, despite his low-income origins. 

Before publishing Call For The Dead, A Murder Of Quality and the international bestseller The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, le Carré spied on far-left-leaning students at Oxford University for MI5. He later worked full time for the agency, ‘went sour on it’, joined MI6 and ‘went sour on it’ too. ‘I was disenchanted by the Cold War itself when you saw all those Nazis walking around West Germany and indeed East Germany,’ he says. ‘What had we really fought for? The power of enforced forgetting was extraordinary.’

He would go on to discuss the Russian mole that inspired Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and reflect on duplicity in a socially philosophical way that made me want to rewatch the film. Substantial use of archive footage, newspaper clippings and photos bolster the authenticity and truth of his espionage career, while reconstructed scenes with actors give the documentary a spy thriller edge. Not to mention the Dutch and jagged angles that add a visual element to a documentary attempting to piece together the puzzle that is le Carré.

‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ is the working title le Carré used for many of his manuscripts before settling on a name, and it comes from a horrifying story from his teen years about these birds being raised and trained by a casino in Monte Carlo that he went to with his father. They would fly through a tunnel just to be shot for sport as they came out the other end; the surviving birds would return to their cages until the next time. And the next time. He says this image has haunted him for so long and maybe ‘the listener is better able to judge [why] than I am.’ 

I’d wager because it represents the side of human nature that’s keener to return to what we know than discovering the new. For maintaining the social order, rather than breaking free from its constraints. The Pigeon Tunnel is a curious documentary that invites you into the world of John le Carré, but I might just have to read his spy novels to learn a little more about David Cornwell.

‘The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life’ is showing at Soho House screening rooms. See the full schedule here.