Len Deighton

Leonard Cyril Deighton (/ˈdtən/; born 18 February 1929) is a British author. Deighton is considered one of the top three spy novelists of his time (along with Ian Fleming and John le Carré).[1][2] In addition he is a highly acclaimed military historian, cookery writer, and graphic artist. The IPCRESS File (1962), his first novel, was an instant bestseller and broke the mould of thriller writing. The Sunday Times called him "the poet of the spy story".[3] Deighton’s first protagonist – a nameless spy christened Harry Palmer in the films – was made famous worldwide in 1960s films starring Michael Caine.

Len Deighton
BornLeonard Cyril Deighton
(1929-02-18) 18 February 1929
Marylebone, London, England
OccupationWriter, illustrator
Alma materRoyal College of Art
GenreSpy fiction, military fiction, alternate history, non-fiction
Notable worksThe IPCRESS File
The Bernard Samson novels
Goodbye, Mickey Mouse
Oh! What a Lovely War
SpouseYsabele Deighton
ChildrenAlexander, Antoni

Early years

Deighton was born in Marylebone, London, in 1929. His father was a chauffeur and mechanic for Campbell Dodgson, and his mother was a part-time cook. At the time they lived in Gloucester Place Mews[4][5] near Baker Street.[6]

Deighton's interest in spy stories may have been partially inspired by the arrest of Anna Wolkoff, which he witnessed as an 11-year-old boy. Wolkoff, a British subject of Russian descent, was a German spy and next door neighbour of the Deightons. She was detained on 20 May 1940, and was subsequently convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act for attempting to pass secret documents to the Germans.[7]


After leaving St Marylebone Grammar School, Deighton worked as a railway clerk before performing his National Service, which he spent as a photographer for the Royal Air Force. He flew in Mosquito fighter/bombers and Lancaster bombers, and later used these experiences when writing his novel Bomber. He also did laboratory work for the Special Investigation Branch. After he was discharged from the RAF, he studied at Saint Martin's School of Art in London in 1949, and in 1952 won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, from which he graduated in 1955.[8] While he was at the RCA he became a "lifelong friend"[9] of fellow designer Raymond Hawkey, who later designed covers for his early books. Deighton then worked as an airline steward with BOAC. Before he began his writing career he worked as an illustrator in New York and, in 1960, as an art director in a now defunct London advertising agency, Robert Sharp & Partners. He illustrated the British first edition cover for Kerouac's On the Road.[10] He has since used his drawing skills to illustrate a number of his own military history books.

Following the success of his first novels, Deighton became The Observer's cookery writer and produced illustrated cookbooks. In September 1967 he wrote an article in the Sunday Times Magazine about Operation Snowdrop, an SAS attack on Benghazi during the Second World War. The following year David Stirling was awarded substantial damages in libel from the article.[11]

He also wrote travel guides and became travel editor of Playboy, before becoming a film producer. After producing a film adaption of his 1968 novel Only When I Larf, Deighton bought the film rights to Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop's stage musical Oh, What a Lovely War!. Deighton (whose father served throughout the First World War) wrote the screenplay, taking the action to Brighton’s piers, adding a star-studded prologue and creating the memorable closing sequence of seemingly unending crosses.[12] Deighton, although uncredited, was also the producer of the film. He had his name removed because he was “angry and appalled that people should ask credit for things they had not done”,[13] a move that he later described as "stupid and infantile". That was his last involvement with the cinema.[6]

Personal life

Deighton left Britain in 1969. He briefly resided in Blackrock, County Louth in Ireland. He has not returned to Britain apart from some personal visits and very few media appearances, his last one since 1985 being a 2006 interview that formed part of a "Len Deighton Night" on BBC Four. He and his wife Ysabele divide their time between homes in Portugal and Guernsey.[14]


Novels and film adaptations

Several of Deighton's novels have been adapted as films including The IPCRESS File, Funeral in Berlin, Billion Dollar Brain and Spy Story. All featured the Deighton character "Harry Palmer". Two television movies also featured Palmer but the author had no involvement with Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996); they were not based on his writings.[15]

Deighton's first five novels featured the anonymous and cynical anti-hero Harry Palmer. In the films produced by Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman he was portrayed by Michael Caine. The atmosphere was considered quite realistic, not the least because many of the characters were openly venal, cowardly or stupid; equally because the bureaucratic complications and inter-departmental rivalries of the British civil service, even the secret civil service, made for frequent black-comic relief; and the portrayal of the technical aspects of espionage and related criminal enterprises was quite detailed. The novels were dotted with footnotes explaining various slang terms and abbreviations in the dialogue; there were even appendices.

The first trilogy of his Bernard Samson novel series was made into a twelve-part television series by Granada Television in 1988; in the US, the series aired in 1989 as part of the PBS show Mystery!.[16][17]

Although Quentin Tarantino expressed interest in filming the trilogy,[18] the nine Samson novels were in pre-production with Clerkenwell Films,[19] who hired Tom Edge (The Crown, Lovesick) to adapt the novels for television. No specifics about this plan had been released as of August 2019. Most recently, the BBC adapted Deighton’s alternate history novel SS-GB for a five-part TV miniseries which was broadcast in 2017 as one hour episodes.[20]

Deighton's 1970 Second World War historical novel Bomber was about an RAF Bomber Command raid over Germany. It was the first novel to be written on a word processor, the IBM MT/ST.[21] Anthony Burgess cited it as one of the 99 best novels in English since 1939 and Motörhead frontman, Lemmy, dedicated the band's third album Bomber to Len Deighton. Other major fiction works include Winter and Goodbye, Mickey Mouse. He began writing a Vietnam War novel but did not complete this work. "It was going to be about the air war in Vietnam, about the fighter pilots and how they compared with those of the First and Second World Wars", he told the New York Times in 1981.[22] Some of his research about the war appeared as the story First Base in his short story collection Declarations of War published in 1971.[23]

Cookery books

Deighton also wrote a series of cookery books, and wrote and drew a weekly strip cartoon-style illustrated cooking guide in The Observer newspaper – Len Deighton's Action Cook Book.[24] At least one of the strips is pinned up in Deighton's spy hero's kitchen in the 1965 film of his novel The IPCRESS File.[25]

In 2014 The Observer announced that Deighton would create 12 new cookstrips to be printed every month in the Observer Food Magazine, starting in January 2015.

To exploit the success of Deighton's first four "Unnamed Hero" novels, he wrote Len Deighton's London Dossier (1967), a guide book to Swinging Sixties London with a "secret agent" theme – contributions from other writers are described as "surveillance reports".

History books

Deighton's 1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain was said by Albert Speer (once Hitler's Minister of Armaments) to be "an excellent, most thorough examination. I read page after page with fascination." The piece was furnished with a foreword by A. J. P. Taylor labelling the work as a: "...brilliant analysis..."

Blitzkrieg, his history of the rise of the Nazis and the fall of France, has a foreword written by General Walter Nehring (Chief of Staff to General Heinz Guderian). His most recent history book is Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II. It corrected many myths and was warmly received, being described as “an absolute landmark” by Jack Higgins.

Legacy and influence

In Letters from Burma, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi mentions reading Len Deighton's books, while under house arrest. Suu Kyi wrote that she was passionate about Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes and the spy novels of John le Carre and Len Deighton.[26]

When asked by Christie's about his love for Indian art and how he started his collection, Nobel Prize-winning author V. S. Naipaul credited Len Deighton. "I met Len Deighton, the thriller writer, at dinner many years ago. He demonstrated to me that Indian art could really be approachable. I bought from Maggs because of Len Deighton pushing me onto [them] as being a very fair dealer, saying that they do not charge you much more than they should. That’s a marvelous thing to be told."[27]

In the late 1960s, Deighton was making movies through his production company Deighton/Duffy. Bertrand Russell knew that Deighton was in pre-production of "Oh What a Lovely War", an anti-war movie about World War I. Russell, who was staunchly anti-war, had been in contact with The Beatles, who supported his views. Russell suggested that The Beatles contact Deighton to see if there was an opportunity to work together.[28]

Further reading

  • Sauerberg, Lars Ole (1984). Secret Agents in Fiction: Ian Fleming, John le Carré, and Len Deighton.
  • Snyder, Robert Lance. "'An Unparalleled Plethora of Idiocy': Len Deighton's Political Skepticism in The Ipcress File." Connotations: A Journal for Critical Debate 26.1 (2016/2017): 101-13.
  • Snyder, Robert Lance. "'Arabesques of the Final Pattern': Len Deighton's Hard-Boiled Espionage Fiction," Papers on Language & Literature 54.2 (Spring 2018): 155-86.


  1. Morrell, David; Wagner, Hank (2012). Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads. Oceanview Publishing. ISBN 978-1608090402.
  2. Burchby, Casey (7 December 2011). "Len Deighton's Spy Novels Still Outsmart Fleming and le Carre After 50 Years in Print". SF Weekly. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  3. Deighton, Len. The Ipcress File. HarperColins. ISBN 9780007343027.
  4. Gloucester Place Mews, maps.google.
  5. "The Deighton File, BBC Radio 4". The Author Archive Collection. 26 May 2009.
  6. Scott, Robert Dawson (4 January 2006). "Len Deighton: The spy and I". The Independent. UK. Retrieved 19 June 2008.
  7. Masters, Anthony (1987). Literary Agents: The Novelist as Spy.
  8. Scott, Robert Dawson (7 January 2006). "A class act, not a class warrior". The Times. UK. Retrieved 19 June 2008.
  9. Dempsey, Mike (14 December 2001). "Immaculate conception". Design Week. Retrieved 6 December 2007.
  10. "Len Deighton: The spy and I". The Independent. 4 January 2006. Retrieved 7 August 2015.
  11. The Times, "Libel Damages For 'Operation Snowdrop' Leader", 24 May 1968.
  12. "Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) – Full cast and crew". IMDB. Retrieved 8 December 2006.
  13. Deighton, Len. "Producing Oh! What a Lovely War – how it happened". Deighton Dossier. Archived from the original on 1 August 2015. Retrieved 7 August 2015.
  14. Kerridge, Jake (18 February 2009). "Interview with Len Deighton". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 7 May 2010.
  15. Harry Palmer – The Perfect Antithesis To The Jet-Setting Suave James Bond
  16. Nancy Mills (16 April 1989). "Deighton Spy Lead Fits Ian Holm Like Black Glove". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 30 August 2019.
  17. Review/Television; 13 Hours' Worth of British Spying on the 'Mystery' Series
  18. Child, Ben (14 August 2009). "Tarantino mulls Deighton spy film to rival Bond". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 August 2015.
  19. Kemp, Stuart (11 April 2013). "Simon Beaufoy to Adapt Len Deighton's Spy Novels for TV". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 7 August 2015.
  20. SS-GB review
  21. Kirschenbaum, Matthew (1 March 2013). "The Book-Writing Machine: What was the first novel ever written on a word processor?". Slate. Retrieved 2 March 2013.
  22. Behind The Best Sellers; LEN DEIGHTON
  23. Declarations of War
  24. Stummer, Robin (14 December 2014). "Len Deighton's Observer cookstrips, Michael Caine and the 1960s". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 August 2015.
  25. "The Ipcress File trivia". IMDB.
  26. "Back to prayer for Suu Kyi". Capital News. 12 August 2009. Retrieved 10 December 2017.
  27. "Collectors & their collections: V.S. Naipaul". Christie's. 1 June 2015. Retrieved 10 December 2017.
  28. 1943-, Miles, Barry (1998) [1997]. Paul McCartney : Many Years From Now (1st Owl Books ed.). New York: H. Holt. ISBN 9780805052497. OCLC 40284619.
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