Tailored to fit

Film - Philip Kerr finds nothing novel about the latest le Carre adaptation

Rather like Hegel, Hollywood has fairly earned the honour of having ruined many a good idea by a series of reductiones ad absurdum. Film has an awkward habit of stripping a novel - good or bad - to its basics; and, without the protecting roof of a literary style, a satirical intent or a guiding metaphysic, the timbers and walls of a plot are left exposed to the merciless elements of common sense and unsuspended disbelief. The Hubble telescope of Hollywood magnifies the shortcomings of one story and the second-hand, derivative, trite unoriginality of another. These days, more often than not (and with apologies to Harry S Truman), the only thing new in the world of movies is the old movies you don't already know. Except, that is, when someone like me tells you.

I have not read John le Carre's novel The Tailor of Panama but, on the evidence of this film version, directed by John Boorman and starring Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush, I can tell you that it contains an excellent, amusing story.

A deracinated, beliefless, daydreaming sort of Englishman, practising a pretty urban sort of trade a long way from home, accepts an offer of cash from another Englishman - this one mysterious and spivvy - to become an MI6 agent. To justify the increasingly generous amounts of cash, which improve our tradesman's credit at the bank and the local club, not to mention his self-respect, he files bogus reports that name his friends as field agents. Spook Central is soon beside itself with excitement about its important new source, and that's when the shit hits the fan. MI6 decides that the intelligence being gathered is sufficiently important to bring in the Americans; and this results, indirectly, in the death of our tradesman's best friend. All that he holds dear is suddenly placed in jeopardy.

As I have said, this is a pretty good story. There is just one problem: it is also the story in Graham Greene's novel Our Man in Havana, which was itself indifferently filmed by Carol Reed in 1960, starring Alec Guinness and Noel Coward. Now, I am not suggesting for a moment that le Carre has ripped off Greene. Le Carre is an honourable man. In the acknowledgements that appear at the back of the book, he gives due credit to Greene, as follows: "Without Graham Greene this book would never have come about."

My point is that without the style and satirical intent that perhaps distinguished le Carre's book, what we have here, more or less exactly, is the same film that we had back in 1960. True, the new one is in colour, and not black and white; and it has different actors. But er, that's about it, I'm afraid. Because, as far as the film version of the book is concerned, there is nothing in le Carre's screenplay - nor, for that matter, in Boorman's direction - that brings anything new to the table.

For much of the film, I found myself wondering what Greene might have said if he were still with us. I dare to think that he might have agreed with some of the following observations:

Pierce Brosnan is rather good as the Noel Coward character from MI6, playing a satisfyingly nastier version of James Bond - the sort of cruel, sadistic Bond that Ian Fleming (who idolised Coward, and was his near-neighbour in Jamaica) always intended him to be.

Geoffrey Rush as the swivel-eyed tailor Harry Pendel (the Alec Guinness-type character) is dreadful, like Shylock on Prozac. Harold Pinter flits in and out of the picture, playing the ghost of Rush's Jewish tailoring partner in a way that reminds one of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). This never quite works, and it ought to have ended up on the cutting-room floor with the rest of the schmutter.

That a character like Harry Pendel should be married to the real-life Lady Haden-Guest (aka Jamie Lee Curtis) strains all credulity. (Did I say Shylock? I really meant Alfie Bass in Polanski's Dance of the Vampires.) As does the supposed Savile Row excellence of the tailoring. Pendel's suits look as if they were cut with the same cheese knife that was used to edit the film. I have seen better suits on Martin Bell.

Which brings me to the continuity: all one can say is that the person who took care of it must be suffering from a multiple personality disorder. This is the kind of continuity only Leibniz could have understood, in the sense of there being some sort of sovereign wisdom, the source of all things, that acts as a perfect Geometer and according to a harmony that admits of no addition. For the rest of us mere mortals, however, the film's exteriors seemed oddly inconsistent with the interiors, as if there had been a problem with the locations.

To be fair, the job of continuity is hardly made easier by the device of the ghost, nor by the almost non-existent verisimilitude: many of the shots look cheap and bodged together; and at one point, Harry Pendel moves the hand of a dead body in which advanced rigor mortis has supposedly set in, only for "the body" to unclasp its own fingers. You might have thought you were looking at a scene being played out on the stage of Northampton Repertory Theatre, rather than in a movie that cost $30m-plus. Could not Boorman have simply gone for another take? Or, at worst, insisted on reshooting the scene? Apparently not.

Greene disliked films that neglected their poetic imagery and stories with pictures that did nothing to illuminate life. By all accounts, he did not think much of the film version of Our Man in Havana. I suspect Greene would have liked this version even less.

The Tailor of Panama (15) is on nationwide release

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How new Labour wrestled with a world it never made

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.