‘The Little Drummer Girl’ is a perfect high-gloss Sunday night spy drama

Got 'Bodyguard' withdrawal symptoms? Pining for 'The Night Manager?' John le Carré and the BBC have your back, yet again, with a new Sunday night spy thinker

Spy dramas have come in from the cold. The beautifully shot BBC adaptation of The Night Manager won three Golden Globes, three Baftas and two Emmys, and now Sunday nights are again being handed over to John le Carré.

Anyone wondering whether The Little Drummer Girl will match up to its 2016 predecessor for exquisitely executed espionage has their answer in a single scene. At the Acropolis of Athens, Alexander Skarsgård’s character Becker attempts to seduce wide-eyed actress Charlie (Florence Pugh) in shots captured by a drone circling the ancient citadel.

This was the first time the Acropolis has been filmed from these angles. Everything beautifully lit, the actors are a vision in bold colours, and an on-screen relationship based almost entirely on lies and deceit is getting it off to a compelling start.

“It was absolute heaven,” says Pugh. “Whenever I watch that scene my heart gets excited and full of butterflies. Because it was truly magical.”

Over the course of six episodes, every car, every lampshade, every staircase, every wristwatch and every strip of wallpaper adds stunning style to one of le Carré’s most substantial novels. But The Little Drummer Girl is a very different beast to its predecessor. Not least because at the heart of it is Pugh as a pub theatre star, who wears her progressive politics heavily and noisily – and whose idealism is set for a heavy dose of realism.

We don’t see women at the heart of these stories. I don’t know why.

“She is very young, she is very naïve, she is very opinionated and she is very loud,” is Pugh’s verdict on Charlie, who is set to make her as recognisable as her lead in 2016’s Lady Macbeth made her critically acclaimed. “We don’t see women at the heart of these stories. I don’t know why. I think because women in these stories are supposed to be the sexy thing, they are supposed to be the thing James Bond goes home with. Which is why I loved Charlie. Yes, she can play the part, put on a dress, but she is a normal person with a normal body and she is there combating everyone with her wit.”

In the series, directed by Park Chan-wook, Charlie is drawn into a Mossad plot to take down a band of Palestinian brothers, whose bombing skills cause their opposite number, Kurtz, played by Michael Shannon, to call them “artists”. Charlie’s combination of exuberance, impassioned political naivety and acting ability leads her into an elaborate piece of real-life theatre designed to draw out the Palestinian brothers from hiding. The character meant a huge amount to le Carré, who based her on his own half-sister, Charlotte Cornwell.

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Becker (Alexander Skarsgard). Image: The Little Drummer Girl Distribution Limited. - Photographer: Jonathan Olley

“Charlie has that hunger that I think a lot of people have now. Everybody has woken up a bit,” says Pugh.  “We are dealing with a really sensitive topic in a really wonderful way because she is this sponge, this dummy, who doesn’t know how it works. We learn alongside her. She is a novice in this world, whereas we are more used to seeing characters that are brilliant or have super powers. I loved watching this human person crumble in a very human way.”

At 22, Pugh is on the rise and rise. She has been filming Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig, alongside Meryl Streep, Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern and Emma Watson.

“Everyone that I have ever looked up to is in it,” she says. “Unbelievable. I am so lucky to be part of this version of a book that has meant so much to so many women. Women talking, women growing, women being – I think the conversation will never get boring. And right now, in the climate where everything is women-forward, I think we are ready for it.” 

At 87, John le Carré has never been hotter. And no wonder. His elaborate, complex espionage fictions are no stranger than true-life tales of Russian tourists making flying visits to Salisbury Cathedral on the day a former double agent is poisoned.  The theatre of the real in The Little Drummer Girl, masterminded by Kurtz, sheds a light on 1970s technology and methods. Assuming alternative identities, travelling incognito, playing out deadly deceptions across borders, sans frontières.

Michael Shannon gives an astonishing performance as a child Holocaust survivor-turned-spymaster.  He was, he says, no fan of le Carré’s work before this. “Zero. No. I had never read any of his books. It is just not something that is part of my life. And now? Well, I did it. And then I moved on. It is not like I am going to buy all his novels. The closest I got to espionage was the occasional James Bond picture, which seems a little less sophisticated. No offence, Ian Fleming.”

Le Carré came on set in the Czech Republic for the penultimate week, to make his customary cameo. “He is wonderful to talk to,” says Shannon, revealing that the author remains a fount of knowledge on international affairs. Each day, Shannon would sit quietly as his character’s tattoo, from his childhood in the concentration camp, was drawn on by his make-up artist. Viewers see it only once.

Human beings form their personalities during childhood – and that is where he spent the first years of his life.

“It is spooky. It is really spooky. It was an unspoken thing, but Nicole would put it on me every day. Only I would see it, but it was a reminder of who this guy was. Human beings form their personalities during childhood – and that is where he spent the first years of his life.”

Despite Kurtz’s work, Shannon sees a romance in him.

“You are talking about a little boy who was in a concentration camp, lost his entire family, somehow managed to get out and went to Israel to become a freedom fighter. And now he’s saying to his boss, ‘Let’s not bomb them to smithereens, let’s try to understand them’. I find that very romantic,” says two-time Oscar nominee Shannon.

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Becker (Alexander Skarsgard) and Charlie (Florence Pugh). Image: The Little Drummer Girl Distribution Limited. - Photographer: Jonathan Olley

“To stop himself sinking into despair, I believe he had to create a kind of matrix for himself that was infused with some kind of hope. Some belief he could make the world a better place. On this era of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Shannon says: “I don’t see a bad guy or a good guy. To me it is like the Israelis and the Palestinians – these are two cultures with justifiable grievances. They have both been persecuted greatly.”

Pugh agrees and makes the case for le Carré’s return to the heart of contemporary conversation. “This series is completely relevant. We have to make sure we keep talking and educating ourselves – but this series never once tells you how to feel. It simply explains, in a pretend universe, what could happen,” she says.

And if you come away from it wanting more, executive producers Simon and Stephen Cornwell – sons of le Carré – confirmed they are “very actively working on The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” – with a six-part adaptation set to launch a new Smiley series.

For now, Pugh is confident The Little Drummer Girl will resonate. “I hope you come away from watching it asking yourself how you would have done things differently.”

Image: The Little Drummer Girl Distribution Limited. Photographer: Jonathan Olley