Len Deighton

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Len Deighton
Born Leonard Cyril Deighton
(1929-02-18) 18 February 1929 (age 86)
Marylebone, London
Occupation Military historian, cookery writer, graphic artist, and novelist

Leonard Cyril Deighton (/ˈdtən/; born 18 February 1929), known as Len Deighton, is a British military historian, cookery writer, graphic artist, and novelist. He is perhaps most famous for his spy novel The IPCRESS File, which was made into a film starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer.

Early years[edit]

Deighton was born in Marylebone, London, in 1929. His father was a chauffeur and mechanic, and his mother was a part-time cook. At the time they lived in Gloucester Place Mews[1][2] near Baker Street.[3]

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 Nazi spy. She was detained on 20 May 1940 and subsequently convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act for attempting to pass secret documents to the Nazis.[4]


After leaving school, Deighton worked as a railway clerk before performing his National Service, which he spent as a photographer for the Royal Air Force's Special Investigation Branch. After discharge 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, graduating in 1955.[5] While he was at the RCA he became a "lifelong friend"[6] 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, Sharps Advertising. He is credited with creating the first British cover for Kerouac's On the Road.[3] 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 World War II. The following year David Stirling would be awarded substantial damages in libel from the article.[7]

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 and photographer Brian Duffy bought the film rights to Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop's stage musical Oh, What a Lovely War!. Deighton wrote the screenplay and was an uncredited producer [8] of the film but he had his name removed from the credits, however, a move that he later described as "stupid and infantile". That was his last involvement with the cinema.[3]

Deighton left England in 1969. He briefly resided in Blackrock, County Louth, in Ireland. He has not returned to England 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.[9]



Several of Deighton's novels have been adapted as films. His first five novels featured an anonymous and cynical anti-hero, named "Harry Palmer" in the films and 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, shown only once, then withdrawn on instructions from Deighton.[citation needed] Quentin Tarantino has expressed interest in filming the trilogy.[10]

Deighton's 1970 World War II historical novel Bomber about an RAF Bomber Command raid over Germany often is considered his masterpiece. It was the first novel to be written on a word processor, the IBM MT/ST.[11] He reportedly began an unfinished Vietnam War novel, a portion of which appeared as the story First Base in his short story collection Declarations of War.

Cookery books[edit]

Deighton also published a series of cookery books and wrote and drew a weekly strip cartoon-style illustrated cooking guide in London's The Observer newspaper – Len Deighton's Cookstrip. 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.[12]

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[edit]

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 comment by A. J. P. Taylor simply saying: "Brilliant analysis." The author of Aircraft Piston Engines: From the Manly Baltzer to the Continental Tiara, Herschel Smith, acknowledges Len Deighton with ‘special thanks’ for his help with pushing the project forward.[13]


Further literature[edit]

  • Sauerberg, Lars Ole (1984). Secret Agents in Fiction: Ian Fleming, John le Carré, and Len Deighton
  • Milward-Oliver, Edward (1985). Len Deighton: An Annotated Bibliography 1954–85
  • Milward-Oliver, Edward (1987). The Len Deighton Companion


  1. ^ Gloucester Place Mews, maps.google.
  2. ^ "The Deighton File, BBC Radio 4". The Author Archive Collection. 26 May 2009. 
  3. ^ a b c Scott, Robert Dawson (4 January 2006). "Len Deighton: The spy and I". The Independent (UK). Retrieved 19 June 2008. 
  4. ^ Masters, Anthony (1987). Literary Agents: The Novelist as Spy.
  5. ^ Scott, Robert Dawson (7 January 2006). "A class act, not a class warrior". The Times (UK). Retrieved 19 June 2008. 
  6. ^ Dempsey, Mike (14 December 2001). "Immaculate conception". Design Week. Retrieved 6 December 2007. 
  7. ^ The Times, "Libel Damages For 'Operation Snowdrop' Leader", 24 May 1968.
  8. ^ "Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) – Full cast and crew". IMDB. Retrieved 8 December 2006. 
  9. ^ Kerridge, Jake (18 February 2009). "Interview with Len Deighton". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  10. ^ Franklin, Garth. "Tarantino Considers Game, Set & Match", darkhorizons.com.
  11. ^ Kirschenbaum, Matthew (March 1, 2013). "The Book-Writing Machine: What was the first novel ever written on a word processor?". Slate. Retrieved March 2, 2013. 
  12. ^ "The Ipcress File trivia". IMDB. 
  13. ^ Smith, Herschel H (1981). ‘Sources and Acknowledgments’ McGraw-Hill, Inc ISBN 0070584729
  14. ^ Deighton, Len (1994). "Foreward". Pests : a play in three acts. Mansfield Woodhouse, England: Chris Martin. ISBN 0952355809. 

External links[edit]