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Ian Fleming vs John Le Carré

Following the wild popularity of our previous cultural combat events, Intelligence Squared turned to the two giants of spy fiction. Which of them should wear the laurels?

They are the titans of the spy novel, who have elevated thrillers to the level of literary fiction. Much imitated, much adapted by the big and small screens, Ian Fleming and John Le Carré have painted our picture of post-war espionage: Fleming through the dashing figure of James Bond, with his lush locations and Martinis as icy as his heart; Le Carré through his damning portrait of the British secret service drawn from his own time in MI5 and MI6. But which of the two novelists is the greater?

In this thrilling contest, Fleming’s case was made by Anthony Horowitz, creator of the bestselling Alex Rider spy novels and author of the official Bond continuation novel Trigger Mortis. Championing Le Carré – whose memoir about his life as a former spy currently sits in the bestseller lists – was David Farr, Emmy-nominated screenwriter of the BBC’s adaptation of The Night Manager.

‘Fleming is one of the very few writers – Charles Dickens and JK Rowling might be two others – who have transcended fiction, who have created stories that capture a particular time and place, that are universally recognisable and that are, it would seem, immortal,’ says Horowitz. ‘George Smiley is a fascinating character. James Bond is an icon. That’s the difference.’

By contrast, pointing to Le Carré’s own experiences in the secret service, Farr says: ‘John Le Carré turns espionage into existentialism. His canvas is betrayal — of the realm and of the heart. His greatness comes from the personal nature of that exploration.’

To illustrate their arguments, Horowitz and Farr called on a cast of actors to bring the novels to life.



Erica Wagner

Author and novelist

Author, novelist and former Literary Editor of The Times. She writes for the Economist, The Financial Times and The New York Times, among other publications. She has judged many literary prizes, including the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, and the Whitbread First Novel Award.

Anthony Horowitz

Bestselling author

Author of over 40 books including the bestselling teen spy series Alex Rider, which has sold around 19 million copies worldwide. He has written two authorised new Sherlock Holmes novels, The House of Silk and Moriarty, and was commissioned by the Ian Fleming Estate to write the James Bond novel Trigger Mortis. He is the writer and creator of the award-winning television drama series Foyle’s War, and wrote the first seven episodes of Midsomer Murders.

David Farr

Screenwriter, playwright and director

Screenwriter, playwright and director. He wrote the acclaimed six-part adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Colman, and his big-screen directorial debut, The Ones Below, with Clémence Poésy and David Morrissey, was released earlier this year. He has also scripted five series of the successful television series Spooks, and has written and directed numerous plays.

Simon Callow

Acclaimed actor, writer and director

One of the country’s most celebrated stage and screen actors, best known for his performances in films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, A Room with a View and Shakespeare in Love. His many books include biographies of Oscar Wilde and Orson Welles, and a highly acclaimed biography of Dickens, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. He has written and starred in several one-man plays, including Inside Wagner's Head, based on the life of composer Richard Wagner, and A Christmas Carol, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel.   

Matthew Lewis

Film, television and stage actor

Actor best known for playing Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter films. He has also appeared in Happy Valley and Ripper Street, and stars alongside Margot Robbie in the forthcoming film Terminal.

Alex Macqueen

One of the UK’s best known comedy actors

One of the UK’s best known comedy actors. He has played leading roles in The Thick of It, The Inbetweeners, In the Loop, and Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

Lesley Manville

Bafta-nominated film and theatre actress

Bafta-nominated film and theatre actress. She won the 2014 Olivier best actress award for her performance in Ibsen’s Ghosts, and starred as Marisa Coulter in the National Theatre production of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Twice winner of the London Film Critics Circle Award for her performances in Mike Leigh’s films All or Nothing and Another Year.