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Documentary Review – The Pigeon Tunnel

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There is a more than somewhat axiomatic saying  dished out to aspiring writers…“Write what you know.” This can be good advice. If you wish to write a series about that misadventures of a group of teachers then it is a definite bonus to have spent some time working as a teacher. If you are writing non fiction then I think it is imperative to know what you are writing about! A lot of user manuals I’ve seen over the years give the impression of having been written in Tagalog before being translated to English via Serbian, Cantonese, and Welsh but you have to assume that the original writer knew what they were talking about.

At the other end of the spectrum are the works of pure fantasy. These can’t, by definition, be stories of “what you know” they have to be “what you imagine”. Trolls, færies, elves, and suchlike can seem so realistic that people like Pratchett, Tolkien, Martin, and Gaiman must have, surely, more than just a compost heap at the bottom of their gardens. Similarly, Bradbury, Clarke, Wells, and Asimov must have been taken for a ride by some of our intergalactic neighbours. I suppose a working knowledge of physics and relativity might help with explaining how to travel across unimaginable distances on a time scale compatible with an average life span.

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The Cat Sat On The Mat Is Not A Story

But then there are the ones in the middle. By this I mean people who write about people and situations which seem fantastical but are, actually, achievable. Admittedly, the people who actually achieve those circumstances are very few and far between but they can get there. And there are also people who can hover around on the fringes. For instance there could be a story written about a musician. This musician could be a once in a generation virtuoso performer. It is possible that they writer could be of that standard…highly unlikely but possible. More realistic is that there could be someone who is a reasonable musician who has their lack of talent made up for by a strong imagination.

The area of expertise that I’m most interested in today is that of espionage. There are spies. They do actually exist. Some of them were actually recruited following a tap on the shoulder in an Oxbridge common room. Nowadays though, that method has been dropped.  I dare say that there are still a few who get selected by that method; there is still a need for intelligent, quick witted people with language skills and an understanding of how politics and government work. But there is also a need for “ordinary” people. I mean, if you are expected to infiltrate a gang of far right extremists then you can’t wander in acting like Bertie Wooster. So, as spies tend to be literate and imaginative, it’s no surprise that former spies write spy fiction!

But The Cat Sat On The Dog’s Mat Is

Graham Greene, Frederick Forsyth, Ian Fleming and John le Carré were all members of various intelligence communities. The Pigeon Tunnel is the story of David Cornwell. Who he? He happens to be non other than John le Carré. Rather obviously, given everything I’ve just been wanging on about, Cornwell/le Carré graduated from Oxford and was recruited into the British Security Service. He started writing in the early sixties. The first books were mystery fiction featuring a retired spy named George Smiley who went on to feature in almost a quarter of all of le Carré’s books and was portrayed by Garry Oldman, Alec Guinness, James Mason, and Denholm Elliott among others.

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But the most riveting aspect of The Pigeon Tunnel is the story of his father. Ronnie Cornwell was a complete and utter rogue! Young David was starved of affection. His father was typically distant for English men of the era. His mother walked out and was “replaced” by a string of step-mothers. But Ronnie was also a repeat offender and had been gaoled for insurance fraud and bankruptcy and he was also a known associate of the Kray twins. There is a nice sight gag when we Ronnie Cornwell in prison. On his back is the number 006½! All in all, The Pigeon Tunnel is an intriguing and entertaining biopic of one of our premier spy fiction writers delivered in his last interview before he died in 2020. 

Movie Grade: A-

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