This Monday, November 19, AMC will begin its three-night Little Drummer Girl extravaganza. The cable network will premiere two new episodes of the espionage-driven miniseries every night, taking us deep into the world of Charmian “Charlie” Ross (2018 breakout Florence Pugh), a British actress who is dragged into a globetrotting web of near-deadly intrigue amid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of the 1970s.
Charlie’s tale may feel too real to handle. But the twists and turns of Little Drummer Girl weren’t technically based on actual events. Rather, they were inspired by someone very close to John le Carré, the man who wrote the miniseries’ source material.
Before Drummer Girl was an AMC series, it was a 1983 novel written by celebrated British novelist le Carré, who became a spy at just 16 years old (and left the field at 32 when his espionage thriller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, published). By the time Drummer the novel hit shelves, its author was famous for his series of books following George Smiley, a fictional spymaster during the Cold War. George was brought to television in 1979 miniseries Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and later the 2011 film starring Gary Oldman, both of which were based on le Carré’s 1974 novel of the same name.
So, when le Carré became interested in Middle Eastern politics during the 70s and 80s, his aging male protagonist didn’t feel like the right fit. “I simply could not find a plot in the Middle East which was not too gothic, too manipulative, too silly really to accommodate that conflict,” he told the New York Times days after Drummer Girl’s March 1983 debut. Le Carré, who traveled throughout Israel, Lebanon, and eventually the Palestinian camps of the day for research, needed a new hero for his edgier upcoming tale.
He found the necessary inspiration in his half-sister, actress and “radical” Charlotte Cornwell. That is how we ended up with Drummer Girl leading lady Charmian’s name. Le Carré’s decision to base his newest spy on Cornwell arrived when he went to watch his sibling perform in the Royal Shakespeare touring company’s rendition of As You Like It. Cornwell, who is still alive, was shouting as loud as she could to be heard above the rain pounding on the roof of a gymnasium. In that moment, le Carré’s thought, “Something here,” as he told the Times.
As anyone who has watched even a second of Little Drummer Girl can confirm, actress-tuned-spy asset Charlie certainly does have that kind of relentless energy.
While Cornwell’s fiery performance inspired Charlie’s fictional personality, it sounds as though the author’s sibling was never a member of an extremist political party, or took direct part in any revolutionary causes. But the fictional Charlie is recruited by Israeli spies to infiltrate a dangerous Palestinian terrorist group in an effort to stop continued violence in Europe. Her spymaster Kurtz (a scene-chewing Michael Shannon) convinces the young performer her work for Israel will serve as her greatest role ever. Charlie’s time as mole, played out over Little Drummer Girl’s tense six episodes, is certainly the scariest role of her life, which will take her across the world and down the terrorism rabbit hole.
Although Charlotte Cornwell’s youth as an actress was never quite as fraught as Charlie’s own, le Carré is still displeased his half-sister was never able to play the role in the original 1984 film based on his book. That honor went to Diane Keaton, who had already won an Oscar for Annie Hall at that point. As the writer told UK publication The Telegraph this past October, “I thought [Cornwell] was ideal for the part. But they cast Diane Keaton instead which was about as silly a piece of casting as you could get.” The film currently has a 71% Tomatometer score on Rotten Tomatoes.
At least we can hope le Carré is a fan of the newest version of Charlie, played by Outlaw King star Florence Pugh, since his sons Simon and Stephen Cornwell executive produced the AMC-by-way-of-BCC One production right along with him.
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