Directed by Cedering Fox

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 recognizable 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.


Simon Callow

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.

Matthew Lewis

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. 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. 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.


Erica Wagner

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.