Why Harry's Game author has Northern Ireland in his sights again
Gerald Seymour, the man behind the iconic Eighties' TV drama, has penned another novel about Northern Ireland. But does he think this place changed that much? Maureen Coleman finds out.
Ray Lonnen, who passed away earlier this month, made his name as an actor playing secret agents in hard-hitting television dramas. His best known role was British agent Harry Brown in the highly acclaimed 1982 thriller Harry's Game.
The mini-series, which centred on Lonnen's character coming to Belfast to track down an IRA gunman who'd assassinated a British Cabinet minister, was based on the debut novel by Surrey-born Gerald Seymour.
An ITN reporter at the time that he penned his first thriller, Seymour went on to become a prolific author, turning his back on journalism to concentrate on his novels instead. The television series was a massive success, kickstarting the careers of Northern Ireland-born actors Derek Thompson and Charles Lawson – who would go on to play long-running characters Charlie Fairhead in Casualty and Jim McDonald in Corrie respectively – while its haunting Irish language theme song remains Clannad's biggest ever hit single.
Following Harry's Game, Seymour wrote several more novels with a Northern Irish theme, including The Glory Boys and Field of Blood. Then he switched his attention to other global trouble spots, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Eastern Europe, as fresh sources of inspiration.
Now the 73-year-old is back with a new novel, Vagabond, the first to be set in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement was put in place in 1998. At the heart of Vagabond is former Army intelligence agent and informer handler Danny Curnow, who has walked away from the job to set up a new life in northern France.
Along with his trusted sidekick Dusty, the pair build up a business taking people on guided tours around the battlegrounds of the D-Day beaches.But Danny is lured back by his old MI5 boss for one last job. A new breed of militant Republicans is on the rise in Northern Ireland and there is a huge arms deal going down in Prague, brokered on behalf of the Republican faction by a freelance dealer called Exton. Curnow is dispatched to Prague to monitor the deal and capture it on film.
Exton is working both sides of the deal and it's up to Curnow to ensure that pictures of the exchange are taken so the dissidents can be caught red-handed.
So what prompted Seymour to write his first post-ceasefire novel now?
"There's always something of a small trigger that takes me back to a place," says the affable author. "A few years ago, there was a trial in Vilnius, Lithuania, of a guy called Campbell, who was caught up in an arms-buying sting and given around 10 years in a slammer for trying to buy modern infantry weapons, with a view to shipping them back (Michael Campbell was later freed on appeal).
"I thought that was quite interesting. There's always a start point and that is where I began from."
Seymour says his approach to writing is somewhat 'chaotic', but he prefers it that way. He likes to go with the flow and see where the story takes him. He might have a kernel of an idea, a rough plotline in mind, but he is led by instinct, shaping his characters and story-lines the deeper he plunges.
"Each Monday morning I look at the blank screen and think 'How am I going to fill it?' but extraordinarily, and I am very fortunate in that, things just seem to materialise in my mind," he says.
"I'm probably quite a miserable, grumpy creature to live with because the stories and the people and the characters I'm trying to create tend to fill up the room space and my mind. I live with them, walk with them, sleep with them for as many months as it takes."
Seymour was 34 years old when he wrote Harry's Game "without a single note written down, without any outline". Having covered many of the major news stories of the Troubles for ITN and perhaps with the arrogance of youth on his side, he says he "felt very confident that I knew what I was about".
Harry's Game wasn't a commentary, though, he points out, nor was he a political pundit. He was an author, writing a work of fiction, based on fact. But as a reporter he was fortunate to have access to the facts and to be familiar with the landscape, both political and geographical.
Returning to Northern Ireland after many years to carry out his research for Vagabond, Seymour says he was surprised at how little things had changed.
"The geography is obviously the same, the sights and landmarks are the same, with the exception of Greater Belfast, but out in the countryside and smaller towns everything is just as it was when I left it," he says.
"I found attitudes not a million miles away from what I had known before. In saying that, I'm lucky that I think people talk to me frankly and honestly. In my former life I often had a microphone shoved up their nostrils and a camera lens over my shoulder and that tends to make people very hesitant to open their minds to me.
"I find now because I talk to people with a guarantee of 'off the record' that they are very honest and give me anecdotes and insights and I try, as is all one can do, to cobble them together."
Walking the streets and country lanes of Dungannon and Armagh, Seymour says he was given a warm welcome and in certain places, was recognised from earlier visits. Those he spoke to for his book assumed he was writing about dissident republicans without him having to spell it out.
"Perhaps because people in Northern Ireland have been so written about and so reported, they just tend to nod their heads and pass comment as if that's maybe a cross they have to bear," he muses.
"I'm quite conscious that to come into peoples' lives, whether that be in Belfast or Sarajevo, is an intrusion and I'm always grateful for the fact that people are courteous enough to give me their time.
"As a novelist there is no reason they should. If you put a camera down in front of a politician they can't help but bite at it. But when I turn up I have nothing to offer people and they absolutely could show me the door if they wish to."
The characters he draws up in his novels, though fictional, are based on people he's met during the course of his careers as a reporter and author. In Vagabond, for example, the freelance dealer, Exton, was inspired by a British man who had been 'turned' after selling illegally imported cigarettes to the paramilitaries, who sold them on to raise funds.
"In one particular case," he says, "there was such a degree of trust within a paramilitary group that when the shortage of weapons proved insurmountable, this was seen as a way of getting hold of them. But the man had already been turned and was compromised.
"That was fact, but where he lives, how he gets on with his missus, how much money he has, how he gets on with his handler, how near to the breadline he is, well, that all came out from my imagination."
Seymour says he has some sympathy for the characters he has created in his Northern Irish-based books. Having worked here at the height of the Troubles, he says he understands the pressures faced by many caught up in the conflict. But he draws the line when it comes to the blame game.
"I talked to medical people, psychiatrists, who talked to me about the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and they are there as much in the middle-aged men of the armed struggle, as they would refer to it, of 30 years ago, as they are for the guys who came across the Irish Sea in the uniform of the British Army, or the RUC men," he says.
"I don't back myself into the corners of black and white, that would completely deceive me if I got those attitudes on board, that's not my job. I try to explain why people are in that situation and I hope that maybe the reader might say that if it happened to me, than maybe I would have done that. But taking sides, that's not my job."
When Seymour wrote Harry's Game, he had just returned from an assignment covering the 1973 Arab/Israeli war and had been given three weeks of leave by his office. His sons were at school, his wife Gillian had 'mapped out' plans for the break, but he decided to sit down and "have a go" at novel writing.
"My wife went out and bought me a little pine table from a second hand store for a fiver, put it in the bedroom, forbade me on pain of death to smoke and I sat down and typed chapter one," he recalls.
The success of his debut took him by complete surprise.
Plaudits and awards followed, the book was optioned for television and Seymour was suddenly a bestselling author. "I had no comprehension that it would change my life, but it did," he says. "That was hugely unexpected.
"I lasted another two and a half years at ITN, wrote two more books, tried to do two jobs and realised that it was going to end with one of them flopping badly. So I took a deep breath at the age of 36 and walked away from cameras, deadlines, microphones and made up my mind that I was going to be a full-time writer."
When we speak, Seymour is planning to attend the funeral of Ray Lonnen, who portrayed the eponymous Harry in the television series.
"Ray was a lovely man," he says. "I liked him because I thought he was a very considerable actor without any over-vanity or self-conceit. He was also an utter professional. I can't say more than that by way of a compliment. He also had a tremendous face.
"The success of the show weighed very heavily on his shoulders but the show propelled a lot of people beyond their immediate horizons and I was a huge beneficiary of that."
Many of Seymour's novels were made for television, including The Glory Boys, Red Fox and Field of Blood, while three are currently optioned. The writer says it helps that he worked as a television reporter, as he tends to see things in terms of pictures. But he doesn't write with the sole objective of having another hit TV show on his hands.
"Would I write in the hope that it would be made into a film? No, that's not the case," he says. "But if it happens, it happens. You lose control of it and put yourself in the hands of what you hope are very talented people. Sometimes it turns out terrific, sometimes not."
Earlier this year Seymour was at a concert where Clannad were playing and was thrilled to hear them perform the theme from Harry's Game.
"I have to say, I felt terrific goosebumps on my neck, and they did it so beautifully," he says. "It's been a long time since Harry's Game was shown on television and yet people still remember it. That makes me feel very privileged."
Northern Ireland has a "particular place of affection" for him, more so than other settings such as Bosnia or Croatia. It's more "personal", he tells me.
"As a novelist, Northern Ireland over the last five decades has proved to be a rich source of stories," he says. "There is huge bravery, huge cowardice, treachery, loyalty, all in a very intense, concentrated way and I would say that Northern Ireland is high up my list of places that I like to write about.
"But I also like to write about Palermo and Naples and their problems, because again, they are very localised, they resonate from small street to small street and that's what I find fascinating and interesting and why I still probe for some answers. I'm not saying I have the answers, but I definitely probe for them."
Vagabond sees many of its characters haunted by ghosts from their pasts. As a former reporter who covered numerous major new stories, from Bloody Sunday to the 1972 Munich Olympics, there must be standout moments that still haunt him to the present day.
Seymour thinks about this before replying.
"There's not so much an overall story, but there would be images," he says. "I went and covered an earthquake in Peru, around 40 years ago. I was working on a football tournament at the time and got sent to this place where 70,000 people were dead.
"I'd come from this artificial cocoon of the World Cup to a dusty, stinking, horrible place, where mud huts had been wiped out. I have an image of a helicopter crewman, carrying a four or five-year-old boy. The child had that look of numb shock on his face, no tears, no whimpering, no choking sobs. Just a blank face.
"Another crewman told me the child's entire family had been killed, he was the only survivor. I can still see that child, see his face.
"With big stories like Munich, there is so much going on around you and nothing is clear, things haven't sunk in yet.
"But they still don't have the same credibility for me as that one silent moment. That little snapshot of humanity will stay with me always."
- Vagabond, is available now, Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99
The theme that still haunts us
- The haunting strains and the lilting voice of singer Moya Brennan on the Harry's Game theme track became one of the unexpected spin-off hits from the 1982 hit TV series for traditional Irish music group Clannad
- The track reached number five in the UK singles charts and number two in the Irish charts in 1982
- The lyrics are in Gaelic and the song is thought to be the only UK hit single ever to have been sung entirely in Irish
- The song's popularity has seen it covered numerous times, including in a more pumped up version by dance outfit Chicane in 1999. It also enjoyed a re-release in 1992 when it was used on the soundtrack of the Troubles-set blockbuster Patriot Games, starring Harrison Ford and Sean Bean