Sunday, 28 October 2012

George Lazenby and the film of Len Deighton's Horse Under Water (1963) that never was

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”

With most of the general discussion on contemporary spy fiction and films currently revolving around the “Bond-Bourne” debate, a rather reluctant spy from the 1960s who could give both characters some competition and is long overdue a comeback is Harry Palmer. This was the bland name given by Michael Caine to the nameless ‘anti-hero’ of Len Deighton’s original spy novels. The most appropriate source for a Harry Palmer comeback film would be Len Deighton’s second novel, Horse Under Water (1963) which, although it fell between The Ipcress File (1962) on the one side and Funeral in Berlin (1964) and Billion-Dollar Brain (1966) on the other, remains tantalisingly un-filmed at present. Horse Under Water was first published in Britain by Jonathan Cape on 21 October 1963, with an original print run of 15,000 copies.[i]

In Len Deighton’s perceptive article on the 1960s spy-craze, entitled “Why Does My Art Go Boom” in the May 1966 edition of Playboy magazine, he revealed that after the success of the film The Ipcress File (1965), the film’s Canadian producer Harry Saltzman bought the film rights to the follow-up ‘Harry Palmer’ novel Horse Under Water:

“In the autumn of 1963 my second book, Horse Under Water, was published and Saltzman bought the film rights of that, too. There was more conjecture in the press. “Out-Bonds Bond” and “Anti-Bond,” they said.”[ii]

In an interview with author Edward Milward-Oliver ("EMO" below), Len Deighton revealed another connection which his second novel Horse Under Water had with James Bond:

“EMO: Had you already written your second novel Horse Under Water before The IPCRESS File was published?

DEIGHTON: It was in first draft. I took it to Hodder & Stoughton and asked them to read it through, because they’d warned me that second books always get slaughtered by the critics. So I got a bit nervous about this, and took a long time writing it – even today I must be one of the world’s slowest writers – until finally I had it ready. I took it to them, and they said they didn’t want to read it. They told me they had a policy of not dealing with a second book until the first had come out.

EMO: Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape published Horse Under Water.

DEIGHTON: That’s right. And that enraged some people, who claimed I was now going to be trained as the successor to Ian Fleming, who Cape also published.”[iii]

Indeed, Queen reviewed Horse Under Water at the time in the following way:

“James Bond’s most serious rival…Deighton decorates his thrilling plot with equally enthralling detail about secret service routine.”[iv]

It has long been something of an enigma why Horse Under Water was never filmed along with the other ‘Palmer’ novels in the 1960s. It certainly had the potential for being the source for a successful film, as, for instance, the “whole of the first Penguin edition of Len Deighton’s Horse Under Water – over 60,000 books – sold out completely within 48 hours of publication.”[v]

Christopher Bray’s recent biography of Sir Michael Caine, Michael Caine: A Class Act, (2005) has an interesting passage in the 1966-67 chapter which reveals that plans to film Horse Under Water in the 1960s were actually dealt a fatal blow by what could be described as the “Anti-Palmer” (at least in commercial terms), namely, the arrival of the first replacement James Bond actor in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) - the Australian ex-model George Lazenby:

“The critical reaction to the film [Billion Dollar Brain (1967)] was the most negative any of the trilogy had had, and while Saltzman had plans to film Deighton’s next Palmer novel, Horse Under Water, Caine was adamant (rightly enough as it turned out) that he had done everything he could with the character. ‘I hope some new actor can give his interpretation of Harry,’ said Caine, ‘but after three films I don’t think the Palmer character holds anything for me anymore.’ Saltzman did look around for another actor – ‘We don’t want anyone who looks like Mike and he probably won’t even wear spectacles or even be a cockney,’ he said – but nothing ever came of the idea. Since Saltzman was talking during the period of Sean Connery’s absence from the Bond series, when the part was taken over – disastrously, as far as the box office was concerned – by George Lazenby, he had good reason to change his mind and let the series go.”[vi]

Christopher Bray takes the quotes from Caine and Saltzman on the possibility of a new Palmer film from an article in the Daily Mirror on 3 December 1968.[vii] It is believed that the actor that producer Harry Saltzman had in mind to replace Michael Caine in the role of Harry Palmer was Nigel Davenport.[viii] It is interesting that Michael Caine felt he could do no more with the role of Harry Palmer, and in some ways this mirrors Sean Connery’s attitude towards the role of James Bond, especially during his experiences with an intrusive media whilst filming You Only Live Twice (1967) in Japan. This led to him vacating the Bond role after what was to be his fifth (and seemingly final) Bond film.[ix] It is also interesting to note that if the projected film version of Horse Under Water had went ahead as planned the Harry Palmer character would probably have been visually and audibly very different from the blonde and bespectacled chippy cockney spy in the mackintosh raincoat as portrayed by Michael Caine in the three preceding films, The Ipcress File (1965), Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967).

It is submitted then that the main reason for the proposed film version of Horse Under Water being ‘dead in the water’ had as much to do with Harry Saltzman’s negative experience with the first change of lead actor in the James Bond film series at the time as it had to do with the relatively poor critical reaction to the film of Billion Dollar Brain. It is fascinating to consider how the Harry Palmer series might have continued had a new actor been cast for a film of Horse Under Water. It is revealing how contemporary events in the ‘rival’ James Bond film series (which had the ever-restless Harry Saltzman as co-producer, alongside Albert R. ‘Cubby’ Broccoli) impinged on the Harry Palmer film series and ultimately ensured that the Palmer character did not have a fourth film in the classic 1960s “spy-mania” era. Either a 1960s period piece or a contemporary film version of Horse Under Water would still be a very welcome prospect for fans of Harry Palmer – and would surely represent a much more fitting comeback for the Palmer film series than the ‘straight-to-video’ Bullet to Beijing (1996) and Midnight in St. Petersburg (1997) were, in which Michael Caine reprised his famous role as Harry Palmer. Neither Bullet to Beijing nor Midnight in St. Petersburg were based on any Deighton material, (though the project did have the author’s blessing)[x] but if ever a future film producer or director deigns to notice the obvious potential of Len Deighton’s ‘Harry Palmer’ a film of Horse Under Water would be as good a place to look for cinematic inspiration as any. In the meantime, Deighton and Palmer fans can only hope that this particular Horse will yet get a to have a refreshing drink at the box office at some point in the not-too-distant future.[xi]


Bray, Christopher, Michael Caine: A Class Act, (Faber and Faber, London, 2005),

Deighton, Len, Funeral in Berlin, (Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1966 reprint),

Deighton, Len, Horse Under Water, (Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1970 reprint),

Deighton, Len, “Why Does My Art Go Boom”, (subtitle ‘as the spy craze continues to spiral skyward, the author of  “the ipcress file” files a personal report on the phenomenon’), Playboy (Chicago, May 1966),

Milward-Oliver, Edward, The Len Deighton Companion, (Grafton Books, London, 1987).


This article originally appeared on The Len Deighton Discussion Group and Archive in February 2009 to celebrate Len Deighton's 80th Birthday.

TBB Article No. 17

© Brian McKaig, 2009.

[i] Edward Milward-Oliver, The Len Deighton Companion, (Grafton Books, London, 1987).
[ii] Len Deighton, “Why Does My Art Go Boom”, (subtitle ‘as the spy craze continues to spiral skyward, the author of  “the ipcress file” files a personal report on the phenomenon’), Playboy (Chicago, May 1966), p. 182.
[iii] Edward Milward-Oliver, The Len Deighton Companion, (Grafton Books, London, 1987), pp. 13-14.
[iv] Quoted on the Horse Under Water Penguin paperback back cover, (Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1970 reprint).
[v] Quoted on the Funeral in Berlin Penguin paperback back cover, (Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1966 reprint).
[vi] Christopher Bray, Michael Caine:  A Class Act, (Faber and Faber, London, 2005), pp. 104-105.
[vii] Ibid, n. 19 and 20, p. 294. 
[viii] From Kees Stam’s unofficial Harry Palmer Movie Site:
 “Bob Engesser added this on the messageboard, interesting enough to add here: “I recall a press release from the late 1960s stating that Harry Saltzman would produce Horse Under Water with Nigel Davenport and not Michael Caine as Harry Palmer. Poor box office from Billion Dollar Brain the movie and not poor sales from Horse Under Water the book probably killed this project. Davenport costarred with Caine in the underrated war film Play Dirty which was produced by Saltzman.”” (from:, accessed 17 February 2009).

[ix] Sean Connery was actually contracted for six James Bond films, but he would later return to his most famous role as 007 in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) for the official Eon Productions series after George Lazenby’s sole Bond outing, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and later in the aptly titled and unofficial film Never Say Never Again (1983), a remake of his fourth Bond film, Thunderball (1965), which was released in the same year as Eon’s Octopussy, starring his successor Roger Moore as 007, prompting the press to refer to the ‘Battle of the Bonds’ in 1983.
[x] Christopher Bray, Michael Caine:  A Class Act, (Faber and Faber, London, 2005), p. 254 and n. 11, p. 304, “Quoted in the Sunday Times Magazine, 23 July 1995”).
[xi] © 2009, “The Len Deighton Discussion Group” Moderator.


  1. I'm a committed fan of the Deighton books and their subsequent films. Michael Caine was the perfect choice for the central part, and it has always been an irritation that "Horse Under Water" wasn't filmed in the 60s.
    When "Spy Story" was filmed in the 70s an undistinguished Michael Petrovitch played the lead role (named Patrick Armstrong, owing to Deighton's never naming the character in the books) which only emphasised how important Caine was to the series.
    The 90s films were never going to be on a par with the originals (since they weren't based on Deighton and had budget restrictions), though it was a pleasure to see Palmer again.
    Any contemporary filming of "Horse" (or perhaps "An Expensive Place To Die") would have to look very carefully at casting the lead role to even begin to compare with Michael Caine- and Jude Law just ain't the man for the job!

    1. Thanks for you comment, Anon. What did you think of this piece specifically? I run a Len Deighton group on Yahoo!

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