Sunday, 4 December 2016

On location: James Bond in Paris

A weekend trip to Paris gave me the opportunity to check out some of the places associated with James Bond. The city features prominently in the film A View To A Kill (1985), but it also has a role in the short story on which the film is very vaguely based, 'From a View to a Kill' (1960). (The title and Paris location are about the only things in common between the story and the film.)

Working backwards through the events of the film, the first stop on my Bond itinerary was the Pont Alexandre III that spans the River Seine. James Bond jumps from this bridge on to a boat in pursuit of May Day, who has herself just landed on the vessel after parachuting from the Eiffel Tower. A boat very much like the one Bond encounters was passing underneath the bridge as I looked over the side, and though I wasn't tempted to emulate Bond, I did consider the practicalities of Bond's jump. Not as easy as it looks, I decided.

The Pont Alexandre III in A View To A Kill (top) and now
I then continued towards Quai Branly and walked down to the quayside. Having 'borrowed' a taxi, Bond speeds along the quayside and crashes through a barrier, which slices off the car's roof. Bond would find it more difficult to repeat the stunt today, as the barrier has gone and been replaced by a large metal gate. (The original barrier was present until fairly recently, up to at least 2008, according to Martijn Mulder and Dirk Kloosterboer in their essential book, On the Tracks of 007.)

Bond approaching a barrier on Quai Branly (top). The site today (bottom)
I stayed on the quayside and continued to the foot of the Pont d'Iéna. There's a flight of steps here that leads back up to street level. James Bond descends these steps rather unconventionally – in the stolen taxi.

The steps at Pont d'Iena in A View To A Kill (top) and today
At the top of the stairs, I was greeted by the magnificent sight of the Eiffel Tower. Bond's Parisian adventure starts here, as he chases after May Day, who has just killed Bond's contact, Monsieur Aubergine, and then makes a quick descent on the roof of the lift when May Day jumps off the top of the tower. Long queues prevented me from going up to the top, but even on the second floor, the view was fantastic, and I got a great sense of the excitement of the scene.

View of Quai Branly from the Eiffel Tower (some of which is replicated in the film's Paris poster)
The following day, I sought locations connected to the literary Bond. In the short story of 'From a View to a Kill', we learn that Paris has a significant place in James Bond's life – the city is where he lost his virginity. Bond has been a frequent visitor to the city ever since. Typically, he stays in the Terminus Nord hotel next to the Gare du Nord (he has a particular preference for station hotels). The hotel is still there, of course, and is now part of the Accor chain.

Terminus Nord, Bond's favourite Parisian hotel
When we first see Bond in the story, he's at Fouquet's, a famous bar and restaurant on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. He's ordered an Americano (you can't drink seriously in French cafés, he reflects) and is thinking about how Paris had changed since the war (for the worse, in his view). I found the restaurant – by George V Metro station – but it was a little too early for an Americano.

Fouquet's, Paris
Bond doesn't have much time for retrospection, though. Before too long, a car pulls up and Mary Ann Russell, a fellow Secret Service agent working for Station F, gets out, finds Bond, and tells him that he's wanted at the office (being a creature of habit, Bond is rather easy to find – probably not ideal for a secret agent). According to the story, the headquarters of the French station is nearby on Avenue Gabriel. Unfortunately, I didn't visit the street myself, but there's always next time.

For the James Bond fan on the look-out for Bond-related locations, Paris has a lot to offer. Not only can you visit some of the places seen on the screen and mentioned in the pages of Bond's adventures, but you can also experience something of the James Bond lifestyle by staying in the hotel Bond stays in or eating or drinking in Bond's favourite restaurants. Just don't go borrowing any taxis.

Monday, 28 November 2016

James Bond referenced in latest Paco Rabanne advert

The latest advert for Paco Rabanne's One Million Privé fragrance has a distinctly Bondian look.


In one TV spot, we see a handsome and cool hero putting on a dinner suit. He clicks his fingers, and the scene switches to a dark space, criss-crossed with laser beams reminiscent of a well-known scene from Mission:Impossible. Our hero energetically negotiates his way around the beams – he is evidently an expert gymnast – before reaching the door to what appears to be a gold vault (shades of Goldfinger?).

The action cuts to another dark empty space, lit only by a spotlight. The man clicks his fingers again, and we see him on top of a skyscraper resembling the Empire State Building like a well-groomed King Kong. The spotlight is moving around looking for him. There is a close up of the man. Keeping with the King Kong allusion, a woman stands on his open hand. The man turns to the camera and clicks his fingers again.

Instantly, the man's appearance changes. He now wears a white dinner jacket and adopts a very familiar pose: he stands facing us, the lower part of his left leg behind his right leg. His left arm is held against his body, his left hand tucked under his right elbow. The lower part of his right arm is bent upwards, his hand resting on his chin as if he is in thought.

If you put a gun in his right hand, then he'd be imitating the classic James Bond pose seen on many posters and publicity shots from the Bond films, beginning with From Russia, With Love. The reference is confirmed as the spotlight captures him, and he is enclosed in a white circle that mimics the gunbarrel sequence that traditionally opens a Bond film.

But he hasn't been caught for long, as he makes an appropriately Bondian escape holding on to the landing skid of a helicopter.

Though short, the advert is crammed with film references, among them references to James Bond (potentially five – the pose, the dinner suit, spotlight, the helicopter and the vault).

The use of the spotlight is itself interesting. In the traditional gunbarrel, it is not a spotlight we see moving across the screen at the start of the gunbarrel sequence, but simply a white dot – or possibly the sights of a gun – that is transformed into the end of a gunbarrel. The dot, however, is similar enough to a spotlight for the spotlight to be used as a proxy by photographers, film-makers and others for the gunbarrel. Simply shine a spotlight on someone and the allusion to Bond is made.

I'm reminded of the cover of the Mail on Sunday's Event magazine in August last year, which showed Anthony Horowitz caught by a spotlight. Whetting readers' appetites for a feature about Horowitz's James Bond novel, the image was clearly meant to recall the gunbarrel sequence (although there is something Tintin-esque about it too, which may also have been intended, since Horowitz is a fan of Hergé's creation).

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Skyfall - Home Alone or John Buchan?

The defence of Skyfall, James Bond's family home in the Scottish Highlands, against an assault by Raoul Silva and his small army in the 2012 film has been dismissed by critics as James-Bond-does-Home-Alone. I think the criticism is unfair. Not only is Home Alone a good film, but the critics are also ignoring a more fitting, literary parallel – one from the pages of John Buchan.

In a recent post, I explored the similarities between the novel of Moonraker and John Buchan's fourth Richard Hannay adventure, The Three Hostages. It seems that Skyfall also has some Buchan blood, in this case from his fifth Hannay novel, The Island of Sheep (1936).

The Island of Sheep, 2012 Polygon edition
When Valdemar Haraldsen's life is threatened by a gang of villains led by master-criminal d'Ingraville, who are pursuing by any means a claim on a 'great treasure' discovered by Haraldsen's late father, Haraldsen turns to Richard Hannay, Hannay's fellow adventurer Lord Clanroyden (formerly Sandy Arbuthnot) and an old friend of Hannay's, Mr Lombard, for help. All three had sworn an oath to Haraldsen's father to protect his son should ever the need arise.

At first, Haraldsen is persuaded to hole up at Laverlaw, Clanroyden's ancestral home in the Scottish Highlands. As Sandy explains, 'The fight must come, and I want to choose my own ground for it... Haraldsen will be safe at Laverlaw till we see how things move.' Unfortunately for Haraldsen, things move rather too quickly, as d'Ingraville and his men are drawn to the estate and make their presence felt.

Haraldsen must retreat further, this time to his own ancestral home on the Island of Sheep in the Norlands (probably the Faroe Islands). Echoing Clanroyden's views, he shares an old proverb with Hannay that 'strongest is every man in his own house.' Clanroyden agrees, and tells Hannay again that 'we must fight them, and choose our own ground for it, and since they are outside civilisation, we must be outside it too.'

James Bond has the same idea in Skyfall. Laying a trail for Silva to follow, Bond tells M that he's taking her 'back in time. Somewhere we'll have the advantage.' Arriving at the lodge, Bond tells the family gamekeeper, Kincade, that 'some men are coming to kill us. But we're going to kill them first.'

Once at the house, Hannay and the others start making preparations for its defence, rather as Bond, Kincade and M do at Skyfall. They shutter the windows and barricade the doors with furniture, and take positions at various parts of house armed with revolvers, rifles and double-barrelled shotguns.

And just as Skyfall has a secret passage – a priest-hole – that leads Kincade and M, and later Bond, away from the house and towards the chapel, Haraldsen's house boasts a little stone cell once occupied by an Irish hermit that takes people away from the house unnoticed via a set of steps to the entrance of a cave by the sea.

Haraldsen's house has no name – it is simply known as the House – but Buchan gives an interesting name to the island's principal hill: Snowfell. The name is obviously not so very different from Skyfall.

The similarity between the scenes at Skyfall in the film of the same name and the passages set on the Island of Sheep in John Buchan's novel may well be coincidence, but if the events of The Island of Sheep had been described in a Bond novel, then we would have no hesitation in claiming that the scenes in Skyfall were based on them. In any case, the similarity indicates that the Skyfall scenes have a literary antecedent. Just as the Bond novel Moonraker can trace its origins to the adventures of Richard Hannay, it seems that Skyfall has also inherited tropes or memes from Buchan's work.

Friday, 11 November 2016

A look at the Bond parody 'Kiss the Girls and Make Them Spy'

If being honest, even the most ardent of fans would concede that Ian Fleming's novels are very much of their time and contain aspects which sit uncomfortably with modern attitudes. Take the representation of homosexuality. To Fleming's credit, there are a few characters who are gay or are hinted to be gay, but their portrayal is problematic. Pussy Galore and Rosa Klebb are the lesbians of heterosexual male fantasy, and in the case of Scaramanga and Wint and Kidd, the homosexuality is a symptom of an abnormality that in part explains the criminal behaviour.

To be fair, Bond's attitude to homosexuality, as suggested for instance by his discussion with Troop about 'intellectuals' in the the Secret Service, is reasonably progressive for the time (it should be remembered that homosexual acts in private were not decriminalised in the UK until 1967), and this no doubt reflects Fleming's own relatively liberal views. After all, some of Fleming's best friends were gay.

However, it is not the gay characters that have made the Bond novels easy targets for camp parodies (we could blame instead Bond's particular habits, for instance in relation to food, and the homoerotic quality of Bond being hit on the genitals with a carpet beater), of which Cyril Connolly's 'Bond Strikes Camp' and 'The Spy who Minced in from the Cold', by Stanley Reynolds are notable examples. A rather more thoughtful parody, however, is Kiss the Girls and Make Them Spy (Harper Collins, 2001), by Mabel Maney.

The novel, set in 1965, concerns an attempt by a secret organisation, the Sons of Britain Society, to depose the Queen and return the Duke of Windsor to the throne. Enter Her Majesty's Secret Service, whose officers serve to protect the Queen, and another mysterious organisation, the Greater European Organization of Radical Girls Inderdicting Evil (G.E.O.R.G.I.E.), which is populated by lesbians sworn to protect the world from destruction wrought by men. Curiously, though, both the Secret Service and G.E.O.R.G.I.E. appear to be oblivious to the plot to kidnap the Queen until it's in full swing.

Meanwhile, James Bond is on sick leave, having suffered a nervous breakdown. In order to preserve the reputation of the Secret Service and the belief that England's top agent is still on active duty, his sister, Jane, who looks very much like James, is blackmailed by the service to take James' place. Jane's mission is to receive a medal from the Queen without raising suspicion.

James Bond's absence is, I suspect, designed to avoid breaching copyright, and there are other changes in personnel; M become N, Miss Moneypenny becomes Miss Tuppenny (and, incidentally, the head of G.E.O.R.G.I.E), and, borrowing from the films, Q becomes X. The author is familiar with the Bond novels: Jane has an unruly comma of hair, as does James, there is reference to the 'powder vine', and it's revealed that Jane's handler, Agent Pumpernickel, or 001, has a S-shaped scar on his cheek, which was made by an enemy agent to mark him as a spy. The scar not only recalls the scar that Fleming's Bond has on his cheek, but also the knife cut in the form of an inverted M that Bond receives on the back of his hand in Casino Royale.

That said, the author doesn't stick rigidly to the 'facts' of Fleming's novels. The Secret Service in Mabel Maney's novel is usually referred to as Her Majesty's Secret Service, operates in England, and exists solely to protect the Queen, just as the US Secret Service is tasked with protecting the President. And, of course, family details are wrong. Apart from the sister we never knew about, James' mother is called Sylvia, and his father, James Bond Sr, was a secret agent who Jane believes took his own life.

The Bond films are referenced as well. To prepare for her mission, Jane is required to wear a dinner suit, drink vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred), and practise raising her eyebrows, reputedly in the manner of Roger Moore. Like the film Bond, Jane has a very active love life, though falls in love with one of the agents of G.E.O.R.G.I.E, a redhead called Bridget. There are gadgets, too, in the form of deadly lipsticks.

I enjoyed the book, though as with most of the longer Bond parodies, such as ALLIGATOR and (ahem) Devil May Care, the joke wears thin after a while. However, the characters are better drawn than they usually are in parodies, and Jane is interesting enough to deserve to appear in further adventures.

There have been numerous candidates for the first female James Bond, notably Modesty Blaise, but Jane Bond has better claim than most, having a believability that others lack (that's not to say that the plot is believable, which is far more fantastic than any plot of Fleming's). It is this credibility that means that the book is not so much about a 'gay Bond' than simply an entertaining spoof of familiar Bondian tropes.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Spectre inspires the first Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City

In a blog about James Bond's impact on culture, I could hardly fail to mention the Day of the Dead parade, which was held in Mexico City on 29th October as part of its annual Day of the Dead festival. As I describe in a previous post, the festival traditionally involves offerings of food and drink to household ancestors, streets decorated with flowers, market-stalls selling edible skulls, and graveside feasts. This was the first year that a parade was held in the city. And the reason why it was held was due to Spectre (2015).


While I have my misgivings about the film – Blofeld revealed as Bond's step-brother? The series could have done without that complication – it is undeniably spectacular, and the Day of the Dead parade that opens the film is up there with the best of the series' pre-title sequences.

Lourdes Berho, the chief executive of the Mexico Tourist Board must have thought so too. 'We knew that this was going to generate a desire on the part of people here, in Mexicans and among tourists,' she told reporters, 'to come and participate in a celebration, a big parade.'

The thousands of people who came to view the parade saw performers in skeleton costumes and masks, floats bedecked with skeletons, and giant skeleton marionettes. Some of the participants wore costumes from the film itself. Others had costumes inspired by the film or wore more traditional costumes, such as those representing Aztec warriors.

This isn't the first time James Bond has had an impact on aspects of life beyond the normal scope of popular culture. The revolving restaurant on the summit of the Schilthorn in the Swiss Alps has been known as Piz Gloria ever since it appeared in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). Maps of the region around Phuket in Thailand (well, Google maps, at least) officially record a small islet off Khao Phing Kan as James Bond Island, which formed part of Scaramanga's lair in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).

Whether Spectre's impact on the Day of the Dead festival will be as lasting as Bond's impact on the the Schilthorn and Phuket has been remains to be seen. As David Agren reports in the Guardian, some commentators, among them the editor of Nexos magazine, Esteban Illades, took to social media to denounce the parade as populist stunt. Interestingly, though, the Guardian also reports that parades and processions have in fact been part of the festival for a some years now, even if in a relatively minor way.

What Spectre has done is given that emerging tradition a boost, and changed expectations about what the Day of the Dead festival entails. I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see the parade return next year, and indeed hear of similar parades being held elsewhere. (Look out for a parade near you!). More generally, the parade demonstrates how James Bond continues to have significance and relevance in the wider cultural environment. It may be a while yet before we hear of a Jason Bourne Island...

Thursday, 27 October 2016

A visit to the Aston Martin museum

Sometimes, one stumbles on places of interest to the James Bond fan quite unexpectedly. A few weeks ago I was driving through the south Oxfordshire countryside – actually on a tour with fellow Bond aficionado Tom Cull (who runs the brilliant Artistic Licence Renewed website) of Ian Fleming's childhood homes – when we saw a brown road sign for the Aston Martin museum. I hadn't noticed that sign before (I was to learn that it had only been put up in February this year) and in fact hadn't been aware of the museum's existence. Unfortunately, the museum was closed that day, but this week I had the chance to pay a visit.

The museum, run by the Aston Martin Heritage Trust, is located in the small village of Drayton St Leonard, near Wallingford. No wonder I didn't know the museum existed. Even following the brown sign and driving through the village, it's not exactly easy to find. I felt as though I was on a mission worthy of Bond as I had to stop a couple of times to consult the directions on the website (the sat nav will only get you so far). And to add to the Bondian air, Chinooks, presumably from nearby RAF Benson, were flying low overhead.

I eventually found the museum, which is housed in a magnificent medieval barn (itself worth the admission fee) built for the monks of Dorchester Abbey. The museum is small – the building shares its space with the offices and archive of the Aston Martin Owners Club – but what wonderful things it contains.

Inside the Aston Martin museum
The cars change from time to time, and I was lucky enough to see (double oh) seven of them. These included a 1972 Aston Martin DBS, a prototype of the Vanquish (the model that appeared in Die Another Day in 2001), the Nimrod/Aston Martin racing car, the NRA/C2 004, which tore around Le Mans in 1982, and a full-scale ceramic and plastic model of the exclusive Aston Martin One-77, of which just 77 were built in 2008 and 2009.

There were more treasures around the edges of the barn. Display cases of trophies, medals and flags spoke of Aston Martin's many successes on the race track. Another case celebrated its drivers, among them the legendary Sir Stirling Moss (who takes his place in Bond lore as a character in one of Ian Fleming's unused television series treatments ('Murder on Wheels') and the basis of Lancy Smith in Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis (2015)). Seeing the helmet and overalls worn by Stirling Moss during his time driving for Aston Martin was a thrill.

A helmet worn by Stirling Moss
No collection of Aston Martin memorabilia is complete without reference to James Bond, and naturally part of a display case was devoted to toy cars, models and other representations of Bond's cars.

The James Bond display
The museum staff were helpful and friendly, and I was privileged to be given something of a guided tour by one member of the trust, with whom I had an enjoyable discussion about cars and Bond and other things beside.

Like the cars themselves, the museum isn't large inside, but it's very well put together and endlessly fascinating. It's a must-see for any Bond fan.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Supersonic Buchan: Moonraker and John Buchan's The Three Hostages

While I’ve long maintained that the origin of James Bond owes more to American hardboiled thrillers by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett than it does to pre-Second World War literary clubland heroes, such as Bulldog Drummond and Richard Hannay, there is no denying that the third Bond novel, Moonraker (1955) is Ian Fleming at his most Buchan-esque.

I was reminded of this as I read the fourth Hannay adventure, The Three Hostages (1924). In the book, set after the First World War, Hannay is a retired army general eager for the quiet life at his Cotswold estate. Before long, though, he is persuaded by Macgillivray, who works for the Secret Service, to use his particular set of skills to help, unofficially, in the search for three individuals of note who have been kidnapped by a criminal gang.

Hannay has little to go on other than a piece of indifferent doggerel written by the mastermind behind the plot. The clue is enough, however, to take Hannay to one Dominick Medina, a extraordinarily handsome, clever and popular politician, the best shot in England and a poet to boot. Hannay initially seeks Medina's assistance, but realises, eventually, that Medina is the villain at the centre of the conspiracy.   

In general terms, The Three Hostages and Moonraker cover similar ground. Both have home-grown plots that begin in the refined and exclusive surroundings of London's clubland. Indeed, Hannay and Bond first meet Medina and Moonraker's villain, Sir Hugo Drax, in gentlemen's clubs (the Thursday Club and Blades, respectively). The schemes of both villains' aim to strike at the heart of the British government and bring the country to its knees, reflecting the deep-seated hatred that Medina and Drax have for Britain.

The villains, too, are cut from a similar cloth. Both are adored by the public and, at least initially, by the books' heroes. When M asks if he's heard of Sir Hugo, Bond replies that 'you can't open a paper without reading something about him'. The man's a national hero, Bond adds, and continues to give a gushing account of Drax before pausing, 'almost carried away by the story of this extraordinary man.'

Hannay's rather smitten with his man as well, and has the same thought as Bond. 'You couldn't open a paper without seeing something about Dominick Medina', he tells us. Hannay's friend, Dr Greenslade considers Medina a great man, and judging by the papers, the whole world thinks so too. When Hannay meets Medina, he remarks on the attractiveness of the man, his easy-going personality, and admits to being fascinated by him and under his spell.

Hannay tells his best friend and co-adventurer, Sandy Arbuthnot, that Medina is 'the only fellow I ever heard of who was adored by women and liked by men', a line that has a curious echo in the phrase applied to Bond by Raymond Mortimer: 'James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets.'

Neither Bond nor Hannay are quick to suspect Drax and Medina of villainous intent, and in a way the idea that a powerful, seemingly altruistic, and charming man is beyond suspicion has endured in fiction, finding expression, for example, in the Bond films. In the film of Moonraker, when Bond takes M and the Minister of Defence to Drax's secret laboratory, the Minister is sceptical. 'I hope you know what you're doing, Bond', he says, 'I've played bridge with Drax.' And similarly, in A View To A Kill (1985) when Bond wonders if Zorin himself was responsible for an infiltration of Zorin Industries by the KGB, the Minister of Defence splutters, 'Max Zorin? Impossible. He's a leading French industrialist... with influential friends in the government.'

Drax can't compete with Medina for looks. Drax has facial scars from the war, and has protruding front teeth or a diastema that he attempts to hide by growing a luxurious moustache. But Medina isn't perfect either. Hannay notes that Medina's head 'was really round, the roundest head' he had ever seen. He continues that Medina was 'conscious of it and didn't like it, so took some pains to conceal it' with his hair. Oddly enough, the very round head would be a villainous trait in a Bond novel. In Live and Let Die, Mr Big is described as having 'a great football of a head, twice the normal size and very nearly round.'

One final shared trait worth mentioning is that both Drax and Medina are somehow 'other' by virtue of their foreignness or perceived foreignness, which to some extent explains their villainy. Drax is of course revealed to be German. Dominick Medina is English, but his name raises a question in Hannay's mind. 'I suppose he's some sort of Dago', he says to Greenslade. On meeting Medina, Hannay remarks that his face 'was very English, and yet not quite English.'

I wouldn't go as far as to say that Ian Fleming was influenced by The Three Hostages directly, but given their common traits or memes, Buchan's novel and Moonraker certainly inhabit the same cultural environment. Famously, one critic referred to Fleming as 'supersonic John Buchan'. In the case of Moonraker, I'm rather inclined to agree.