Sunday, 20 July 2014

Sky Atlantic's Fleming

The quote by Ian Fleming shown at the beginning of each episode of Fleming: The Man Who Would be Bond, originally broadcast on Sky Atlantic in January 2014, should have set alarm bells clanging: “Everything I write has a precedent in truth.” Anyone looking forward to an accurate account of Ian Fleming's life during the Second World War, a critical time for Fleming that led in part to the creation of his master spy, James Bond, must have had their hopes dashed on reading the quotation. Despite the fiction outweighing the fact, however, the series was very enjoyable, being full of intrigue, excitement, romance, and not very subtle foreshadowing of 007.

The series spans the late 1930s to the end of the war in 1945 as it follows Fleming's life from wealthy but resentful wastrel to intelligence ideas man, commando leader, and spy. The first episode sets the scene. Against the backdrop of the first hints of war, Fleming stomps around like a petulant teenager as he tries to escape the shadow of his much admired brother, Peter, and (deceased) father, Valentine, enjoys a playboy lifestyle, and is beguiled by socialite Lady Ann O'Neill, who's having an affair with newspaper mogul Viscount Rothermere. As war begins, Fleming is persuaded join the Naval Intelligence Division as director Admiral Godfrey's personal assistant, a position which gives Fleming purpose and puts his fertile mind to good use.

Episode two sees Fleming settling into his role at NID – at Estoril, Portugal, for example, he attempts, and fails, to bankrupt some Nazi officers over the Baccarat table in a casino, an episode that Fleming would revisit for the plot of Casino Royale (1953) – and become even more besotted with Ann, despite Ann's affair and Fleming's relationship with another woman, Muriel Wright. In episode three, Fleming travels to the USA and presents his blueprint for the CIA (actually the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA replacing that organisation in 1947), and also persuades the top brass back in Britain to set up the 30 Assault Unit, a commando unit tasked with going ahead of the main divisions into enemy territory to capture vital intelligence and documents. In episode four, Fleming finally sees the action he's been craving and enters the eastern front to retrieve secret documents and a German naval officer (played in a nice piece of casting by Wolf Kahler, a familiar face in Second World War films).

Justifying the series' subtitle (curiously absent in the series' titles, but shown on cover of the DVD), the nods to James Bond come thick and fast. When Bomber Harris rails against the 30 Assault Unit (“They seem to think they have a licence to kill”), or when Fleming reads a goodbye note from Ann (“For the spy who loved me”, it begins), I almost expected Fleming to turn to the camera with a knowing look, or pause in concentration as the seed is planted in his mind.

Most of the Bond-inspired moments, though, derive from the film series, suggesting that the series makers were more interested in making a Bond film than a biopic of Ian Fleming. Hints of the James Bond theme accompany exciting scenes, for example when Fleming skis in Kitzbühel or infiltrates a German stronghold. A killing in the gentlemen's toilets at Estoril recalls Bond's fight in the toilets at the beginning of Casino Royale (2006), and the opening scenes of episode three, which sees Fleming carefully scour the dark corridors of a building with his gun at the ready, is surely influenced by the opening of Skyfall (2012). Godfrey's interview of Fleming is reminiscent of an interrogation conducted by Blofeld, and Godfrey's secretary, Second Officer Monday, might as well have been called Miss Moneypenny.

As entertaining as all this is, the decision by the series makers to largely fictionalise Fleming's war robs viewers of genuine episodes that are every bit as exciting as the the events depicted on screen. Fleming's almost single-handed infiltration of a German base on the eastern front could have been replaced by the Dieppe Raid, which he witnessed (albeit from the relatively safety of a ship). The portrayal of the 30 Assault Unit as an ill-disciplined 'Dirty Dozen'-like mob ignores the incredible efforts and heroism of many individuals (officers, as well as other ranks) that were part of it, and gives viewers no sense of the unit's importance to the war effort (it was among those responsible, for example, for recovering vital Enigma code books and stealing valuable rocket technology secrets). It was a mistake, incidentally, that the film Age of Heroes (2011) also made; Fleming's 'Red Indians' continue to be poorly served on screen. It is also notable that the series makers overplayed Fleming's role in The Man Who Never Was plot, or Operation Mincemeat, possibly because operations that Fleming had more of a hand in (such as Operation Ruthless and Operation Goldeneye) had limited dramatic value.

Dominic Cooper was not especially plausible as Ian Fleming, but he grew into the role (smoking incessantly helped) as the series progressed. Lara Pulver well cast as Ann O'Neill, capturing her passions, contradictions, waspishness, and unhappiness, not to mention her negative feelings towards Ian's literary ambitions. Admiral Godfrey (played by Samuel West) was, I felt, too young, and there was no reason to give him a beard (Godfrey was clean-shaven, and besides, Fleming would never have approved).

Overall, Sky Atlantic's Fleming was an enjoyable series filled with many moments of excitement and drama. As an accurate biopic of Ian Fleming, however, it largely failed. The ultimate film of Ian Fleming's life is yet to be made.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

James Bond on the bench

There's something not quite right about the park bench that celebrates the work of French novelist Jules Verne. Installed in Covent Garden outside Stanfords, the famous map shop, as part of the Books about Town scheme organised by National Literacy Trust “to celebrate London’s literary heritage and reading for enjoyment”, the 'bookbench' is adorned with artwork that represents one of Verne's best known novels, Around the World in Eighty Days (1873).

The bench appears to show pictures of the main characters on the lower part of the seat and on the back rest, there is a hot air balloon. That's the problem. Balloons certainly feature in Verne's novels, among them Five Weeks in a Balloon (1865) and The Mysterious Island (1875), but Around the World in Eighty Days isn't one of them. Phileas Fogg travels by rail, boat, and elephant, but not balloon.

I suspect that the screen adaptations have intruded here. A number of versions, including the well-known 1956 film produced by Mike Todd and starring David Niven, and the 1989 television mini-series featuring a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan, have put Phileas Fogg in a balloon, and invariably a balloon is depicted on poster art accompanying the adaptations. Recently I was able to see the James Bond bookbench at its home in Bloomsbury Square Gardens. As I was admiring it, I wondered whether the artwork on this bench had similarly been influenced, at least in part, by screen adaptations.

The artwork depicts Fleming's Bond stories in a general way, although it seems to have been inspired by Casino Royale, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and Live and Let Die in particular. The artist Freyja Dean explains that artwork offers us a glimpse of Bond's thrilling adventures for Her Majesty's secret service, but also conveys the sense of Bond's high living.

James Bond bookbench, front

Thus, playing-card motifs form the background of the artwork, and allude to Bond's time spent in the casino and at the card tables. The Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom is shown on the back rest, and obviously points to Bond's service to Queen and country. The use of gold for the outlines and black for the infill is interesting, reminding me of the coat of arms, drawn by Terence Gilbert, on the soundtrack album cover; gold outline and black infill are used there too. The artwork on the seat includes an image of James Bond as if depicted on a court card. He wears a dinner suit and holds a martini glass.

While James Bond is instantly recognisable, and the playing card motifs seem entirely appropriate to the world of James Bond, I do wonder whether the dinner suit, the gambling, and even the vodka martini, are over-played as elements of the Bond novels. All certainly feature in the novels, but relatively infrequently compared with their appearances in the Bond films. Indeed, that the dinner suit, for example, has become so synonymous with James Bond must surely be thanks to the films. Bond wears a dinner suit in most films, and a dinner-suited Bond has featured with few exceptions on poster campaigns throughout the Eon series. The association has been reinforced by the depiction of a dinner-suited Bond on countless Bond-related products and promotional material.

James Bond bookbench, back

The back of the bookbench shows a skull sporting a top hat, and no doubt refers to the voodoo element of Live and Let Die. Again, though, I wonder if the film version was at least as prominent in the artist's mind as the content of the novel. As far as I recall, the voodoo iconography of a skull in a top hat isn't described as such by Fleming, although he does describe the effigy of Baron Samedi as a wooden cross with a morning coat hung from it and a battered bowler hat placed on top. That said, at his first meeting with Mr Big, James Bond notices a top hat on the table at which Mr Big sits. In contrast, the skull-in-top-hat meme features extensively in the film adaptation, although it is also used on the covers of various editions of the novel.

The James Bond bookbench on Bloomsbury Square Gardens is a wonderful celebration of Ian Fleming's creation, and I think the artist, Freyja Dean, has brilliantly evoked the essence - service to country, sophisticated living, and exotic adventures - of James Bond. The motifs used on the bench undoubtedly appear in the Bond novels, but it is perhaps no coincidence that the use of these memes has been exaggerated in the films (turning, for example, an occasional martini drinker in the books into a habitual martini drinker in the films). Like the bookbench celebrating Around the World in Eighty Days, perhaps to some extent the films have shaped the artwork depicted on the James Bond bench.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Ian Fleming's heroes

I've written before about Ian Fleming's heroes, but I was reminded of his hero-worship recently when I read his foreword to the biography of Sir William Stephenson, Room 3603: The story of the British Intelligence Centre in New York during World War II (1963), by H Montgomery Hyde (published in the UK without the foreword as The Quiet Canadian).

Naturally Fleming identified Stephenson, who in 1940 on Churchill's orders set up and directed the British Security Co-ordination to garner support in the US for the British war effort, train US and Canadian agents, crack codes, and gather intelligence, as one of his heroes. Fleming described Stephenson as “one of the great secret agents of the last war”, and a man that “has a magnetic personality and the quality of making anyone ready to follow him to the ends of the earth.” (There will be more on Sir William Stephenson, his fascinating life and his connection with Fleming – and James Bond – in a later post.)

Fleming alludes to his other heroes in his foreword. “In this era of the anti-hero,” Fleming writes, “when anyone on a pedestal is assaulted (how has Nelson survived?), unfashionably and obstinately I have my heroes.” Fleming had been fascinated since childhood with Horatio Nelson. It was a profound interest that remained with Fleming throughout his life. Nelson's connection with Jamaica – he sailed out from Jamaica on expeditions against the Spanish, French and American navies in the late 18th century – helped persuade Fleming to buy land and build a house on the island. Fleming also decided to conduct a metal-detecting survey of Creake Abbey in Norfolk partly because Nelson's birthplace was in the neighbouring village of Burnham Thorpe. Back in London, a painting of Nelson hung on the wall of Fleming's study.

In his foreword, Fleming speaks of “hero-worshipping” his elder brother, Peter, suggesting that this began when Peter become the head of the household when their father, Valentine, was killed in France in 1917 during the First World War. Fleming never lost this sense of awe, which was enhanced by Peter's successful travel writing and his daring wartime exploits in military intelligence during the Second World War. Even when Ian Fleming published his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, he could not help deferring to Peter. In his self-penned back-cover blurb of the first edition, Ian writes that his achievement at Eton of being awarded the Victor Ludorum two years in succession was down to his compensating for having a “brilliant elder brother.”

Other heroes Fleming mentions in his foreword are the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Sir Winston Churchill, and many “other ranks”, whom he admired for their “courage, fortitude, and service to a cause or a country.” Fleming's admiration of Churchill stemmed largely, of course, from Churchill's leadership during the Second World War, but it began much earlier. Churchill and Fleming's father, Valentine, served in the same regiment, the Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars, and the two became close friends. When Valentine was killed on the Western Front, Churchill wrote an appreciation of his friend for the Times. Through this elegiac piece, Churchill offered Fleming a connection with his father. Ian treasured Churchill's words, which were framed and also placed in his study.

Ian Fleming's foreword in the biography of Sir William Stephenson is about heroes. Fleming had many, with some having profound influence on Fleming's life and direction. It is little wonder, but entirely fitting, that he should write a series of novels about a heroic figure, which has seen enormous success and has influenced other writers, as well as film-makers and other creative efforts. Fleming has himself become a hero to many, not just for his creation, but for his own wartime exploits, which have deservedly been gaining more attention in recent times.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Jules Verne introduces the Bond villain

If you thought the Bond villain was born in 1953 with the appearance of Le Chiffre in Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, then think again. Reading Jules Verne's 1904 novel, Master of the World, I was surprised to encounter an antagonist who had many of the attributes we closely associate with the villains of the Bond novels and films.

'Master of the World', an illustration from the French edition by George Roux

Jules Verne, the French novelist best known for his novels of 'voyages extraordinaires', among them Around the World in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, sets his 54th novel in the United States. Police detective John Strock is sent by his chief to investigate mysterious sights and sounds emanating from the Great Eyrie, a seemingly inaccessible peak within a mountain range. Strock's attempt to scale the peak fails, and he learns nothing. Returning to Washington, he hears about a road vehicle that's quicker than the fastest automobile (reaching speeds of up to 130mph), a boat that zooms across the water, and a third machine that travels under water. With instructions to find the owners of the vehicles, Strock gradually discovers that all three machines are in fact one, and that there is a connection between them and the mysterious Great Eyrie.

Naturally on reading about a car that turns into a submarine, my mind went to Bond's Lotus Esprit in The Spy Who Loved Me. But the vehicle had one more surprise – it could also fly. Like Scaramanga's AMC Matador coupe in The Man With The Golden Gun, and perhaps more befittingly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the car is converted into an aircraft by means of wings which fold out from the base of the vehicle. Just as the Potts find out that Chitty can fly when the car goes over a cliff, Strock, having been captured and held prisoner in the vehicle, then in boat mode, learns of its ability to fly when it plunges over the Niagara Falls.

The brilliant inventor responsible for this four-in-one machine is Robur the Conquerer, a character Verne had introduced earlier in an 1886 novel of the same name. As with all mad geniuses, Robur is eager to reveal his plans to Strock, claim past injustices, and seek his revenge against the world, traits that we would recognise in Dr No or Hugo Drax. Verne's description of Robur recalls Fleming's descriptions of Blofeld, Goldfinger or Mr Big:

“...the robust neck; the enormous spheroidal head. The eyes at the least emotion burned with fire, while above them were the heavy, permanently contracted brows, which signified such energy. The hair was short and crisp, with a glitter as of metal in its lights. The narrow beard was the same also, with the smooth shaven cheeks which showed the powerful muscle of the jaw."

It's while he's inside the airborne Terror that Strock learns the secret of the Great Eyrie. As the aircraft flies over the top of the peak, it descends into a crater and comes to rest inside it. The Great Eyrie is Robur the Conquerer's hidden base, pre-dating Blofeld's volcano hideout in the film of You Only Live Twice by 63 years. Robur even has henchmen to help him prepare the vehicle and travel with him.

I don't know whether Jules Verne's villain served as a model for any character in the Bond novels or films, but Master of the World nevertheless reminds us that the defining qualities of a Bond villain existed before Bond and represent some universal fears, for example the use and misuse of emerging, and potentially harmful, technology, and the thin line between genius and insanity. It is in the world of James Bond, however, that those qualities have perhaps had their most successful, and sustained, expression, to the extent that they and Bond villains have become synonymous.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

David Beckham in Sky Sports' James Bond-inspired advert

I caught David Beckham's latest advertisement for Sky Sports the other day. As I watched it, I thought that it had a certain Bondian quality, particularly the laboratory setting, the futuristic technology, and Beckham's cool style. I wasn't the only one. A headline on the Daily Mail website ran, “Sky Sports 5 to launch as new channel dedicated to European football ahead of new season... and David Beckham will appear in new 'James Bond-style' advert.” The Digital Spy website featured images of the advert with the caption, “David Beckham in James Bond-style Sky Sports advert.” What's so Bondian about Sky's advert?

The advert begins with a view of the Sky Sports research centre, a modernist construction set into a remote hillside that reminded me of Piz Gloria, Blofeld's mountain-top base in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Inside the research centre, work spaces filled with gadgets, and lab-coated researchers testing their inventions (with amusing results) must allude to Q's laboratory, especially its appearances in The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, Octopussy or GoldenEye, where viewers see bespectacled boffins test prototype gadgets and deal with malfunctioning technology, leading to the inevitable quip from James Bond (“Having problems keeping it up, Q?”).

The design of the research centre, though, is pure Bond-villain's lair from Ken Adam's drawing board. The open space, the unconventional structural curves and angles, the viewing room, and the elevated walkways could be taken from the early drafts of the Liparus, Stromberg's supertanker in The Spy Who Loved Me. And with the research centre viewed more as villain's base than Q's laboratory, the researchers, wearing identical blue lab coats (high-collared with a touch of the Bond villain's Nehru suit), recall the uniformed workers or private army of Blofeld, Stromberg, or Drax.

David Beckham, I think, exudes Bondian style (as he did during the London Olympics opening ceremony), although the memes used to introduce him are again more closely associated with Bond villains than James Bond. When we first see Beckham, his identity isn't immediately revealed to us, as he's sitting on a chair with his back to the camera. Then he rotates his chair. Beckham remains silent, but I wouldn't have been surprised to hear him say, “Ah, Mr Bond, I've been expecting you,” and clutch a white cat.

Sky Sports' latest advert appears to have taken the James Bond films as its main inspiration. It demonstrates the importance of the Bond films in popular culture, of course, but highlights that traits or memes associated with Bond villains and Q are just as culturally prominent as those associated with James Bond.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Steve Cole's other secret agent book

When the next Young Bond adventure, Shoot to Kill, is published in November this year, it won't be Steve Cole's first book about secret agents. This month saw the publication of Secret Agent Mummy, the first in a series of children's novels about an ancient Egyptian mummy who fights crime in the modern world. Inevitably I wondered whether the book showed any Bondian influences, and so read the book to look for James Bond memes.

The book begins with a visit by schoolboy Niall Rivers (geddit?) and his mother to a spooky-looking house on top of a hill to collect bric-a-brac for a fête. Niall notices a small figurine drop from a box. Picking it up, he is suddenly infused with some ancient power and can see things others can't. What he does see is a strange man wrapped in bandages and wearing a trench coat and hat spying on the house. Later Niall notices a pyramid in the garden next door, which he enters and meets the man in the bandages – Secret Agent Mummy. The mummy's mission is to capture the occupant of the spooky house (the sorcerer Azmal Sakra) and return him to Ka-Ba, the realm of the Egyptian gods.

I'm guessing that Steve Cole wrote the book before he began work on Shoot to Kill, and certainly there isn't any obvious reference to Young Bond. Indeed, references to James Bond appear to be absent, although there are allusions to general spy tropes which nevertheless recall aspects of the James Bond books and films.

One of these is the use of gadgets. Niall is something of a gadget-master, inventing all sorts of devices to spy on his annoying sister. Later he uses Secret Agent Mummy's workshop to repair the agent's part mechanical/part real dog, damaged after a run-in with Azmal Sakra. Secret Agent Mummy also carries gadgets, such as a pit-amids, a pyramid-shaped device used to create instant deep pits.

Secret Agent Mummy becomes known as Sam, but his code name is SAM 117. Thanks largely to 007, every spy in usually humorous espionage tales has a code name, although Sam's perhaps owes more to OSS 117, the code name of Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, the fictional spy created by Jean Bruce in 1949 and recently portrayed by Jean Dujardin in the films OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009).

The villain, evil sorcerer Azmal Sakra, has a few lines that wouldn't be out of place in an early Bond films (or at least a Bond parody). “We meet again, Niall Rivers,” he says at one point, bringing to mind the sort of lines attributed to Bond villains, such as “I've been expecting you, Mr Bond.” And after Sam stumbles into Azmal Sakra's hideout, Sakra says, “So you have found my secret lair at last.” The line is Bondian, as is the idea of a secret lair, which has become widespread and long-lived in popular culture, thanks to a large part to the Bond films, especially You Only Live Twice.

Steve Cole's Secret Agent Mummy is an enjoyable, entertaining read, and has made me all the more eager to read his Young Bond novel (and indeed his next Secret Agent Mummy book). Shoot to Kill is likely to be very different from Secret Agent Mummy, although both contain aspects of Ian Fleming's creation to lesser or greater extents.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The greatest James Bond movies of all time

The July edition of Empire magazine features the results of a readers' poll to find out the '301 greatest movies of all time'. Three Bond films make the list: Goldfinger (number 221), Casino Royale (number 160), and Skyfall (highest-placed at number 45). Any poll of the greatest films is a subjective exercise likely to spark as much debate as agreement. Bond fans, for example, might be wondering why The Spy Who Loved Me, From Russia With Love, You Only Live Twice, or indeed others are absent, or why the three films that do appear were chosen and why they are so placed. Some explanation is provided under each entry, but we also need to look at the rest of the results to see whether the selection of Bond films follows wider trends.

Of the three Bond films that make the list, one is 'classic' Bond, and the other two are the most recent Bond films (excluding Quantum of Solace). There is no argument from me that all three deserve a place in any list of greatest films, and it is easy to imagine why they appear in this one. As Empire magazine states, Goldfinger (1964) marks “a series high point.” It is the film that defines the series, bringing us the whole package – the gadgets, the car, the humour, the charming but mad villain, the henchman, the razor-sharp lines, and Bond at his most assured and sardonic. If Bond films are formulaic, then the formula they (and many other action/spy films) follow is that set by Goldfinger.

Casino Royale (2006) is highlighted by Empire as “Martin Campbell's radical reboot.” It put Bond back in the race after the series had lost ground to seemingly superior thrillers and actioners, among them the Mission: Impossible and Bourne films. And it gave us a Bond, played by Daniel Craig, that removed the spectre of Sean Connery's Bond that had loomed over all previous portrayals. Skyfall (2012) brought rare emotion and depth to the Bond series, while still retaining the action and other familiar elements of the Bond films. And it was a huge hit.

As worthy as these films are, though, is it fair to say that Casino Royale and Skyfall are better than, say, the best of Roger Moore's outings, or that Goldfinger is the best of Sean Connery's efforts? Is EON simply making better Bond films today than they were in the past? Looking at the distribution of release dates among the entire results, we might have predicted that two of the most recent Bond films would have been selected. The histogram below shows that the distribution is heavily skewed in favour of recent films. Some 35% of films in the list were made after 2000, and almost half were made within the past 20 years.

As it seems unlikely that films today are generally better (however that may be measured) than they were of 30, 40, 50 or more years ago, I suspect that recent films have been favoured in part because they are fresher in the mind and more familiar to Empire's readers. The distribution may also reflect the demographic of those readers; a similar poll conducted by the BFI had starkly different results. The Bond films of the Moore, Dalton, and even the Brosnan eras are unlikely to have made the list of 301 films, because the individual films are too old and perhaps remembered only in vague terms.

Should Casino Royale and Skyfall have been placed higher? Possibly, though not because of their age. The scattergram below, which plots year of release against poll position, shows no clear trend (for example, for more recent films to be generally higher placed than older films, although there is a hint of that in the chart, with the oldest films having a relatively low rank).


As for Goldfinger, the film retains a level of general familiarity that other Bond films lack. Think Goldfinger, and one's mind immediately goes to the Aston Martin, or Oddjob's bowler hat, or the laser beam and the classic line, “No, Mister Bond. I expect you to die.” Think Thunderball or From Russia With Love, and the casual cinema-goer might struggle to remember the key moments or lines, at least immediately (“Isn't that the one with...?”). That is not to say, however, that Thunderball and others are the poorer films against Goldfinger. Part of Goldfinger's continued familiarity stems from the film being packed with memes – the gadget-laden car, the theme song, the golden girl, and so on – that have become very successful in popular culture, being frequently referenced and imitated in film and TV. It could also be suggested that Goldfinger stands proxy for all the earlier Bond films, representing a genre, rather than a specific film.

Nevertheless, I would have liked to have seen other Bond films in Empire's list – The Spy Who Loved Me, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and GoldenEye, for instance. To me, three Bond films out of 23 seems a poor return for a series that has continued to entertain audiences, make huge profits, and had a significant impact on the cultural environment. I await Empire's next poll with much interest.