Thursday, 21 August 2014

Who is the best James Bond?

A recent poll conducted on behalf of CBS News by SSRS revealed that Sean Connery remains America's favourite James Bond. Fifty per cent of respondents went for Connery when asked who was the best Bond. Pierce Brosnan was second with 12%, closely followed by Roger Moore, who polled 11%. Daniel Craig was third with 8%, while George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton brought up the rear with 1% each. While the margin of error of plus or minus 3% suggests that the differences between Brosnan, Moore, and probably Craig, are not statistically significant, Connery's place at the top is clear enough.

The poll reminded me of the 'Pint of Milk' interviews that feature in Empire magazine. Each month, a well-known actor, writer or director is asked a series of quirky questions largely unrelated to their latest release or career in film. The questions vary between interviews, but all interviewees are asked, “how much is a pint of milk?” Another question asked on a fairly regular basis is, “who is the best James Bond?” Looking through an archive of classic 'Pint of Milk' interviews on Empire Online, I was interested to see the responses to that question. As with the respondents in the CBS poll, the film-making community seems to favour Sean Connery.

All the interviews available online appear to have been conducted during the tenure of Pierce Brosnan, who consequently gets an honourable mention from most interviewees. So, on the question of the best Bond, Peter Ustinov thought that nobody could touch Connery, but considered that Brosnan had developed into 006 at least. Dan Ackroyd similarly thought Connery the best, but conceded that Brosnan was doing a wonderful job. Michael Keaton admitted he wasn't particularly familiar with the film series, but said that he liked Connery. Though he hadn't seen any of the Brosnan films, Keaton thought Brosnan looked natural in the role. Kyle MacLachlan went with Connery as the best Bond, with, unusually, Roger Moore a close second. Brosnan, he thought, was suave, but lacked the element of danger. Tim Robbins, in response to the question of the best Bond, answered “Mike Myers”.

Judging by these surveys, Sean Connery's position as 'best Bond' is unassailable. Quite how we measure the notion of best Bond is debatable to say the least, but the responses nevertheless point to certain important qualities. Two of them appear to be danger and toughness, which are strongly associated with Connery's portrayal. These are evidently not enough, however, as Timothy Dalton, who took a gritty approach to the role, is at the bottom of the CBS poll, while Daniel Craig, a tough, muscular Bond, only manages a middling position. Possibly a perceived lack of humour in Dalton's and Craig's Bond, certainly when compared with the Connery, Brosnan and Moore eras, is a factor here.

The Empire interviews suggest that being the current Bond boosts the ranking of that actor. Had the interviews taken place more recently, the interviewees might have placed Daniel Craig second. On the other hand, the results of the CBS poll pointed to an age factor to the responses. Respondents over the age of 45 tended to pick Roger Moore as second best Bond, while those under 45 went with Brosnan, suggesting that people tend to regard the Bond they grew up with or first saw as their (second) favourite Bond.

As for Connery, there is a remarkable consensus among all respondents that Connery is the best Bond. I wonder, though, whether the view has become so well established in popular culture that it is now almost a natural response given without much consideration or critical thought. Like any meme that is successful by being long-lived, widespread and oft-repeated, the view or meme that Connery is the best James Bond (along with the opposite meme that Lazenby is (usually) considered the worst Bond) is somewhat self-perpetuating. Connery is likely to remain on the top spot for a while yet, no matter how well the Bond films of Daniel Craig and his successors do at the box office.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

How would James Bond vote in the Scottish independence referendum?

George Lazenby as James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
Sean Connery is a well known supporter of Scottish independence, and come the referendum on 18th September, we have no doubt how he will be voting. But what about the character for which Connery is most strongly associated? How might James Bond, another Scot, vote? A trawl through Ian Fleming's novels provide a few insights into Bond's perception of identity, nationality, and duty which offer some pointers to what his voting intentions might be.

James Bond's Scottish heritage was introduced late in Fleming's series of adventures. For much of the series, Bond was an Englishman. In Casino Royale (1953), Mathis, Bond's French ally, describes Bond as “the Englishman from Jamaica”. Bond, who is there with Mathis, does not correct him. In From Russia, with Love (1957), Soviet spies hatch a plot to destroy James Bond, the 'Angliski Spion'. And in The Spy Who Loved Me (1962), the heroine, Vivienne Michel, looks “appealing at the Englishman.” Meanwhile, Sluggsy, one of the villains, asks Bond, “From England, huh?” “That's right,” comes the reply.

It is possible that England in these references is synonymous with Britain and does not necessarily imply English origins, but Fleming appears to provide no hint of any Scottish identity, and readers up till this point would not have thought Bond as anything other than English.

This changed with the publication of On Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1963. At the College of Arms, Bond meets Griffin Or, a herald at the college. Inquiring into Bond's origins, Griffin Or tells him, “No doubt, with a good old English name like yours, we will get somewhere in the end”. Bond replies, “My father was a Scot and my mother was Swiss”, adding that his father came from near Glencoe in the Highlands. This information is repeated in the next novel, You Only Live Twice (1964), in Bond's obituary.

It is said that Fleming gave Bond Scottish ancestry when Sean Connery was cast in the role of James Bond for the film of Dr No (1962). This is plausible, given the chronology, and the reference to “Ursula Andress, the film star” in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. But given also that Fleming himself had Scottish ancestry – his grandfather, Robert Fleming, was from Dundee, and Ian spent time during his childhood at Glenborrodale Castle in the Highlands – the casting of a Scot as James Bond was a coincidence that Fleming found impossible to resist.

Even so, James Bond continues to talk about England, rather than Britain or Scotland, in You Only Live Twice. “England may have been bled pretty thin by a couple of world wars...but we still climb Everest and beat plenty of the world at plenty of sports and win Nobel Prizes,” he tells Tiger Tanaka.

However, in Fleming's last full-length Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965), Bond has a much stronger Scottish identity. Composing a telegram, he rejects an offer of a knighthood with the words, “Eye (sic) am a Scottish peasant and will always feel at home being a Scottish peasant.” That is not to say that the rejection is because of any anti-British or anti-English feelings. Bond admits that he likes the idea of the knighthood, if only because of “the romantic streak of the SIS – and of the Scot, for the matter of that”.

Returning to the question of the Scottish independence referendum, while Bond appears to embrace his Scottish identity by the end of Fleming's novels, his continued reference to England, and his still generally very patriotic and pro-British outlook suggests that he would vote 'No'.  Would Bond be able to vote anyway? Given that he lives in London, Bond is presumably listed on the electoral register in London and therefore would not be entitled to vote in Scotland. The cinematic Bond, on the other hand, might have a vote. His home at Skyfall Lodge, as seen in Skyfall (2012), might qualify him, although quite what happens when the building is blown up is another matter.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Book preview: James Bond and Popular Culture

It's never too early to start thinking about Christmas presents for Bond fans. December will see the publication of a book of essays about the James Bond phenomenon. James Bond and Popular Culture: Essays on the Influence of the Fictional Superspy examines how James Bond has inspired many aspects of popular culture, including Doctor Who, the animated television comedy series Archer, Japan’s Nakano Spy School Films, and the 1960s Italian Eurospy genre, and analyses Bond’s phenomenal literary and filmic influence over the past 50-plus years, with essays covering James Bond's role in film, television, literature, and lifestyle.

The volume has been edited by Bond and spy-fiction expert Michele Brittany, a book reviews editor for the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, a correspondent for Bleeding Cool, a comic book news site, and the author of Spy-fi & Superspies, a blog about all things spy-related.

The book sounds like a essential reading, although I must declare an interest: I'm responsible for one of the essays. 'Modelling Bond: The Cultural Perception of James Bond on the Eve of the Eon Production Films' focuses on a Bond-themed marketing campaign for men's clothing. In 1961, six advertisements for Courtelle, a UK-based clothing company, was placed in the Daily Express and Daily Mirror. Prefiguring the use of product tie-ins and the appearance of Bond actors as 'brand ambassadors', James Bond himself (as drawn by an artist) modelled the clothes and received a plug for his latest adventure, while the content suggested in no uncertain terms that these were the clothes to wear if you wanted a James Bond lifestyle.

One of the Courtelle advertisements to feature James Bond. Image copyright Rowlinson Knitwear Ltd
The adverts reveal that even before the release of Dr No in the cinema in 1962, James Bond had been identified as an aspirational figure. What's more, the adverts show how the image of Bond evolved outside Fleming's novels on the eve of the film series. The essay identifies the traits taken from the books and those introduced by copywriters, assesses the extent of other influences, such as other spy literature, films and television, and discusses how far this hybrid Bond diverged from Fleming's prototype.

In addition, the essay compares the 'Courtelle' Bond with contemporary depictions similarly uninformed by the Bond films and examines the impact of the film series on the expression of Bondian iconography. Finally, the essay discusses the proposition that different Bonds have emerged as a result of ever-evolving cultural environments.

The book, priced at $40, is available to order now from the publisher McFarland, or through Amazon
(currently priced at £23 in the UK) and other retailers. The perfect Bondian Christmas present!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The disguises of James Bond

A toy version of a spy from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
While sharing creator, producer, writers, and production crew, the film of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is far removed from the world of James Bond, but there is still room in the children's adventure film for a couple of spies. Known simply as first and second spies (played by Alexander Doré and Bernard Spear respectively), the bumbling agents of Baron Bomburst are hardly the epitome of intelligence. They do, however, display one aspect of espionage work beloved of early spy fiction: they employ disguises to blend into their surroundings and fulfil their missions without raising suspicions.

In one scene, the spies are dressed as English gentlemen out for a stroll. In another, they wade on to a beach from the sea underneath funnels from a ship. That their disguises are so ridiculous and transparent is of course part of the joke, but their attempts are nevertheless expressions of a key idea or meme of spy culture, particularly in fiction, that spies routinely wear disguises to keep their operations secret and gather intelligence in enemy territory.

In order to keep his activities secret, James Bond uses false identities and elaborate covers, but he does not, in contrast to the spies in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, use disguises, at least according to the file held by the Soviet Union's Ministry of State Security or MGB (a precursor to the KGB) in the novel, From Russia, with Love (1957). Except that occasionally Bond does.

In Diamonds are Forever, published a year earlier, Bond's appearance is altered by make-up before paying a visit to Rufus B Saye's House of Diamonds in Hatton Garden. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963), Bond infiltrates Piz Gloria, Blofeld's Swiss base as representative of the College of Arms, Sir Hilary Bray. Bond does not exactly wear a disguise, but he does arrive at London Airport sporting a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella to give himself the appearance of a baronet. And in You Only Live Twice (1964), Bond's hair is cut, his eyebrows shaved, and his skin darkened to allow him to mingle among the crowd at Tokyo's main rail station, restaurants and temples without being recognised as a 'gaijin'.

The film series sees Bond wearing disguises more often. In Dr No (1962), Bond puts on a radiation suit to pass unnoticed in the reactor room of the eponymous villain's base. The film of You Only Live Twice (1967) shows Bond adopting the same sort of disguise he uses in the book, and in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), he wears tweeds, kilt and glasses to look more like a Scottish baronet. Bond wears the robes of a sheikh in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and the poncho and hat of a South American gaucho (with more than a hint of Clint Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy) in Moonraker (1979). In Octopussy (1983), Bond disguises himself as a clown, allowing him to pass through security to enter the Big Top of Octopussy's circus. Bond briefly dons a fire fighter's uniform in A View To A Kill (1985), and in The Living Daylights (1987) wears Afghan clothes, which allows him to pass by Russian soldiers and plant a bomb on a Soviet plane.

Interestingly, James Bond is not the only character to wear disguises. In For Your Eyes Only, Q disguises himself as a Greek Orthodox priest, and in Licence to Kill (1989), Q wears the clothes of a Mexican peasant. Curiously, he wears false facial hair for both disguises.

Unlike the archetypal spy of fiction, such as the two spies in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, James Bond is not known for wearing disguises. However, he does occasionally adopt disguises (there is in any case a fine line between a cover or false identity and a disguise), and in the film series perhaps uses them more often than is perhaps realised. In that respect, the cinematic Bond is given more of the traditions of early spy fiction and the spy of the First and Second World Wars than is the Bond of Fleming's novels.

One possible explanation may lie in the origins of Fleming's Bond. Fleming was inspired in part by American crime fiction, particularly that of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and consequently his Bond has some of the characteristics of a hard-boiled detective, who tends to be more open when investigating a case. In contrast, writers of the Bond films, in preparing the script of a spy film, are likely to have turned more strongly, perhaps exclusively, to the common tropes of spy, rather than detective, fiction.

Monday, 28 July 2014

What Fleming is reading in Fleming

While watching Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, originally shown on Sky Atlantic in January this year (click here for my review of the series), I was interested to see that Ian Fleming was shown reading a couple of books. There had been an allusion to Fleming the bibliophile early on during the first episode – at Fleming’s first encounter with Ann O’Neill (later Ann Fleming), Ann makes a witty comment about Ian being like a bumped and foxed first edition – and the allusion continued with scenes of Fleming with a book in his hands.

One of the books, seen in the first episode, had the title, Killer in the Alley. As far as I can establish, this book does not exist, and appears to have been invented for the series. Judging by the title, though, the book presumably represents some sort of crime novel in the manner of the hard-boiled thrillers of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Fleming was a huge fan of such fiction. Indeed, the works of Chandler, Hammett and others had a profound effect on Fleming’s own writing, the fast-paced and violent style of the Bond novels being very much influenced by American pulp-fiction.


The second book is a more familiar classic: John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). This is a predictable, though somewhat old-fashioned choice. While Fleming would certainly have read the book, by the late 1930s/early 1940s his reading matter had moved on from tales of simple derring-do by the likes of Buchan, Rohmer and Sapper to something a little more sophisticated, such as Turbott Wolfe (1925) by William Plomer, or Geoffrey Household’s The Third Hour (1937).

We see Fleming reading Buchan during episode 3 as Fleming’s career with the Naval Intelligence Division is burgeoning, and it is implied that Fleming uses the book to gain insight into intelligence work. In reality, however, Fleming is more likely to have read technical manuals and reports, as well as more recent novels set in the world of intelligence (for example, Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios, which had been published in 1939).

While the Fleming series conveyed Ian Fleming’s interest in books (including erotic prints!), it failed to give a representative impression of his contemporary reading, or capture his eagerness to acquire knowledge, particularly of a technical nature, not just from published material, but also from the experts themselves.

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.