Thursday, 11 April 2013

Fleming on the BBC's Desert Island Discs

I recently listened to a short extract of Ian Fleming’s interview on the BBC’s radio programme, Desert Island Discs. Little of the broadcast, originally made in August 1963, survives, although we have a record of the music, books and luxury item Fleming would have taken with him to the hypothetical desert island (a list that all 'castaways' appearing on the long-running programme have to provide).

Fleming's responses to presenter Roy Plomley's questions are likely to be familiar to any student of Fleming, and concerned Fleming’s early career, his war exploits, how he came to write the first Bond novel on the eve of his wedding, his writing regime, the origin of Bond as a mixture of wartime commando and secret service agent, and so on. But the interview also offered, for me at least, some additional information. At one point in the interview, Plomley asked Fleming about criticisms of violence and sadism in his books. Fleming replied that “the old days of getting a crack on the head with a cricket stump have rather gone out”, continuing that he thought it “ridiculous to go on writing thrillers in the old Bulldog Drummond, John Buchan way.” The response was similar to something he said in interview with Jack Fishman (published in 1965 in For Bond Lovers Only): “I didn't believe in the heroic Bulldog Drummond types. I felt these types could no longer exist in literature.” His Desert Island Discs interview reveals that he had added Buchan's Richard Hannay to his list of out-dated heroes.

I wonder, though, whether Fleming's later interviews incorporated a relatively new response that had been repeated and honed to provide a neat explanation for the style of his books, but wasn't necessarily in Fleming's mind when he began to write them. In his discussion with Raymond Chandler on thriller writing, broadcast in 1958, Fleming addressed the subject of torture and violence. “I was brought up on Dr Fu Manchu and thrillers of that kind”, he said, admitting that “even Bulldog Drummond gets in the grips of the villain.” The implication is that Bond wasn't the first hero to be routinely tortured by the villain, and that the Bond novels follow a tradition that existed in the books Fleming read as a child. Certainly, Fleming didn't reject those books as old-fashioned in that discussion, but it is possible that over time Fleming developed a narrative to explain his style and to offer in response to
criticisms of 'sex, sadism and snobbery'. It was a narrative that looked more strongly to American style thrillers and away from Bulldog Drummond and other 'clubland' heroes.

While the Bond books have a pace, a sense of location, and a level of sex and violence that clearly derive from hard-boiled thrillers, in particular Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, connections to the books of Fleming's childhood, notably in relation to his villains, cannot be ruled out. Moonraker's Sir Hugo Drax, for example, has more than a passing resemblance to Carl Peterson, the villain of Sapper's Bulldog Drummond novels, while Dr No could come from the pages of Fu Manchu (which Fleming admits in his Fishman interview influenced his writing).

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