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.