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 Kitzb├╝hel 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.

3 comments:

  1. I bought the DVD of this mini-series while in Bangkok last month. Thank heavens it only cost me about $12.00AUD. If the main character had been called George Howard or Edward Jenkins or some other nondescript English name, it would have been an adequate tale of wartime intrigue and as good as anything else that Britain puts out, such as "Foyle's War" or "The Bletchley Circle". The production values and acting were up to the usual high standards of any BBC drama, but as a story of the life of Fleming and his wartime experiences,it failed, as far as I'm concerned.
    I would have been far more interested to see Fleming's life AFTER he wrote "Casino Royale". It would have been great to have covered his life in Jamaica, his fame, his snarky friends making fun of his literary aspirations while deriding his pulpy spy fiction, his meeting with Broccoli, Saltzman and Connery, the whole "Thunderball" rights mess and the subsequent court battles and their effect on his health.
    That would have been a different sort of tale. And a much more interesting one at that.
    As it stands, this mini-series gets lost among the plethora of British shows set during the Second World War, like the two I mentioned above, as well as the recent adaption of William Boyd's "Restless", to name a few.
    Aside from Cooper, who is a fine actor, the casting was top-notch. I agree that Lara Pulver was well cast as Ann.
    However, this series had a very all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go kind of vibe.
    For me, anyway.

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    Replies
    1. You're right, a drama focusing on Fleming's attempts to bring Bond to the screen and the Thunderball legal battles would have been more interesting. As it was, Fleming started with the premise that James Bond was based to a very large extent on Ian Fleming, and so Fleming's life had to be heavily fictionalised in order to achieve it. And while I still enjoyed the series, there are better WW2 dramas out there.

      Sorry to hear of your cough. Hope you're feeling better!

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    2. It would have been cool to see Fleming meet various people throughout his wartime career who possessed some of Bond's traits, i.e.- the scar on the right cheek, etc.
      And Fleming's seemingly idyllic life in Jamaica could have been juxtaposed against dreary 1950s London (from my understanding, he flitted back and forth between the two countries after the War) and they could have concentrated more on his friendship with Noel Coward ( and his sarcasm) and his interactions in Jamaica with other rich British expats.
      Like you say, there are better wartime dramas out there, but to have seen the genesis of Bond ( both in print and on screen) through his author's eyes would have been a very interesting story.
      I could go on and on, but I think I already have.
      Thanks for the kind words about this cough. I forgot how much 'fun' the 'flu can be. And I just heard my son cough, too. Looks like he's staying home from school again.
      This too shall pass, as they say.

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