Wednesday, 14 November 2018

On location: a visit to the College of Arms

Last week, I was privileged to visit the College of Arms in London. The principal roles of this world-famous institution are to grant coats of arms, investigate rights to existing ones, and undertake genealogical research. However, to Bond fans, it is best known as a location in both the book and the film of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. James Bond visits the college to learn about Blofeld’s request for its services to support his claim to the title of Count Balthazar de Bleuchamp (or Comte Balthazar de Bleuville, as it is in the book). Naturally, I took the opportunity to investigate the some of the spaces that inspired Fleming’s writing and the college scenes in the film.
 
The College of Arms
In the film, we are introduced to the college by means of an exterior shot of the front of the building, which is on Queen Victoria Street; Bond arrives in his Aston Martin and parks in the courtyard. This scene was shot on location and the building today is little changed.
 

The film cuts to an interior view of a hall, where Bond meets a porter in a cherry-red uniform (still worn today, a real-life porter at the college told me), who takes him through a side door to Sable Basilisk’s office. The hall is in fact the Earl Marshal’s Court, which may still, in theory, sit in order to hear and resolve heraldic disputes. The court in the film is a studio recreation, but apart from being larger and having more doors (through the long walls), it is a fair depiction of the real thing. The throne, enclosing rail, wall panelling, portraits, and flags present in the actual court are all represented on screen. The attention to detail is such that the screen court even depicts the crests and other devices above the doors and the radiators along the wall.
 
The court room in the College of Arms (top) and as depicted in OHMSS (below)
In the novel, Fleming describes the hall as gloomy, with ‘dark panelling…lined with musty portraits of proud-looking gentlemen in ruffs and lace’, and flags of the Commonwealth hanging from the cornice. Clearly, Fleming had visited the college himself.
 

During my visit, I got talking to one of the officers of the college, the York Herald. We chatted about the film, and he revealed that part of what would become the rooftop chase scene that was later deleted was filmed inside the college. A smaller room off the hall has a door in the corner. In the missing scene, Bond goes through this door ultimately to reach the roof.
 
Bond goes through this door on his way to the roof
The York Herald also pointed out that a few pages of the original script are on display in the corner of the court under a window. I eagerly went over to have a look and found that they featured dialogue from the deleted scene. (Photography of these pages is, incidentally strictly forbidden.)


Returning to the film, the porter leads Bond through a corridor to the door of Sable Basilisk. It is an ornate door, with an even more ornate name plate to the side. As I discovered as I explored some of the corridors after answering a call of nature, all the heralds’ office doors are rather elaborate. The office of Portcullis, for example, has a golden portcullis within a carved rosette-type device above the door. In the novel, Fleming describes the decoration above Sable Basilisk’s ‘heavy door’ as a nightmare black monster with a vicious beak, accompanied by a name plate in gold.
 
Doors of the heralds' offices
Today, the College of Arms is open to public enquiries, and I’m told that tours are occasionally given. The Bond connection is very much alive. Apart from the script, Bond-related books are on display on a table in the court room and available to purchase from the receptionist. The York Herald also told me that the college receives regular enquiries from Bond fans.

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