Monday, 23 March 2020

Le Touquet: The final model for Royale-les-Eaux

Back in 2015, I explored the possible inspirations for the fictional seaside resort of Royale-les-Eaux, introduced in the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953) and revisited in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963). I noted that the location had shifted between novels, being first on the Côte Picarde on the south side of the Somme estuary before moving north to the Côte d'Opale in Pas-de-Calais.

A trip last year to explore the French locations in Goldfinger (1959) took me first to Le Touquet, from where James Bond begins his pursuit of the gold-obsessed villain. The idea that Royale-les-Eaux is based, at least in part, on Le Touquet is not new. Jon Gilbert, for example, suggests as much in his 2012 volume, Ian Fleming: The Bibliography. However, a few days on Le Touquet's beach brought home to me just how closely some aspects of the fictional town, as described in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, were modelled on the French resort. 

Take the swimming pool mentioned by Ian Fleming in the opening chapter of the novel: 'Music, one of those lilting accordion waltzes, blared from the loudspeakers around the Olympic-sized piscine.' Le Touquet's beach-side piscine was certainly large enough to qualify as 'Olympic-sized' and could well have been what Fleming (a frequent visitor to the resort) had in mind as he wrote those words. 

The swimming pool, Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, in 1965

Ian Fleming then descibes three childrens' play areas on the beach of Royale-les-Eaux: Joie de Vivre, Helio and Azur. Today, there are six children's play areas on Paris-Plage, among them Joie de Vivre and Helio Plage. Whether these existed in Fleming's day, I can't be certain, but clearly Fleming had not conjured up the names purely from his own imagination.

Then there is the length of the promenade at Royale-les-Eaux: a full five miles, which is pretty much the length of the beach of Le Touquet-Paris Plage. 

While Ian Fleming did not base Royale-les-Eaux entirely on Le Touquet (Trouville and Forges-les-Eaux, I think, were equally important sources of inspiration), the descriptions of the fictional town, in its later incarnation, owed much to the resort. If you were to look at images of Le Touquet in the 1960s, then you could well be looking at how Ian Fleming pictured his creation and the opening scenes of one his finest novels.     

Sunday, 8 March 2020

Ian Fleming, the conservationist

Ian Fleming seems an unlikely champion of animal rights, but the evidence is there in his writing. That he was an animal-lover is clear from his heartfelt descriptions of animals, particularly birds and fish, in his James Bond novels. Scotland's red deer were also close to his heart. 
Red deer hind (image: Charles J Sharp / CC BY-SA (
In his 'Atticus' column, published in the Sunday Times on 7th November 1954, Ian Fleming lamented the cruel and unnecessary killing of deer during the winter months, when the onset of snows forced the animals to lower pastures. There, Fleming told his readers, the stags and hinds made easy targets for farmers and poachers, 'who slaughter and wound them with whatever weapons they can muster.'

Fleming went on to refer to a parliamentary White Paper on the issue, which, while setting out the sad facts, had evidently failed to put a halt to the annual dispatch of deer. 'Eight months of cruelty to these beautiful animals has once again set in,' he concluded.

Unlike his brother Peter, Ian Fleming was no country-sports enthusiast. Once, as a boy, Ian was taken grouse-shooting near Glencoe in Scotland by his father Valentine, but he didn't enjoy the experience. On another occasion, at Black Mount also near Glencoe, Ian (aged 16) shot a stag, but he never made a habit of it, preferring to listen to records than going 'out of doors killing something.' 

Given Ian Fleming's concern for red deer, the depiction of a stag (itself presumably a nod to the stag shown on the Fleming family crest) on top of the gateway to James Bond's Scottish home in Skyfall (2012) seems entirely fitting. 

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Interviews about James Bond – a review of two recent books

Books in which the authors talk to people about James Bond are like buses. You wait ages for one, then two show up at once. The first to arrive, slightly ahead of the second, is The Many Lives of James Bond: How the Creators of 007 Have Decoded the Superspy, by Mark Edlitz. The second is Nobody Does it Better: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of James Bond, by Mark A Altman and Edward Gross.

Mark Edlitz’s book is the slimmer of the two, but is no less interesting or insightful. The book contains interviews conducted by the author with individuals who in one way or another have created incarnations of James Bond or otherwise interpreted the character. In the book, you’ll find interviews with film directors (such as Martin Campbell), writers of Bond stories (Anthony Horowitz and Mike Grell), illustrators (among them John McLusky and Dan Goozee), computer game designers (Glen A Schofield), and, in a series of particularly absorbing interviews, people who have actually been Bond in some way, including Corey Burton (James Bond Jr), Dietmar Wunder (the German voice of Daniel Craig) and Simon Vance (audiobook reader). 

These are fascinating interviews. We get a wonderful sense of the craft required to create aspects of James Bond and the professionalism of the individuals concerned. Take the author’s interview with Jany Temime, for example. We learn that the clothes worn by Daniel Craig’s Bond when he arrives at Skyfall in the film of the same name were designed to evoke the gentleman farmer, as befitting the owner of a country pile, while Bond’s scarf was based on that worn by Field Marshal Montgomery. I’ll never look at the costumes in the films in quite the same way again.

And we get the definitive answer to a question that until now as never been fully resolved: are the lyrics to Thunderball about James Bond or the villain? Lyricist Don Black is unequivocal: James Bond. (I still feel, though, that they suit the villain better. I’d also like to add that the word ‘thunderball’ isn’t entirely meaningless, as is usually implied – it refers to the mushroom cloud created by an atomic bomb.)

Returning to the book, what is less successful, I feel, is the author’s attempt to gain insight through these interviews about the character of James Bond himself and find out what makes Bond tick. Questions about what motivates Bond (which Bond? There have been so many), whether Bond would still be Bond were he not a spy and other, similar questions, though philosophically interesting to an extent, seem tacked-on, while the answers are somewhat unconvincing.

Nevertheless, the book is a page-turner and deserves a place in every Bond fan’s bookshelf.

Altman and Gross’s effort is a somewhat different beast. Within the sizable tome (over 700 pages), the authors have assembled a comprehensive selection of quotations from many of the people connected with the James Bond films. Much of the content is based on interviews conducted by the authors, but the book includes material taken from other sources.

Arranged by film, including the two non-EON productions, the book takes a look the scriptwriting, casting, filming, publicity and reception of each release through the eyes of the people who were involved – directors, producers, actors, screenwriters and so on. The authors also talk to critics and popular culture commentators, who place the films in context and offer views on the impact that the films have had on them and society more generally in subsequent years.

The authors provide some linking text, but most passages are without any introduction or commentary. While this certainly gives readers a sense of that the views expressed are uncensored and ‘from the horse’s mouth’, the approach taken does present some difficulties. The historian, for example, might bemoan the lack of dates and sources. Which passages are taken from original interviews and which are reproduced second-hand? What are the dates of the quotations? Are they contemporary with the events being described or were they said years later? If the latter, might there be an issue with reliability? Sometimes we are presented with contradictory statements and, even after reading the various passages, remain none-the-wiser about the truth. (Were George Lazenby and Peter Hunt on speaking terms during the filming of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or not? It seems we will never know.)

More serious is the absence of editorial intervention where what has been said is just plain wrong. Terence Young’s assertion that Ian Fleming died during a swim, hinting heavily that he committed suicide, is factually incorrect and should have been challenged by the authors, at least by way of a footnote. 

All that said, the book is an invaluable sourcebook of views and facts from the people who were closest to the production of the Bond films. The authors are to be congratulated for assembling such a useful resource. This is a book designed to be savoured, to dip in and out of, ideally with a vodka martini by one’s side.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Our Man in New York - a review

Hear the words ‘America First’, ‘fake news’ and ‘agents of influence’, we would probably think of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign slogan, the pernicious spread of disinformation via traditional news outlets and social media, and Russian interference in the US presidential election. To Ian Fleming, these phrases would have meant one thing – the British campaign, led by William Stephenson, to bring the United States into the Second World. In his new book, Henry Hemming reveals the full story of MI6’s head of station in New York and his audacious campaign, which till now has only partially been told.  

By June 1940, Britain was in trouble. France had fallen to the German forces as thousands of allied soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. Merchant shipping, carrying vital supplies to the country across the Atlantic, faced constant threat from U-boat attack, and a German invasion of Britain seemed imminent. Winston Churchill knew that Britain would not win the war without America’s help. President Roosevelt was sympathetic to the cause, but his hands were tied; America was officially neutral and its population heavily anti-interventionist. Britain somehow had to overcome public opinion and break down powerful lobby groups. One man, MI6’s agent in New York, recognised that it had to be done by any means necessary. 

William Stephenson, a Canadian businessman and unlikely-looking spymaster, having brought himself to the attention of ‘C’, the head of MI6, was appointed to run an influence campaign in America. The work began uncertainly, but soon Stephenson knew what he had to do and in time built up an organisation – eventually given the cover name ‘British Security Coordination’ – that occupied an entire floor of New York’s Rockefeller Center. 

Henry Hemming has trawled through the archives and examined recently declassified files to reveal the full extent of Stephenson’s racket. The organisation run by Stephenson began rumours to discredit individuals sympathetic to Germany, devised opinion polls so that the results would appear more favourable, fed propaganda (and entirely false) stories to newspapers and radio stations, infiltrated campaign groups, set honey-traps and faked plans that seemed to put the Nazi threat on America’s doorstep. Stephenson himself cultivated a friendship with people close to the president, most importantly William Donovan, who would head-up the forerunner to the CIA.

As personal assistant to the Director of the Naval Intelligence, Ian Fleming weaves in and out of the narrative. Fleming’s part in the creation of what would become the CIA can be overplayed, and though Fleming was a key player, Hemming duly sets the record straight.
Hemming has not forgotten the Bond connection either. One of the two kills that earn James Bond his double-O status takes place at the Rockefeller Center. It’s worth noting, too, that William Stephenson would often meet people at the St Regis Hotel; James Bond stays there in the novel of Live and Let Die (1954).

There’s room, too, for other individuals who in time would leave a mark on James Bond lore. Ivar Bryce, Fleming’s friend and financial backer of the early attempts to bring Bond to the big screen, used his South American expertise during his time with BSC to fake a map that was almost decisive in bringing America into the war. (Interestingly, the same map is described as genuine in Room 3603, an earlier account of William Stephenson and the BSC. It’s fascinating to consider that Ian Fleming wrote a foreword to a book that he knew was far from the full story, as had been claimed on the dustjacket.) Roald Dahl, responsible for the screenplays of You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, also worked for the BSC. I would like to have read more about Roald Dahl’s knack for digging out scandal that could be used to Britain’s advantage, as well the adventures he and Fleming enjoyed during their time together in New York and Washington away from the office, but perhaps that’s another story.

Our Man in New York is a fascinating read as thrilling as any work of fiction. There aren’t many history books that you’ll want to read in one sitting, but this is one of them. Henry Hemming has written a superb book that deserves a place on every Fleming aficionado’s bookshelf. 

Our Man in New York by Henry Hemming is published by Quercus in the UK and in the US (as Agents of Influence) by PublicAffairs.

Friday, 22 November 2019

On the trail of Goldfinger

During the summer, I went on an epic road-trip and retraced James Bond’s route in pursuit of Goldfinger from Le Touquet on the north coast of France to Geneva in Switzerland, as described in Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel. 

For just a few days I became Bond as I followed the same roads, drove through the same towns and villages, stopped at the same hotels and ate the same food mentioned in the novel. Along the way, I re-discovered a France before the construction of the motorway network and sights and places away from the usual tourist routes. 

An article about my journey has just been published in issue 53 of MI6 Confidential. Click here to find out more

I’ve also put together a short video, accompanied by a rocking soundtrack, that shows the route that Bond takes. Check it out! 

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Atticus and Bond: the inspiration for Rosa Klebb?

Atticus and Bond: the most beautiful money in the world