Sunday 30 January 2011

Where did Ian Fleming get his ideas?

I was listening to Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming in conversation – the recording is part of the BBC’s archive on James Bond – and was struck by a number of Chandler’s statements that reminded me of passages that appeared later in Fleming’s novels.

The conversation was originally broadcast in 1958, and Fleming was about to publish
Goldfinger. In the programme, Chandler asks Fleming why he included torture scenes in all his novels. Fleming disputed this, but then admitted that this was a product of growing up with Fu Manchu and Bulldog Drummond novels (evidently the influence of these earlier English thrillers cannot be dismissed altogether). Chandler said, ‘Next time try brainwashing’. Fleming did not try brainwashing in his next book (For Your Eyes Only), but it does appear in his final full-length novel, The Man With The Golden Gun. After losing his memory in Japan at the conclusion of You Only Live Twice, James Bond travels to Russia and into the hands of the KGB, which brainwashes him into assassinating M.

Then, during a conversation about gun crime in America, Chandler says, ‘The first thing you do after being struck on the head [with a gun] is vomit’. Fleming used this idea rather sooner. In the short story Risico (published in
For Your Eyes Only), Bond is struck on the head with a Luger by one of Colombo’s men. Fleming writes, ‘When you come to from being hit on the head the first reaction is a fit of vomiting’.

In the broadcast, Fleming refers to Chandler’s latest novel,
Playback. Chandler mentions that at the end of it, the hero Philip Marlowe proposes marriage. Chandler speculates that marriage and Marlowe’s job – a private detective – are incompatible, and that it would cause a problem in subsequent novels. Fleming said, ‘I don’t think my character’s going to get married’. Well, of course he does, to Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But, like Chandler, Fleming was aware that marriage and Bond’s job cannot be reconciled, and he (actually Blofeld) kills the marriage as the couple speeds off from the ceremony.

As Goldfinger says: ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action’. The obvious conclusion to draw from the broadcast is that, rather than these similarities being coincidence, Fleming took or ‘inherited’ Chandler’s ideas, stored them away in his mind, and recalled them (whether remembering the original source or not) to use in his writing. So, to answer the question posed in the title, in some cases the ideas came from Raymond Chandler.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

What's in a name?

It’s official. MGM has given the go-ahead for the next James Bond film, which will be released on 9th November 2012. The film is as yet untitled, but fan websites are feverish with speculation about the name. If the titles of the last two films set a trend, then Daniel Craig’s third film will use the name of an Ian Fleming short story. And there are a few to chose from: The Hildebrand Rarity, Risico, The Property of a Lady, and 007 in New York. I add to the speculation below, but before I do, it is worth thinking about Bond titles. What makes a title memorable? Or, to take a meme’s eye view, what gives a title, itself a meme, its survival value, or ability to be reproduced and remain active in popular culture?

It is reasonable to say that original film titles are more likely to be forgotten than those directly taken from Fleming. The titles Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is not Enough, and Die Another Day are as bland as Pierce Brosnan’s portrayal of Bond, and I expect occasional Bond watchers have trouble remembering them, let alone recall the films’ narratives. (The other day I was asked by a colleague to settle a debate had in a pub concerning the number of Brosnan’s Bond films. Out of a group of, I guess, four or five people, my colleague was alone in claiming four films; his friends, however, maintained that there had been only one or two, and he couldn’t convince them otherwise because he couldn’t remember the titles.)

The exceptions to the non-Fleming title rule are GoldenEye and Licence to Kill, which are probably more firmly imprinted in people’s minds, not least because the films’ titles are helped by other memes to give them improved penetration in cultural space (that is, they are replicated often and accurately, for example by the films being viewed or discussed in pubs). Goldeneye was helped by the six year gap between it and its predecessor, drawing a lot of interest before and after its release. The film also spawned a highly successful computer game, and the fact that Goldeneye was the name of Fleming’s Jamaican house was advantageous too. And Licence to kill was a well-known phrase before the film of that name was released in 1989.

Generally, Fleming’s titles, thanks to the success of the books and the films, are well embedded into popular culture. However, some are more successful than others. As with Licence to Kill, some titles have greater chance of replication, as their currency lies beyond the films, for instance often being used in or adapted for newspaper headlines (From Russia, With Love and The Spy Who Loved Me), becoming the soubriquet of politicians (Dr No), or existing as general figures of speech (Diamonds Are Forever and For Your Eyes Only).

In other cases, notably Goldfinger and Live and Let Die, the titles have been given increased prominence as a result of being attached to well-known and well-played songs. Few people will hear the word Goldfinger without recalling Shirley Bassey’s powerful rendition of the theme song’s opening lines, while Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die is a regular number at his concerts, and has been covered by other artists (Guns ‘n’ Roses among them) or featured in numerous non-Bondian contexts (for example the films Shrek the Third and Grosse Point Blank). These factors increase the chances of the titles’ replicative success as they enter people’s minds and are passed on in conversation or other media, and ultimately not forgotten.

What makes a successful title, then, is one that comes directly from Fleming, accompanies a good film or related products, or can be adapted and used in non-Bond connotations. So, which Fleming title would I recommend to the producers of Bond 23? Risico. It’s short, which makes it memorable and good for a song (I recommend Brian May – let’s finally bring the Queen sound to Bond), and the word could enter common usage similar to the way that Fleming introduces it (‘In this pizness is much risico’). However, it is known that Michael G Wilson dislikes Risico because the word is Fleming's invention (or perhaps more likely a rarely written down word that conveys a dialect he may have heard on his travels), and so my second choice is The Hildebrand Rarity. It has less potential to be adapted, but it is a more interesting title than The Property of a Lady.

Saturday 8 January 2011

Almost Bond

The actor Mark Greenstreet screen-tested for the role of James Bond in The Living Daylights in 1986 when Roger Moore retired from the part after completing A View to a Kill (1985). He came very close to winning the role, but it ultimately went to Timothy Dalton. In 2006, I spoke to Mark about his brush with the world of 007.

Mark Greenstreet rose to prominence in the BBC TV series Bret Farrar. This English country-estate-set crime drama, broadcast in 1986, starred Mark in the title role of a man persuaded to pretend to be a long-lost son to help claim a family fortune, but is then implicated in the murder of the man he impersonates. The drama was a hit in the US, and Mark soon drew the attention of producer Cubby Broccoli. Some may have considered Mark, then 25 years old, to be a little young for Bond, but Mark saw the influence of the teen-orientated ‘Brat Pack’ films and its large fan-base in Broccoli’s interest.

After watching all the Bond films to prepare himself, Mark was interviewed at EON’s Mayfair office by Barbara Broccoli, Michael G Wilson, and associate producer Tom Pevsner. Then it was off to the costumer to be fitted with the regulation dinner suit, and to be supplied with the spy’s essential accessory – a gun holster.

The screen test took place at Pinewood in front of Cubby Broccoli, director John Glen, and the main film crew. For tests, Glen always recreated scenes from Dr No and From Russia With Love. As Bond, Mark shot the duplicitous Professor Dent and seduced Tatiana Romanova (played by Fiona Fullerton) in a steamy bedroom scene. He also had to do some fighting and order breakfast. If only for a day, Mark was James Bond. Time enough, though for a surreal meeting in the toilets with Michael Biehn, who was at Pinewood filming Aliens and also in character.

The test went well, and Mark had a lovely time, but there his involvement with Bond ended. A case, perhaps of so close, and yet so Farrar. But if he had won the part, what would Mark Greenstreet’s Bond have been like? Mark thought that the later films were missing a hard edge. ‘When Connery slapped a woman, you felt like she wanted it’, he told me. Chances are, then, that Mark’s portrayal would have been closer to Sean Connery than Roger Moore. The actor who did become Bond, Timothy Dalton, took a similar approach, and his performance in The Living Daylights (1987) was lauded. It seems that after the Moore years, a relatively serious portrayal was inevitable as a trend to return to the roots of Fleming’s James Bond began to hold sway.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

The James Bond diet

James Bond doesn’t eat in the films. Who knows where he’s getting his energy from, but it’s not from three square meals a day. That’s not strictly true. In Casino Royale (2008), Bond consumes skewered lamb (a kebab of some sort?) on a Montenegro-bound train. And he eats breakfast relatively frequently: cafĂ© complet in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and green figs and yoghurt in From Russia With Love (1963).

The literary James Bond is a dish served from a different menu. Food is as much part of the novels as guns, champagne, women, villains and travel. Ian Fleming claimed that he wanted to stimulate his readers, right down to their taste buds. He certainly does that. We don’t have to read many pages before Fleming stops the action to describe a meal.

There are about seventy separate meals in the twelve novels and two books of short stories, but many more food descriptions, since some of the dishes appear more than once. On average, there are five food references in each full-length novel. Goldfinger virtually acts as a gastronomic tour, containing ten food references, the meals mainly being consumed by Bond on a drive through France in pursuit of the eponymous villain.

Fleming was a foodie, but there is evidence that he lost interest. Academic John Griswold calculated the duration of Bond’s adventures, and the information allows us to work out that food is mentioned more infrequently towards the final adventures – one reference per every nine mission-days in The Man with the Golden Gun (1965), compared with every four mission-days in Live and Let Die (1954) – probably reflecting Fleming’s increasingly ill-health.

But it’s not so much the quantity, as the quality. Bond’s food ranges from mundane, commonly-consumed fare to exotic once-in-a-lifetime concoctions. He eats eggs scrambled and poached, caviar, lobsters, ray wings, turbot, beef tournedos, hamburgers, duck, asparagus, artichokes, strawberries, and guavas, among many other items. Most of Bond’s food is relatively commonplace today, but back in the 1950s, with Britain emerging, blinking, from the darkness of rationing, it was a revelation. How many people had seen an avocado in 1953, when Casino Royale was published, let alone tasted one? Avocados were so new that even Fleming didn’t know what to do with them, having Bond eat it as a dessert with French dressing.

Not that Fleming was particularly inconvenienced by rationing. In London he ate in his club, and in Jamaica, where he quartered during the winter, he had a private beach that was crawling with fish and lobsters. Of course Fleming liked to offer his readers a view of food that was beyond their grasp, but he also simply described his own experiences, which he gave to James Bond. It is no surprise that Bond regularly eats scrambled egg, because it was Fleming’s favourite food. Fleming’s usual grilled sole consumed at his club was a lunch-time usual for Bond. A beef stew that Fleming has in Japan is also eaten by Bond when he visits the country.

Note: this entry is taken from the introduction to the cookbook, Licence to Cook (see link to the right).