Sunday 10 July 2011

The evolution of Blofeld

I'm almost embarrassed to mention it, but the other day I watched an edition of Bargain Hunt, a popular antiques series produced by the BBC. Two teams are given an amount of money to scour an antiques market for bargain objects to be put into auction. The team that makes the largest profit, or smallest loss, is the winner. Each team is accompanied by an antiques expert. In the edition I watched, one expert was shown in his introduction holding a cuddly toy of a white cat, with the James Bond theme playing in the background. The allusion was clear. The expert was pretending to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

The cat is so strongly associated with Blofeld, that the character's other essential attributes – such as a bald head, a high-collared Nehru-type jacket, charm, and (whether actually said or not) a line in welcoming statements with a hint of menace ('Ah, Mr Bond, I've been expecting you') – are not required for an audience to understand the reference, although some of these traits on their own would be enough for character recognition. Blofeld appears as a fully-realised character in just three Bond films (You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and Diamonds are Forever). But despite last appearing in 1971 (not including the Blofeld-like figure in 1981's For Your Eyes Only), the character is deeply embedded in popular culture.

The cat and other attributes are elements of a very successful Blofeld meme. Regular showings of the Bond films, and references in films such as Austin Powers and now programmes like Bargain Hunt, have kept the meme in the public eye, allowing it to spread widely, and survive through the generations.

The origins of Blofeld as portrayed by Donald Pleasence in You Only Live Twice are found within the film series. The Blofeld of Ian Fleming's Thunderball (the character's first literary appearance) looks altogether different. Fleming's description of a big man with a crew cut contrasts with the small, bald man shown in the film. There is, however, one point of similarity. Both Blofelds wear beige suits, although the styles are different; the suit of Fleming's Blofeld is double-breasted.

Apart from retaining the white cat, the Blofeld of You Only Live Twice takes little from the partial appearances of the character in the films From Russia with Love and Thunderball. In both films, we see a business-like Blofeld, devoid of charm and humour, who wears a dark suit, black tie and white shirt. Instead, Donald Pleasence's portrayal owes more to Emilio Largo, (the main villain in Thunderball), Goldfinger, and Dr No. Indeed, Dr No, with his sophistication, grand delusional scheme, and Nehru-type jacket, is a good prototype for Blofeld. That Blofeld derives from Dr No is evident from the character of Dr Evil in the Austin Powers films. With a single character, Mike Myers was able to parody both.

Telly Savalas' Blofeld in On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a tougher character than Pleasence's version, and he has more charm and sophistication. However, the white cat, style of jacket, and bald head, is retained from You Only Live Twice. The jacket and cat make another appearance in Diamonds are Forever, but Charles Grey's Blofeld lacks the menace of Savalas' Blofeld, taking the character far into high camp.

Diamonds are Forever saw the last of Blofeld, but he lives on in subsequent villains, in particular Stromberg, Hugo Drax and Kamal Khan. All are urbane, witty and psychotic, and at some point of their screen time wear beige high-collared jackets very reminiscent of those of Blofeld. But all could in fact be considered variants of Dr No. The Blofeld meme is, rather, a James Bond villain meme that emerges with Dr No and is replicated, with variations, in many of the subsequent films. And the Blofeld variant is the most successful variant of all, being replicated more often, more faithfully, and more widely than the others.

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