Thursday 27 October 2011

Does Chitty Chitty Bang Bang take off?

It must have been a challenge for Frank Cottrell Boyce to write a sequel. After all, there are two Chitty Chitty Bang Bangs. There's the film incarnation, which appeared on screens in 1968 and starred in a magical musical adventure. Then there's Ian Fleming's original Chitty, which began life as a children's book in 1964. Less well known than the film version, the story takes Chitty and the Pott family on adventures in England and France, where they foil a gang of burglars and villains. Boyce's solution is to embrace both Chitties, and the result – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flies again – is a wonderful testament to the book's cinematic and literary ancestry.

In his latest adventure, Frank Cottrell Boyce introduces us to the Tootings. Dad, an inventive engineer, loses his job, but ever the optimist, sees it as an opportunity to explore and visit new places. Excited at the prospect, Mum acquires a rusty VW camper van, much to the embarrassment of children Lucy, Jem and Little Harry. Jem soon changes his mind, though, when given the chance to restore the van with Dad.

A visit to a scrapyard brings more excitement as they encounter an old engine – once the power behind the racing car of Count Zborowski. That's when the magic begins. The Tootings quickly find out that it's the van, not them, who's driving, as it takes them from England to France, then to Egypt for reasons that slowly become clear. On the way, they encounter a glamorous nanny, and the mysterious Tiny Jack, who has his own interest in the flying van.

The story is imbued with the spirit of Ian Fleming. The author gives the Tootings the same 'never say no to adventure' philosophy shown by the original Potts, and skilfully weaves in interesting facts, just as Fleming did. The name Jem, short for Jeremy, and an allusion to the original children, Jeremy and Jemima, is a nice touch too. The illustrations, by Joe Berger, recall the art of Fleming's illustrator, John Burningham. The film is not forgotten either. There is more than a hint of the childcatcher, and fantastic toys are an important feature of the book, just as they are in the film, while descriptions of Tiny Jack's hideaway could come from the drawing board of Ken Adam. There's even a cameo role for James Bond's most famous car.

At the end of the book, the author acknowledges that there are questions concerning some of the plot details that remain unanswered. But then again, the bigger question of how a car came to fly at all is one that even Fleming never addressed. Neither book, old and new, is the worse for this – we accept the magic, which papers over all the holes. Despite the nods to the past, readers of the latest adventure don't need to be familiar with earlier incarnations to enjoy the book. It stands on its own four wheels, and serves as the perfect introduction to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the next generation.

Sunday 23 October 2011

James Bond cornered

I saw the film Cornered the other day. It's an old film – released in 1945 – and stars Dick Powell as Laurence Gerard, a demobbed pilot who goes on the hunt for the man who ordered the killing of a group of French resistance fighters, among them Gerard's war-bride. What struck me as I was watching it is how like a James Bond film it is, especially the early films, such as Dr No (1962).

Dick Powell plays a character that is Bond-like. He is ruthless, determined, and tough. This is a character hewn from his experiences in the second world war. Gerard is handsome, too, and proves to be quite the attraction for the women he encounters.

The plot follows the trajectory that is typical of a Bond film. In London Gerard is assigned a mission (in this case a self-appointed one) to track down one Marcel Jarnac, a Vichy collaborator. He follows a series of clues that sees him travel from London to Paris, then to Argentina, where he meets a man who acts as a guide and go-between (a charismatic roguish man, a little like From Russia With Love's Kerim Bey). Gerard meets the 'widow' of Jarnac, and the key players of an active group of neo-Nazis, of which Jarnac is the head. He also gets tangled up with the local anti-Nazi operatives, who are sympathetic to Gerard, but have their own goals, and aren't happy at the distraction. Later Gerard is exposed and captured, and receives a beating. Tied to a chair, he comes face to face with Jarnac, but escapes and finally Jarnac is killed.

In its basic structure, the film is reminiscent of Dr No or From Russia With Love (1963). There is the globe-trotting, contacts and operatives whose loyalties are not always clear, beautiful women (one good, the other bad), sophisticated surroundings, wisecracks, fist-fights and gunfights, a torture scene, and a villain (Jarnac) who rivals Dr No or Blofeld.

The scene in which Gerard is tied to a chair and, between beatings, is forced to listen to Jarnac's plans for his neo-Nazi group is especially Bondian. And when Jarnac shoots Melchior Incza (Gerard's go-between) with all the rounds in his gun, I thought of Bond shooting Dr No's agent, Professor Dent, six times.

The plot is generally fast-moving and its style could be regarded as forerunner to the technique of quick cuts perfected by editor Peter Hunt on Dr No.

There are no obvious links between Cornered and Dr No (for example in terms of scriptwriters), although no doubt Dr No screenwriter Richard Maibaum was very familiar with Dick Powell's films and his style of action thrillers. But this may have been enough for Cornered and other films of the same style to have imprinted themselves on Maibaum's mind, and for elements of them to be expressed, probably unknowingly, in the screenplay for Dr No.

Sunday 16 October 2011

The many faces of James Bond

How many James Bond have there been? There are the film Bonds, of course, and there have been six of those (seven if you count David Niven in Casino Royale (1967)). What about the illustrated Bond? Well, there have been many more times the number of Bonds.

Artwork that accompanied the serialisations of Fleming's novels in the Daily Express is among the earliest to depict James Bond. The serialisations began with Diamonds Are Forever in April 1956, and continued most years in March or April with subsequent novels. The last serialisation was Kingsley Amis' Colonel Sun in 1968.

All illustrations were by Andrew Robb (usually known by his surname only), who was a long-standing fashion illustrator for the Daily Express. His drawings, like his fashion art, were economical, but realistic, and gave a clear sense of movement and expression. Robb's Bond had what might be termed by anthropologists as a dominant face – a large square chin, and prominent cheekbones and brow ridges. His hair was disciplined, except for a loose curl above his right eye, as specified by Fleming. Robb's Bond was not fixed, though; the Bond drawn for On Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1963, for example, veered from a well-built man of danger to a public school master with floppy hair. The next serialisation was You Only Live Twice (1964). For this, Robb turned to the films, and drew a different Bond, this time one that looked rather like Sean Connery. A Connery-like Bond was also depicted in The Man with the Golden Gun and Colonel Sun.

Other early illustrations of Bond were appeared on the covers of the paperback editions of the novels. Both the UK and US paperback editions of Casino Royale were published in 1955. The Bond of the UK edition, published by Pan, bore little resemblance to Fleming's Bond – brown hair, rather than black, and no comma of hair over the right brow – and gave the overall impression of a travel-weary businessman, rather than a spy with cruel looks. The Bond of the US edition, published as You Asked for it, was better, albeit Americanised in terms of clothes and attitude.

Subsequent Pan editions of the book and later novels up to the end of the 1950s fitted more closely with Fleming. In editions of the early 1960s, Bond was shown at the bottom of the covers of all novels published up till then as a standard motif. Curiously, Bond appeared to be much older – in his late 40s or 50s. Perhaps the artist had aged him in keeping with the veterans of World War II at that time.

I won't dwell on the cartoon strips – I recommend Alan J Porter's History of the illustrated 007 for an excellent account of the history of James Bond in newspaper strips, comics, and graphic novels – but it is worth remarking on the general influence of the film series. Newspaper strip adaptations of the Bond novels appeared in the Daily Express from 1958. John McLusky drew the strip until 1966, with subsequent strips being drawn mainly by Yaroslav Horak. The strips were collated, translated and published in other countries. Usually in these cases different artists were commissioned to provide covers. The film Bond was very influential here. For example, the Danish edition of 'Octopussy', published in 1969, showed a Connery-like figure, and had no reference to Horak's artwork inside. Both the Swedish and Danish versions (published in 1972 and 1974 respectively) of 'The Isle of Condors', an original strip by Jim Lawrence and Yaroslav Horak, also depicted a Connery-like figure on the cover (the films of George Lazenby and Roger Moore apparently not being enough to dislodge Connery as the face of Bond).

More recently, the presentation pack that accompanied Royal Mail's issue of James Bond postage stamps in 2008 included an illustration of James Bond. This was by Mike Bell. There is something a little Daniel Craig-like about his depiction. If the artist was influenced to some extent by Craig's Bond, then this is not surprising, given the enormous success that Casino Royale (2006) enjoyed.

From the mid 1950s, Bond has been depicted in cartoon strips, comics, cover artwork, serialisations, and advertisements. Each artist has introduced a new face of Bond. But while they have usually turned to Ian Fleming's description, the film Bond has also influenced the way Bond is drawn.


Bond Bound: Ian Fleming and the art of cover design, the Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation
A J Porter, 2008 James Bond: the history of the illustrated 007, Hermes Press

Tuesday 11 October 2011

James Bond and Alligator

I recently read I*n Fl*m*ng's Alligator. This is the James Bond parody published by the Harvard Lampoon in 1962. In the book, J*mes B*nd faces his most dangerous adversary, Lacertus Alligator, who, as head of TOOTH, an organisation of ex-Nazis, steals the Houses of Parliament, along with its members, and demands a huge ransom for its release.

In a similar manner to the way that, more recently, Sebastian Faulks prepared for his Bond book, Devil May Care, the authors of Alligator have replicated certain aspects or memes seen in Fleming's novels to produce a composite Bond thriller, although the memes have been adapted, typically by means of exaggeration, for comic effect.

Food and drink feature heavily. The 'Vesper' martini of Casino Royale is alluded to as Bond invents an elaborate cocktail and names it after Alligator's companion, Anagram le Galion. (Jeffrey Deaver also picked up on the 'Vesper' when writing Carte Blanche, and invented another cocktail.) There are also nods to Bond's heavy alcohol and cigarette consumption (at least to modern eyes). B*nd routinely orders triples, and has a 120-a-day cigarette habit, up from the 70-a-day habit in the original books. And as with the original books, none of this appears to affect B*nd's ability to perform his duties. B*nd dines regularly, and is quite exact about his requirements.

In recognition of Moonraker's bridge game, and Goldfinger's golf match, in Alligator, B*nd meets the villain across the card table as he tries to outwit him in the high-stakes card game, Go Fish. Fleming's use of facts and technical detail is frequently parodied ('The I G Farben Co., a German concern, was the first corporation to make purple aniline dye products on a large scale').

The villain, Alligator, is an amalgam of Goldfinger, Blofeld, Drax, and to a lesser extent Mr Big. He loves purple, and sprays everyone he meets with a purple dye. Physical characteristics include doll-like eyes, a football-sized head, red hair, and, curiously, metal teeth. (One wonders whether the scriptwriters for the film, The Spy Who Loved Me, had read the book, with the detail re-emerging in the characterisation of Jaws. Similarly, Alligator features wrist-activated darts, which were also used in Moonraker – a film, like The Spy Who Loved Me, penned by Christopher Wood.)

There are other aspects of Fleming that readers would recognise. Alligator has a Korean on his staff, who is adept at performing karate chops, Oddjob style. In Bermuda, to where the action moves, B*nd engages the services of a Caribbean islander, Squabble (as opposed to Quarrel in Fleming). Bond's Scottish housekeeper, May, is now Llewylla, who is Welsh. In the latter stages of the book, B*nd dines with Alligator, giving Alligator the opportunity to lecture B*nd on his origins and his dastardly plans. All very Dr No. And, as in Dr No, B*nd attempts to secrete some tableware about his person for use as possible weapons. In the original, Bond manages a bread knife; in Alligator, he manages a steak knife, then a candlestick.

In general, then, the authors of Alligator have been most inspired by Dr No, Moonraker, and Goldfinger. The Nazi origins of Alligator, his cheating at cards at his London club, Glades, and his desire to bring down the British government recall Drax and Moonraker, while the Caribbean location, and B*nd's dinner with Alligator bring to mind Dr No. The doses of Goldfinger are apparent in the Korean manservant and the obsession with purple (rather than gold).

What is also interesting is the books that aren't referenced to any great degree – Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and Diamonds Are Forever, among others. Although strong entries in the Bond series, and bestsellers, it is possible that they provided fewer targets for parody. Alternatively, Drax, Blofeld, Dr No and Goldfinger, along with associated plot details, so quickly established themselves as the archetypal Bondian memes, that they overshadowed any other elements. Consequently, parodies focus on these at the expense of others. This continues to be the case. The Austin Powers spoofs, for example, have tended to parody the same targets as the authors of Alligator – Dr No, Goldfinger and Blofeld – though in this case, it was the film versions that were spoofed.