Tuesday 26 June 2012

James Bond and Alan Turing

Saturday 23rd June marked the centenary of Alan Turing's birth. Turing died in 1954 of cyanide poisoning, but his fame lives on as the father of modern computing and the mathematical genius who was so instrumental in cracking German codes at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. His birth has been commemorated with the unveiling of two blue plaques – one at St Leonards, Hastings at his childhood home, and the other at Manchester University, where he studied after the war and continued his pioneering work – and over the last week or so, there has been much media focus on his work and legacy.

A number of articles have been published on the BBC website. One, by Graham Moore, looks at how the incredible, but troubled, and ultimately tragic life of Alan Turing has been addressed by writers of fiction. For example, in 1980 Ian McEwan wrote a short play, The Imitation Game, which was inspired by Turing's experiences at Bletchley. Another play, Breaking the Code, written by Hugh Whitemore in 1986, featured Turing more directly, and was later filmed for the BBC with Derek Jacobi as Turing. More recently, 2007 saw the publication of the novel, A madman dreams of Turing machines, by Janna Levin.

There was, however, one book that Graham Moore forgot to mention. That was, of course, Charlie Higson's Young Bond adventure, Double or Die, published in 2007. At the end of the book (and stop reading now if haven't read the book and you don't want to know what happens), we are introduced to an older James Bond at the end of the war. He arrives at Bletchley to collect an important code-breaker and take him to headquarters in London. That man is Alan Turing (and indeed, Young Bond meets Turing as a Cambridge Student earlier in the book).

The coda elegantly closes the book, with its themes of codes, puzzles and danger, and gives us a glimpse into the life of Bond at the start of his post-war secret service career. It also nicely brings in a place with which Ian Fleming was himself associated, visiting Bletchley every few weeks during the war in his role as assistant to the director of the Naval Intelligence Division, Admiral Godfrey.

Sunday 17 June 2012

Was an Octopussy stunt performed in GoldenEye?

By today's standards, the scene in the pre-titles sequence of GoldenEye where James Bond rides his motorbike off the cliff, discards the bike, freefalls towards a pilot-less plane in nose-dive, catches to it, hauls himself into the plane and the cockpit, and wrestles with the controls before lifting the nose and flying away to safety, looks a little ropey. As the special effects supervisor, Chris Corbould, says: 'The shot where he comes in from the doorway is on wires…it's probably not our finest moment' (Empire, June 2012). Well, I can think of worse (Bond glacier surfing in glorious CGI in Die Another Day?), but in any case, the scene is as exciting now as it was when I first saw the film in 1995. At least the scene was shot with real people, real props and, yes, real wires.

I remember that there was much incredulity expressed about the science of the stunt, but it is reassuring to know that the stunt was theoretically possible. In June's Empire magazine, Martin Campbell confirms that the production team considered performing the stunt in reality, and Chris Corbould suggests that the plane, a Pilatis Porter, could be slowed sufficiently to allow a skydiver to catch up to it and clamber on board.

Indeed, an early version of the stunt appears to have been performed during preparations of the aerial scenes in Octopussy. George MacDonald Fraser, who co-wrote the Octopussy screenplay, describes in his memoir, The Light's on at Signpost (Harper Collins, 2002), a stunt which was performed by the stuntmen B J Worth and Rande Deluca, who doubled for Roger Moore and Kebir Bedi in the aerial scenes. In retrospect, the stunt could have been a prototype of the GoldenEye sequence. B J Worth flew a light plane, out of which Rande Deluca jumped. Worth then took the plane into a nose-dive, caught up to Deluca, then manoeuvred the plane to allow Deluca to haul himself back inside.

The stunt doesn't match the GoldenEye sequence exactly, and it is unclear if the stunt was in fact related to the Octopussy preparations. However, GoldenEye's skydiving was performed by B J Worth, and it is possible that he provided elements of the stunt that he had successfully carried out around the time of Octopussy to the sequence which closely resembled it.

Sunday 10 June 2012

Ian Fleming in Any Human Heart

When Ian Fleming Publications announced that author William Boyd was to write the next James Bond adventure, many of the media reports drew attention to the fact that not only was Boyd a self-confessed fan of the Bond novels – with From Russia, with Love being his favourite – but he had also written Fleming into his 2002 novel, Any Human Heart. A more complete read of the novel provides further connections with the world of Ian Fleming.

Any Human Heart takes the form of a set of journals by the protagonist, Logan Mountstuart. Beginning in 1923, the journals reveal the story of his life from his time at a minor public school to his final days in France in the early 1990s. In between, the journals encompass Mountstuart's years at Oxford University, his early period as a writer, his journalism covering the Spanish Civil War, his experiences in naval intelligence during the Second World War, his career as a New York art dealer, and his time living in London and West Africa. Throughout, he meets people of note, including fellow writers, artists, royalty, and, of course, Ian Fleming.

Fleming makes several appearances. We first encounter him in August 1935 in Scotland on a golf course. Fleming is introduced to Mountstuart by a mutual friend and tells Mountstuart that he is travelling to Kitzb├╝hel. In reality, Fleming did visit Kitzb├╝hel in August, and indeed went there most summers before the Second World War. But his visit in 1935 was especially meaningful for Fleming. While he was there, he met Muriel Wright, who would become his lover for nine years until she was killed in an air raid in London.

Then, in October 1935, Mountstuart plays golf with Fleming at Huntercombe, near Henley-on-Thames, before lunching with him at the Savoy Grill. The course had been a regular Fleming haunt since childhood. Amusingly, William Boyd appears to make Mountstuart responsible for turning Fleming to writing. We learn in the same journal entry that Fleming asked Mountstuart about his writing after revealing, as was indeed the case, that he was unhappy being a stockbroker.

Mountstuart's recruitment into the Naval Intelligence Division (NID) is described later in the novel in a journal entry dating to July 1939. Fleming invites Mountstuart to lunch at the Carlton Grill, within the Carlton Hotel, and tells him how impressed he was with Mountstuart's reports from the Spanish Civil War, and hints at a role for him at the Admiralty. On the way out, they meet Admiral Godfrey, director of the NID. Boyd tells us that Mountstuart began his career in the NID as a lieutenant in the Special Branch of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. Mountstuart's recruitment matches that of Fleming's very closely. Fleming joined the NID after lunching with Admiral Godfrey at the Carlton Grill, and he was appointed to the rank of lieutenant (Special Branch) of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. Later, Mountstuart is promoted to the rank of commander, just was Fleming was.

The final reference to Fleming dates to October 3, 1955. Mountstuart has read Live and Let Die, which had been published the year earlier, and writes that he cannot suspend his disbelief, as he sees Fleming as a very strong presence in it.

Other literary luminaries who cross paths with Logan Mountstuart to lesser or greater extents formed part of Ian Fleming's world. At Oxford Mountstuart meets Peter Quennell. Quennell was a close friend of Ann Fleming, and came to know Ian Fleming well. Then we learn that, after Oxford during his early period as writer in London, Mountstuart lives close to Cyril Connolly. Connolly was a friend of Ian Fleming's and wrote the James Bond parody, 'Bond Strikes Camp'. Later Mountstuart meets Evelyn Waugh at a party. After the Second World War, Evelyn Waugh and Ann Fleming became firm friends. Mention is also made by Mountstuart of William Plomer, Ian Fleming's editor at Jonathan Cape.

William Boyd's Any Human Heart provides much interest for the Fleming and Bond aficionado. It gives us insight into Boyd's style and the potential direction of his Bond novel, but his references to Fleming and others reveal a detailed knowledge and fascination with Ian Fleming, which can only point to his Bond adventure being a worthy tribute to Fleming and James Bond.

Saturday 2 June 2012

James Bond's diamond jubilee

Across the length and breadth of the country, the UK is celebrating 60 years of Queen Elizabeth's reign with street parties, picnics and alcohol. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee reminds us of another significant event: James Bond was born in 1953, the year of Elizabeth's coronation, but was conceived in 1952, the year she acceded to the throne. Anthony Burgess called James Bond a new Elizabethan hero. How different was Bond's lifestyle from that of Fleming's readers?

We can get a sense of the difference from an interesting interactive guide on the BBC news website. Diamond Jubilee: You in '52 presents a series of lifestyle categories – work, music, fashion, food and housing – and invites us to select elements from a list under each category that best describe our current lives. In return, we see how different our lives may have been in the early 1950s. I did the test, and it was fun, but I thought it would be interesting to select the options that best fit James Bond's lifestyle in 1953.

Starting with fashion, I selected 'suit of office wear' out of smart casual, alternative, jeans and sportswear (I know Bond occasionally wears jeans, but a suit is more typical). 'A classic post-war suit could have been for you', the interactive guide told me. London gentlemen with means, it continued, adopted the neo-Edwardian look, with its single-breasted jacket, narrow trousers and velvet-collared overcoat. It doesn't quite match Bond's dark blue serge or worsted suit; there was no danger of Bond becoming a Teddy Boy.

What about music? I think Bond would select classical and opera – Bond is vaguely familiar with the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, and knows something of Wagner – though possibly easy listening is more his style, as he recognises ‘La Vie en Rose’ being played in the casino’s nightclub at Royale-les-Eaux. The BBC's interactive guide tells us that the hit parade of 1952 was dominated by the likes of Nat King Cole, classic Dixieland and bebop. This was more like Ian Fleming's kind of music; his 'desert island discs' included the Ink Spots and a jazz number.

For food, we're offered a choice of home-cooked British meals, foreign-inspired home-cooked meals, and takeaways. I've opted for a mixture of all three, as Bond ate English meals cooked by his housekeeper, May, and a range of foreign cuisine in hotel restaurants, which could count as takeaways. This must have seemed an unattainable luxury for most people in 1952, as continued rationing meant small portions of meat and lots of vegetables. Takeaways were limited to the occasional treat of fish and chips. That said, the interactive guide reveals that Mediterranean cooking was starting to become popular thanks to the books of Elizabeth David.

It was a little difficult to decide which category of work Bond fits into. In the end I chose 'Manager, administrator or professional in a senior role'. The interactive guide reminds us opportunities for senior or professional roles was limited in 1952, and most people would have been engaged in the manufacturing sector.

As for Bond's home, I've selected 'flat or maisonette', although being described as a newly-built flat in a tower block or a new maisonette, which replaced Victorian terraces and eased post-war housing shortages, this doesn't fit Bond's situation in a flat within a Regency house off the King's Road.

The picture one builds up of Bond, using the BBC's guide to early 1950s Britain, is a character removed from the everyday experiences of his readers. Bond's life is fantastic. He has the means to travel the world, dine on food rarely seen on Britons' dinner plates, and indulge in expensive material luxuries. No wonder Fleming's books were popular. As the saying goes, 'men want to be him, women want to be with him'. But given that Bond is still relatively young (mid 30s) in 1952/3, readers may have thought him a little old fashioned, at least in terms of his music and clothes. Ironically, though, it is these conservative tastes that have helped to give the novels a timeless quality.