Sunday, 15 July 2012

The evolution of Q

July has seen official confirmation of what was suspected for many months, that Ben Whishaw is playing the role of Q in the forthcoming James Bond film, Skyfall. An image from the film published by shows the young Q with an open metal case, which presumably contains a gadget or weapon of some kind. And, far removed from the tweedy suits of Desmond Llewelyn's Q, he wears glasses and a V-necked garment that epitomises geek chic (with a touch of Bondian sophistication).

As Ben Whishaw noted in an interview with Graham Norton, there is great public affection for the character of Q, helped in no small part by Desmond Llewelyn's character-defining portrayal and the public's familiarity and enjoyment of the Q-Bond exchanges that developed through the film series.

Despite the fact that the scene where Q equips Bond with the latest gadgetry has become a standard component of the Bond formula, the Q of the early films is different from that of the later films. The evolution is subtle, but over time there have been changes in approaches to the scene and to Q's style. Peter Burton, appearing in Dr No, was the first Q, or, rather, the armourer. The appearance was fleeting and a more-or-less straight depiction of the passage in Ian Fleming's novel. Desmond Llewelyn replaced Burton in From Russia With Love. Llewelyn's Q followed Burton's style, playing the scene reasonably straight. There was, however, a significant change in the approach to the role in Goldfinger. The director Guy Hamilton insisted that Llewelyn's portrayal reflected Q's hatred of Bond's cavalier attitude to the gadgets, and the result was a character that not only demonstrated the gadgets to Bond, but was also irritated by Bond as he did so.

This approach was ostensibly retained throughout Desmond Llewelyn's tenure, although the role has developed over time. Q becomes more than a laboratory technician concerned with developing the gadgets required in Bond's mission when he provides scientific and technological advice to the secret service and the government, as seen, for example, in The Spy Who Loved Me, where he advises on the heat signature recognition system that allows Stromberg to capture submarines.

Q also seems to have become more exasperated with Bond as the series progressed. We get a 'Try to be less than your frivolous self, 007' in Thunderball, a 'Oh, and missed you [ie Bond], did they? What a pity' in Octopussy, and a 'Grow up, 007' in GoldenEye and The World Is Not Enough. Parallel with this has been the increased humour in Q's lines, largely beginning in the Roger Moore era. Moonraker's 'I think he's attempting re-entry' is a classic, but there are other nice one-liners, such as, 'She [Mayday] must take a lot of vitamins' in A View To A Kill, or 'Explosive alarm clock – guaranteed never to wake up anyone who uses it' in Licence to Kill. In other words, Desmond Llewelyn's Q increasingly served as comic relief (admittedly among other comic moments, particularly in Roger Moore's time).

Another change has been the increased affection between Q and Bond, with Q becoming a father-figure or mentor to Bond. This is apparent in Licence to Kill, when Q unofficially equips Bond in the field ('If it wasn't for me, you would have been dead long ago'), and The World Is Not Enough ('I've always tried to teach you two things...'), Desmond Llewelyn's last appearance in the role.

As for style, the Q of the early films wears a three-piece suit, as is no doubt appropriate for a lower-level government employee. The style changes in the middle period to single-breasted suit (usually without a waistcoat) or blazer and smart trousers (occasionally interspersed with tropical or safari wear), and in the later period (from The Living Daylights onwards), Q wears a more tweed-like three-piece suit, as might be worn by an eminent university professor.

As is often the case with memetic change, these developments in the character have occurred gradually, as new scenes largely imitated the scenes depicted in films they immediately followed. This is clear from the fact that no film after Goldfinger returned to the basic Q-Bond exchange of Dr No or From Russia With Love, or that no film after Moonraker omitted to give Q his fair share of witty one-liners.

John Cleese's Q in Die Another Day references the humour and interplay of Desmond Llewelyn's Q in the earlier films ('Better than looking cleverer than you are' [in response to Bond's 'You're cleverer than you look'], and 'I wish I could make you vanish'), and more directly recalls Goldfinger ('As I learned from my predecessor, Bond, I never joke about my work'). In his first film, The World Is Not Enough, Cleese, as Q's assistant, was presented as a white-coated lab technician, albeit a character just as irritated by Bond.

There was no Q in Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace, although the forensics technician in Quantum of Solace, played by Brendan O'Hea, was a role that might have been taken by Q in the earlier films. Interestingly, the character's style combined geek chic with the professorial tweediness of Desmond Llewelyn's later Q.

When they created the role of Q, the producers of the Bond films could not have foreseen how the character would develop over time, or been aware of how successful the character would become, as measured the longevity of the character, but also by the fact that the Q is now well established in popular culture, with knowledge of the character probably being as widespread as that of Bond. Another sign of this success is the observation that aspects or memes that form the character have escaped beyond the Bond films into other productions, and in my next article, I will explore some of the Q memes that have been expressed in other films.


  1. Q's more fatherly figure in the later films is notable in 'The World Is Not Enough' with Q's criticism of R. R may have copied Q's exasperated style (reminiscent of Q in the earlier films) but it is clear in the film that only Q has licence to have the love-hate relationship with Bond. Other members of Q Branch are not permitted the same latitude.

    1. Good point. Another point to make is that in the later films, Q's actually having fun ('Something we're making for the Americans. It's called a ghetto blaster' (TLD); 'Skiing?' 'No, hunting!' (GE)). He doesn't seem to enjoy his encounters with Bond in the earlier films.


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