Sunday 28 July 2013

Some Lego models of James Bond vehicles

In lieu of a post of more academic value, I thought I'd publish pictures of the models of James Bond vehicles I've built out of Lego over the past few weeks. I started one evening with Little Nellie, the autogyro from You Only Live Twice. My daughter's small collection of Lego bricks and pieces was still out after she had been playing with it, and, after catching sight of my framed – and autographed – postcard showing the inventor of Little Nellie, Ken Wallis, flying his creation, I wondered whether I could reconstruct the vehicle using the Lego. The result was not hugely accurate, but it was recognisably Little Nellie.

Pleased with my effort, I thought of other Bond vehicles that could be recreated in Lego using the limited resources I had available. The following week, I settled on 'Wet Nellie', the submersible Lotus Esprit that appears in The Spy Who Loved Me. This model was, I felt, more successful than Little Nellie, probably because the Lego shapes leant themselves to the sleek form of the car.

For my next model, I turned to the Q-Boat from The World Is Not Enough. I just about had enough suitable pieces to produce a reasonable representation, although the curved form of the canopy covering the driver's seat and the structure of the rear of the vehicle were challenging.

Encouraged by feedback from Twitter, I collected all the yellow pieces I could find in order to build a model of the Citro├źn 2CV from For Your Eyes Only. I discovered that the curves of the vehicle were very difficult to recreate, and the result, though just about recognisable as a 2CV, was not  particularly convincing.

Indeed, before I admitted via Twitter that the model was purporting to be the 2CV, some of my followers suggested that it was the tuk tuk from Octopussy. The tuk tuk, however, is more accurately recreated in Lego, as my model demonstrates.
I've had fun building these models. I don't pretend that they're very good, but I was pleased with what I had achieved. If there's a general lesson to learn from my model-building, apart from the fact that vehicles with curves cannot be recreated very well in Lego, it's that recognisable models of distinctive vehicles can be made using even a fairly basic set of pieces by focusing on key elements of the design, such as the rotor blades and yellow front end of Little Nellie, and the angles and fins of the Lotus Esprit.

Monday 22 July 2013

Licence to swear

[I've spelled out the swear words, so if potentially offended, look away now!]

I was watching A View To A Kill the other week and was surprised to hear one of the characters swear. I've seen the film countless times, but hadn't noticed before that the San Franciscan police captain utters the word shit as one of his patrol cars is smashed or crushed. Recently we have come to expect swearing in Bond films, but for most of the series, audiences have heard nothing stronger than 'hell', 'damn', or 'bloody'. We tend to think of Bond films as being free of stronger words, which makes their infrequent use all the more shocking.

If Skyfall was made in 1962, the film, with its five uses of the word 'shit', and one use of the word 'fuck', would have been heading towards an X-rating or may have been refused a classification without cuts. Dr No, by comparison, is extremely mild in its language. This may have reflected a deliberate policy of the film-makers to ensure that the film was family friendly, but it is worth noting that very few British films made at that time, even X-rated ones, used words stronger than those used in Dr No. As one Bond film followed the other, the style of the earlier films was retained, so that the films became well known for the absence of swearing. Over time, the series diverged from changes in everyday language, and the lack of swearing may also have contributed to the popular perception that the Bond films are family-orientated, even though film classifiers have consistently put them in categories suitable for older children and adults

Skyfall tops the list for swearing, followed by Licence to Kill (1989), in which the word 'shit' is heard four times. Here, the attempt to present a tougher film that could compete with the crop of more adult-orientated action films such as Die Hard may have guided the screenwriters, but to me the result was unexpected and jarring on first viewing. The stronger language disappeared during the Pierce Brosnan era, but the lack of swearing also gave the films a somewhat old-fashioned quality. After all, it was a rare action/adventure film that didn't have some swearing. True Lies (1994), for example, a near-Bond film which helped fill the long hiatus between Licence to Kill and GoldenEye, included a fair few swear words.

Perhaps reflecting modern realities where words once thought shocking have been co-opted into everyday conversational speech to serve as fillers and to give emphasis, the swear words re-introduced into Daniel Craig's films now pass almost without comment (Casino Royale has one use of the word 'shit', while the word is heard twice in Quantum of Solace). Notably, James Bond is never heard to swear (if I remember aright), whereas Judy Dench's M is heard to swear the most. For a really honest portrayal of Ian Fleming's Bond, however, we should allow Bond to swear in the films. After all, he swears in the books. In Dr No, for example, he shouts out “Fuck them all” (rendered as “–them all” in the text) as he sees Dr No's staff observe his progress in the deadly obstacle course (chapter 17), and in Goldfinger (chapter 15), he tells the eponymous villain to “go and fuck yourself” (again, the obscenity is represented by a long dash).

It should be noted, though, that while he admitted to swearing, Fleming avoided spelling out the coarse language in his books. In an interview with Munro Scott of the CBC-TV's Explorations programme, he said that he didn't 'like seeing them [swear words] on the page', arguing that they held up the reader's interest. He imagined that readers would see the words and say, 'Good Lord! What's that?' Overall, Fleming viewed the use of coarse language as a 'bad literary device'.

While the Bond films have kept up with fashion, technology and politics, they have not kept up so successfully with changes in the use of language. The Daniel Craig era has seen the series catch up to some extent, although there remains a residual sense that swearing just isn't appropriate for a Bond film. It wouldn't be out of keeping with Fleming's character, though, if we permitted even James Bond to swear occasionally.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

What should we expect for Bond 24?

It's official. Following the phenomenal success of Skyfall, Sam Mendes will return to helm the twenty-fourth James Bond film, which will be released in the UK on 23rd October 2015. With the film over two years away, already social media sites and tabloids have been buzzing with speculation about what sort of film we can expect. Fortunately we can dismiss the suggestion that Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care will form the basis of the next film. (If in the very unlikely event that a continuation novel will be filmed, let it be an early John Gardner, such as Icebreaker (a brilliant title) or Nobody Lives Forever (one of the most exciting of Gardner's Bonds)). More realistically, just what sort of film can we expect for Bond 24?

For a clue to what Bond 24 will look like, we have to look at the patterns of what has gone before. With John Logan returning for writing duties, we should expect a film that combines spectacle and action with emotional depth. There will be some traditional elements too. Bond's surrogate family – Moneypenny and Q, who rejoin M – is now back in post, and M's wood-panelled office seen at the end of Skyfall, which recalls the office of Bernard Lee's M, hints at a more conventional style of briefing. But don't expect the new M to be any less hands-on than his predecessor. As I've suggested in an earlier post, M's expanded role in recent films has in part reflected increasing political oversight of intelligence services, as well as advances in technology, allowing easier and more direct communication between individuals and closer tracking of agents. We may not see Mallory travel so extensively as his predecessor did, but there's a fair chance that he'll still be paying close attention to Bond's mission.

I think there'll be more humour in Bond 24, but the witty one-liners will continue to be underplayed. Those looking for a big film with less introspection and a greater sense of fun might not be disappointed, though. Across the series, the Bond films have tended to follow a trajectory of ever increasing scale as each film attempts to out-do its predecessor, followed by a purge as the series goes back to basics and the cycle is reset. Casino Royale represents a back-to-basics Bond, but it is arguable whether it marks the start of a new cycle. Certainly, both Quantum of Solace and Skyfall had bigger budgets than Casino Royale, but their plots have seemed somewhat limited in scope. The threat posed by Dominic Greene's plot is not fully realised, robbing audiences of a 'ticking bomb' denouement, while Raoul Silva's plans are focused on destroying individuals, not nations. That said, the simple desire to better the success of Skyfall might encourage the production team to think big and induce the sort of plot that gets Blofeld out of bed in the morning.

What about the one of the contentious aspects of the Craig era – the absence of the gunbarrel sequence from the start of the film? I don't have the figures, but I wonder whether its absence is contentious only to the relatively narrow constituency of Bond aficionados. For the casual Bond fan, or those introduced to Bond via Daniel Craig's films, I'd be surprised if its placement at the end of the last two films is an issue, and I don't remember any newspaper review of Skyfall bemoaning the gunbarrel's absence from the start. As much as it pains me to suggest it, I expect the gunbarrel to be kept at the end of the film. The gunbarrel at the start of the film was once very well established, but as soon as the sequence was significantly altered for Casino Royale, the spell was broken, making it easier to alter and relocate the sequence for subsequent films. While the association between the start of the film and the gunbarrel sequence has weakened, the association between the sequence and the end of the film has become stronger, and it now seems just as appropriate to close a film with the sequence as open it.

As for story, inspiration as usual will be drawn from the pages of Ian Fleming's novels. There's still plenty of unfilmed material, and my hope is that we'll see something based on the short story 'Octopussy', ideally with a bit of skiing thrown in. I'd like 'The Hildebrand Rarity' to be used as the title of Bond 24, but I fear I will be disappointed.

All this is idle speculation, but clues to what we can expect of Bond 24 are more likely to be offered by the films that immediately precede it than the films that date further back. The Bond films are not nostalgia-fests (which is one of the reasons why we are able to discuss the 24th film in the series), and the series has adapted with the changing times, being influenced as much by the prevailing cultural environment as influencing it. The series may not manage to bring all Bond fans with it (nothing wrong with that, of course), but it gains many new fans, who help keep James Bond alive into the next generation.

Monday 8 July 2013

The Daily Express James Bond serialisations

If you were a Daily Express reader during the late 1950s and 1960s, you would have been lucky enough to read the latest James Bond adventures before they appeared in the bookshops. With the exception of The Spy Who Loved Me, all Fleming's full-length novels from Diamonds Are Forever to The Man with the Golden Gun (plus occasional short stories) were abridged and serialised in the newspaper prior to publication. Fleming bibliographer Jon Gilbert includes a comprehensive account of these serialisations in his Bibliography, but it is worth highlighting here a number of aspects which provide some insight into the rise of the Bond phenomenon.  

The first novel to be serialised was Diamonds Are Forever, whose first part was published on 12th April 1956 and heralded by an article by Ian Fleming on how he wrote the novel. Readers were invited to “meet James Bond, secret agent, meet M, his boss, and get ready to meet the girl you won't forget”, and the first part was accompanied by an illustration by Express artist Robb showing giant head of Bond behind a drawing of Tiffany Case.

From Russia, with Love appeared a year later, with the first part published on 1st April 1957. The Express proclaimed that “the 'Diamonds Are Forever' man writes a thriller that is hotter still”, and Robb's illustration showed a (clothed) Tatiana Romanova reclining on a bed. In a drastic abridgement, the Russian-set chapters forming the first quarter or so of the novel were reduced to a preface that took up half a column. 

In keeping with Fleming's pattern of completing a new Bond novel each year, Dr No, the follow-up to From Russia, with Love, began its serialisation on 19th March 1958. The work was billed as “Ian Fleming's savage and scorching new thriller”, and was accompanied by an illustration by Robb of the three 'blind' men assassinating Commander Strangways. The first part of the next novel, Goldfinger, appeared on 18th March 1959 and was illustrated by a drawing of Goldfinger – by Raymond Hawkley this time – and a panel from John McClusky's comic strip of the adventure.

Later that year, Express readers were treated with a bonus – the serialisation of the short story, 'From a View to a Kill', which appeared on 21st September under the title 'Murder Before Breakfast'. The Express gave this serialisation more of a splash than it had the others, announcing it to be “the fastest thing in thrillers”, with a pace “tailor-made for the Express”. The serialisation of 'Risico' followed in April 1960 under the title 'The Double-Take'.

As Thunderball began its serialisation on 16th March 1961, the Express asked, “Is Bond's action-packed life beginning to tell?” The illustrations were by Raymond Hawkey, who depicted a somewhat middle-aged Bond in a sports jacket and firing a revolver. After a two-year gap, Bond was back with On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which began its serialisation on 18th March 1963. Robb returned to illustration duties and showed Tracy at the casino.

By the time You Only Live Twice was serialised from 2nd March 1964 onwards, James Bond had become a global phenomenon, and this was reflected in the fanfare that the newspaper gave the latest Bond adventure. “Begins today: For the Eyes of Express Readers Only”, proclaimed the Express, which interestingly reveals that Fleming's title 'For Your Eyes Only' had started to take life as an expression in its own right, with editors now recognising its potential to be adapted for headlines. The Express continued: “The world of James Bond is one of quick death and beautiful women. No other character in fiction has quite so enthralled people of every nation as has this Secret Service agent 007, licensed to kill and trained to do so with knife or with gun or bare hands.” With little mention of it in the earlier serialisations, Bond's code number had also gained significance, and as the introductory blurb in the Express suggests, its meaning was well understood in popular culture. Robb drew an illustration of M (his back to us) in conversation with Sir James Molony. Illustrations in later parts were clearly influenced by the films, as Bond now resembled Sean Connery.

Following the death of Ian Fleming in 1964, the Express was keen to promote the serialisation of his final full-length novel, The Man with the Golden Gun. With the first part was published on 22nd March 1965, the Express wrote, “Never before has there been a fiction character with the fascination of James Bond. Wherever intelligent people meet they talk of him. These coming day – by reading the Express – AND ONLY BY READING THE EXPRESS [Express' emphasis] – you can leap ahead in 'Bondery'.” The illustration by Robb showed a frightened Moneypenny in Bond's arms.

The novel was not the last Express readers had heard of Bond – at least outside the comic strip – and the following year, the short story 'Octopussy' was serialised, beginning 4th October 1965. Again, the Express was eager to promote the story, and it prefaced its serialisation (“a vintage week for connoisseurs of the thriller-hero of this decade: a story stamped with the personality of its author”) with a potted biography of Fleming, concluding that Fleming was “licensed to enthral”. As with 'For Your Eyes Only', the phrase 'licence to kill' had sufficient cultural value to be used idiomatically. The influence of the films is again apparent, as an illustration showed a Connery-esque Bond with Dexter Smythe.

On 18th March 1968, James Bond was back in Colonel Sun. Alluding to Kingsley Amis' earlier work on Bond, the Express revealed that “another entry in the Bond dossier has now been compiled.”  The illustration by Robb showed a montage of characters and scenes from the book, recalling the contemporaneous style of Bond film posters.

The history of the Express serialisations to some extent reflects the rise of Bond phenomenon. The later serialisations were heralded with increasing fanfare as the introductions acknowledged the global success of James Bond. In addition, the serialisations provide markers for the point that phrases such as 'licence to kill' began to have cultural resonance outside the books, and they also reveal how the film series exerted its influence on the presentation of Fleming's work.

Gilbert, J, 2012 Ian Fleming: The Bibliography, Queen Anne Press