Monday 28 July 2014

What Fleming is reading in Fleming

While watching Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, originally shown on Sky Atlantic in January this year (click here for my review of the series), I was interested to see that Ian Fleming was shown reading a couple of books. There had been an allusion to Fleming the bibliophile early on during the first episode – at Fleming’s first encounter with Ann O’Neill (later Ann Fleming), Ann makes a witty comment about Ian being like a bumped and foxed first edition – and the allusion continued with scenes of Fleming with a book in his hands.

One of the books, seen in the first episode, had the title, Killer in the Alley. As far as I can establish, this book does not exist, and appears to have been invented for the series. Judging by the title, though, the book presumably represents some sort of crime novel in the manner of the hard-boiled thrillers of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Fleming was a huge fan of such fiction. Indeed, the works of Chandler, Hammett and others had a profound effect on Fleming’s own writing, the fast-paced and violent style of the Bond novels being very much influenced by American pulp-fiction.

The second book is a more familiar classic: John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). This is a predictable, though somewhat old-fashioned choice. While Fleming would certainly have read the book, by the late 1930s/early 1940s his reading matter had moved on from tales of simple derring-do by the likes of Buchan, Rohmer and Sapper to something a little more sophisticated, such as Turbott Wolfe (1925) by William Plomer, or Geoffrey Household’s The Third Hour (1937).

We see Fleming reading Buchan during episode 3 as Fleming’s career with the Naval Intelligence Division is burgeoning, and it is implied that Fleming uses the book to gain insight into intelligence work. In reality, however, Fleming is more likely to have read technical manuals and reports, as well as more recent novels set in the world of intelligence (for example, Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios, which had been published in 1939).

While the Fleming series conveyed Ian Fleming’s interest in books (including erotic prints!), it failed to give a representative impression of his contemporary reading, or capture his eagerness to acquire knowledge, particularly of a technical nature, not just from published material, but also from the experts themselves.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Sky Atlantic's Fleming

The quote by Ian Fleming shown at the beginning of each episode of Fleming: The Man Who Would be Bond, originally broadcast on Sky Atlantic in January 2014, should have set alarm bells clanging: “Everything I write has a precedent in truth.” Anyone looking forward to an accurate account of Ian Fleming's life during the Second World War, a critical time for Fleming that led in part to the creation of his master spy, James Bond, must have had their hopes dashed on reading the quotation. Despite the fiction outweighing the fact, however, the series was very enjoyable, being full of intrigue, excitement, romance, and not very subtle foreshadowing of 007.

The series spans the late 1930s to the end of the war in 1945 as it follows Fleming's life from wealthy but resentful wastrel to intelligence ideas man, commando leader, and spy. The first episode sets the scene. Against the backdrop of the first hints of war, Fleming stomps around like a petulant teenager as he tries to escape the shadow of his much admired brother, Peter, and (deceased) father, Valentine, enjoys a playboy lifestyle, and is beguiled by socialite Lady Ann O'Neill, who's having an affair with newspaper mogul Viscount Rothermere. As war begins, Fleming is persuaded join the Naval Intelligence Division as director Admiral Godfrey's personal assistant, a position which gives Fleming purpose and puts his fertile mind to good use.

Episode two sees Fleming settling into his role at NID – at Estoril, Portugal, for example, he attempts, and fails, to bankrupt some Nazi officers over the Baccarat table in a casino, an episode that Fleming would revisit for the plot of Casino Royale (1953) – and become even more besotted with Ann, despite Ann's affair and Fleming's relationship with another woman, Muriel Wright. In episode three, Fleming travels to the USA and presents his blueprint for the CIA (actually the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA replacing that organisation in 1947), and also persuades the top brass back in Britain to set up the 30 Assault Unit, a commando unit tasked with going ahead of the main divisions into enemy territory to capture vital intelligence and documents. In episode four, Fleming finally sees the action he's been craving and enters the eastern front to retrieve secret documents and a German naval officer (played in a nice piece of casting by Wolf Kahler, a familiar face in Second World War films).

Justifying the series' subtitle (curiously absent in the series' titles, but shown on cover of the DVD), the nods to James Bond come thick and fast. When Bomber Harris rails against the 30 Assault Unit (“They seem to think they have a licence to kill”), or when Fleming reads a goodbye note from Ann (“For the spy who loved me”, it begins), I almost expected Fleming to turn to the camera with a knowing look, or pause in concentration as the seed is planted in his mind.

Most of the Bond-inspired moments, though, derive from the film series, suggesting that the series makers were more interested in making a Bond film than a biopic of Ian Fleming. Hints of the James Bond theme accompany exciting scenes, for example when Fleming skis in Kitzb├╝hel or infiltrates a German stronghold. A killing in the gentlemen's toilets at Estoril recalls Bond's fight in the toilets at the beginning of Casino Royale (2006), and the opening scenes of episode three, which sees Fleming carefully scour the dark corridors of a building with his gun at the ready, is surely influenced by the opening of Skyfall (2012). Godfrey's interview of Fleming is reminiscent of an interrogation conducted by Blofeld, and Godfrey's secretary, Second Officer Monday, might as well have been called Miss Moneypenny.

As entertaining as all this is, the decision by the series makers to largely fictionalise Fleming's war robs viewers of genuine episodes that are every bit as exciting as the the events depicted on screen. Fleming's almost single-handed infiltration of a German base on the eastern front could have been replaced by the Dieppe Raid, which he witnessed (albeit from the relatively safety of a ship). The portrayal of the 30 Assault Unit as an ill-disciplined 'Dirty Dozen'-like mob ignores the incredible efforts and heroism of many individuals (officers, as well as other ranks) that were part of it, and gives viewers no sense of the unit's importance to the war effort (it was among those responsible, for example, for recovering vital Enigma code books and stealing valuable rocket technology secrets). It was a mistake, incidentally, that the film Age of Heroes (2011) also made; Fleming's 'Red Indians' continue to be poorly served on screen. It is also notable that the series makers overplayed Fleming's role in The Man Who Never Was plot, or Operation Mincemeat, possibly because operations that Fleming had more of a hand in (such as Operation Ruthless and Operation Goldeneye) had limited dramatic value.

Dominic Cooper was not especially plausible as Ian Fleming, but he grew into the role (smoking incessantly helped) as the series progressed. Lara Pulver well cast as Ann O'Neill, capturing her passions, contradictions, waspishness, and unhappiness, not to mention her negative feelings towards Ian's literary ambitions. Admiral Godfrey (played by Samuel West) was, I felt, too young, and there was no reason to give him a beard (Godfrey was clean-shaven, and besides, Fleming would never have approved).

Overall, Sky Atlantic's Fleming was an enjoyable series filled with many moments of excitement and drama. As an accurate biopic of Ian Fleming, however, it largely failed. The ultimate film of Ian Fleming's life is yet to be made.

Sunday 13 July 2014

James Bond on the bench

There's something not quite right about the park bench that celebrates the work of French novelist Jules Verne. Installed in Covent Garden outside Stanfords, the famous map shop, as part of the Books about Town scheme organised by National Literacy Trust “to celebrate London’s literary heritage and reading for enjoyment”, the 'bookbench' is adorned with artwork that represents one of Verne's best known novels, Around the World in Eighty Days (1873).

The bench appears to show pictures of the main characters on the lower part of the seat and on the back rest, there is a hot air balloon. That's the problem. Balloons certainly feature in Verne's novels, among them Five Weeks in a Balloon (1865) and The Mysterious Island (1875), but Around the World in Eighty Days isn't one of them. Phileas Fogg travels by rail, boat, and elephant, but not balloon.

I suspect that the screen adaptations have intruded here. A number of versions, including the well-known 1956 film produced by Mike Todd and starring David Niven, and the 1989 television mini-series featuring a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan, have put Phileas Fogg in a balloon, and invariably a balloon is depicted on poster art accompanying the adaptations. Recently I was able to see the James Bond bookbench at its home in Bloomsbury Square Gardens. As I was admiring it, I wondered whether the artwork on this bench had similarly been influenced, at least in part, by screen adaptations.

The artwork depicts Fleming's Bond stories in a general way, although it seems to have been inspired by Casino Royale, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and Live and Let Die in particular. The artist Freyja Dean explains that artwork offers us a glimpse of Bond's thrilling adventures for Her Majesty's secret service, but also conveys the sense of Bond's high living.

James Bond bookbench, front

Thus, playing-card motifs form the background of the artwork, and allude to Bond's time spent in the casino and at the card tables. The Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom is shown on the back rest, and obviously points to Bond's service to Queen and country. The use of gold for the outlines and black for the infill is interesting, reminding me of the coat of arms, drawn by Terence Gilbert, on the soundtrack album cover; gold outline and black infill are used there too. The artwork on the seat includes an image of James Bond as if depicted on a court card. He wears a dinner suit and holds a martini glass.

While James Bond is instantly recognisable, and the playing card motifs seem entirely appropriate to the world of James Bond, I do wonder whether the dinner suit, the gambling, and even the vodka martini, are over-played as elements of the Bond novels. All certainly feature in the novels, but relatively infrequently compared with their appearances in the Bond films. Indeed, that the dinner suit, for example, has become so synonymous with James Bond must surely be thanks to the films. Bond wears a dinner suit in most films, and a dinner-suited Bond has featured with few exceptions on poster campaigns throughout the Eon series. The association has been reinforced by the depiction of a dinner-suited Bond on countless Bond-related products and promotional material.

James Bond bookbench, back

The back of the bookbench shows a skull sporting a top hat, and no doubt refers to the voodoo element of Live and Let Die. Again, though, I wonder if the film version was at least as prominent in the artist's mind as the content of the novel. As far as I recall, the voodoo iconography of a skull in a top hat isn't described as such by Fleming, although he does describe the effigy of Baron Samedi as a wooden cross with a morning coat hung from it and a battered bowler hat placed on top. That said, at his first meeting with Mr Big, James Bond notices a top hat on the table at which Mr Big sits. In contrast, the skull-in-top-hat meme features extensively in the film adaptation, although it is also used on the covers of various editions of the novel.

The James Bond bookbench on Bloomsbury Square Gardens is a wonderful celebration of Ian Fleming's creation, and I think the artist, Freyja Dean, has brilliantly evoked the essence - service to country, sophisticated living, and exotic adventures - of James Bond. The motifs used on the bench undoubtedly appear in the Bond novels, but it is perhaps no coincidence that the use of these memes has been exaggerated in the films (turning, for example, an occasional martini drinker in the books into a habitual martini drinker in the films). Like the bookbench celebrating Around the World in Eighty Days, perhaps to some extent the films have shaped the artwork depicted on the James Bond bench.

Sunday 6 July 2014

Ian Fleming's heroes

I've written before about Ian Fleming's heroes, but I was reminded of his hero-worship recently when I read his foreword to the biography of Sir William Stephenson, Room 3603: The story of the British Intelligence Centre in New York during World War II (1963), by H Montgomery Hyde (published in the UK without the foreword as The Quiet Canadian).

Naturally Fleming identified Stephenson, who in 1940 on Churchill's orders set up and directed the British Security Co-ordination to garner support in the US for the British war effort, train US and Canadian agents, crack codes, and gather intelligence, as one of his heroes. Fleming described Stephenson as “one of the great secret agents of the last war”, and a man that “has a magnetic personality and the quality of making anyone ready to follow him to the ends of the earth.” (There will be more on Sir William Stephenson, his fascinating life and his connection with Fleming – and James Bond – in a later post.)

Fleming alludes to his other heroes in his foreword. “In this era of the anti-hero,” Fleming writes, “when anyone on a pedestal is assaulted (how has Nelson survived?), unfashionably and obstinately I have my heroes.” Fleming had been fascinated since childhood with Horatio Nelson. It was a profound interest that remained with Fleming throughout his life. Nelson's connection with Jamaica – he sailed out from Jamaica on expeditions against the Spanish, French and American navies in the late 18th century – helped persuade Fleming to buy land and build a house on the island. Fleming also decided to conduct a metal-detecting survey of Creake Abbey in Norfolk partly because Nelson's birthplace was in the neighbouring village of Burnham Thorpe. Back in London, a painting of Nelson hung on the wall of Fleming's study.

In his foreword, Fleming speaks of “hero-worshipping” his elder brother, Peter, suggesting that this began when Peter become the head of the household when their father, Valentine, was killed in France in 1917 during the First World War. Fleming never lost this sense of awe, which was enhanced by Peter's successful travel writing and his daring wartime exploits in military intelligence during the Second World War. Even when Ian Fleming published his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, he could not help deferring to Peter. In his self-penned back-cover blurb of the first edition, Ian writes that his achievement at Eton of being awarded the Victor Ludorum two years in succession was down to his compensating for having a “brilliant elder brother.”

Other heroes Fleming mentions in his foreword are the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Sir Winston Churchill, and many “other ranks”, whom he admired for their “courage, fortitude, and service to a cause or a country.” Fleming's admiration of Churchill stemmed largely, of course, from Churchill's leadership during the Second World War, but it began much earlier. Churchill and Fleming's father, Valentine, served in the same regiment, the Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars, and the two became close friends. When Valentine was killed on the Western Front, Churchill wrote an appreciation of his friend for the Times. Through this elegiac piece, Churchill offered Fleming a connection with his father. Ian treasured Churchill's words, which were framed and also placed in his study.

Ian Fleming's foreword in the biography of Sir William Stephenson is about heroes. Fleming had many, with some having profound influence on Fleming's life and direction. It is little wonder, but entirely fitting, that he should write a series of novels about a heroic figure, which has seen enormous success and has influenced other writers, as well as film-makers and other creative efforts. Fleming has himself become a hero to many, not just for his creation, but for his own wartime exploits, which have deservedly been gaining more attention in recent times.