Saturday 30 August 2014

Reflections on James Bond's Hong Kong

Following a recent trip to Hong Kong, guest writer Radley Biddulph reflects on how the former British colony has influenced the world of James Bond, and looks up some of the locations that appeared in the films.

It may come as a surprise to consider that Hong Kong has featured so rarely in the James Bond films. Bond has been to the former British Colony just three times (You Only Live Twice, The Man with the Golden Gun, and Die Another Day) and of these, You Only Live Twice and Die Another Day have seen the most fleeting of visits.

It is particularly surprising given the popularity of cinema in Hong Kong, its history, and the stunning scenery, most notably the skyline and natural harbour. Visit the Victoria Harbour waterfront at Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, for example, and you will come across the Avenue of the Stars, celebrating many great names in Kong Kong cinema, such as Jackie Chan, John Woo, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh and, of course, Bruce Lee.

While Michelle Yeoh appears in Tomorrow Never Dies - elements of which would not have been out of place in a Hong Kong film - sadly, the Special Administrative Region itself did not feature in the story, causing you to wonder if the producers missed a trick in not devoting more time in Hong Kong.

Of the three films to feature Hong Kong, the region is most prominent in Golden Gun. (While Twice was principally set in Japan, Hong Kong was featured for Bond’s fake death and funeral - although filming actually took place in Gibraltar.)
Star Ferry
Three iconic locations in Golden Gun are the Bottoms Up Club in Tsim Sha Tsui, the wreck of RMS Queen Elizabeth in Victoria Harbour, and the Star Ferry Terminal.  Sadly for film location enthusiasts only the last remains. The Bottoms Up Club moved in 2004, and has now closed for good; while the wreck of RMS Queen Elizabeth was finally dismantled in 1975.  In contrast, with the Star Ferry remaining little changed for decades (many of the ferries date back to the 1950s), the location, visited by Bond, satisfyingly evokes the era of Golden Gun.

One other place that still appears to have little changed – at least from the outside - is the Peninsula Hotel. It was there that Bond meets Scaramanga’s mistress, Andrea Anders, and it was also at the hotel (albeit with a different name) that Bond, in Die Another Day, walked in soaking wet seeking a room following his prisoner exchange and subsequent escape from MI6.  Inside, the foyer as it appears in Die Another Day is less busy than in real life and the soaking wet Bond would probably have had to walk past a queue of tourists patiently waiting for afternoon tea. The Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club also features in the film although when Bond climbs out from Victoria Harbour it is clear that he is on Kowloon, and not Hong Kong Island, where the yacht club is, in fact, situated.

Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong

I mentioned Bruce Lee earlier and doubtless the boom in martial arts films in the 1970s and of Lee’s own popularity were in part a factor in the producer’s decision to turn to South East Asia.  It is a pity that the martial arts theme was not better used.  While films such as Fist of Fury (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973) are well-known, it is another of Lee’s films, albeit released after his death, Game of Death (1978) that has elements that would not have been out of place in Golden Gun.

In Game of Death, the Red Pepper Restaurant, located on Causeway Bay, is the scene for some classic martial arts, culminating in Lee’s character, who, on entering a dojo from the restaurant, has to fight a different protagonist on each floor before he locates the crime syndicate boss he is searching. These are familiar elements in Golden Gun, in which Bond takes on martial arts students one-by-one in a dojo, but then this is rather undone by the intervention of Bond’s local contact, Lieutenant Hip and his two nieces, who unconvincingly defeat the entire dojo.

Perhaps this is looking too deeply into the films. The Bond of Roger Moore incorporated popular themes throughout the 70s: the Blaxploitation theme in Live and Let Die, and the space theme in Moonraker are two such examples.  But taking a more serious storyline was not unknown during Moore’s time – For Your Eyes Only is the obvious example – and the tone of the films has become increasingly less light-hearted with all subsequent Bond actors.  Having visited Hong Kong myself earlier this year, it would be good to see Daniel Craig’s Bond going to Hong Kong and to see elements of its history, scenery and culture being incorporated in Bond in a way which celebrates what makes Hong Kong particularly unique, rather than pretending it is somewhere – or something - else.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Who is the best James Bond?

A recent poll conducted on behalf of CBS News by SSRS revealed that Sean Connery remains America's favourite James Bond. Fifty per cent of respondents went for Connery when asked who was the best Bond. Pierce Brosnan was second with 12%, closely followed by Roger Moore, who polled 11%. Daniel Craig was third with 8%, while George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton brought up the rear with 1% each. While the margin of error of plus or minus 3% suggests that the differences between Brosnan, Moore, and probably Craig, are not statistically significant, Connery's place at the top is clear enough.

The poll reminded me of the 'Pint of Milk' interviews that feature in Empire magazine. Each month, a well-known actor, writer or director is asked a series of quirky questions largely unrelated to their latest release or career in film. The questions vary between interviews, but all interviewees are asked, “how much is a pint of milk?” Another question asked on a fairly regular basis is, “who is the best James Bond?” Looking through an archive of classic 'Pint of Milk' interviews on Empire Online, I was interested to see the responses to that question. As with the respondents in the CBS poll, the film-making community seems to favour Sean Connery.

All the interviews available online appear to have been conducted during the tenure of Pierce Brosnan, who consequently gets an honourable mention from most interviewees. So, on the question of the best Bond, Peter Ustinov thought that nobody could touch Connery, but considered that Brosnan had developed into 006 at least. Dan Ackroyd similarly thought Connery the best, but conceded that Brosnan was doing a wonderful job. Michael Keaton admitted he wasn't particularly familiar with the film series, but said that he liked Connery. Though he hadn't seen any of the Brosnan films, Keaton thought Brosnan looked natural in the role. Kyle MacLachlan went with Connery as the best Bond, with, unusually, Roger Moore a close second. Brosnan, he thought, was suave, but lacked the element of danger. Tim Robbins, in response to the question of the best Bond, answered “Mike Myers”.

Judging by these surveys, Sean Connery's position as 'best Bond' is unassailable. Quite how we measure the notion of best Bond is debatable to say the least, but the responses nevertheless point to certain important qualities. Two of them appear to be danger and toughness, which are strongly associated with Connery's portrayal. These are evidently not enough, however, as Timothy Dalton, who took a gritty approach to the role, is at the bottom of the CBS poll, while Daniel Craig, a tough, muscular Bond, only manages a middling position. Possibly a perceived lack of humour in Dalton's and Craig's Bond, certainly when compared with the Connery, Brosnan and Moore eras, is a factor here.

The Empire interviews suggest that being the current Bond boosts the ranking of that actor. Had the interviews taken place more recently, the interviewees might have placed Daniel Craig second. On the other hand, the results of the CBS poll pointed to an age factor to the responses. Respondents over the age of 45 tended to pick Roger Moore as second best Bond, while those under 45 went with Brosnan, suggesting that people tend to regard the Bond they grew up with or first saw as their (second) favourite Bond.

As for Connery, there is a remarkable consensus among all respondents that Connery is the best Bond. I wonder, though, whether the view has become so well established in popular culture that it is now almost a natural response given without much consideration or critical thought. Like any meme that is successful by being long-lived, widespread and oft-repeated, the view or meme that Connery is the best James Bond (along with the opposite meme that Lazenby is (usually) considered the worst Bond) is somewhat self-perpetuating. Connery is likely to remain on the top spot for a while yet, no matter how well the Bond films of Daniel Craig and his successors do at the box office.

Sunday 17 August 2014

How would James Bond vote in the Scottish independence referendum?

George Lazenby as James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
Sean Connery is a well known supporter of Scottish independence, and come the referendum on 18th September, we have no doubt how he will be voting. But what about the character for which Connery is most strongly associated? How might James Bond, another Scot, vote? A trawl through Ian Fleming's novels provide a few insights into Bond's perception of identity, nationality, and duty which offer some pointers to what his voting intentions might be.

James Bond's Scottish heritage was introduced late in Fleming's series of adventures. For much of the series, Bond was an Englishman. In Casino Royale (1953), Mathis, Bond's French ally, describes Bond as “the Englishman from Jamaica”. Bond, who is there with Mathis, does not correct him. In From Russia, with Love (1957), Soviet spies hatch a plot to destroy James Bond, the 'Angliski Spion'. And in The Spy Who Loved Me (1962), the heroine, Vivienne Michel, looks “appealing at the Englishman.” Meanwhile, Sluggsy, one of the villains, asks Bond, “From England, huh?” “That's right,” comes the reply.

It is possible that England in these references is synonymous with Britain and does not necessarily imply English origins, but Fleming appears to provide no hint of any Scottish identity, and readers up till this point would not have thought Bond as anything other than English.

This changed with the publication of On Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1963. At the College of Arms, Bond meets Griffin Or, a herald at the college. Inquiring into Bond's origins, Griffin Or tells him, “No doubt, with a good old English name like yours, we will get somewhere in the end”. Bond replies, “My father was a Scot and my mother was Swiss”, adding that his father came from near Glencoe in the Highlands. This information is repeated in the next novel, You Only Live Twice (1964), in Bond's obituary.

It is said that Fleming gave Bond Scottish ancestry when Sean Connery was cast in the role of James Bond for the film of Dr No (1962). This is plausible, given the chronology, and the reference to “Ursula Andress, the film star” in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. But given also that Fleming himself had Scottish ancestry – his grandfather, Robert Fleming, was from Dundee, and Ian spent time during his childhood at Glenborrodale Castle in the Highlands – the casting of a Scot as James Bond was a coincidence that Fleming found impossible to resist.

Even so, James Bond continues to talk about England, rather than Britain or Scotland, in You Only Live Twice. “England may have been bled pretty thin by a couple of world wars...but we still climb Everest and beat plenty of the world at plenty of sports and win Nobel Prizes,” he tells Tiger Tanaka.

However, in Fleming's last full-length Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965), Bond has a much stronger Scottish identity. Composing a telegram, he rejects an offer of a knighthood with the words, “Eye (sic) am a Scottish peasant and will always feel at home being a Scottish peasant.” That is not to say that the rejection is because of any anti-British or anti-English feelings. Bond admits that he likes the idea of the knighthood, if only because of “the romantic streak of the SIS – and of the Scot, for the matter of that”.

Returning to the question of the Scottish independence referendum, while Bond appears to embrace his Scottish identity by the end of Fleming's novels, his continued reference to England, and his still generally very patriotic and pro-British outlook suggests that he would vote 'No'.  Would Bond be able to vote anyway? Given that he lives in London, Bond is presumably listed on the electoral register in London and therefore would not be entitled to vote in Scotland. The cinematic Bond, on the other hand, might have a vote. His home at Skyfall Lodge, as seen in Skyfall (2012), might qualify him, although quite what happens when the building is blown up is another matter.

Thursday 7 August 2014

Book preview: James Bond and Popular Culture

It's never too early to start thinking about Christmas presents for Bond fans. December will see the publication of a book of essays about the James Bond phenomenon. James Bond and Popular Culture: Essays on the Influence of the Fictional Superspy examines how James Bond has inspired many aspects of popular culture, including Doctor Who, the animated television comedy series Archer, Japan’s Nakano Spy School Films, and the 1960s Italian Eurospy genre, and analyses Bond’s phenomenal literary and filmic influence over the past 50-plus years, with essays covering James Bond's role in film, television, literature, and lifestyle.

The volume has been edited by Bond and spy-fiction expert Michele Brittany, a book reviews editor for the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, a correspondent for Bleeding Cool, a comic book news site, and the author of Spy-fi & Superspies, a blog about all things spy-related.

The book sounds like a essential reading, although I must declare an interest: I'm responsible for one of the essays. 'Modelling Bond: The Cultural Perception of James Bond on the Eve of the Eon Production Films' focuses on a Bond-themed marketing campaign for men's clothing. In 1961, six advertisements for Courtelle, a UK-based clothing company, was placed in the Daily Express and Daily Mirror. Prefiguring the use of product tie-ins and the appearance of Bond actors as 'brand ambassadors', James Bond himself (as drawn by an artist) modelled the clothes and received a plug for his latest adventure, while the content suggested in no uncertain terms that these were the clothes to wear if you wanted a James Bond lifestyle.

One of the Courtelle advertisements to feature James Bond. Image copyright Rowlinson Knitwear Ltd
The adverts reveal that even before the release of Dr No in the cinema in 1962, James Bond had been identified as an aspirational figure. What's more, the adverts show how the image of Bond evolved outside Fleming's novels on the eve of the film series. The essay identifies the traits taken from the books and those introduced by copywriters, assesses the extent of other influences, such as other spy literature, films and television, and discusses how far this hybrid Bond diverged from Fleming's prototype.

In addition, the essay compares the 'Courtelle' Bond with contemporary depictions similarly uninformed by the Bond films and examines the impact of the film series on the expression of Bondian iconography. Finally, the essay discusses the proposition that different Bonds have emerged as a result of ever-evolving cultural environments.

The book, priced at $40, is available to order now from the publisher McFarland, or through Amazon
(currently priced at £23 in the UK) and other retailers. The perfect Bondian Christmas present!

Sunday 3 August 2014

The disguises of James Bond

A toy version of a spy from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
While sharing creator, producer, writers, and production crew, the film of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is far removed from the world of James Bond, but there is still room in the children's adventure film for a couple of spies. Known simply as first and second spies (played by Alexander Doré and Bernard Spear respectively), the bumbling agents of Baron Bomburst are hardly the epitome of intelligence. They do, however, display one aspect of espionage work beloved of early spy fiction: they employ disguises to blend into their surroundings and fulfil their missions without raising suspicions.

In one scene, the spies are dressed as English gentlemen out for a stroll. In another, they wade on to a beach from the sea underneath funnels from a ship. That their disguises are so ridiculous and transparent is of course part of the joke, but their attempts are nevertheless expressions of a key idea or meme of spy culture, particularly in fiction, that spies routinely wear disguises to keep their operations secret and gather intelligence in enemy territory.

In order to keep his activities secret, James Bond uses false identities and elaborate covers, but he does not, in contrast to the spies in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, use disguises, at least according to the file held by the Soviet Union's Ministry of State Security or MGB (a precursor to the KGB) in the novel, From Russia, with Love (1957). Except that occasionally Bond does.

In Diamonds are Forever, published a year earlier, Bond's appearance is altered by make-up before paying a visit to Rufus B Saye's House of Diamonds in Hatton Garden. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963), Bond infiltrates Piz Gloria, Blofeld's Swiss base as representative of the College of Arms, Sir Hilary Bray. Bond does not exactly wear a disguise, but he does arrive at London Airport sporting a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella to give himself the appearance of a baronet. And in You Only Live Twice (1964), Bond's hair is cut, his eyebrows shaved, and his skin darkened to allow him to mingle among the crowd at Tokyo's main rail station, restaurants and temples without being recognised as a 'gaijin'.

The film series sees Bond wearing disguises more often. In Dr No (1962), Bond puts on a radiation suit to pass unnoticed in the reactor room of the eponymous villain's base. The film of You Only Live Twice (1967) shows Bond adopting the same sort of disguise he uses in the book, and in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), he wears tweeds, kilt and glasses to look more like a Scottish baronet. Bond wears the robes of a sheikh in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and the poncho and hat of a South American gaucho (with more than a hint of Clint Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy) in Moonraker (1979). In Octopussy (1983), Bond disguises himself as a clown, allowing him to pass through security to enter the Big Top of Octopussy's circus. Bond briefly dons a fire fighter's uniform in A View To A Kill (1985), and in The Living Daylights (1987) wears Afghan clothes, which allows him to pass by Russian soldiers and plant a bomb on a Soviet plane.

Interestingly, James Bond is not the only character to wear disguises. In For Your Eyes Only, Q disguises himself as a Greek Orthodox priest, and in Licence to Kill (1989), Q wears the clothes of a Mexican peasant. Curiously, he wears false facial hair for both disguises.

Unlike the archetypal spy of fiction, such as the two spies in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, James Bond is not known for wearing disguises. However, he does occasionally adopt disguises (there is in any case a fine line between a cover or false identity and a disguise), and in the film series perhaps uses them more often than is perhaps realised. In that respect, the cinematic Bond is given more of the traditions of early spy fiction and the spy of the First and Second World Wars than is the Bond of Fleming's novels.

One possible explanation may lie in the origins of Fleming's Bond. Fleming was inspired in part by American crime fiction, particularly that of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and consequently his Bond has some of the characteristics of a hard-boiled detective, who tends to be more open when investigating a case. In contrast, writers of the Bond films, in preparing the script of a spy film, are likely to have turned more strongly, perhaps exclusively, to the common tropes of spy, rather than detective, fiction.