Sunday 26 April 2015

James Bond under the hammer

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I had acquired a copy of the catalogue produced for an auction of James Bond-related memorabilia, ephemera, costumes and props at Christie's in September 1998. I discussed one particular item – a collection of scripts owned by Berkely Mather, who contributed to the screenplays of the first three Bond films.
Christie's catalogue for the 1998 Bond auction
This was just one of some 270 lots, which included some very special items. There were vehicles, among them a shell of the submersible Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me, Peter Franks' Triumph Stag from Diamonds Are Forever, and General Ourumov's Gaz Volga limo (which failed to sell) from GoldenEye. Then there golden bullets from The Man With the Golden Gun, a Universal Exports wall plaque from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Oddjob's steel-rimmed bowler hat from Goldfinger, and a pair of briefs owned by Shirley Eaton. And interspersed with the props, costumes and production material were many posters, photos, toys and games, and general memorabilia.

Fortuitously, my copy of the catalogue included a sheet of results, so I was able to compare the original estimate of each lot with its final selling price. The scripts were one of the highlights; they were valued at between £5000 and £8000, but were sold for £18,400. Oddjob's hat (its estimate was available only on request) went for an incredible £62,000. The results raised a few questions in my mind. What were the best selling items? What type of objects represented the best investment? Which Bond films generated the most interest? And how do the results compare with the '50 Years of James Bond' auction held by Christie's in 2012?

To answer these questions, I entered a short description of each lot into a spreadsheet, and assigned a category (prop, costume, poster, toys and games etc.) to each. I entered the selling prices and the average from the estimate range for each item. (Thus for the scripts, I added £5000 and £8000 and divided the result by two to obtain £6500.) I had another field for the difference between the mean estimate and the selling price, then calculated the percentage increase. The selling price of the scripts, for example, represented an increase of 183% on the mean estimate ((£11900 / £6500) x 100).

On this basis, I could see that Oddjob's hat was the most expensive item on the day, while a poster and standee to accompany Smith Crisps' promotion for A View To A Kill was the cheapest lot, selling for £57. However, the item that made the best return relative to its estimate was a commemorative paperweight presented to the cast and crew of Dr No. It was estimated at £250, but sold for £2300, representing an increase of 820%. Excluding items that did not sell, the lot that performed least well, making something of a loss, was a dinner suit worn by Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights. It was estimated at £4000, but sold for £1725, a decrease of 57%.

Turning to category, vehicles used in the Bond films were on average the biggest sellers, achieving the highest mean selling price of £8510. Soundtrack albums had the lowest mean selling price, £460. However, looking at the percentage difference, Bond vehicles appear to have been overvalued; the category saw a decrease of 28% based on the difference between the original estimate and final selling price. Books, including a number of Ian Fleming first editions, were considerably undervalued. Out of all the categories, books achieved the highest mean increase of 327%. (I should add that I excluded two items from the 'prop' category – Oddjob's hat and the Lotus Esprit shell – from my calculations, since no estimate was available for them. Consequently, the category's mean increase of 238% is not necessarily accurate.)

The 'best performing' film, as represented by the highest mean selling price of £4475, was Live and Let Die, thanks largely to Bond's modified Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner wristwatch, which sold for £21,850. Bottom of the list of films was Moonraker; items associated with the film sold for an average of £392. The film that saw the largest gains, as measured by percentage increase, was The Man With The Golden Gun, which had the highest mean increase of 263%. The only item attributed solely to For Your Eyes Only – a set of promotional display cases made in Germany – failed to sell (-100%). The next lowest placed film was Licence to Kill, items for which made an average decrease of 24%.

Generally, the Bond films of the 1980s and 1990s were the worst performing films (relatively speaking) in the auction, while key films of the 1960s and 1970s – Dr No, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Live and Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me – made the highest gains compared with original estimates. While most lots sold for values at least within their estimate ranges, clearly the lots that excited bidders most were those associated with certain Bond films of Sean Connery and Roger Moore – films that saw the introduction of elements that would go on to define and shape the series, and, before the Daniel Craig era, had arguably made the biggest impact on popular culture.

Christie's catalogue for the 2012 auction (image: Christie's)
How might the inclusion of films released since 1998 have affected these results? We can gain an idea of this by looking at the results of Christie's '50 Years of James Bond' online auction held in 2012. In that auction, the lot that achieved the highest selling price (£85,250) was a modified BMW Roadster from The World Is Not Enough. The lowest selling price was a prop pendant from Licence To Kill, which sold for £4375. A lot comprising the set of prop tarot cards and a script from Live and Let Die saw the best return based on its estimate and final price, increasing its value by 2900%.

Listing the films by mean percentage increase, however, we get a somewhat different order to the one based on the 1998 data. Live and Let Die tops the list with its mean increase of 2900%, but Skyfall is second (2225%), Casino Royale (2006) is fifth (1265%), and The Living Daylights and For Your Eyes Only are in the top ten. Octopussy and A View To A Kill occupy middling positions (both with 650%), while Goldfinger is closer to the bottom with a mean increase of 337%.

While this might reflect more realistic estimates for some of the earlier films, particularly in light of the 1998 auction (and it should be noted that all lots sold for considerable sums of money), there appears to be increasing interest in the later films, possibly owing to generational factors (the fans who grew up with the Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton films of the 1980s are now in the auction halls), if not to these films gaining cultural respectability. The immediate impact of the extraordinarily well received Casino Royale and the eagerly anticipated Skyfall (the film had not been released at the time of the auction) is obvious.

Analysis of auction data has given us an insight into the changing levels of interest in Bond-related material and individual Bond films. But the data show, above all, that public fascination in the films of James Bond remains as strong as ever.

Sunday 19 April 2015

How Ann Fleming was kept awake by Three Blind Mice

In a letter to Clarissa Avon (Countess of Avon), written at Goldeneye on 16th February 1964, Ann Fleming wrote, “A new garage at end of garden has a juke box which plays from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m., especially a loud syncopated version of 'Three Blind Mice'”. A few days later, on the 22nd February, Ann wrote to Evelyn Waugh, mentioning the music.
“A new 'gas station' at garden gate possessed of infernal machine called 'sound system'. It relays calypso from 9 p.m. To 3 a.m. Special favourite being a syncopated version of 'Three Blind Mice'.”
The references to 'Three Blind Mice' are interesting, given that a calypso version of the nursery rhyme featured in the soundtrack of Dr No, released in 1962. The song, actually titled 'Kingston Calypso', was composed by Monty Norman and performed by the Jamaican band, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. In the film, the music accompanies the three blind beggars – in fact assassins sent by Dr No – on their way to kill Strangways. Was this the song that disturbed Ann Fleming so much?


It's possible. The soundtrack album was a chart hit, and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, thanks in part to the success of Dr No, were billed as 'Jamaica's no. 1 band', and doubtless their music was heard across the island.

Advert from the Gleaner

On the other hand, if Ann Fleming had been hearing the Dr No album, it would seem curious that she doesn't mention it or reflect on the irony of being kept awake by the music of a film based on her husband's novel (although any lack of recognition is understandable, given that she failed to find the film gripping during a preview in 1962). Moreover, 'Kingston Calypso' was never released as a single or included on any of the band's albums that had been released by early 1964, and so opportunities for recordings of the track to be heard in isolation were limited (unless the version that Ann heard was a cover).

A more likely candidate is 'Three Blind Mice' by Prince Buster (Cecil Bustamente Campbell), who was a pioneer of ska music in Jamaica in the early 1960s. His version of 'Three Blind Mice', which appeared on the B-side of the single 'Spider and Fly' in 1963, is a ska track and much more in keeping with the syncopated sound heard by Ann Fleming.


Ska and Dr No seem a world apart, but Ann Fleming's letters reveal something of a connection. Monty Norman's 'Kingston Calypso', inspired by the film's more or less faithful portrayal of the three blind beggars in Ian Fleming's novel, was among the first of a number of Jamaican versions of 'Three Blind Mice', and helped to give the nursery rhyme a particular place in Jamaican culture.


Amory, M, 1985 The letters of Ann Fleming, Collins Harvill

Friday 10 April 2015

On location: Bilbao in The World Is Not Enough

I was in north-east Spain over the Easter holiday. Having flown into Bilbao, I was able to spend a little time in the city before returning to the UK. Apart from exploring the many museums, parks, squares, streets, and cafés that Bilbao has to offer, naturally I was keen to see the locations used in The World Is Not Enough (1999). Given that the filming was based around the world-famous Guggenheim Museum, I didn't have too much difficulty finding them.


Bilbao appears in the pre-titles sequence. In the very first scene, Pierce Brosnan's James Bond crosses Iparraguirre, a street that leads to the Guggenheim. As we follow Bond into a building representing la Banque Suisse de l'Industrie, we catch a glimpse of the West Highland terrier, the enormous statue of a flower-covered dog that sits in front of the museum.
Me looking at the Guggenheim, Bilbao
The building used as the Swiss bank in fact stands opposite the museum on Alameda Mazarredo. Unfortunately during my visit, the building was obscured by scaffolding and hoarding advertising men's fragrance. There would be no recreating Bond's jump out of the window that day.
The building that doubled as TWINE's Swiss bank
After jumping out of the window, Bond makes his escape by heading north on Puente de la Salve, a bridge that takes one behind the Guggenheim and over the Ría de Bilbao. I walked a little way across the bridge, and then later drove over the bridge as I tried to negotiate my way out of the city and towards the airport.
Me on the Puente de la Salve, Bilbao
Alas there was no trace of Bond's visit, but the city did offer a postscript of sorts. Walking through the streets of the old city, I spotted a poster for 'Bond & Beyond', a concert celebrating the music of James Bond performed by the Orquesta Sinfónica de Bilbao. Now, if I could just manage to be in the city on 25th or 26th June...

For more information on James Bond's Bilbao, I recommend the 007 Travelers blog, and also On the Tracks of 007 by Martijn Mulder and Dirk Kloosterboer.

Saturday 4 April 2015

Universal Export: a bit of genuine tradecraft

In December 1940, British censorship examiners based in New York intercepted a letter addressed to a Mr Lothar Frederick of Berlin from someone who signed himself Joe K. The letter contained a list of shipping in New York harbour, and from this and several other clues in the letter, it was established that the sender was a Nazi agent.

The letter was passed to an MI6 officer, H Montgomery Hyde, attached to the censorship station, who in turn passed it to William Stephenson, director of the British Security Coordination, an organisation set up to gather intelligence about Nazi agents working in the US, spread disinformation, and support acts of sabotage against Nazi targets.

Censorship examiners were ordered to keep a look out for more correspondence from Joe K, which resulted in a haul of intelligence material. Many of the letters followed a characteristic pattern. Each letter usually contained a message written in invisible ink, while the visible text purported to be an ordinary business letter. Even this though in fact disguised information of interest. For example, one letter stated:

"Your order no. 5 is rather large - and I with my limited facilities and funds shall never be able to fill such an immense order completely. But I have already many numbers in stock, and shall ship whatever and whenever I can. I hope you have no objections to part shipments."
What Joe K meant was that the demand from his Nazi masters for information was too much for him to fulfil with his limited resources, but he would do what he could.

If this style of communication, full of double meaning, seems familiar to readers of the Bond novels, then that's because Ian Fleming had Bond communicate in a similar fashion.

In Live and Let Die, for example, Bond makes a call to the 'managing director' of Universal Export (ie M) to report that he "may need a bit of help with a difficult consignment", having gone "uptown to see our chief customer last night" Bond continues that "three of [the customer's] best men went sick" while Bond was there, and that Bond himself "got a slight chill". The chief customer is, of course, Mr Big and that 'sick' is a euphemism for 'dead'.

Bond makes a similar call in From Russia, With Love to report that his partner (Darko Kerim) had gone very sick; that is, he had been killed by the opposition.

In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond communicates with M, not as a travelling salesman, but as a repesentative of the College of Arms. Revealing in a letter something of the organisation behind Blofeld, Bond writes of the "male staff of several nationalities" and of Fräulein Irma Bunt, who has told him that "she comes from Munich". Of the Count, Bond writes of his research on allergies and their causes, and tells the addressee, Sable Basilisk, that he has suggested to the count that a visit to Augsberg might be useful.

All valuable intelligence material between the lines for those officers back home working on the Blofeld case (Operation Corona), while the Augsberg trip is a ruse to get Blofeld out of Switzerland so that he can be snatched.

The Bond novels are often dismissed as spy stories, but the fantastic plots and thrilling, fast-paced narrative do disguise genuine tradecraft. Bond's communications under the auspices of Universal Export, which have their origins in the Second World War, if not earlier, are one example.


Montgomery Hyde, H, 1962, Room 3603: The story of the British Intelligence Centre in New York during World War II