Thursday 27 October 2016

A visit to the Aston Martin museum

Sometimes, one stumbles on places of interest to the James Bond fan quite unexpectedly. A few weeks ago I was driving through the south Oxfordshire countryside – actually on a tour with fellow Bond aficionado Tom Cull (who runs the brilliant Artistic Licence Renewed website) of Ian Fleming's childhood homes – when we saw a brown road sign for the Aston Martin museum. I hadn't noticed that sign before (I was to learn that it had only been put up in February this year) and in fact hadn't been aware of the museum's existence. Unfortunately, the museum was closed that day, but this week I had the chance to pay a visit.

The museum, run by the Aston Martin Heritage Trust, is located in the small village of Drayton St Leonard, near Wallingford. No wonder I didn't know the museum existed. Even following the brown sign and driving through the village, it's not exactly easy to find. I felt as though I was on a mission worthy of Bond as I had to stop a couple of times to consult the directions on the website (the sat nav will only get you so far). And to add to the Bondian air, Chinooks, presumably from nearby RAF Benson, were flying low overhead.

I eventually found the museum, which is housed in a magnificent medieval barn (itself worth the admission fee) built for the monks of Dorchester Abbey. The museum is small – the building shares its space with the offices and archive of the Aston Martin Owners Club – but what wonderful things it contains.

Inside the Aston Martin museum
The cars change from time to time, and I was lucky enough to see (double oh) seven of them. These included a 1972 Aston Martin DBS, a prototype of the Vanquish (the model that appeared in Die Another Day in 2001), the Nimrod/Aston Martin racing car, the NRA/C2 004, which tore around Le Mans in 1982, and a full-scale ceramic and plastic model of the exclusive Aston Martin One-77, of which just 77 were built in 2008 and 2009.

There were more treasures around the edges of the barn. Display cases of trophies, medals and flags spoke of Aston Martin's many successes on the race track. Another case celebrated its drivers, among them the legendary Sir Stirling Moss (who takes his place in Bond lore as a character in one of Ian Fleming's unused television series treatments ('Murder on Wheels') and the basis of Lancy Smith in Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis (2015)). Seeing the helmet and overalls worn by Stirling Moss during his time driving for Aston Martin was a thrill.

A helmet worn by Stirling Moss
No collection of Aston Martin memorabilia is complete without reference to James Bond, and naturally part of a display case was devoted to toy cars, models and other representations of Bond's cars.

The James Bond display
The museum staff were helpful and friendly, and I was privileged to be given something of a guided tour by one member of the trust, with whom I had an enjoyable discussion about cars and Bond and other things beside.

Like the cars themselves, the museum isn't large inside, but it's very well put together and endlessly fascinating. It's a must-see for any Bond fan.

Friday 21 October 2016

Supersonic Buchan: Moonraker and John Buchan's The Three Hostages

While I’ve long maintained that the origin of James Bond owes more to American hardboiled thrillers by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett than it does to pre-Second World War literary clubland heroes, such as Bulldog Drummond and Richard Hannay, there is no denying that the third Bond novel, Moonraker (1955) is Ian Fleming at his most Buchan-esque.

I was reminded of this as I read the fourth Hannay adventure, The Three Hostages (1924). In the book, set after the First World War, Hannay is a retired army general eager for the quiet life at his Cotswold estate. Before long, though, he is persuaded by Macgillivray, who works for the Secret Service, to use his particular set of skills to help, unofficially, in the search for three individuals of note who have been kidnapped by a criminal gang.

Hannay has little to go on other than a piece of indifferent doggerel written by the mastermind behind the plot. The clue is enough, however, to take Hannay to one Dominick Medina, a extraordinarily handsome, clever and popular politician, the best shot in England and a poet to boot. Hannay initially seeks Medina's assistance, but realises, eventually, that Medina is the villain at the centre of the conspiracy.   

In general terms, The Three Hostages and Moonraker cover similar ground. Both have home-grown plots that begin in the refined and exclusive surroundings of London's clubland. Indeed, Hannay and Bond first meet Medina and Moonraker's villain, Sir Hugo Drax, in gentlemen's clubs (the Thursday Club and Blades, respectively). The schemes of both villains' aim to strike at the heart of the British government and bring the country to its knees, reflecting the deep-seated hatred that Medina and Drax have for Britain.

The villains, too, are cut from a similar cloth. Both are adored by the public and, at least initially, by the books' heroes. When M asks if he's heard of Sir Hugo, Bond replies that 'you can't open a paper without reading something about him'. The man's a national hero, Bond adds, and continues to give a gushing account of Drax before pausing, 'almost carried away by the story of this extraordinary man.'

Hannay's rather smitten with his man as well, and has the same thought as Bond. 'You couldn't open a paper without seeing something about Dominick Medina', he tells us. Hannay's friend, Dr Greenslade considers Medina a great man, and judging by the papers, the whole world thinks so too. When Hannay meets Medina, he remarks on the attractiveness of the man, his easy-going personality, and admits to being fascinated by him and under his spell.

Hannay tells his best friend and co-adventurer, Sandy Arbuthnot, that Medina is 'the only fellow I ever heard of who was adored by women and liked by men', a line that has a curious echo in the phrase applied to Bond by Raymond Mortimer: 'James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets.'

Neither Bond nor Hannay are quick to suspect Drax and Medina of villainous intent, and in a way the idea that a powerful, seemingly altruistic, and charming man is beyond suspicion has endured in fiction, finding expression, for example, in the Bond films. In the film of Moonraker, when Bond takes M and the Minister of Defence to Drax's secret laboratory, the Minister is sceptical. 'I hope you know what you're doing, Bond', he says, 'I've played bridge with Drax.' And similarly, in A View To A Kill (1985) when Bond wonders if Zorin himself was responsible for an infiltration of Zorin Industries by the KGB, the Minister of Defence splutters, 'Max Zorin? Impossible. He's a leading French industrialist... with influential friends in the government.'

Drax can't compete with Medina for looks. Drax has facial scars from the war, and has protruding front teeth or a diastema that he attempts to hide by growing a luxurious moustache. But Medina isn't perfect either. Hannay notes that Medina's head 'was really round, the roundest head' he had ever seen. He continues that Medina was 'conscious of it and didn't like it, so took some pains to conceal it' with his hair. Oddly enough, the very round head would be a villainous trait in a Bond novel. In Live and Let Die, Mr Big is described as having 'a great football of a head, twice the normal size and very nearly round.'

One final shared trait worth mentioning is that both Drax and Medina are somehow 'other' by virtue of their foreignness or perceived foreignness, which to some extent explains their villainy. Drax is of course revealed to be German. Dominick Medina is English, but his name raises a question in Hannay's mind. 'I suppose he's some sort of Dago', he says to Greenslade. On meeting Medina, Hannay remarks that his face 'was very English, and yet not quite English.'

I wouldn't go as far as to say that Ian Fleming was influenced by The Three Hostages directly, but given their common traits or memes, Buchan's novel and Moonraker certainly inhabit the same cultural environment. Famously, one critic referred to Fleming as 'supersonic John Buchan'. In the case of Moonraker, I'm rather inclined to agree.

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Was Octopussy's clown chase inspired by Berlin Express (1948)?

The film of Octopussy suffers from something of an identity crisis. Part Cold War thriller, part old-fashioned comedy adventure, it tries to have its cake and eat it too, as it continues the more serious, Fleming-esque style that resumed with For Your Eyes Only, while returning to the Carry On-style antics of The Spy Who Loved Me or Moonraker. For all that, the film is hugely enjoyable, and I have a lot of time for it.

Admittedly James Bond in a gorilla suit does little to burnish the film's reputation, and some might baulk also at the idea of Bond in a clown suit. While the gorilla suit is probably a step too far, the film just about gets away with the clown-disguised spies. Both the clown chase at the beginning of the film and the scene in which Bond, dressed as a clown, attempts to diffuse the bomb hidden in the cannon in the circus big-top, are uncanny and suspenseful and have more than a touch of Hitchcock about them.

What is especially interesting about the clown chase sequence, in which 009, in possession of a Fabergé egg, tries to escape from East Berlin, is that it is not completely a new idea, but is very similar in structure to a sequence in a much earlier espionage drama, Berlin Express, directed by Jacques Tourneur and released in 1948.

In that film, we follow a group of international travellers on a train to Berlin. One of the party is a Dr Bernhardt, who has been instrumental in brokering a settlement concerning the post-war reconstruction of Germany. There are sinister forces against him, though, and on the train his enemies make an attempt on his life. The assassination plot fails, but in Frankfurt, where the train is forced to stop, Dr Bernhardt is kidnapped. Four of his fellow passengers, among them Robert Ryan, who plays an American traveller, help a US army major to search the city for him.

One of the gang's hideouts is a beer-hall. There is a cabaret there, and among the entertainers is a clown called Perrot. He is also one of the gang, but before he leaves the hall to go to an underground warehouse or vault where Dr Bernhardt is hidden, he is knocked out by Hans Schmidt, a German agent who has been assigned by the US War Department to protect Dr Bernhardt. Schmidt takes the place of the clown, costume and all, and gains access to the vault.

At the vault, Schmidt confirms that Dr Bernhardt is there and tries to sneak out to inform the US authorities. At that moment, Perrot enters, and the rest of the gang realise that Schmidt is an imposter. In the sequence that follows, we can draw several parallels with 009's flight in Octopussy.

Schmidt runs up a staircase to the exit, but is shot in the back, just as 009 receives a knife in the back from Grischa.

Both Schmidt and 009 get it in the back
As Schmidt makes his way back to the beer-hall, he is pursued by two of the gang members. At one point he conceals himself behind the rubble of the bombed-out city. As he makes another run for it, his cloak gets caught and drops to the floor. Similarly, 009 is pursued through the woods of East Berlin by two men, Mischa and Grischa, and loses his hat when it catches on a branch of a tree.

Both Schmidt and 009 lose garments in the chase
Schmidt arrives at the beer-hall, presumably where he knows he can make contact with the US major, and staggers on to the stage. He sees the major, and starts to walk through the crowd of patrons towards him. 009 arrives at the British embassy and staggers towards the ambassador's room.

Schmidt and 009 stagger to their goals
Just before reaching the major, Schmidt twists in pain and crashes to the floor, eliciting a scream from one of the patrons. In Octopussy, 009 smashes through the french windows, eliciting a gasp from the ambassador's wife, and crashes to the floor. Schmidt remains alive for long enough to tell the US army major where Dr Bernhardt is being kept. 009 is dead, but in releasing the egg, allowing it to roll to the ambassador, he has imparted vital information.

Both Schmidt and 009 crash to the floor but impart the vital information
The similarities between the 009 and Schmidt sequences are striking. It is uncertain whether Octopussy's screenwriters, George MacDonald Fraser, Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson, or indeed the director John Glen, whose experience on the set of The Third Man (1949), a film contemporary with Berlin Express and of the same genre, informed scenes in his later film, The Living Daylights (1987), were inspired by the earlier clown sequence. But even if the similarities are coincidental, the 1948 film shows that there is a precedent for the use of clown-disguised spies in Octopussy. The idea is not such a ludicrous one after all.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

The hoary euphemism: James Bond of the Ministry of Defence

Image: Wikipedia
There's a fascinating article on the BBC News website about former MI5 officer Tom Marcus (not his real name) and his experiences in, and life after, the Security Service. Stories of how he helped thwart a terrorist plot to blow up two coaches of schoolchildren and another plot to set off a bomb at a Manchester shopping centre are especially remarkable, and illustrate the herculean and heroic task faced by the security and intelligence services.

What also caught my eye was Tom Marcus' description of how officers account for the period spent in MI5 when they've left the service and are applying for jobs; naturally former agents remain bound by the Official Secrets Act and must invent plausible cover stories. He told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme that “some people come up with a Ministry of Defence cover story, but trying to explain the skills you say you have for a made-up story just unravels – and I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that.”

I was interested to read this, because the Ministry of Defence cover story is what James Bond of the novels uses. The first occasion seems to be in Diamonds are Forever (1956, chapter 3), when Assistant Commissioner Vallance introduces Bond to Inspector Dankwaerts as Commander Bond of the Ministry of Defence. In The Spy who Loved Me (1962, chapter 15), Bond gives the Ministry of Defence as his address in a letter to Vivienne Michel.

There are two references in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963). At the College of Arms, Bond tells Griffon Or that he's from the Ministry of Defence (chapter 6), and we learn that Sable Basilisk thought Bond was vaguely employed by the Ministry of Defence (chapter 8).   

In his obituary of Bond in You Only Live Twice (1964, chapter 21), M identifies Bond as an officer of the Ministry of Defence, as does the Jamaican police commissioner in The Man with the Golden Gun (1965, chapter 16).

It's in the short story 'Octopussy' that Fleming describes the Ministry of Defence cover, used by Bond when greeting Major Dexter Smythe, as 'the hoary euphemism' for the Secret Service. In another short story, 'The Property of a Lady', Bond tells FabergĂ© expert Kenneth Snowman that he's from the Ministry of Defence.   

In light of Tom Marcus' account, these occurrences raise some interesting points. One is that the Ministry of Defence cover story is a legitimate one, and its use in the Bond books may well reflect a reality of British Intelligence. In other words, the use of the Ministry of Defence as a front had currency when Ian Fleming was writing and remains current now. 

Another point is that most Ministry of Defence references appear in the final few books. There is just one occurrence in the first nine books, but in the final five, there is at least one reference in each. It's not obvious why this should be the case, but possibly Fleming used the Ministry of Defence trope or meme to add authenticity to the stories. Also, with each successive use of the meme, the chances that Fleming would use it again in the next book increased.

Monday 3 October 2016

The tradition of the operational mix-up

First edition cover by Richard Chopping, published by Jonathan Cape
The novel of On Her Majesty's Secret Service contains so many wonderful passages and descriptions that it's difficult to single out any one as the best, but, when idly flicking through the book, I do find myself turning to the moment when James Bond, in conference with the Count de Bleuville (Blofeld, of course), recognises fellow secret service agent Shaun Campbell, who's been captured and brought before the count (chapters 14 and 15).

Bond surmises that Campbell was following a lead of his own and had no knowledge of Bond's mission. “Typical of the sort of balls-up that over-security can produce!”, Bond concludes, but he does the only thing that an agent can do in such circumstances: deny Campbell and leave him to his fate.

The operational mix-up is something of a standard trope, and Ian Fleming could have drawn on several examples from spy and detective fiction. One example can be found in Dennis Wheatley's short story Espionage, published in Mediterranean Nights (1942). British secret service agent Rowley Thornton is travelling by train to St Tropez, and becomes suspicious about a German women, Fraulein Lisabetta, who is sharing his compartment (the story is set between the world wars). Suspecting that Lisabetta has taken possession of secret blue prints for a new fighter plane stolen by a German agent, Rowley goes after her and plans to have her hotel room searched or, if necessary, have her searched.

However, it transpires that Lisabetta is herself a British agent, who has inveigled the blue prints from the German agent. As Rowley later reflects, “It's one of the rules of the service that even if your own side gets up against you through ignorance you must never show your hand until your job is done.”

This rule of never showing your hand is also evident in Peter Cheyney's Never a Dull Moment (1942). FBI agent Lemmy Caution is in England, investigating the disappearance of a woman, Julia Wayles. He suspects that American gangster Maxie Schribner has something to do with her disappearance and is talking to Schribner at his English residence.

When another gangster, Rudolf, enters the house, Caution “almost gets heart disease”. Though purporting to be one of Schribner's associates, Rudolf is actually a fellow FBI agent, Charlie Milton, working under cover. A few words from Milton prevent Caution from giving the game away, but unfortunately for Caution, Milton also maintains his cover by “smacking [him] one across the kisser that makes [his] teeth bounce.” Caution is out for the count and comes to in the cellar waiting to be thrown in the river.

With these examples in mind, we can see that Ian Fleming continued the tradition of the operational mix-up. James Bond sticks to the rule of never showing your hand until the job is done, but finds that it is a rule that can have harsh consequences.