Tuesday 30 January 2018

Episode of Death in Paradise inspired by Ian Fleming?

A recent episode of Death in Paradise, a murder mystery series set on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint-Marie (actually Guadeloupe), might be of interest to Bond fans. In the episode, DI Jack Mooney (Ardal O’Hanlon) investigates the death on the island of a thriller writer, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Ian Fleming.

The writer, Frank O'Toole, is the author of some 40 thrillers, including spy novels. He lives in a large house, apparently single storey, on a hillside overlooking the sea, and enjoys access to the beach via steps leading from the house. The house has a veranda and large glassless windows with jalousies. For all I know, houses like this may exist all over the Caribbean, but my immediate thought when I saw it was of Goldeneye, Fleming’s Jamaican home.

The hero of Frank O'Toole's novels is a 'hard-boiled code-breaker' called Jim Harvey. In one of his adventures, With My Little Eye (a title that perhaps owes more to Agatha Christie than Fleming), Harvey is tasked with tracking down a 'deadly assassin in Ecuador', a plot with shades of The Man with the Golden Gun. In another allusion to Bond, or at least the film Bond, Jack Mooney notes (having read the book after O'Toole's wife tells him that 'if you want to know my husband, you have to read him') that by page 13, Harvey has already slept with the woman he's been spying on.

There are other details that recall Fleming. Frank O'Toole writes in a room overlooking the sea, and, though the series setting is contemporary, he uses an old typewriter. He writes one book a year, and we learn that he was a journalist before turning to novels. All of which sounds rather familiar.

Curiously, despite all these apparent nods to Fleming, Frank O’Toole is described as a ‘budget le Carré’. Do I detect a trace of condescension on the part of the script writers? With John le Carré popularly considered to be the superior writer, perhaps ‘budget Fleming’ seemed less credible.

Episode 3 of series 7 is enjoyable, undemanding fare, and the Fleming aspect adds to the enjoyment. At the time of writing, the episode is available to watch via the BBC’s iPlayer.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Atticus and the origin of Bond's winning bridge hand

A while ago, I described how Ian Fleming’s Atticus column in the Sunday Times, which he wrote from 1953 to 1956, provided him with material for the Bond novels. The reverse was also true. Occasionally, ideas that appeared in the Bond novels would also crop up again in Atticus.

Take Moonraker, for example. In the epic bridge game between James Bond and Hugo Drax, Bond wins by means of the redoubled grand slam, beating Drax with a combination of trumps and diamonds. 

Dwight D Eisenhower, US President from 1953 to 1961, won a game of bridge with a similar hand. In Atticus of June 19th, 1955 (two months after the publication of Moonraker), we’re told that Eisenhower, a brilliant bridge player, who liked to play trumps as an opening lead, won a famous game just before the end of the Second World War against fellow US army generals Gruenther, Clark and Moses. The hand was redoubled, and Eisenhower prevailed with a grand slam in diamonds. Coincidence, or the source of the game between Bond and Drax?

Later in Moonraker, we learn that Drax owns a Mercedes 300 S, ‘the sports model with the disappearing hood’, and painted white in honour of the famous Mercedes victories at Le Mans and Nürburgring.
Cover artwork of the first edition of Moonraker (Cape, 1955)

Atticus mentions a similar model on July 3rd, 1955. In the piece, Atticus reported that American journalist John Bentley (‘the best American writer on fast motoring’) considered that Le Mans had lost its purpose, which was to provide a testing ground for production vehicles. Instead, limited-production cars and prototypes were permitted, and ‘the true spirit of Le Mans vanished.’ 

The Mercedes 300 SLR is mentioned as a case in point. This model is similar to Drax’s car, but, we’re told, its air-brakes are relocated behind the centres of gravity and pressure, which steady the car on racing turns and mininise tail slides, but ‘would be useless’ on normal highways. The piece is accompanied by a photograph of a white Mercedes 300 SLR driven by Pierre Levegh (who tragically lost his life at Le Mans the previous month). The piece has only a tangential connection to Moonraker, but it nevertheless draws on Fleming’s fascination of motor racing that informed passages of the Bond novel.

Atticus gave Ian Fleming the opportunity to research and read up on subjects that would prove useful for the Bond books, but Fleming also turned to the Bond books for material for his later writing.

Tuesday 16 January 2018

On re-reading Live and Let Die

Christmas brought me the set of three Bond novels – Casino Royale, Goldfinger and Live and Let Die – published by Vintage Classics. The last I was particularly keen on reading. Not only does it have an excellent introduction by John Cork (as do they all), but the edition comprised a never-before published version of the text.

As the introductory note to the text states, the Vintage Classics edition is a combination of the standard UK edition and the US edition. Fleming’s original American publisher, Macmillan, made several changes to the UK edition, with Fleming’s approval, mainly relating to the American scenes, descriptions and language. For this Vintage Classics edition, the two original editions were compared and combined, and what could be described as a definitive edition has been produced.

The most obvious difference between this edition and the UK edition is that chapter 5, perhaps the most problematic part of the book (to say the least), is shorn of the lengthy conversation at Sugar Ray’s between a black couple that Bond and Leiter listen into. The chapter is also given its US title, Seventh Avenue. Along with other, smaller, changes, this gives the book a fresh, pacier, feel, and makes the reading experience very much less uncomfortable. 

Some other thoughts came to mind as I was reading the book. Superficially, the film version of the book diverges significantly from the book, but a surprising amount of the book survives to lesser or greater extents in the film. Bloody Morgan’s treasure is replaced by drugs, but the book’s essential plot elements – voodoo, the Harlem setting, the train journey, Mr Big’s cave and his network of agents, Bond’s capture, the disappearing table in the bar, sharks, the mine that destroys Mr Big’s operation, Solitaire and Bond being tied up together at the denouement of the book, and so on – are also on the screen. Some of these elements were, of course, picked up again and filmed more faithfully for For Your Eyes Only and Licence to Kill, but there’s more of the book in the film than one may think. 

I was reminded of some of the quite ordinary things Bond does in this novel. Eating cornflakes is one. Catching a bus is another. It’s almost impossible to imagine Bond waiting at the bus stop, boarding the bus, fiddling with change, buying a ticket, looking for a spare seat, and keeping an eye on the stops. Would any continuation Bond novelist dare have Bond catch a bus? Probably not, and if they did, they’d risk writing a parody in a similar vein to Sebastian Faulks’ piece in his Pistache volume that describes Bond in a supermarket. The episode is reminder that Fleming could make even the most ordinary acts sophisticated and exciting (the New York setting helps), and that he created a hero that his readers could relate to. Bond may not quite be one of us, but he’s far from the upper-class, ‘clubland’ hero of the earlier 20th century. I wouldn’t mind betting that Fleming took the same bus journey. There is a bus ride in the film version, but the use of the bus is far from being of an ordinary nature. 

It is worth noting, too, that Live and Let Die contains the first use in a Bond book of the phrase, ‘all the time in the world’. Bond tells Solitaire, ‘When the time comes I want to be alone with you, with all the time in the world.’ Fleming was evidently much taken with the phrase. It’s not only used in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, appearing in the final chapter and serving as that chapter’s title, but is used twice in Diamonds are Forever: ‘But now there was all the time in the world’, and ‘Bond suddenly felt they had all the time in the world.’ So associated is the phrase with Bond that it would be my choice for the title of the next Bond film, although the fact that it has already been used in a film title – being the sub-title to Spy Kids 4 – might rule its use out.

A final point to make is that the Soviet connection in Live and Let Die seems very weak. As John Cork points out, at no point does Mr Big spout Soviet ideology, nor does he mention the Soviets in respect of his operations. Indeed, the Soviet angle is barely mentioned again after M’s briefing. One wonders why Mr Big would need the Soviets at all. His operation is self-financing, and he’s in control of a business and crime empire. Ian Fleming could be considered as much a crime fiction writer as a spy fiction writer, and Live and Let Die certainly joins Diamonds are Forever, Goldfinger, The Spy who Loved Me, and the short story 'Risico' in the crime category.

Are any more Vintage Classics editions of the Bond novels planned? I hope so!

Wednesday 10 January 2018

What Little Nellie did before Bond

Little Nellie, the autogyro designed and built by Wing Commander Ken Wallis and flown by him in the film You Only Live Twice (1967), is one of the most celebrated vehicles in the James Bond series. In the film, James Bond uses the autogyro, supplied by Q Branch, to reconnoitre the Japanese landscape to find out where SPECTRE’s rockets might be launching from. A cine-camera fixed to his helmet allows him to photograph every inch.
Bond flying Little Nellie in You Only Live Twice

Curiously, Little Nellie had been used for a not too dissimilar purpose a few years earlier.
Thuxton, a small village near Dereham in Norfolk, is the site of a deserted medieval village or DMV – the remains of a settlement that existed in the medieval period, but for some reason (possibly plague or changes in climate, population or land use) was abandoned. In the early 1960s, the DMV at Thuxton still survived as bumps in the ground, marking the positions of dwellings (tofts), streets and fields. During that time, however, Thuxton, along with other such sites, was threatened with deep ploughing, and so it was important to excavate and survey as much as possible before the earthworks disappeared forever. 

That’s where Little Nellie stepped in. While archaeological excavations were taking place, Ken Wallis flew across the site in his autogyro on several occasions and took aerial photographs of the medieval tofts and yards. These images captured fine views of the excavation and the village layout, and were used by the archaeologists to help them understand the history of the site. The images form part of the site archive and can be found in Norfolk’s Historic Environment Record at Gressenhall.

For Wing Commander Ken Wallis and Little Nellie, it was a mission not on Her Majesty’s secret service, but on Norfolk’s archaeological service.
Just for fun (and while we're on the subject of photography), I took this stereo image of Little Nellie, a signed photo of Ken Wallis and Fleming's novel. Look at the image through a stereoscope to see it in glorious 3-D! (Or relax your eyes as if looking at a 'magic eye' image.)

Tuesday 2 January 2018

How to organise a James Bond party

The festive season meant one thing for many places of work: the annual office Christmas party. My place of work was no exception, and this year the party was extra special – it was Bond-themed. The idea wasn’t mine, but my reputation as a Bond fan preceded me, and I was soon invited to join the organising committee.

We brainstormed ideas at a meeting in a pub a month or so before the party. We quickly agreed that the party would be fancy dress, or at least, Bond-inspired attire would be encouraged. We were going to hire a DJ and I knew where to get hold of some essential Bond tunes that, if they didn’t exactly get people dancing, would be certain to get them posing as if performing in the film series’ title sequences.

Other ideas were soon generated. We would decorate the venue (a trendy craft beer establishment called Tap Social on the outskirts of Oxford) with hangings, giant cardboard dice, and table props that would give the allusion of a casino. We would set up a projector and play random clips from the films. We would have a cardboard standee of Bond with the face removed for people to poke their heads through in the manner of the amusing cut-out scenes you get at the seaside.

Some ideas were interesting, but not so practical. I said I could bring my roulette wheel and we could create fake chips for people to play with. Everyone could start with, say, ten pounds-worth of chips, and the person with the most money at the end of the night would win a prize. Understandably, though, no one wanted to be croupier all night. (There are specialist firms that do that sort of thing; best leave it to the professionals.) I also wondered about having a menu of Bondian drinks, but the venue, which brewed its own beer, wouldn’t be able to stock the necessary ingredients.
The cut-out, available from Amazon and other internet retailers
Still, we had plenty to make the party go with a Bondian bang. We toyed with the idea of creating our own cut-out, but in the end, I decided to buy one (a wise investment, I thought: never say never again). The DJ was booked, the venue informed of our plans, and the projector was secured. Two of our committee members burnt the midnight oil to make playing-card hangings, martini glass props, dice, and masks of all the Bonds and other well-loved characters from the films. The head of our graphics department created a poster inspired by some of the classic film posters, and everyone helped to set the venue up and generate a buzz among staff. 

Poster created by Magdalena Wachnik. (We're all archaeologists, hence the trowels.)

What can I say about the party on the night itself, other than it was the best office Christmas party I’ve ever been to? The turnout was great, the bar staff friendly and helpful, and spirits were high. I also noticed lots of people watching the projected film clips, which acted as a sort of mini chill-out zone.
Some of the masks and table decorations
What about the Bond-inspired dress code? I admit I was tempted to arrive in my Daniel Craig-style swimming trunks, but naturally I opted for the classic dinner suit. Other staff members wore suits, there were Bond girls galore, and we were also joined by Bond and Estrella from Spectre’s Day of the Dead festival, Blofeld and a toy white cat, and Q, or a Q Branch technician, in a white lab coat complete with trick pens. It felt very 1967 Casino Royale, but in a good way.

The party's just getting started

It all goes to show that, when it comes to James Bond, and my fellow party organisers, nobody does it better.