Thursday 26 April 2018

Who did Number 2 work for before SPECTRE?

Anyone who’s read Thunderball or seen the film will be familiar with how SPECTRE conducts itself at meetings. Members of the criminal organisation are identified by number (in the novel, numbers are changed monthly, Blofeld being Number 2 during the events of the novel; this contrasts with the film, in which Blofeld, as chairman, is always Number 1) and quizzed about their criminal fund-raising activities before getting down to the main item on the agenda, in this case the theft of two atomic bombs. This set-up has been imitated and parodied since – Austin Powers hit the mark pretty accurately – but apparently SPECTRE wasn’t the first criminal organisation to adopt this model.
Cover of the first edition, published by The Bodley Head (artwork by Ernest Akers)
Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary, published in 1922, features the pair of amateur sleuths, Tommy and Tuppence. In the novel, they’re on the search for a young woman, who’s gone missing after taking possession of a packet of secret documents, the contents of which would be dangerous in the wrong hands. 

The adventurous pair soon run up against members of a secret organisation who have a nefarious interest in the documents. At one point, Tommy follows one of the criminal agents to a house that transpires to be organisation’s headquarters, and finds himself eavesdropping on a meeting of the agent’s fellow members, an international cast of criminals that includes a Russian, an Irishman and a German. 

Hidden away, Tommy notices the arrival of another individual, who is allowed to enter the meeting room when he reveals his identity – Number 14 – to the doorman. Someone else arrives, gives his number, and gains access. Within the room, and at the head of the table, is Number 1, who, like Largo in the novel of Thunderball, is not himself the head of the organisation (who is known mysteriously as Mr Brown). 

Once everyone is assembled, they get down to business. One of the members requests more money from the organisation to pursue his part in the grand scheme. They read reports from various unions, which they have been infiltrating in order to spread discord and lay the foundations of revolution, which will be achieved with the release of the information contained in the missing documents. They agree that a certain union member, who might be a fly in the ointment, ‘must go’, and they discuss how they could induce the young woman to reveal the whereabouts of the package (‘In Russia we have ways of making a girl talk’).

Reading this, naturally I was reminded of Thunderball, and certainly there are similarities between the organisations in Ian Fleming’s and Agatha Christie’s novels: the use of numbers, the discipline, the international membership, the involvement of the unions, the threat of violence, and the business-like manner of planning world chaos. 

It seems that even in criminal organisations, there’s a standard way of doing things. Now there’s a thought – did Mr Brown and Blofeld attend the same evil business school?

Saturday 21 April 2018

James Bond volcano erupts

The stack of rock that featured in The Man With The Golden Gun has long been known as James Bond Island, and it seems as if another natural feature is swiftly gaining a similar name, at least unofficially.
The crater of Mount Shinmoedake. Photo: Motamota [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
The eruption of the Mount Shinmoedake volcano in Japan in March captured the attention of the world’s press. The sight was spectacular, of course, and it was the first time the volcano had erupted for seven years, but the event was also notable because the volcano doubled as the exterior view of Blofeld’s subterranean lair in You Only Live Twice (1967). Activity has continued, and this week the eruption has again featured in the press and other media outlets. 

Many of the articles published since last month have mentioned the volcano’s connection to James Bond, and inevitably the words ‘James Bond volcano’ have been used. ABC News had the headline, ‘Lightning seen over Japan's so-called James Bond volcano’. Jakarta Post ran with a story with the headline, ‘”James Bond” volcano erupts in Japan, no-go warning issued’. BBC News headlined its story with ‘Mount Shinmoedake: Warning over Japan's James Bond volcano’. The headline on the Forbes website was ‘Japan's 'James Bond' volcano erupts in a spectacular display of fire and smoke’. The Telegraph simply wrote: ‘Shinmoedake, Japan's 'James Bond volcano' erupts.’ Yahoo News reported that ‘Smoke Billows from Japan's 'James Bond' volcano’. The Sun didn’t use the phrase, ‘James Bond volcano’ in its headline, but still referenced James Bond: ‘Japanese volcano used in classic 007 movie starring Sean Connery erupts.’

While Mount Shinmoedake is unlikely to be renamed officially, the references to the James Bond volcano show that You Only Live Twice and SPECTRE’s secret base continue to have a significant place in the cultural environment across the world.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Bond memes in Action Team

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so too does the cultural environment abhor the absence of a Bond film. In the two-and-a-bit years since Spectre, we have been treated to various Bond-like or Bond-inspired secret agents on both the big and small screen. Recently, for instance, there has been Kingsman: The Golden Circle and Atomic Blonde, and trailers for Johnny English Strikes Again and The Spy Who Dumped Me are currently doing the rounds. I’ve also been enjoying Action Team, a six-part comedy written by Tom Davis, James De Frond and Nico Tatarowicz, that’s just finished its run on ITV2.
Action Team, in action

Action Team follows a unit of MI6 comprising leader Logan Mann, sniper Graham Hooper, Monica Lang, who has a particular set of skills, and a kid on work experience called Huxley. The team is up against a Russian evil mastermind, Vladimir Schevchenko, who heads a criminal organisation called Abacus, and is overseen by the head of operations, Ruth Brooks. There is also the necessary assortment of henchmen and fellow MI6 officers who are not quite what they seem. 

The series parodies tropes from the world of screen spies – the unit of Action Team perhaps owes more to Mission: Impossible than Bond – but James Bond is the key reference. Logan Mann (played by Tom Davis), clearly the Bond figure, is dynamic, in control, suave and knowledgeable (or he thinks he is) and arrives at any situation armed with a gun and a quip. There are gadgets (though no Q-like character), big, gratuitious explosions, car chases, Mann on top of a moving train, femme fatales, and globe-trotting adventure. Then there’s the inside of the MI6 building, which looks much like the inside of headquarters as portrayed in Skyfall and Spectre – open plan with arrays of computers and screens – and a freestanding glass prison cell, the sort that held Silva in Skyfall, for captured enemy agents.

As for the villains, Vladimir Schevchenko (also played by Tom Davis) looks like the lovechild of Dr Evil and a Russian Hell’s Angel. He is, as usual for spy villains, capricious, childlike (in that he likes toys and throws tantrums) and psychopathic. In one scene, and in the best Spectre tradition, Schevchenko leads a meeting of his criminal partners. One of his Abacus agents, who, appropriately for a No. 2, wears an eyepatch, wants to walk away, having fallen in love. Schenchenko appears to allow him to leave with good grace, then shoots him in the back. The whole sequence reminded me of the meetings in Goldfinger’s rumpus room and Zorin’s blimp, where those who wish to pull out of the evil scheme come to a sticky end. Schevchenko knows the evil lingo, too, at one point practising the phrase, ‘I’ve been expecting you, Mr Mann’.

The music accompanying the series has familiar Bondian notes, and the music that plays over the end credits has the distinct ring of the Skyfall theme song. 

The series is funny and crude, rather like a British, live action Archer. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. Time for another series before Bond 25 hits the screen?

Wednesday 4 April 2018

On literary location: Salcombe, Devon

The beginning of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service finds James Bond on the beach at Royale-les-Eaux reminiscing about his childhood holidays at the seaside – the hot powder sand, the grit of wet sand between the toes, the collection of seashells and ‘wrack’, the small crabs scuttling out of the way of fingers groping in rockpools, the endless swimming and sunshine, the bucket and spade, the Cadbury chocolate Flake and fizzy lemonade.

North Sands, Salcombe

Biographer Andrew Lycett reveals that Ian Fleming was describing Salcombe in Devon, where he had spent three summers in a row as a young child, holidaying with his brothers, his mother, Eve, and Primrose and Dido Harley, the daughters of a friend of Eve’s.

A holiday in south Devon this Easter gave me the opportunity to visit this literary location for myself. Salcombe is a picturesque fishing town on the mouth of the Kingsbridge estuary on the south-west coast. The town is characterised by narrow, hilly streets of brightly painted Victorian houses and tourist shops that look out to the boats moored in the harbour. Art galleries and high-street fashion boutiques compete with fish and chip restaurants, ice-cream parlours, and shops selling the accoutrements of a fun day at the beach.

A view of Salcombe towards the harbour

Salcombe has several beaches, which are situated on the east and west sides of the estuary. I happened to visit North Sands, which is to the south of the town on the west side of the harbour. This is a popular beach, and I expect Ian Fleming and his family sought something more secluded. There was something familiar, though, about the steep, zigzag road down to the beach. It reminded me of the equally steep road that zigzags to the beach at St Margaret’s Bay near Dover, where in later life Ian Fleming had a home. I wondered whether the similarity struck Fleming as well. Possibly the reminder of his childhood holidays added to the attraction of St Margaret’s Bay. 

One of the many rockpools

Whether or not the young Ian ever frequented North Sands, the beach (no doubt along with others) matches the description in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with its soft sand, seaweed-fringed rockpools, and fine swimming. And yes, I did have a chocolate Flake and fizzy lemonade.
A Flake and (rather posh) fizzy lemonade
There was one other piece of Bondiana in Salcombe. I noticed a card for a local taxi firm in the parish council noticeboard. The name of the firm was Moonraker Taxis. Of course, the firm was named after the type of sail, rather than the novel or film, but I don’t suppose the association of the name with James Bond does any harm to the bookings.

Moonraker taxis