Burgess, Bond… and birds

 

(c) MGM / UA

 

As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m a fan both of the writer Anthony Burgess and of the James Bond novels and films, so my curiosity was naturally piqued by a recent article in the New Statesman entitled Anthony Burgess’s 007 Obsession (http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/03/anthony-burgesss-007-obsession).

 

The article’s author Andrew Biswell admits that Burgess and 007-creator Ian Fleming were as different as chalk and cheese.  There’s no evidence that Fleming, who died in 1964 – by which time Burgess had penned, among other things, his Malaysia-set The Long Day Wanes trilogy, The Wanting Seed, Honey for the Bears, the first volume in the Enderby series and in 1962 A Clockwork Orange – took any interest in Burgess’s work.  Indeed, it’s possible that the famously snobbish Fleming would’ve looked down upon the Manchester-born, working-class-Catholic Burgess as a bit of an oik.

 

That, however, didn’t stop Burgess from taking a strong interest in Fleming and the Bond novels.  He saw the opulent escapism of the books, written immediately after World War II, as a commentary on the drab, depressed Britain of that post-war period, when the economy was in ruins and Britons still struggled with rationing.

 

Later in his life, aware that the context of the Bond books was lost on a younger generation who only knew the character through the Broccoli / Salzman film series, Burgess wrote that “Bond belongs to history and these are historical novels.”

 

A while back I posted a review of Burgess’s 1966 spy novel Tremor of Intent, which at times comes across as a pastiche of the Bond novels.  At other times, though, it draws its influences from the less glamorous and more realistic espionage fiction of John le Carre, Len Deighton and Graham Greene, which means the result is uneven – Burgess’s show-off prose style doesn’t help, either.  Nonetheless, Tremor provides the clearest evidence of Burgess’s preoccupation with Commander Bond.

 

What I hadn’t known before I read Biswell’s article was that in 1975 Cubby Broccoli commissioned Burgess to write a film-script for The Spy Who Loved Me, which made it to cinema screens two years later.  (The Spy Who Loved Me was the shortest, most low-key and least typical of Fleming’s 007 novels – Bond himself only appears during its final third – and it was deemed unfilmable, so the filmmakers were free to make up a new story.  Mind you, admirers of Fleming’s books would argue that making the stories up was pretty much what the filmmakers had been doing all along.)

 

Burgess’s completed script features an organisation called CHAOS (Consortium for Hastening the Annihilation of Organised Society), which places miniature nuclear bombs inside the bodies of unsuspecting victims while they are anaesthetised at a private clinic.  It also involves a plot whereby one of these walking bombs will blow up the Queen while she’s visiting Sydney Opera House.  Bond, who’s lately trained as an acupuncturist, saves the day by using his acupuncture skills to defuse the human bomb.  However, Broccoli binned Burgess’s script, assuming that the author was taking the piss, and the script that was finally used for the film was procured from Richard Maibaum and Christopher Wood instead.

 

By a coincidence, at almost the same time that Biswell’s piece appeared in the New Statesman, the Independent published an interview with one of the The Spy Who Loved Me’s eventual scriptwriters, Christopher Wood: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/confessions-of-a-sexfarce-writer-timothy-leas-sexual-misadventures-to-be-published-as-ebooks-8558702.html.

 

Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange – starring Malcolm McDowell as Alex the Droog, the embodiment of every British adult’s fears about juvenile delinquency in the early 1970s – ensured that Anthony Burgess’s name appeared on plenty of film posters at the time.  Meanwhile, Christopher Wood’s name appeared on many film posters of the era too.  These were for films portraying another form of adolescent bad behaviour.  Not violence, but sex.

 

(c) Warner Brothers 

 

Christopher Wood, you see, scripted the tacky British sex-comedy film Confessions of a Window Cleaner in 1974.  (The adjective ‘tacky’ invariably comes to mind when you attempt to describe any British film that involves comedy and sex.)  This was based on Wood’s own novel, which he’d written under the pseudonym Timothy Lea, and it was the first in a series of Confessions movies that were made until 1978 — further entries included Confessions of a Pop Performer, Confessions of a Driving Instructor and Confessions from a Holiday Camp.  All starred Robin Askwith in the lead role, playing a gormless 1970s British young ‘bloke’, desperate to get his end away with a succession of busty, lovely ‘birds’.  Also appearing in those films was Liverpudlian actor Tony Booth, who is better known these days as the father of Cherie Booth / Blair and the father-in-law of the not-much-missed former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

 

British film connoisseurs may hate to admit it, but the shag-happy Askwith, with his wide lapels, flared trousers and hairy sideburns, is as much of an icon of British cinema as Malcolm McDowell’s psychotic, bowler-hatted and spider-lashed  Alex in A Clockwork Orange — or indeed James Bond.  After all, Confessions of a Window Cleaner was the biggest-grossing British film of 1974.  And even when the film series died a death in the late 1970s, Wood continued to write sex-comedy novels using the Timothy Lea pseudonym and using the Confessions of… prefix.  The books were popular enough to eventually run to a total of 27 volumes.

 

(c) Columbia Pictures 

 

The Independent interviewed Wood recently because the publisher HarperCollins has now decided to re-release his Confessions novels as ebooks.  Christ knows why, I have to say.  As the film critic David McGillivray once said about the British sex-comedy genre, the one thing that all those films, including the Confessions ones, had in common was that they weren’t at all sexy.

 

In Christopher Wood’s defence, though, I should add that The Spy Who Loved Me is easily the best of the James Bond movies with Roger Moore in the lead role.  (That’s despite the fact that Roger Moore is about as convincing playing a licenced-to-kill secret agent as Robin Askwith is playing a sex stud.)  Unfortunately, Wood maintained his association with Cubby Broccoli and contributed the script for the next Bond film, 1980’s Moonraker, which many aficionados would identify as the series’ all-time worst entry.

 

Featuring a plot to rain a deadly nerve gas down on earth from an orbiting space station, and containing a gondola that turns into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft, and using as comedy relief an indestructible henchman with steel teeth, Moonraker makes Anthony Burgess’s script about human nuclear bombs, the Sydney Opera House and acupuncture sound almost sensible.

 

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