Books and films: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service


(c) Jonathan Cape


Although 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is perhaps my favourite James Bond movie, until recently I hadn’t read the Bond novel of the same title, written by Ian Fleming and published in 1963.  This was despite the fact that I’d read most of the other Bond books decades ago when I was a kid.  Some of those novels, in fact, I read before I’d ever seen a Bond film.


Now that I’ve finally got around to reading OHMSS, as I will abbreviate its title, and taken another look at the film version on DVD, how do the two measure up?  (If you aren’t familiar with the storylines of the book and film, I should warn that this blog-entry will be chock-full of spoilers.)


OHMSS was the tenth of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels and he wrote it in early 1962 at Goldeneye, his estate in Jamaica.  Nearby, meanwhile, Jamaican locations were being used for the filming of the very first Bond movie, Dr No.  Thus, James Bond was undergoing a metamorphosis – from a literary phenomenon into something bigger, a franchise incorporating large-scale movie-making and merchandising whose central character would be an icon of 1960s pop culture.  Though the novels were (refined) examples of pulp fiction, Fleming – who was methodical about his research – did at least try to give them a veneer of believability.  With each successive film, however, Bond seemed to drift further from the realm of possibility and into that of outright fantasy.


OHMSS feels like a different sort of James Bond book, but in fact it goes in the opposite direction from that in which the films would go.  It makes Bond more believable as a character, not less so.  It’s ostensibly about the first face-to-face encounter between Bond and his arch-enemy Ernst Stavros Blofeld, who is head of the secretive and deadly crime syndicate SPECTRE.  But OHMSS also explores Bond’s emotional side and highlights his vulnerability.


Key to this is OHMSS’s sub-plot about the romance between Bond and Contessa Theresa ‘Tracy’ di Vicenzo, a woman whose father, Marc-Ange Draco, runs a crime syndicate too, the Unione Corse of Corsica.  At the novel’s end, with Blofeld seemingly vanquished, Bond and Tracy get married – only for Blofeld to make a sudden reappearance in the final pages, spraying their bridal car with bullets, killing Tracy and leaving Bond as a babbling wreck.  As a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement noted at the time, this Bond was “somehow gentler, more sentimental, less dirty.”


When Cubby Broccoli and Albert Saltzman got around to filming OHMSS six years later, five Bond books had been turned into movies and the continuities of those books and films were already hopelessly at odds.  In the books, Blofeld had made a ‘backstage’ appearance in OHMSS’s immediate predecessor, Thunderball.  In OHMSS’s successor, You Only Live Twice, Bond and he have a second and final meeting – it’s the grim tale of the traumatised Bond hunting down and getting his revenge on Blofeld, much of it taking place on a bizarre ‘island of death’ off the Japanese mainland whose deadly fauna and volcanic discharges attract a steady stream of visitors, wanting to commit suicide.  In the Bond movie-world, though, Blofeld had featured in the backgrounds of From Russia with Love (1963) and Thunderball (1966) and then played a leading role in the film immediately before OHMSS, 1967’s You Only Live Twice – yes, the title that came after it in the book series.  As a result, there isn’t much grimness in You Only Live Twice-the-movie.  It’s a jolly science-fictional romp involving stolen spaceships, a secret base disguised as a Japanese volcano and Donald Pleasance playing Blofeld with a white jumpsuit, severe facial scar and fluffy white cat.  The film is a cartoonish thing compared with the book because, as far as the films are concerned, the murder of Bond’s wife hadn’t happened yet.


When OHMSS began filming, the filmmakers – Broccoli and Saltzman, scriptwriter Richard Maibaum and director Peter Hunt, who’d worked as a film editor and second-unit director on the previous five movies – made the brave decision to follow Fleming’s book closely, right up to the tragic denouement.  So keen was Hunt to be faithful to the book that supposedly he carried a copy of it around the set, its pages marked with his own annotations.




At the start of OHMSS-the-book, it seems like business as usual for Bond.  As with the previous novels, he’s a sophisticated, money-is-no-object consumer of the sort of food, drink, cigars, clothes and cars that most of Fleming’s post-war, austerity-Britain readers could only dream about.  Although Fleming writes early on that “James Bond was not a gourmet.  In England he lived on grilled sole, oeufs cocotte and cold roast beef with potato salad,” a page later we hear him bitching about the quality of a meal he’s just had in a French eatery, about “…the fly-walk of the Paté Maison (sent back for a new slice) and a Poularde à la crème that was the only genuine antique in the place.  Bond had moodily washed down this sleazy provender with a bottle of instant Pouilly Fuissé and was finally insulted the next morning by a bill for the meal in excess of five pounds.”


However, the tone soon changes.  Bond’s in France at the tail end of a mission to locate Blofeld, an interminable and fruitless mission that’s pissed him off to the point where he’s ready to hand in his resignation to M, and he crosses paths with the troubled but imperious Tracy.  In a pricey hotel-cum-casino she commands him: “Take off those clothes.  Make love to me.  You are handsome and strong.  I want to remember what it can be like.  Do anything you like.  And tell me what you like and what you would like from me.  Be rough with me.  Treat me like the lowest whore in creation.  Forget everything else.  No questions.  Take me.”


Later, on the coast, Bond intervenes to prevent Tracy from committing suicide and the two of them fall into the clutches of some heavies who turn out to work for Tracy’s father, Draco, godfather of the Unione Corse.  Draco is delighted with Bond taking a protective interest in his daughter and urges him to marry her – offering a dowry of one million pounds as a sweetener.  Bond declines the marriage offer but agrees to continue romancing Tracy, if it’ll help her mental state.  He also manages to coax some information out of his would-be father-in-law regarding Blofeld’s whereabouts.  The super-villain, it transpires, is hiding out in Switzerland.


The same events occur in the film version, although in a different order.  First, Bond saves Tracy from drowning herself, then he gets to know her intimately.  Also, the action takes place not in France, but in Portugal – Peter Hunt felt that by this time cinema-goers were over-familiar with the French coast.  Just before the credits kick in (and we get to hear John Barry’s instrumental OHMSS theme, regarded by many as the best Bond tune of the lot), there’s also some breaking of the fourth wall as Bond turns towards the camera and quips, “This never happened to the other fellow.”  For yes, this movie features a brand new James Bond.  Gone is the hairy Edinburgh brawn, slurring Caledonian brogue and insouciant Scottish scowl of Sean Connery – who by then, apparently, couldn’t even bring himself to exchange words with Cubby Broccoli – and in his place is the inexperienced Australian actor George Lazenby.


Actually, such a novice was Lazenby at the time that the only thing he was known for was appearing in a TV commercial for Fry’s Chocolate Cream.  I’ve heard a story that Broccoli saw him a barber’s shop, liked the ‘cut of his jib’ and picked him on the spot.  However, interviewed on the making-of documentary that accompanies OHMSS on my DVD, Lazenby claims that he already had an audition for Bond lined up.  He went to that barber’s because he knew that Connery had used it in the past and he thought it was his best bet for getting a ‘Bondian’ haircut.  The establishment was used by other people associated with the Bond movies and Broccoli happened to be there when Lazenby walked in.


In contrast with the inexperienced Lazenby, the actress playing Tracy in the movie was already a star – Diana Rigg, who’d made a name for herself playing Emma Peel in the gloriously baroque 1960s TV show The Avengers.  Ironically, for a film series that’s often accused of de-humanising the books and emphasising big, dumb spectacle at the expense of characterisation, Tracy is a more fleshed-out character in the film than in Fleming’s novel.  She’s given more to do and, played by Rigg, she has a sparkle that’s missing in the rather aloof, ambiguous character that Fleming sketches.  Tales about how Lazenby and Rigg didn’t get on during the shoot are legion – most notably about Rigg munching garlic prior to the filming of scenes where Bond and Tracy kiss.  Director Hunt has disputed these claims, although I’ve seen at least one interview with Rigg where her comments about Lazenby are uncomplimentary.




Both the book and film show Bond getting an unexpected lead about where to find Blofeld in Switzerland – the College of Arms in London has had dealings with his adversary, who wants them to prove that he is heir to the aristocratic title of ‘Compte Balthazar de Bleuchamp’.  This allows Bond to adopt the guise of Sir Hilary Bray, a College of Arms genealogist, and travel to Blofeld’s hideout, a mysterious medical clinic perched on top of the Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps, where he promises to do some research in support of Blofeld’s claim to the title.


In the novel Fleming devotes a lot of time to the College of Arms, whose work clearly interests him.  It also allows him to explore the theme of snobbery.  As Sable Basilisk, a genealogy expert interviewed by Bond, comments: “I’ve seen hundreds of smart people from the City, industry, politics – famous people I’ve been quite frightened to meet when they walked into the room.  But when it comes to snobbery, to buying respectability so to speak, whether it’s the title they’re going to choose or just a coat of arms to hang over their fireplaces in Surbiton, they dwindle and dwindle in front of you… until they’re no more than homunculi.”  It’s satisfying that Blofeld’s snobbery is the weakness that allows Bond to ensnare him.  Mind you, some would say this is a bit rich coming from Fleming, considering that his Bond novels, with their suave, sophisticated, well-travelled and well-heeled hero, have often been accused of snobbery themselves.


It’s also during this stage of the book we learn some things about Bond’s family.  I’d thought Fleming didn’t provide this information until the next book, You Only Live Twice, but I was wrong.  For example, he’s informed by the College of Arms that his family motto – and coincidentally a title for a Pierce Brosnan Bond movie 30 years later – is ‘the world is not enough’, of which he says, “It is an excellent motto which I shall certainly adopt.”  And we learn that his father was a Scotsman who “came from the Highlands, from near Glencoe” (a detail that was honoured by the latest Daniel Craig Bond movie, Skyfall), while his mother was a Swiss woman.


Not that Fleming is particularly complimentary about his parents’ nationalities.  Another genealogist, Griffin Or, says of the Scots in olden times: “In those days, I am forced to admit that our cousins across the border were little more than savages…  Very pleasant savages, of course, very brave and all that…  More useful with the sword than with the pen.”  Of his mum’s side, meanwhile, Bond snorts that ”(m)oney is the religion of Switzerland.”  (M replies to this: “I don’t need a lecture on the qualities of the Swiss, thank you, 007.  At least they keep their trains clean and cope with the beatnik problem…”  If M reckoned there was a problem with the beatniks, God knows how he felt in the late 1960s when the hippies appeared.)


Fleming gave Bond a partly Scottish parentage because, it’s said, he was impressed with the job that Connery did of portraying his super-spy when Dr No was filmed in Jamaica in 1962.  Dr No’s influence is detectable elsewhere.  In Blofeld’s Alpine base, which in the book is a ski resort as well as a clinic – in the film it’s only the latter – a character points out to Bond a certain lady among the fashionable skiers: “And that beautiful girl with the long fair hair at the big table, that is Ursula Andress, the film star.”  Andress, of course, was Connery’s co-star in Dr No and has a place in cinematic history as the first major Bond girl.


Bond duly goes to the Piz Gloria, pretending to be Sir Hilary Bray – and here the film glaringly contradicts the continuity established by its predecessor.  At the climax of You Only Live Twice-the-movie Bond and Blofeld have a face-to-face confrontation, but in OHMSS Blofeld doesn’t recognise Bond at all.  Actually, Bond might be forgiven for not recognising Blofeld either, for Broccoli and Salzman decided to recast the role of Blofeld too.  Not only do we have Sean Connery replaced by George Lazenby in OHMSS, but we have the goblin-like Donald Pleasance replaced by the bigger and more physical Telly Savalas.  To be honest, Savalas is a shade too thuggish-looking for the role, but he’s believable when doing the strenuous outdoors things required by the script later on, such as leading a ski-group in pursuit of Bond and wrestling with him during a breakneck bobsleigh ride.  Much as I like Donald Pleasance, I couldn’t imagine the silken-voiced, creepy-but-gentlemanly English character actor on a bobsleigh.




What’s officially going on in Blofeld’s clinic, Bond discovers, is that a group of young female patients are receiving treatment for food allergies.  What’s unofficially happening is that Blofeld is brainwashing them whilst simultaneously developing various destructive bacteriological agents in his laboratories.  The brainwashed ladies are to become his ‘angels of death’ and, when they return home, they’ll release those agents to decimate livestock and crops.  Blofeld finds out who Bond really is but the secret agent manages to grab a pair of skis and stages an epic night-time escape from Piz Gloria.  Blofeld’s henchmen pursue, but Tracy turns up in time to rescue him.  Afterwards, he links up with Draco again and he persuades him to launch an audacious attack on Piz Gloria using helicopters and his Unione Corse men.  Blofeld’s plans go up in smoke, although Blofeld himself escapes – despite Bond’s best efforts – using a bobsleigh.  Mission accomplished, Bond proceeds to marry Tracy, and things hurry to their tragic conclusion with Blofeld making an unexpected appearance during their honeymoon.


Both the book and film proceed along similar lines here, although it’s interesting to see how certain elements in the 1969 film are pumped up from what Fleming put in his 1963 book.  In 1963, Blofeld was content to wage bacteriological warfare against Britain and Ireland, devastating their wheat, chickens, beef, potatoes, etc.  By 1969, Blofeld has widened his horizons – it’s the whole world’s food supply he wants to decimate.  Accordingly, the ‘angels of death’ undergo an upgrade too.  In the novel they’re a prim, middle-class, goody-two-shoes bunch, all from the British Isles.  Rather disdainfully, Bond reflects: “The girls all seemed to share a certain basic girl guidish simplicity of manners and language, the sort of girls who, in an English pub, you would find sitting demurely with a boyfriend sipping a Babysham, puffing rather clumsily at a cigarette and occasionally saying, ‘Pardon’.  Good girls who, if you made a pass at them, would say, ‘Please don’t spoil it all’, ‘Men only want one thing’, or, huffily, ‘Please take your hand away’.”  One of them even takes umbrage when Bond jokingly likens them to the girls in the St Trinian’s films: “Those awful girls!  How could you ever say such a thing!”


In the film, the angels come from all over the world and they’re way more glamorous.  Indeed, a good number of the actresses went on to brighten up my spotty adolescence during the 1970s with appearances in various cult (and sometimes shit) films and TV shows.  There’s Angela Scoular, who also starred in an ‘unofficial’ Bond movie, the dreadful, zany swinging-1960s comedy Casino Royale, in 1967; Norwegian actress Julie Ege, who turned up in a couple of 1970s Hammer horror films; Catherine Schell, who’d be a regular in Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi series Space 1999; Jenny Hanley and Anouska Hempel, both of whom appeared in Hammer’s ultra-tacky Scars of Dracula; and the legendary Joanna Lumley.  In the late 1970s, of course, Lumley would play Purdey in the revival of The Avengers, The New Avengers.  In fact, you could argue that OHMSS-the-move features three Avengers actresses.  In addition to Rigg and Lumley, the face of Honor Blackman – who played Cathy Gale in The Avengers and Pussy Galore in 1964’s Goldfinger – is shown fleetingly during the credits sequence.


Nobly, mindful of Bond’s relationship with Tracy, Fleming has his hero seduce just one of the girls – something he does purely in the line of duty.  The filmmakers are less inhibited and for a little while on Piz Gloria Lazenby behaves like a fox in a chicken coop, shagging left, right and centre.  The movie also plays up the humour of the situation.  Sir Hilary Bray is supposed to be Scottish, so Bond dons full Highland dress before going to dinner with his hosts and their supposed patients.  Yes, after having a Scotsman play Bond for five films, Broccoli and Saltzman wait until he’s played by an Australian before they pop him into a kilt.  This enables the Angela Scoular character to write her room number on the inside of Bond’s thigh, using her lipstick, under the table — a manoeuvre that prompts Bond to comment, “I feel a slight stiffness coming on…  in the shoulder.”  If the dialogue for this Bond movie sounds sharper than usual, it’s probably because Simon Raven, the famously dissolute English author, was hired to write it.




When Bond escapes from Piz Gloria, Peter Hunt and his crew predictably pump up the action scenes well beyond what was in the book, but I’m not complaining.  Even 45 years later, the scenes where Lazenby skis, runs, drives and fights for his life are very impressive and Hunt makes good use of his experience as a film editor – the action has a frenetic quality that, viewed now in the era of the Bourne movies, seems far ahead of its time.  Similarly expanded is the climactic assault on Piz Gloria mounted by Bond, Draco and his gang.  In the book it comes across as a brief ‘smash-and-grab’ raid but in the film it’s a full-on battle, complete with grenades, flame-throwers and flying bottles of acid.  Rarely has the pulse quickened as much as it does when Monty Berman’s James Bond theme kicks in in the midst of the mayhem here.


One change made to the plot by the filmmakers that I think improves on the book is Tracy being captured by Blofeld.  In Fleming’s original, after Tracy come to Bond’s aid, she disappears into the background again.  In the movie, Blofeld triggers an avalanche that leaves Tracy unconscious and at his mercy, and Bond missing, presumed dead.  When Bond, who of course isn’t dead at all, goes to Draco for help, the Corsican mafia boss has a very real reason for giving him help – his daughter’s life is at stake.  (It also allows Peter Hunt to show Savalas flirting, with an obviously menacing undercurrent, with Rigg at his mountaintop HQ.  Again, I don’t think poor old Donald Pleasance could have done the flirting bit very convincingly.)


Fleming depicts Bond and Tracy’s wedding as brief and low-key, but again the film makes it a big, opulent affair.  M, Q and Miss Moneypenny (who for obvious reasons is rather tearful) are in attendance, as are Draco’s henchmen, many of whom spent the early part of the film getting beaten up by Bond.  However, both the book and the film converge for the ending, which is as melancholy and understated as it is shocking.  No other Bond movie has ended like this one.  Indeed, it’s annoying that the filmmakers saw fit to follow this with 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, which gets Bond’s revenge on Blofeld out of the way in its first ten minutes, and then becomes a big, lazy, jokey and ludicrous Bond epic that would be the blueprint for Bond films later in the 1970s after Roger Moore had inherited the role.  (For a spiritual sequel to OHMSS, I think you have to look to the gritty Timothy Dalton Bond movie Licensed to Kill in 1989.)


OHMSS-the-film received some unfavourable reviews and made less money than its predecessors, and for years it was regarded as the runt of the 1960s-Bond-film litter.  Most, if not all, of the animosity towards the film was because in it George Lazenby played Bond for the first and only time.  (For Diamonds are Forever, Broccoli managed to patch things up with the truculent Connery and got him back into the role.)  Lazenby certainly isn’t a great actor, but I would argue that because this is a very different sort of Bond movie, one where Bond appears vulnerable and wounded, the awkward and uncertain Lazenby actually fits the film – he’s believable in terms of what the character has to go through.  I couldn’t imagine ‘Big Sean’ swaggering through the movie in his usual manner and it having quite the same emotional impact.


Happily, though, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has been re-evaluated and today is regarded as one of the best of the film series.  In fact, when 007 Magazine ran a poll in 2012, it was voted the greatest James Bond film ever – showing that among diehard Bond fans, at least, it’s the all-time favourite.  And much of the film’s success is due to the fact that, no matter what innovations were brought to the table by the talented Peter Hunt and his crew, it owes a great deal to the original novel by Ian Fleming.



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