The things I do for James Bond

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(c) Eon Productions

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Last month in Colombo, I was looking forward to attending my workplace’s end-of-year party.  Then the invitation for it arrived in my work inbox and my enthusiasm suddenly waned.  The party, the invitation informed me, had a theme.  You had to come in a costume appropriate to the theme and the costume judged to be best would win a prize.  And the theme was: carnival.

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Carnival?

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Now do carnivals connect in any way with me?  No.  Carnivals are the products of Latin American cultures where the climate is always warm and the sun always shines; where the faces always smile and the temperament is always joyous; where the inhabitants know how to dress colourfully and exuberantly; and where one can happily and un-self-consciously dance the night away without imbibing even a smidgeon of wine. 

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I, on the other hand, come from a culture where the weather is always dreich and the sun is always wrapped in smirr and haar; where the faces frequently scowl to the point of resembling well-skelpt arses and the temperament is two parts Knox-ism to three parts Calvinism; where daring to wear a pair of patterned socks can earn you condemnation for being a reckless  attention-seeking exhibitionist; and where, after you’ve sunk about 12 pints of beer, you might countenance getting onto the dance-floor to shake your two left legs for a couple of minutes to something like Dogs of War by the Exploited.  Carnival, I thought in my best Rab C. Nesbitt voice.  Carnival my arse.

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But then, looking around my bedroom, I saw evidence that I did like one type of carnival.  I noticed, for example, the presence of these skull-shaped ceramic salt and pepper shakers on top of my bookshelf.

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Also, there was this ornate skull-shaped candle located on a corner of my desk.

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And there was this painted wooden skeleton hanging on a wall.

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And these two skeletal Mexican senoritas stood grinning on top of my wardrobe.

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All these skeleton-themed items come from the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, known in English as Day of the Dead, which sees folk gather together and celebrate in honour of family members and friends who have passed away.  The reason I have so much Dia de los Muertos memorabilia is because my partner’s family live in San Antonio in Texas, about 150 miles north of the Mexican border, and three years ago we went to visit them in mid-October.  Not only were the local shops then full of merchandising for the upcoming Halloween festivities on October 31st, but they contained an equal amount of stuff for the upcoming Dia de los Muertos festivities on November 2nd.  The latter made excellent souvenirs to bring back from Texas. 

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When I thought about it, it also occurred to me that – as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know – I’m a big James Bond fan.  And didn’t the most recent Bond movie, 2015’s Spectre, begin with a long, tense and stylish chase / action sequence using as a backdrop a Dia de los Muertos parade in Mexico City?  For part of this sequence, Bond, played by Daniel Craig, is attired in a natty-looking outfit of top hat, skull mask and skeleton-patterned white-on-black suit and is accompanied by a glamorous lady in a summer frock and Venetian mask.  Now why couldn’t my partner and I attend our end-of-year work party dressed like that glamorous duo?

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Therefore, Dia de los Muertos was the carnival that provided us with general inspiration, while Daniel Craig and friend became our models.

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I should mention that in reality Mexico City never hosted a Dia de los Muertos parade until after 2015.  The makers of Spectre simply used dramatic licence and invented the occasion.  However, after the film’s release, the Mexico Tourism Board got so many inquiries about the non-existent parade from potential visitors that they decided to initiate one in their capital city to keep everyone happy (and, no doubt, make a bit of cash too).  Proof that life does imitate art.

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Assembling my Daniel Craig / Dia de los Muertos costume proved to be a trickier task than I’d expected.  I knew I was going to have to do much searching in Colombo to locate a top hat, but it was as difficult to find a skull mask.  I traipsed around several fancy-dress and party shops and got the same answer: “Oh, we had lots of skull masks two months ago, at  Halloween, but we don’t have any now!”  Thankfully, we discovered a wonderfully variegated and cluttered little costume store called JoJo’s tucked away in the back streets off Duplication Road where I was able to both rent a top hat and buy a skull mask (and my partner got her Venetian mask too).  The skull mask was actually gunmetal grey and I think it was meant to be the face of a robot skeleton – like the scary, stomping exoskeletons in the Terminator movies – and back at home I had to spray-paint it white.

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But the biggest problem was creating the skeleton-patterned suit.  I bought rolls of double-sided adhesive tape in a stationer’s and I cut the ‘bones’ out of strips of laminated white paper.  When I started to place the bones on the black jacket, the tape did initially make them stick to the fabric – until the moment when I tried to put the jacket on.  At the slightest movement of the fabric, the bones promptly fell off again.  I had to resort to laboriously sewing the bones on with white thread.  (The jacket was an ultra-cheap number I’d originally bought in Primark for twenty pounds, so I wasn’t concerned about disfiguring it.)  This took a lot of time and I only got the jacket finished minutes before the party was scheduled to start.  I hadn’t time to sew the leg bones onto my black trousers, so, reluctantly, I relied on the double-sided adhesive tape to fasten those.

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Incidentally, I managed to incorporate one item from my Dia de los Muertos memorabilia into the costume.  I fashioned a walking stick out of a rod and some kitchen foil and planted the ceramic skull-shaped salt shaker on one end of it as its head.  

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Finally, we were ready and off we headed for the party.  I’d barely got across the venue’s threshold when I began to suffer what are known nowadays as ‘wardrobe malfunctions’.  The adhesive tape continued to be worse than useless and my leg-bones were soon, and repeatedly, dropping off.  In fact, you could track me back and forth through the venue by following the little trail of bones I’d left on the ground behind me.  Trying not to dislodge them, I ended up moving around as slowly and stiffly as possible, and anyone who saw me probably thought I was stricken with severe constipation.

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Still, my Sri Lankan colleagues seemed impressed and kept inviting me to pose for photos with them.  I suspect, though, that they didn’t know about Dia de los Muertos or Spectre and merely thought I’d dressed up as a skeleton with a top hat because I was extremely weird.

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At the end of the evening, when the party organisers were finishing proceedings with a thank-you speech, they announced that the prize for best costume was being awarded to… me.  (Thankfully, the speaker referred to James Bond and Spectre at this point, making it clear to the assembled crowd that there was a method to my skeletal madness.) 

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And the prize was… a Miniso citrus juicer.  It now occupies a proud corner of our kitchen and, because it came as the result of a 007-inspired costume, I think of it as ‘the James Bond juicer’.  Alas, it doesn’t have a secret button on it that you press to make it turn into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft.

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Britain’s number-one pub argument settled

 

From www.mi6community.com

 

Sean Connery.

 

There.  That’s conclusively settled the argument that flares up regularly in pubs the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, especially after the participants have sunk a few pints.  It’s Sean Connery.

 

The argument, of course, centres on the question, “Who is the best James Bond?” And I suspect it’s been raging a lot lately, stoked up by reports that the most recent incumbent in the role, Daniel Craig, has decided to call it a day and the Bond producers have started looking for a replacement.  Currently Tom Hiddleston seems to be the media’s favourite, although the actor himself said at the weekend, “I don’t think that announcement is coming.”

 

Anyway, I’ll go further and offer a ranking of all the actors who’ve played James Bond over the years, from best to worst.  This is an official Eon-Film-series list, though.  I’ve made no mention of Bond actors from ‘rogue’ productions such as Barry Nelson, who played 007 in a 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale for the CBS TV anthology show Climax!; or David Niven, who played him in another adaptation of Casino Royale, the dire, zany, swinging-sixties comedy released by Columbia Pictures in 1967.

 

So in descending order, we have:

 

  1. Sean Connery
  2. Timothy Dalton
  3. Daniel Craig
  4. Pierce Brosnan
  5. George Lazenby
  6. Roger Moore

 

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To be honest, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t think that Connery is the best Bond needs his or her head examined.  He swaggered in at the start of the film series, dark and Byronic but equipped with that inimitable Scottish burr, and made the role his own.  He invested Bond with a ruthless but suave lethalness, a threatening but graceful physicality, a cruel but entertaining laconicism.  In fact, 54 years ago, Connery was such a revelation in the role that even Bond’s literary creator Ian Fleming, still alive and still writing at the time, was sufficiently inspired to put a bit of the brooding ex-Edinburgh-milkman into his spy-hero.  No doubt Fleming had Connery in mind when he ended his final Bond novel The Man with the Golden Gun, published posthumously in 1965, with Bond turning down the offer of a knighthood.  “I am a Scottish peasant,” he retorts, “and will always feel at home being a Scottish peasant.”

 

It has to be said that at the turn of the century when Connery himself was offered a knighthood, he displayed none of Bond’s reluctance.  He took it and promptly became Sir Sean.  (Or Ssshhhir Sean.)

 

Yet having just said that Connery is the best Bond, I must confess that he isn’t quite my favourite Bond.  That accolade goes to number two on my list, the Welsh actor Timothy Dalton, who played him in the movies The Living Daylights (1987) and Licenced to Kill (1989).  Mainly this is because I’d read most of Ian Fleming’s novels at an early age, before I saw any of the films; and Dalton struck me as the actor who came closest to portraying Bond in the way Fleming had imagined him and the way I’d first imagined him from the books.  (While researching the role, Dalton read the original literary canon, so this was to be expected.)  His was an edgier and more troubled 007.  It’s fitting that The Living Daylights begins by using the plot of the Fleming short story of the same name, which has Bond refusing to kill an enemy sniper – a woman – and declaring bitterly that the secret service can sack him for all he cares.

 

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Alas, Dalton didn’t capture the imagination of the public, who still seemed in thrall to the jokey tone of the previous Bond movies of the 1970s and early 1980s.  He wasn’t helped either by Britain’s fickle film critics.  They’d spent years moaning that the Bond films had become ‘too silly’.  But as soon as someone tried to toughen up the films, they started moaning that the series had lost its lovable silliness.

 

Ironically, Daniel Craig has approached the role in a similar way – a minimum of silliness, a maximum of seriousness – and won much acclaim in recent years.  Today’s world just happened to more ready for Craig’s approach.  It was less ready when Dalton did the same thing 30 years ago.  Anyway, I’d put Craig third in my list of Bonds, while fourth place goes to that genial Irishman Pierce Brosnan.  I like Brosnan as an actor and at his best he showed some grit in the role; but overall his version of Bond was a bit too bland for my tastes.   He also was unlucky with the quality of some of his films.  His swansong in the role, 2002’s Die Another Day, is a particular stinker.

 

Fifth, and second from the bottom, is Australian George Lazenby, who definitely wasn’t much cop as an actor.  Ironically, his one outing as Bond, 1968’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is perhaps the best movie of the lot.  It’s arguable that because it’s very different from the usual entries in the series – wistful in tone and tragic in its ending – the awkward and uncertain Lazenby actually fits the bill.  Despite his limitations, or perhaps because of them, Lazenby is acceptable in the context because he projects a weaker, more vulnerable Bond.  I couldn’t imagine ‘Big Sean’ breenging through On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in his usual insouciant manner and the film having the same emotional impact.

 

And finally…  Well, if you’re a regular reader of this blog and you’ve seen my previous posts about the Bond movies, you’ll hardly raise an eyebrow in surprise at who occupies the bottom of my list.  (Actually, raising an eyebrow was about the extent of the acting he did in the role.)  Still, his Bond movies were massively popular in their day – during his reign as 007 the franchise made millions.  So even if I didn’t think much of old Roger, vast numbers of other people evidently did.

 

From www.youtube.com

 

Spectres at the feast

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

At last I’ve managed to catch Spectre, the latest James Bond movie, on a big screen and in English.  (I’ve spent the last few weeks in a Francophone country and it took me a while to track down an English-language showing of it at a cinema.  Nothing against the French language, by the way – but somehow the line, “Je m’appelle Bond, James Bond…  Autorisé à tuer…” doesn’t do it for me.  Especially not when you try saying it in a Sean Connery accent.)

 

So here, belatedly, are my thoughts about the film.  Be warned.  If you haven’t already seen Spectre, brace yourself for a load of spoilers.

 

Since 2006’s Casino Royale, the Bond movies have been quietly rebooting themselves.  Casino Royale (appropriately based on the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, which was published way back in 1953) saw Daniel Craig debut as James Bond and began with his ‘blooding’ as a double-O agent – he kills a man for the first time ever and acquires his licence-to-kill status.  At a stroke, this relaunches Bond’s whole timeline and dumps the back-story of the previous 20 movies with Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan.

 

It wasn’t until two films later, 2012’s Skyfall, that the rebooted series got around to introducing a new Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), a new Q (Ben Wishaw) and finally a new M (Ralph Fiennes) – previously, Craig’s version of Bond had taken orders from Judi Dench, who’d played M since 1995’s Goldeneye and constituted the series’ only link with the old days.  Thus, Spectre has Craig start the film with something he’d lacked in his previous three outings – a team comprised of all the stalwart supporting characters from the old Bond movies, though played by new actors.

 

It’s seems apt, then, that of Craig’s films so far, Spectre is the one that feels most like the preceding Bond movies.  It has scenes, characters and plot-elements that echo various things in the 1962-2002 cycle of films.  Actually, I found this slightly disconcerting because I’d got used to the Craig era’s way of doing things – ignoring traditional Bond continuity whilst showing a dour, gritty seriousness that was the antithesis of how, say, Roger Moore sashayed his way through proceedings in the late 1970s and early 1980s armed with nothing more than a nudge, a wink, a quip and a raised eyebrow.

 

But this isn’t a major criticism of Spectre.  I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Skyfall; but I liked it better than the overrated, but still good, Casino Royale and the underrated, but still not very good, Quantum of Solace (2008).

 

So, what are those echoes of previous movies in Spectre – the spectres at the feast, so to speak?  Here are a few that I noticed.

 

Spectre begins, in fact, with a nod to a film that has nothing to do with James Bond.  The pre-credits sequence has Bond stalk a villain through the streets of Mexico City whist thousands of revellers celebrate the Day of the Dead; and then there’s a huge explosion.  Up until the moment of the explosion, director Sam Mendes films everything in a wonderfully-fluid single take.  This mirrors the opening minutes of Orson Welles’ 1958 film-noir masterpiece Touch of Evil, which is also shot in a single take and features Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh weaving through the streets of a Mexican town – until a similar explosion intervenes.  Actually, the single-take effect in Spectre was acquired with the help of some computer trickery.  Poor old Orson Welles, no doubt, had to achieve the same effect in his movie with nothing but hard work, ingenuity and willpower.

 

https://ca.movies.yahoo.com/post/132951174676/how-that-amazing-opening-spectre-scene-isnt-all

 

Immediately afterwards, because of the blast, the building Craig is standing on collapses and he plunges into a maelstrom of falling masonry, furniture and dust – before landing, almost comically, on a sofa.  This stunt, and Craig’s look of mingled disgruntlement and bemusement, recalls a scene in Diamonds are Forever (1970) where Sean Connery gains entry to a penthouse by climbing through a window, only to drop and land, arse first, on the seat of a toilet.

 

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Actually, a later moment when Craig ejects from the seat of his Aston Martin DB10, parachutes down onto a nearby street and, not missing a beat, strolls briskly and smartly away is also reminiscent of Connery – for instance, the famous scene at the beginning of Goldfinger (1964) when he strips off his frogman’s outfit and reveals himself to be wearing a tuxedo underneath.  Like Connery, Craig is able to carry off such scenes, which are inherently ridiculous, with an elegant and insolent swagger.

 

But meanwhile, the pre-credits sequence still isn’t over.  It leads up to a scene where Bond finds himself in the cockpit of an out-of-control helicopter while it crazily climbs and swoops above a city square.  This echoes the opening sequence of 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, which has Roger Moore trapped in the back of a pilot-less helicopter that’s being flown by remote control, very recklessly, by a mysterious and malevolent bald man wearing a neck-brace, sitting in a wheelchair and nursing a white cat.  The bald man is clearly Bond’s old nemesis Ernst Stavros Blofeld.  However, because the Bond filmmakers had at that time lost the right to use Blofeld, thanks to a legal battle with producer Kevin McClory, they coyly refrained from stating who he was – the character is unnamed and uncredited and is referred to in For Your Eyes Only’s promotional literature as simply the ‘bald villain in a wheelchair’.

 

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More on Blofeld in a little while…

 

It transpires that Bond has been on a final mission for his old boss, Judi Dench’s M – although she died at the end of Skyfall, she’d left some posthumous orders in a recording – and for a time, as the plot grows murkier, it seems that Spectre is more interested in examining the back story of the last three Daniel Craig films.  It becomes apparent that Quantum, the secret criminal organisation featured in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, is really just a subsidiary of a bigger, more secret and more criminal organisation, while Quantum’s boss, Mr White (Jesper Christiensen) – whom Bond captured at the end of Casino Royale but then let escape in Quantum of Solace – is only a branch manager for someone even bigger and badder than he is.  This amounts to a retcon of events in the earlier Craig movies and it feels a tad clumsy.  Also, I found the scene where Bond tracks down Mr White again a bit confusing because I’d forgotten who Mr White was.  (Well, I hadn’t seen him since 2008.)

 

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After a final and admittedly-chilling encounter with Mr White, Bond goes in search of White’s innocent daughter, Madelaine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who unwittingly holds a clue to the identity of the puppet-master behind Quantum.  Swann works as a doctor at a secluded luxury clinic on an Alpine mountaintop and as Craig approaches it from the air, I found myself thinking: “Hello, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service!”  For this Alpine mountaintop clinic is very reminiscent of Blofeld’s headquarters in that 1968 Bond movie with George Lazenby.

 

While he’s at the clinic, Bond is unexpectedly joined by Ben Wishaw’s Q, who gives him a hand when Madelaine is abducted by some villains led by David Bautista’s Mr Hinx.  Silent, surly and vicious, Hinx comes across like a combination of Harold Sakata’s Oddjob in Goldfinger and Richard Kiel’s Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).  This is the first time that Q has worked properly ‘in the field’ since 1989’s Licence to Kill when, played by the charming and avuncular Desmond Llewelyn, he nipped off to Isthmus City in South America to help Timothy Dalton battle the brutal drugs baron Franz Sanchez.

 

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Bond gets the necessary information from Madelaine and travels with her to Morocco.  And it’s here that we get the next Bond trope – a Big Fight on a Train.  This is against Mr Hinx again and it’s a more brutal affair than the fights-on-trains seen in Live and Let Die (1974) (in which Roger Moore defeated the hulking henchman Tee-Hee with the help of some handy wire-clippers) or The Spy Who Loved Me (in which Roger Moore defeated the hulking henchman Jaws with the help of a handy table-lamp).  Indeed, it evokes the savage brawl-to-the-death that occurred between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant in From Russia with Love (1963).  And in the midst of the action, Daniel Craig manages to land on Mr Hinx a very satisfying, Dalton-esque head-butt.

 

Eventually, Bond and Madelaine find their way to a secret base in the desert that’s run by the dastardly Spectre organisation – for Spectre, which featured so prominently in the 1960s Bond movies, is back.  Although unlike the old Spectre, which was an acronym for ‘Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’, this organisation seems to be called Spectre because, well, it’s a snazzy-sounding name.  And in charge of it is – yes! – Ernst Stavros Blofeld.

 

(The reason why Spectre and Blofeld have returned now is because MGM and Kevin McClory’s estate finally settled the afore-mentioned legal row in 2013.)

 

The new Blofeld is played by Christoph Waltz as a charismatic but psychotic Euro-scumbag.  Unlike Blofelds of old, such as Donald Pleasence and Telly Savalas, he sports a full head of hair and he likes to wear his loafers without socks – the cad.  At least he still has a white cat.  Actually, Waltz’s character also goes by another name, Franz Oberhauser; and we discover that he and Bond have a history.  For it was Oberhauser’s father, Hannes Oberhauser, who took care of the young James Bond after his parents died in a climbing accident.  The young Franz believed that Bond displaced him in his father’s affections and has borne a grudge ever since.  For that reason, when he first comes face to face with Bond in Spectre, he taunts him with a disconcerting cry of “Cuckoo!”  He regards Bond as a cuckoo who invaded his family’s nest.

 

Many movie critics reacted with derision to this plot revelation – how corny!  Bond and Blofeld are long-lost brothers!  (Well, long-lost adoptive brothers.)  But I didn’t have much of a problem with it because Hannes Oberhauser did exist in the original, literary Bond universe created by Ian Fleming.  In the short story Octopussy, published in 1966, Bond says of Oberhauser: “He was a wonderful man.  He was something of a father to me at a time when I needed one.”  So the possibility that Oberhauser might have an embittered son who later turned to villainy didn’t seem such a stretch.  Mind you, it’s unfortunate that this revelation is similar to the revelation at the end of Goldmember (2002), the third Austin Powers movie, about Austin Powers and Dr Evil being long-lost brothers sired by Michael Caine.

 

Bond and Madelaine escape from and destroy Blofeld’s desert base – and I think it’s one of the film’s shortcomings that the place seems to blow up so fast.  Bond explodes a modest bomb in Blofeld’s torture chamber and then shoots a few bullets into a pipe, and about two minutes later the entire installation has vanished in a giant fireball.  He might be fiendishly clever, but Blofeld has clearly shown an unwise disregard for Health and Safety regulations.  This section of the film contains some wonderful touches, though.  I love the idea that the base has been constructed within a crater caused by a meteorite collision and, indeed, Blofeld keeps the remains of the meteorite on display.  Also, Blofeld has a nifty torture device – a sort of dentist’s chair from hell – that he uses on Bond.  I’m sure that Ian Fleming, whose fondness for a spot of S and M is well-documented, would have approved.

 

But the film isn’t yet over – because it turns out that Spectre is the evil silent partner in an Edward Snowden-esque global intelligence / security initiative called Nine Eyes, for which the British government has unwittingly signed up.  When Nine Eyes goes online, Spectre will have access to a raft of countries’ intelligence data and will be able to manipulate their intelligence agencies.  Masterminding Nine Eyes in Britain is the slimy and treacherous civil servant Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), who’s been waging a turf war against M.  Bond, meanwhile, is so contemptuous of Denbigh that he’s nicknamed him ‘C’.  For a while, I thought this was going to be the first Bond movie where the ‘C’ word is uttered, but alas, it wasn’t.

 

Back in London, Bond hooks up with M, Q, Moneypenny and Bill Tanner – Tanner being M16’s Chief of Staff and a character from Fleming’s novels who was played by Michael Goodlife in the 1970s, James Villiers in the 1980s and Michael Kitchen in the 1990s and is played in the 21st century by the dependable Rory Kinnear – and they launch a night-time operation to stop Denbigh and thwart the launch of Nine Eyes.  In another nod to Fleming’s books, the safe-house where they meet is called ‘Hildebrand Rarities and Antiques’ – The Hildebrand Rarity is the name of one of Fleming’s short stories in the collection For Your Eyes Only (1960).

 

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M has a showdown with Denbigh – played robustly by Ralph Fiennes, this M makes a perfectly capable action hero himself – and Q performs the required computerised jiggery-pokery to hack into Nine Eyes and stop it functioning.  And in a surprise twist that will surprise no one, Blofeld pops up again to have a final crack at Bond.  (He hasn’t survived the explosion at his Moroccan base unscathed and he now has a facial scar as ghastly as that sported by Donald Pleasence in 1967’s You Only Live Twice.)  And there’s a nocturnal speedboat chase along the River Thames that, while exciting, is a wee bit too close to the River-Thames speedboat chase that graced the beginning of Pierce Brosnan’s third Bond outing, The World is Not Enough (1999).

 

Spectre isn’t the best James Bond movie.  It isn’t even the best Daniel Craig James Bond movie.  But I found it reassuringly solid and, on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d probably give it 008.  I just hope that the series now doesn’t shift any further to the style of the old movies.  With Spectre it seems to have found an appealing balance between the knowingness of the 20th-century Bonds and the no-nonsense tone of the 21st-century ones – and I think that’s good enough.

 

But for the next Bond movie, could we please get a decent theme song?  The few minutes where Sam Smith caterwauls Writing’s on the Wall over the opening credits almost turned my stomach and easily constituted the worst part of the film.  Thank God that Spectre’s last scene plays out to the brassy, booming strains of Monty Norman’s original James Bond Theme – a tune that half-a-century on is still capable of raising the hairs on the back of my neck.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Some random thoughts about Skyfall

Or…  Another 3000 words about 007.

 

 (c) Eon Productions

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m heavily into bondage.  That’s James Bond-age I should add, the practice of obsessing over the licenced-to-kill hero of Ian Fleming’s espionage novels during the 1950s and 1960s and the subsequent 50-year cycle series of movies produced by Albert Salzman and the Broccoli family – and not ‘the practice of being physically restrained, as with cords or handcuffs, as a means of attaining sexual gratification’, as The Free Dictionary online drily defines it.

 

Last weekend I finally – finally! – got around to seeing Skyfall, the 23rd film in the official Bond series and the third to star Daniel Craig in the lead role.  Since its release last October, it has also proven to be the biggest-grossing Bond movie to date and has also been one of the most critically acclaimed.  So what did I think of it?  Here I’ll offer a few random opinions.  It goes without saying that, in delivering these opinions, I’ll serve up all sorts of spoilers.  So if you haven’t yet seen Skyfall and don’t want to have its surprises ruined for you, don’t read any further.

 

One.  There’s still a bit of Ian Fleming in it.

 

The Bond-movie producers have long since run out of Ian Fleming novels to base their films on, and to be honest, even when they hadn’t exhausted the original seam of books, the films often had precious little to do with their source material anyway.  For example, the 1955 novel Moonraker was a post-war austerity-era thriller set entirely in the south of England, centring on a disfigured millionaire industrialist, who is actually a former Nazi, plotting to avenge Germany’s defeat in 1945 by destroying London with an experimental missile.  The 1979 movie Moonraker had none of this.  It did, however, have space shuttles, a space station, a big space laser battle, enough nerve gas to destroy the human race, a cable-car chase, a speedboat chase, an ancient pyramid in the Brazilian jungle that’s actually a disguised shuttle-launching base, a Venetian gondola that converts into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft, and a giant henchman with steel teeth.  You get the idea.

 

One element of Skyfall comes directly from Ian Fleming, though.  The opening section, where MI6 mistakenly believes that Bond has been killed in action and his boss M writes an obituary for him in the Times, is lifted from the closing pages of Fleming’s 1964 novel You Only Live Twice.  (Bond is also declared dead in the 1967 movie version of You Only Live Twice, but in this case his death is faked by MI6, to give him respite from his legions of enemies who want him truly dead.)  M’s obituary reveals that Bond wasn’t the true-blooded Englishman that everyone thought he was, but was in fact the offspring of a Scotsman, Andrew Bond from Glencoe, and a Swiss woman, Monique Delacroix from Canton de Vaud – though Bond was orphaned at the age of 11 when they were killed in a climbing accident.  (According to M / Fleming, he was then sent to live with an aunt in a hamlet in Kent called Pett Bottom, which believe it or not is a real locality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pett_Bottom.)  In its final section, Skyfall explicitly references the Scottish origins that Fleming devised for Bond, but I’ll talk about that a little later.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

One feature of Skyfall that’s particularly Fleming-esque is the amount of alcohol consumption going on.  Never mind the occasional dry martini and lemonade, shaken but not stirred – the literary Bond was a pisshead, often relying on alcohol to smooth the ugly, jagged edges of his existence as a government-employed killer.  (Admittedly, the novels were written at a time when it hadn’t yet become fashionable to fret about the health and social hazards of alcohol abuse.)  In Skyfall, for instance, we see Daniel Craig knocking back some hard stuff in Turkey, not even bothering to deal with a scorpion that’s attached itself to his sleeve until he’s downed the last drop in his glass.  No wonder he suffers from the shakes when he’s re-assigned to duty.  We see in a couple of scenes that Judi Dench’s M is clearly in love with her Scotch whisky too.  Indeed, Skyfall contains one or two moments where you wonder if it might’ve been more appropriately titled Skinful.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Two.  Didn’t we see a lot of this in The World Is Not Enough?

 

Pierce Brosnan’s third outing as James Bond, 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, has a section set in Istanbul, as does Skyfall.  It has another section set in the Scottish Highlands, specifically at Eilean Donan Castle on the Ross and Cromarty coast, which is about 80 miles’ drive north from Glencoe, a location appearing in Skyfall.  Also, in both films, there is a villain (or villainess) whose relationship with M is more complex than one of simple professional enmity; an introduction of a new Q; and a deadly explosion that rocks MI6’s London headquarters beside Vauxhall Bridge and overlooking the Thames.

 

The ingredients may be similar, but there is one major difference between Skyfall and The World Is Not EnoughSkyfall mixes those ingredients together a lot more successfully.  That said, I don’t think The World Is Not Enough is a particularly bad film and it didn’t deserve the critical slagging-off it got on its release.  Sophie Marceau and Robert Carlisle are particularly good in it as the villainous duo planning to destroy Istanbul by blowing up a Russian nuclear submarine in the Bosphorus.

 

But it suffers from an unevenness of tone, the quality stuff cancelled out by some truly duff elements.  Particularly cringe-inducing is John Cleese’s debut appearance as R, the replacement for Q, in which he clowns in the MI6 lab to no comic effect whatsoever with a special coat that inflates into a giant safety capsule.  Compare that with the first encounter between Daniel Craig and Ben Wishaw’s Q in Skyfall, in front of William Turner’s painting The Fighting Temeraire in the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, which manages both to be very amusing and to have a gravity worthy of Stanley and Livingstone’s meeting in Tanzania in 1871.

 

And let’s not even talk about Denise Richards’ performance as ultra-forgettable ‘Bond girl’ Christmas Jones in The World Is Not Enough.  Her sole function in the film seemed to be to enable Pierce Brosnan to make a quip about Christmas coming more than once a year.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Three.  There’s also a bit of Roger Moore in this.

 

James Bond was rogered in the 1970s in more ways than one.  This, of course, was when Sean Connery retired from the role and it was passed on to suave, safari-suited plank of wood Roger Moore, who then starred in a series of lazy extravaganzas where the only things more airheaded than the leading ladies (Jane Seymour’s Solitaire, Britt Ekland’s Mary Goodnight, Barbara Bach’s Anya Amasova) were the scripts.  1979’s Moonraker, described at the beginning of this entry, is the worst offender.  However, on the greyhound-track of 007-awfulness, there are several other Roger Moore dogs barking closely at Moonraker’s tail.

 

Now that Daniel Craig has played Bond in three films as a rugged and fairly humourless bruiser – even his prominent ears give the impression that his head’s been punched more times than is good for it – the very last things you’d expect to find in the Bond franchise are echoes of the bad old days with Roger Moore.  But I did find a few of those echoes in Skyfall, amazingly enough.  Namely:

 

A. Reptile-treading.  The scene in the Macao casino where Craig escapes from a pit of komodo dragons by hopping onto one of the beasts’ backs, and from there hopping up to the pit’s edge, is reminiscent of the scene in 1974’s Live and Let Die, where Moore runs across a pool in a crocodile farm using the crocodiles as stepping stones.

 

B. Dropping villains from great heights.  Once in a blue moon in the 1970s and early 1980s, Roger Moore’s Bond would be allowed, briefly, to show his dark side – presumably these hard-boiled bits were shot furtively whilst Cubby Broccoli was taking a nap at the corner of the set – and it invariably involved him chucking a bad guy off something tall.  In 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, he tips henchman Sandor (Milton Reid) over the edge of a Cairo rooftop.  In 1982’s For Your Eyes Only, he pushes a precariously-balanced car, containing cold-blooded assassin Locque (Michael Gothard), over an Albanian cliff-edge.  For this reason, I was reminded of Moore when in Skyfall Craig drops international hit-man Patrice (Ola Rapace) from the top floor of a Shanghai skyscraper.

 

C. Bad dental work.  At one point in Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s villain Silva removes some false teeth and shows M the disfiguring effects of a cyanide capsule that he broke in his mouth in a failed effort to kill himself.  Seeing the mangled, corroded state of Bardem’s teeth, I found myself thinking of Jaws, Moore’s nemesis in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, who was played by Richard Kiel and who had surely the worst dentist on the planet.

 

Four.  Bond travels back to his Scottish roots in more ways than one.

 

The final section of Skyfall has Bond and M take flight from Silva and his mercenaries.  They finally hole up in the crumbling mansion on the remote Scottish Highland estate where, it transpires, the young Bond lived with his parents.  We even get a glimpse of his parents’ headstone in the estate cemetery.  Obviously, this plot development comes from the backstory that Fleming created for Bond late in the original cycle of novels.  But it’s significant on a couple of other levels too.

 

For one thing, Bond and M make the journey to Scotland in the Aston Martin DB5 that Sean Connery drove in Goldfinger back in 1964.  Connery, first and greatest of the cinematic Bonds, is of course a Scotsman and so this pilgrimage north of the border can be seen as a tribute to the films’ roots as well.  (The story goes that by the time Fleming wrote You Only Live Twice in 1964, he’d seen Connery’s film debut as his superspy hero and he was impressed enough by the performance to, belatedly, give Bond a Scottish background.  Indeed, he even linked Bond to Edinburgh, Connery’s home city, though their social situations there were rather different.  The young James Bond attended Edinburgh’s poshest school, Fettes Academy, which was later the alma mater of a certain Anthony Charles Lynton Blair; whereas the young Sean Connery worked on a milk-round with Alec Kitson, who later became chairman and treasurer of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.)

 

 (c) Eon Productions

 

I was a little disappointed that Kincade, the elderly estate gamekeeper who turns up near the end to help Bond and M out when Silva and his goons lay siege to the mansion, doesn’t have a Scottish accent.  Although it’s great to see Albert Finney in the role (and he has a pleasing chemistry with Judi Dench), his gruff Lancashire tones are scarcely what you’d expect to hear emanating from a bearded ghillie who’s spent a lifetime tramping around the heathery northern Highlands.  I also couldn’t help thinking what a headf**k it would’ve been if the producers had managed to lure Sean Connery out of retirement and got him to play Kincade instead (though knowing Connery, he’d probably have demanded ten zillion pounds for the job).  In fact, since seeing the film, I’ve read that Skyfall director Sam Mendes did briefly consider offering the role to Connery, but decided not to, since it’d constitute a pretty blatant case of stunt casting.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/04/sam-mendes-skyfall_n_2074239.html)

 

One other thing that makes the Scottish-set ending feel appropriate is a sense that the film is paying tribute to Bond’s literary roots too.  In creating Bond, Fleming – like many thriller writers of his day – was influenced by the five Richard Hannay novels written by Scottish author John Buchan between 1915 and 1936.  The first and most famous of these books, The 39 Steps, sees Hannay framed for a murder and then pursued across Britain by the police and by enemy agents.  Just as Bond and M do in Skyfall, he ends up trying to elude his pursuers in Scotland – not in the Highlands, but in the equally scenic and desolate (if somewhat less spectacular) landscapes of Galloway in the southwest.  Hannay is considerably more clean-cut than Bond – as Buchan was himself, he’s a good Presbyterian.  But the character’s influence on the 007 novels can’t be underestimated.

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

Five.  God knows what James Bond universe this film is set in.

 

The first Bond movie with Daniel Craig on board, 2006’s Casino Royale, was intended to be a reboot of the series.  It opens with a scene where Bond kills somebody for the first time and wins his double-0 status from M.  Thus, it starts the story again from scratch, in the process seemingly discounting all the previous movies with Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan.  Even so, it isn’t particularly convincing as a reboot because Craig is still taking orders from M as played by Judi Dench, who of course had been in charge of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond during four previous films.

 

In Skyfall, however, we get several suggestions that Craig’s Bond is the same secret agent who had all those earlier adventures from the 1960s to the early 2000s.  His first exchange with Q – Bond expressing incredulity at Q’s youthfulness and Q making dismissive comments about “exploding pens” – suggests that Craig had worked with the old Q, who’d been armourer to Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan and who’d been played by the much-loved and much-missed Desmond Llewellyn.  And then we get the scene where Craig collects the Aston Martin DB5, out of Goldfinger, from a London garage.  Of course, it could be any old Aston Martin DB5, not the Aston Martin DB5.  However, any old Aston Martin DB5 wouldn’t have machine guns concealed under its headlights, would it?

 

However, just as we’re getting used to the idea that this film is set in the James Bond universe of old, a character whom Bond has only recently met reveals her full name.  She’s Moneypenny, Miss Moneypenny, and she’s taking on the job of secretary to M.  Of course, Miss Moneypenny was a fixture of the films from 1962 to 2002, played by actresses Lois Maxwell, Caroline Bliss and the aptly-named Samantha Bond.  So how can Daniel Craig’s Bond be the old Bond if he’s meeting Moneypenny for the first time only now?!

 

Then again, this is a film series that managed to go from gritty Cold War thriller From Russia With Love to ludicrous sci-fi comedy Moonraker in little more than 15 years.  So these continuity issues probably aren’t worth worrying about.

 

And what did I think of Skyfall overall?  Well, it’s not perfect – the climax is a little too protracted for my liking, and for Javier Bardem’s convoluted computer-hacking plot to work, it needs a prescience of what his adversaries are going to do that’s practically superhuman.  But the film is nonetheless very good.  All credit to Sam Mendes who – in a franchise that isn’t known for allowing its directors to express much individuality – manages to put his own stamp on the proceedings without diluting them and making them anything less than 100%-proof Bondian.  He makes good action-movie use of the Turkish and Scottish settings without resorting to the frantic quick-fire editing that made 2008’s Quantum of Solace migraine-inducing at times.  And with the scenes set in Shanghai – where some violent action takes place against a hallucinogenic backdrop of Blade Runner-style neon – he achieves something extra-special.

 

This Bond movie seems to be imbued with a comfortably patriotic glow.  It projects an image of modern-day Britain that would surely be endorsed by Her Majesty’s Government, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and by the British Council – an image of a sometimes battered and harassed little country but one that’s nonetheless very plucky, if not indomitable.  It’s choc-a-bloc with tradition, history and ageless landscapes – great for tourists to visit, incidentally – but is also cosmopolitan, inclusive (as indicated by the ethnicity of the new Miss Moneypenny) and geekily hi-tech and up-to-date.  In a big, bad world, it’s still well-able to punch above its weight.  Small wonder that Daniel Craig / Bond was drafted in for the opening ceremony of last summer’s London Olympics, though one wonders why Danny Boyle got the Queen to parachute out of a helicopter with him.  Who needs the Queen when you hang out with someone as awesomely regal as Judi Dench?

 

This comfortable sense of Britishness may not last, however – not least because of the referendum about Scottish independence planned for 2014.  If a majority of Scots voted ‘yes’ in the referendum, it’d leave the United Kingdom with a diminished presence on the world stage and give James Bond a rather smaller homeland to defend.  Just now, with opinion polls suggesting that only a third of the Scottish population will vote ‘yes’ and nearly a half will vote ‘no’, Scotland’s secession from the UK looks unlikely.  However, Daniel Craig’s most illustrious predecessor may soon be embarking on a mission to change that state of affairs.

 

From www.4.bp.blogspot.com

 

007 and I

 

I remember the moment when I decided I had to get acquainted with Commander James Bond of the British Secret Service.  It was an afternoon in 1974 when I was watching a children’s TV quiz show called Screen Test.

 

Every week in Screen Test a group of schoolchildren would compete against each other by watching clips from films (ones deemed by the BBC to be kiddie-friendly) and then answering questions about those clips that tested their powers of observation.  By today’s standards, and probably even by standards back then, Screen Test was lame stuff, but at least each instalment gave its young viewing audience the opportunity to see a few entertaining extracts from a few movies.  Popular on Screen Test, I recall, were comedy set-pieces from the Pink Panther series, special-effects-heavy scenes from various 1970s science fiction and disaster movies, and those lovely stop-motion-animation sequences from Ray Harryhausen’s monster movies.  This was in an era when you couldn’t just pick up a DVD or go to youtube and watch a film, or a part of a film, whenever you felt like it.

 

Also, though we didn’t know it at the time, many of the films shown on Screen Test actually had boring scenes too, where the hero would say something soppy to the heroine and they ended up kissing.  So we were spared all those dull yucky kissy bits.

 

With their famous action set-pieces, the James Bond movies were obvious candidates for appearing on Screen Test – though this being a BBC children’s programme, the clips were going to be of Roger Moore’s stunt double performing acrobatics during a mountainside ski chase rather than of Sean Connery telling Plenty O’Toole that she was no doubt named after her father.  Anyway, in 1974, Live and Let Die, the eighth official James Bond film, had just been released and that afternoon Screen Test treated its viewers to an edited version of the spectacular speedboat chase that took place near the movie’s end.   At nine years old, I was mesmerised – not only were these speedboats chasing one another around the Florida Everglades, but they were doing astonishing things that boats just weren’t supposed to do.  They were shooting out of the water and whizzing across roads, causing police cars to crash into one another, and skidding over people’s lawns and ending up in their swimming pools, and even careering into the middle of a riverside wedding ceremony, where they demolished tents and buffet tables.  I’d grown up watching action shows on television that were invariably low-budget and flatly directed and edited.  This was action on a different level.  Here were scenes that until then I might’ve visualised in my imagination, fuelled day-dreamily by whatever pulpy comic books or adventure stories I was reading at the time, but that I’d never actually seen on a big or small screen.

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

So, I decided then, I had to experience more of James Bond.  The problem was, in my situation, seeing James Bond was going to be difficult.  At the time I lived in a rural part of Northern Ireland and the nearest cinema was several miles away.  I could go to the cinema, of course, but only if my going coincided with someone else’s plans.  For example, if my Dad was meeting up with a mate in Enniskillen one Saturday evening, he’d drop me off at the Ritz Cinema for the start of the film and collect me afterwards.  But cinema outings that didn’t fit in with my parents’ plans, and were for my benefit alone, rarely happened.  Needless to say, circumstances conducive to my getting to see Live and Let Die during its original release in 1974 didn’t arise.

 

I knew there were many earlier James Bond movies and I saw clips of those too on Screen Test and on Clapperboard, which back then was the only other film programme made for children on British TV.  However, as the James Bond movies wouldn’t begin to be shown on TV for another few years, and as DVD rental shops didn’t exist in those days, and as the Internet hadn’t even yet become the stuff of science fiction, I had no means of seeing them either.  Instead, I realised, I would have to read James Bond – for by then I’d learned that his adventures had existed as books before they became films and they’d been authored by a man called Ian Fleming.

 

Thus, I spent the next two or three years on a Bond / Fleming reading spree – I got through Live and Let Die for starters, and then Goldfinger, The Man with the Golden Gun, Casino Royale, Dr No, For Your Eyes Only, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever, Thunderball and From Russia with Love.  In hindsight, I realise I was one of the very last people on the planet to become familiar with the James Bond phenomenon through exposure to the books, rather than through exposure to the films.

 

Actually, getting my hands on the Bond books was little easier than getting to see the films.  As they were considered adult reading, there was no chance of finding them in the little library at my primary school.  However, every Monday afternoon at half-past-two, a mobile library – a hulking book-filled van sent from the main library in Enniskillen – appeared in our village and parked opposite the village shop for 15 minutes.  Primary school didn’t finish until quarter-to-three, just as the van moved off towards the next village, but I managed to persuade the head teacher to let me out 15 minutes early every Monday so that I could go and borrow books from it.  The mobile library itself had no Bond novels on its shelves, but its librarian / driver told me that I could fill out a request form and the books would be delivered from Enniskillen a week or two later.  So that was how I satisfied my initial Bond craving – every few weeks the library-van would rumble into my village with a copy of Diamonds are Forever or Goldfinger in a compartment beside the driver, my name written on the attached tag.

 

Later, I also joined the library in Irvinestown, a small town a few miles from my house.  This library had a section devoted to writers of classical popular fiction, writers such as Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Leslie Charteris, Sax Rohmer, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ian Fleming.  As a result, getting hold of Fleming’s novels became much easier, although the lady librarians there always looked uneasy handing over the counter to a 10-year-old boy books that were still, in the 1970s, thought to contain liberal amounts of sex and violence.  Unfortunately, Irvinestown Library was put out of commission soon afterwards because the IRA exploded a bomb in the public toilets directly under its first-floor premises.  The building had been evacuated and nobody was hurt, but the structural damage caused by the bomb resulted in the library’s closure for a long time.  So it was no thanks to the bloody IRA that I managed to read as much Ian Fleming as I did.

 

Anyway, the James Bond who took form in my imagination was Fleming’s Bond rather than any filmmaker’s one.  And as any scholar of the literary Bond will tell you, Fleming created him by drawing on experiences he’d had prior to finding fame as a writer.  His work in British naval intelligence during World War II, and in particular his time spent overseeing commando units like 30 Assault Unit and T-Force, had brought him into contact with secret-service and elite military types and it was inevitable that when he started to publish spy thrillers after the war, starting with Casino Royale in 1953, aspects of their characters would find their way into the character of his books’ hero.

 

Likely to have influenced Bond were Sir Fitzroy Maclean, who’d joined the British Army at the start of World War II as a private and ended the war as a brigadier, and who’d fought with distinction in the Western Desert campaign and later alongside Tito and his partisans in the Balkans; and Fleming’s brother Peter, who’d been involved in wartime operations behind enemy lines in Greece and Norway.  At the same time, though, Fleming obviously put much of himself into Bond.  Whilst no academic, Bond had an aptitude for languages, as had Fleming, who in his youth had studied in Austria, Germany and Switzerland.  Bond spent much of the novels clad in scuba gear, which was no doubt because of Fleming’s fascination with underwater exploration, something he’d acquired after accompanying Jacques Cousteau on a dive in the 1950s.  And both Bond and his creator were avid gamblers and golfers – indeed, they shared the same golf handicap.

 

What endeared me to the Bond of the books, even as a 10 or 11-year-old, was his psychological believability.  He was a world-weary, melancholic and, in the later books, rather neurotic figure, which was understandable – a man with a government-sanctioned licence to murder people who got in the way of his work would surely have things gnawing at his soul.  Again, Bond’s moroseness was probably a reflection of Fleming himself, who – certainly a few books into the series – got increasingly pissed-off with life.  Partly this was due to his marital problems and partly it was due to how the British literary establishment turned against him: “The nastiest book I have ever read,” Paul Johnson thundered in a review of Dr No in the New Statesman when the book was published in 1958.

 

The books’ plots seemed oddly believable to me too, and they came across as thrillers rather than as fantasies – although no doubt it helped that I was extremely young when I read them.  Fleming was painstaking about his research and the wealth of realistic surface details helped to distract me from the more outlandish happenings in the stories.  It also helped the books’ credibility that few of the far-fetched action set-pieces from the films, which I’d seen in those clips on TV, appeared in their pages.  When I read Live and Let Die, for example, I discovered that it didn’t climax with the film’s demolition-derby-style speedboat chase that was shown on Screen Test.  The book’s ending was much grimmer and, to my bloodthirsty juvenile mind, more satisfying.  Smuggler, voodoo-cult leader and Russian agent Mr Big attempted to keelhaul Bond and Solitaire, the novel’s heroine – dragging them behind his yacht and through a reef with the intention that they get ripped to shreds on the coral.  Beforehand, though, Bond had attached a limpet mine to the yacht’s hull, and it exploded before the keelhauling got properly underway.  A gruesome piece of poetic justice ensued.  Mr Big, who’d earlier removed a couple of limbs from Bond’s CIA mate Felix Leiter by dunking him into a shark-pool, got blown into the water and, while Bond and Solitaire looked on, he was gorily devoured by the local shark and barracuda population.

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

Ironically, when I did get a chance to watch the films, the first one I saw seemed less fantastical than the book on which it was based.  In the mid-1970s, ITV – the BBC’s rival channel – acquired the rights to broadcast the Bond movies and they began with Dr No, the original in the film series, which was made in 1962 and was an adaptation of the novel that four years earlier Paul Johnson had thought was the nastiest thing ever.  In the latter part of the book, Dr No captured Bond and, for his entertainment, forced his secret-agent prisoner to go through an assault course of ever-escalating tortures – beginning with a crawl through an electrified metal ventilation shaft and ending up in an outdoor pool that was home to a hungry giant squid.  The movie-version Bond, a young Sean Connery, had to endure the electrified ventilation shaft but, to my immense disappointment, the giant squid never materialised.  Presumably this was because the producers of the fledgling movie-series, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, didn’t have the special-effects budget in 1962 that they’d have later when their films became phenomenally successful.

 

It also disappointed me that Dr No’s demise was different in the film – Connery disposed of him by lowering him into an overheating nuclear reactor on his island headquarters.  In Fleming’s book, the island contained large deposits of seabird guano and Dr No concealed his illegal operations behind a legitimate business that extracted the guano for fertiliser.  In the book’s climax, Bond managed to seize control of a machine that was pumping the guano onto a ship at the island’s docks and he turned its giant hose-pipe on Dr No – drowning the villain in tons of bird-shit.  I assume Broccoli and Saltzman left that bit out of the movie on grounds of taste.

 

The next films I saw – ITV aired them in chronological order, with gaps of nearly a year between them – were From Russia with Love and Goldfinger.  I was happier with these because their plots more-or-less followed the plots of the books.  However, by the time of Bond’s fifth cinematic outing, You Only Live Twice, it’d become clear that the filmmakers had lost nearly all interest in Fleming’s novels, lifting from them only a few character names and a very occasional plot detail.  You Only Live Twice, the movie, was about Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavros Blofeld using a gigantic rocket-swallowing spacecraft to abduct Apollo and Soyuz missions from orbit.  His plan was to trigger a nuclear war between the Americans and Russians, who were blaming each other for the abductions.  You Only Live Twice, the book, had Blofeld (who’d killed Bond’s wife at the end of the previous novel) retiring to Japan, where he took up residence on a remote island and devoted himself to gardening.  Blofeld being Blofeld, however, the garden he cultivated was a ‘garden of death’, stocked with poisonous plants and poisonous insects and riddled with deadly volcanic outcrops of sulphur and bubbling lava – and such was its deadliness that the island became a popular spot for suicidal Japanese people to go and kill themselves.  The grieving and revenge-obsessed Bond discovered where Blofeld was hiding and went after him.  No spaceships were involved.

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

(From Blofeld’s garden of death in You Only Live Twice, and the assault-course ordeal devised for Bond in Dr No, and also the infamous torture scene in Casino Royale where villain Le Chiffre took a carpet beater to Bond’s genitalia, Fleming clearly had a taste for inflicting severe pain on his characters.  Again, this echoed one of his real-life predilections.  In an article a few years back in the Atlantic Magazine, Christopher Hitchens quotes tellingly from a letter that Fleming wrote to his wife-to-be.  He informed her in the letter that “I am the chosen instrument of the Holy Man to whip some of the devil out of you, and I must do my duty however much pain it causes me.  So be prepared to drink your cocktails standing for a few days.”  For more of this, check out: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/04/bottoms-up/4719/1/.)

 

Not only was I dismayed with how the plots of the films deviated from those of the books, but I also wasn’t happy with what the films did to Bond’s character.  Today I can see how masterful Sean Connery was in the role and he certainly deserves his iconic status as the greatest cinematic Bond.  But he wasn’t what my Bond, the Bond in Fleming’s books, was about.  Connery swaggered through the films with an insouciance that his literary counterpart, plagued by self-doubt and conscience pangs, didn’t have.  Though considering how cartoonish the films rapidly became, insouciant was probably the only way Connery could play him.  Audiences knew that the cinematic character wasn’t going to get killed, no matter what the filmmakers threw at him, so he soon acquired a casual and knowing arrogance that reflected the audiences’ awareness of his invincibility.

 

(You’d have thought that Fleming, who was still alive and still writing when the Bond films debuted, would be unhappy to see his elitist and ultra-English hero played by a card-carrying member of the Scottish National Party, a former body builder and a former Edinburgh milkman – indeed, in his youth, Sean Connery had done his milk-round in the company of Alex Kitson, who went on to be chairman of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.  However, once Fleming had seen Connery on screen, he was sufficiently impressed to give Bond a back-story in his next novel – You Only Live Twice – where it was revealed that he was half-Scottish.)

 

Later, in 1979 or 1980, ITV got around to broadcasting Live and Let Die and I finally got a chance to see the entirety of the movie that’d started my obsession with Bond a half-dozen years before.  This was also the film where Roger Moore took over as Bond from Sean Connery.  After thirty minutes of watching Moore sleep-walk through the role, all raised eyebrows and posh-accented double entendres, I wondered despairingly, what the f*** is going on?!

 

It wasn’t until half-a-dozen years more that I saw an actor come close to portraying Bond in the way Fleming had imagined him.  Moore’s replacement, Welsh actor Timothy Dalton, approached Bond so seriously that to research the role he read all the novels.  The result, in Dalton’s two films The Living Daylights and Licenced to Kill, was an edgier and more vulnerable Bond.  For example, in Licenced to Kill, the filmmakers finally used the scene from Fleming’s original Live and Let Die where Felix Leiter was fed to a shark, though the perpetrator in the film wasn’t Mr Big but a ruthless drug baron called Sanchez.  As a consequence of his friend’s maiming, Dalton’s Bond lost the plot, quit the secret service and went after Sanchez on a personal revenge (and possibly suicide) mission.  Alas, Dalton didn’t capture the imagination of the public, who still seemed in thrall to his jokey predecessor.  He wasn’t helped either by Britain’s legion of fickle film critics.  They’d spent the Moore years moaning that the Bond films had become ‘too silly’.  As soon as someone tried to toughen up the films, they started moaning that the series had lost its lovable silliness.

 

In the 1990s, Pierce Brosnan – an Irishman, no less – performed a credible balancing act in the role, suggesting a certain humanity and physicality to Bond whilst also giving him a veneer of tuxedoed Roger Moore-style smoothness, which those undemanding cinema audiences had come to expect by then.  (Though I have to say that I thought his last Bond film, 2002’s Die Another Day, was dreadful.)  After Brosnan’s departure, the filmmakers finally found the nerve to reboot the series and point it in a more realistic direction.  Cue the recruitment of Daniel Craig and the grittier Bond movies Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.  While I didn’t think the former film was as good as everyone said it was, and I didn’t think the latter one was as bad as everyone said it was, I generally enjoyed them both and was pleased that the tomfoolery that’d plagued the film series during the preceding four decades was absent.  And I suspect that in Casino Royale, the long-delayed film version of the original novel, Ian Fleming would have been delighted when Le Chiffre started pounding Daniel Craig’s testicles with a carpet beater.

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

A few years ago, Penguin Books brought out new editions of Fleming’s novels, using the same covers that’d graced them in the 1950s and early 1960s and having contemporary writers like Val McDermid write introductions to them.  I bought one of the novels I hadn’t come across in my boyhood, Moonraker – yes, the book that in 1979 was made into the worst Bond movie of the lot, starring, inevitably, Roger Moore – and read it, wanting to compare my reactions to it as a middle-aged man in the 21st century with the reactions I’d had to the other books when I was a kid in the 1970s.

 

What struck my modern self was the shadow that World War II cast over the plot.  It had a heavy bearing on the characters – not just on the book’s big villain, Hugo Drax, a former Nazi planning to use a nuclear warhead and German V2 technology to blow up London as revenge for his country’s defeat in 1945, but on minor ones like the lift operator in secret-service headquarters who’d lost an arm during the conflict.  And Bond, of course, had served in the war himself and had scars on his back to prove it.  I missed this during my original Bond-reading in the 1970s probably because, then, the war didn’t seem so far back in time.  I knew middle-aged people who had vivid memories of it, and it was still being enacted on television in countless documentaries, comedies and dramas like The World at War, Dad’s Army, It ain’t Half Hot Mum, Secret Army and Colditz, and the stories in practically every boys’ comic on sale in the newsagents at the time – Victor, Battle, Warlord – dealt with nothing else.  Indeed, there were probably some kids my age who believed we were still fighting the Germans.

 

And no doubt the war, or more specifically the war’s aftermath, played a part in the books’ huge success in the 1950s.  Those six years of conflict had broken Britain’s economy and Fleming’s readers inhabited a drab, grey world of rationing and austerity.  I recall a remark J.G. Ballard made in his memoir Miracles of Life, about leaving Shanghai and arriving in Britain for the first time in 1946.  Taking his first steps on the soil of his home country, Ballard wondered why the British claimed to have won the war – from the worn-out faces and rundown landscapes around him, it very much looked like they’d lost it.  Another pertinent quote is one made by Keith Richards, who said that growing up in early 1950s Britain was like living in black and white.  Only when rock ‘n’ roll arrived from America did life suddenly switch to being in colour.

 

Reading Moonraker, though, I realised that Bond was far removed from the dreary reality of post-war Britain.  Fleming portrayed him as a shameless consumer, one with a seemingly inexhaustible shopping budget.  He wore the most expensive labels, smoked the costliest cigars, drank the finest wines and spirits, helped himself to the fanciest foods.  Accordingly, Bond’s first encounter with Drax in Moonraker took place at a poker table in Blades, an exclusive and opulent London gentleman’s club with service, food-and-drink and furnishings that most of Fleming’s 1950s readers could only dream about.  Though he was accused of marketing watered-down pornography in his books, it surely wasn’t pornography of a sexual or violent nature that titillated Fleming’s readers so much at the time.  It was consumer porn, intended to give a perverse, if futile, thrill to underfed and down-at-heels readers who were still carrying ration books.

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

One thing that hadn’t changed in the intervening years was my sense of Bond’s gloominess.  At the very beginning of Moonraker, for instance, he was calculating how many more missions he had to go on before he could retire from the secret service and what the odds were for surviving that number of missions.  (Retirement for Bond, I was shocked to discover, would come at the age of 45.  This meant that if I’d been an agent in Fleming’s version of MI6, I’d be of pensionable age now myself.)  So forget the thrills and spills, and forget the fine living and exotic locations, and forget the fancy cars and beautiful women – more than three decades on from when I’d first read his adventures, Commander Bond was still finding time to gripe about his lot.

 

But thanks to Ian Fleming, I wouldn’t have wanted him any other way.