The spy who tried something different

 

© Vintage Books

 

First published in 1962, The Spy Who Loved Me is the ninth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and holds several records in the Bond literary canon.  It clocks in at 198 pages, which makes it the shortest Bond book.  It was also the last book to appear in a world that knew Bond as a literary and not a cinematic character, because its publication came just six months before the release of Dr No, the first Bond movie produced by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.  And it was the worst-received of the books.  The Daily Telegraph reacted to it with a despairing “Oh Dear Oh Dear Oh Dear!”, the Listener dismissed it as ‘unremittingly’ and ‘grindingly boring’ and the Observer demanded, “why can’t this cunning author write up a bit instead of down?”

 

As soon as the critics stuck in their knives, Fleming himself disowned the book.  He asked his publisher not to print a paperback edition of it, a request that they honoured until two years after his death.  He also stipulated that any movie version of The Spy Who Loved Me could never use the book’s plot, only its title.  (I’m sure that 15 years later when Cubby Broccoli got around to filming The Spy Who Loved Me, he must have been distraught about this.  “You mean,” lamented the cigar-puffing mogul, “I can’t just follow what happens in the book?  I have to put other stuff in my movie instead?  Like cars that travel underwater?  Giant oil-tankers that swallow nuclear submarines?  Indestructible henchmen with steel teeth?  Roger Moore with quizzical eyebrows?  No!  NO!”)

 

A few weeks ago, I finally read the original much-maligned The Spy Who Loved Me.  My initial reaction was Ian Fleming at least deserved credit for attempting something different.  Fans of his previous eight books were surely surprised when they started reading it in 1962 and discovered they were hearing a first-person narrative voice rather than Fleming’s usual, authoritative, third-person one.  “I was running away,” it begins.  “I was running away from England, from my childhood, from the winter, from a sequence of untidy, unattractive love-affairs, from the few sticks of furniture and jumble of overworn clothes that my London life had collected around me; and I was running away from the drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia of close horizons and from my inability, though I am quite an attractive rat, to make headway in the rat-race.  In fact, I was running away from almost everything except the law.”

 

The first-person voice is that of Viv Michel, a young French-Canadian woman who’s been left in charge of a closed-for-the-winter motel called The Dreamy Pines Motor Court in the mountains of northern New York State.  After a first chapter where Viv doesn’t cope well with a thunderstorm raging above the motel’s empty cabins, playground, swimming pool and golf range – she stupidly pulls an electrical switch at the same moment that a bolt of lightning lets rip, and the resultant electrical shock knocks her unconscious – she spends the next eighty pages explaining how she’s ended up in this situation.

 

She describes her early life in Canada; being sent to a finishing school in England where she “was made to suffer agonies” for her accent, for her table manners “which were considered uncouth”, for her “total lack of savoir-faire and, in general, for being a Canadian”; and finding work in London while suffering the afore-mentioned “sequence of untidy, unattractive love affairs”.  After the last affair results in her having an abortion in Switzerland, she returns to North America and resolves to search for some adventure and self-discovery and shake off the memories of the men who’ve used and abused her.  So she purchases a Vespa 150cc Gran Sport and sets off on a road trip.  It’s on the road that she comes across the Dreamy Pines Motor Court, where she gets offered employment; first as an end-of-season receptionist and then, when it closes for the winter, as a caretaker minding the premises until its owner, one Mr Sanguinetti, arrives to take possession of the keys.

 

Viv’s position at the Dreamy Pines feels a little like that of Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) and things soon go as badly for her as they did for the ill-fated Jack.  Two hoodlums with the nicknames Sluggsy and Horror show up at the motel in the middle of the night and take her prisoner.  It transpires that Sanguinetti is a gangster and the pair are henchmen tasked with burning the place to the ground as part of an insurance scam.  Viv, the only witness, looks likely to be torched along with the motel.

 

It’s here that we encounter the single detail of the book that makes it into the 1977 film ‘adaptation’ with Roger Moore.  Looking at Horror’s face, she notices “a glint of grey silvery metal from his front teeth,” indicating that “they had been cheaply capped with steel.”  Sound familiar?

 

© Eon Productions

 

By now we’re more than halfway into the book.  Back in 1962 at this point, readers must have been panicking: where the hell is Bond?  Well, he appears at The Dreamy Pines later that same night – Viv’s first impression of him is that he’s “good-looking in a dark, rather cruel way” with a scar that “showed whitely down his left cheek” – and he explains that his car has suffered a flat tyre on the road nearby and he’d like to get a room.  He soon wises up to the situation and joins forces with Viv.  The next seventy pages play more like a Mickey Spillane novel than a Fleming / Bond one, with considerable running, hiding and shooting before Sanguinetti’s scheme is thwarted and Sluggsy and Horror end up dead at the bottom of the local lake.  Then Viv and Bond indulge in some love-making and then, as abruptly and enigmatically as he arrived, Bond slips off again.  In the final pages, Viv muses: “He was just a man who had turned up at the right time and then gone on his way.”

 

Though The Spy Who Loved Me wins kudos for bravely departing from the usual Bond formula, there are moments when seemingly Fleming remembers it’s still a Bond novel and is forced to compromise, with awkward results.   He wants Viv to be more believable than the average Bond girl, which is why we see her depicted as a working Londoner.  But on the other hand, as a Bond girl, she can’t be too ordinary so she also gets a French-Canadian back-story to make her appear more exotic – the overall effect of which feels contrived.  Also, while Fleming wants her to be feisty and independent, he needs her to have a vulnerable side too – to be a credible damsel-in-distress, for whom Bond rides to the rescue as a knight in shining armour.  That may explain the opening chapter where she panics during the storm and, quite honestly, comes across as something of a dolt.

 

And to make up for Bond’s late entrance into the plot, Fleming feels he has bring his readers up to speed on what Bond’s been doing in the meantime; so we get the telling of a previous Bond adventure.  In a twelve-page chapter entitled Bedtime Story, Bond explains to Viv in great detail why he was on the road that night – he was driving south after an operation in Toronto wherein he and the Canadian Mounties prevented the assassination of a Russian defector by both the KGB and SPECTRE.  By now, Bond and Viv know the extreme danger posed by Sluggsy and Horror, so you’d think they’d have other things to concentrate on besides telling stories.

 

One thing I found surprisingly impressive about The Spy Who Loved Me is Viv’s account of her love-life in London.  It’s as far removed as possible from the fantasy romance / sex scenes associated with the Bond novels.  Just out of school, she gets involved with a youth called Derek Mallaby, whose posh, confident veneer hides, temporarily, the fact that (a) he’s desperate for sex and (b) he’s clueless about how to have sex.  What follows is a painful tale set in the England of “drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia” that existed before the 1960s started to swing and the permissive era arrived.  The only privacy Viv and Derek can find for making love is in a small balcony-box at a cinema, “a meagre-looking place, showing two westerns, a cartoon and so-called ‘News’ that consisted of what the Queen had been doing a month ago.”  Their attempted lovemaking, on the floor with Derek on top “in a dreadful clumsy embrace”, is anything but sensual and it ends abruptly when a furious cinema manager bursts in on them: “Filthy little brats…!  I’ve a damned good mind to call the police.  Indecent exposure.  Disturbing the peace.”

 

Barely articulate about what they’re trying to do, relying on strained expressions like ‘doing it’ and ‘being a sport’, and not even knowing what a condom is called and having to describe it to a shop assistant as “one of those things for not having babies”, Viv and Derek are products of a repressed, joyless, monochrome Britain that the Bond novels, with their exotic glamour and glitzy hedonism, were supposed to give readers of the era an escape from.  No wonder The Spy Who Loved Me pissed so many of those readers off.

 

Once Viv and Derek have properly ‘done it’ a few times, Derek predictably proves to be a cad and dumps her.  She then gets into a second relationship with a German man called Kurt, which culminates in her getting pregnant, having an abortion and being dumped a second time.  (Kurt “had inherited strong views about mixed blood… and when he married, it would be into the Teutonic strain.”  Fleming’s well-known dislike of the Germans is on full display here.)

 

This part of the book is so interesting because it suggests Fleming, a writer not noted for his empathy with women, is trying to think outside his normal male-chauvinist box for once and identify with a female character having a hard time in a world populated with predatory, shitty men.

 

Alas, all this is rendered null and void later when Bond, hardly un-predatory and un-shitty himself, turns up and Viv promptly goes doe-eyed and weak-kneed at the sight of him; implying that Viv’s problem wasn’t men, it was just the absence of a fully-fledged alpha male like Bond to satisfy / tame her.

 

And, late on, Fleming truly sabotages his cause when Viv comes out with this jaw-dropping assertion: “All women love semi-rape.  They love to be taken.”  These ten words have rightly earned Fleming and The Spy Who Loved Me much opprobrium over the years – for example, here – and they undo whatever good work he did with his depiction of Viv earlier in the book.

 

In the end, I have no reason to disagree with the many people who label The Spy Who Loves Me the weakest of the Bond novels.  The contradiction at its heart, that it’s a Bond story and yet it wants to be something different from a Bond story, makes it uneven and inconsistent.  And it’s all over the place in its sexual politics – and, at worst, those politics are unspeakable.  But as I’ve said, it deserves a little respect trying to do something out-of-the-ordinary, and thanks to Fleming’s always-amenable prose it’s an easy-enough read.  And, in parts, hints of a better book glimmer through.

 

© Penguin Books

 

RIP, Sir Roger

 

© Eon Productions

 

I feel slightly hypocritical to be paying tribute to Sir Roger Moore, the movie star and the third and longest-serving of the cinema’s James Bonds, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89.

 

As a serious Bond aficionado, especially regarding the original novels written by Ian Fleming, I was generally not impressed by the Bond movies Sir Roger made between 1974 and 1985, nor by the easy-going way that he inhabited the role.  And during the five years this blog has been in existence I was frequently unkind to him, making cruel puns about ‘Roger Mortis’ and the Bond movies getting ‘Rogered’ in the 1970s and 1980s, and dismissing his acting ability with ungentlemanly comparisons to planks and floorboards and blocks of wood.  Once, I even sniped that the makers of Guardians of the Galaxy (2015) should have hired him to play Groot the sentient alien tree rather than Vin Diesel.

 

However, two years ago, in a fit of remorse at my un-Rogerly ways, I posted a piece detailing all the admirable things about the venerable actor.  I mentioned how his third Bond movie, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, was actually really good.  I pointed out that he was surprisingly effective as a rich, smug businessman going to pieces while a mysterious, malign and unseen doppelganger invades and takes over his life in the creepy psychological horror film The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970).  I also enthused about his 1971-72 TV series The Persuaders.  To be honest, the show itself wasn’t much cop but the theme music, composed by John Barry, made for the best TV theme tune ever.

 

And I highlighted the amount of humanitarian work he’d done as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, since 1991.  And he didn’t just express good will towards humans – he’d “also been involved in the campaign by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, against the gruesome processes used in the making of foie gras and he helped to persuade the department store Selfridges to stop stocking the stuff.”

 

© The Independent

 

One thing mentioned in Sir Roger’s obituaries that I hadn’t known about was his loathing of fox hunting.  Despite the languidly aristocratic air he had both as Bond and as his real-life self, he slammed the brutal upper-class pastime with the declaration: “Sport hunting is a sickness, a perversion and a danger and should be recognised as such.  People who get their amusement from hunting and killing a defenceless animal can only be suffering from a mental disorder.  In a world with boundless opportunities for amusement, it’s detestable that anyone would choose to get their kicks from killing others who ask for nothing from life but the chance to remain alive.”

 

To be honest, if I hadn’t been obsessed with the Bond books and hadn’t formed some strong opinions about how Bond should be portrayed on screen, and if I’d come across Moore’s Bond movies at a younger age – I didn’t see any of them until I was a sullen teen of 14 or 15 years old – I probably would have really enjoyed them: all that funny, silly but exciting stuff with Jaws, Nick-Nack and Sheriff Pepper, all those laser-gun battles in outer space and gondoliers that turn into speedboats and alligators that can be used as stepping stones when you’re making your escape from Mr Big’s henchmen.  (Indeed, Daniel Craig did something similar with Komodo dragons in 2012’s Skyfall.)  As it turned out, millions of other filmgoers, less severe in their tastes than I was, really did enjoy them – and as I’ve admitted elsewhere on this blog, the Bond franchise was fantastically lucrative when Sir Roger played its title character.

 

I often wondered why the Bond producers cast Roger Moore in the first place.  But recently I read a book called James Bond: The Man and his World by Henry Chancellor, which observes that Moore was first suggested for the role by the Supreme Being in the Bond-verse, Ian Fleming himself.  According to Chancellor, in the early 1960s when the first of the Bond movies was on the drawing board – and before co-producer Harry Saltzman got his way and cast Sean Connery in the role – Fleming “initially suggested his friend David Niven.  When it was pointed out that Niven was too old he suggested the young Roger Moore, who was starring as The Saint on television.”  Ironically, both of Fleming’s suggestions would eventually get to play Bond, for Niven turned up as 007 in the ‘rogue’ 1967 production of Casino Royale, a swinging-sixties would-be comedy so dire and unfunny that it makes even the worst of Roger Moore’s Bond films look like masterpieces.

 

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

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

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.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

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.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

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’.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

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.)

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

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.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

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).

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

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

 

Non-Bond Bond songs

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

No doubt it’s a sign of my old age but I’m bemused that currently the airwaves are buzzing with the sound of a new James Bond movie theme song – Writing’s on the Wall by Sam Smith, which next month will accompany the opening credits of the 24th official Bond movie, Spectre.

 

A new Bond theme song – already?  Why, it seems like only yesterday that Adele was everywhere, hollering about skies crumbling and standing tall and facing it all while she belted out the theme song for Skyfall.  Yes, time definitely passes faster as you age.

 

Unfortunately, while I thought the Skyfall song was decent – not a classic, but it worked as a serviceable pastiche of what a James Bond song ought to sound like – I haven’t been impressed by Sam Smith’s effort.  No doubt it’ll be popular among those many millions of people out there who’re stricken with vapid musical tastes and the misguided belief that Simon Cowell is God.  But I find it as bland and unmemorable as most other James Bond songs from the past two decades.  I really can’t remember anything about, for instance, those sung by Tina Turner (for 1995’s Goldeneye), or Sheryl Crow (for 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies), or Chris Cornell (for 2006’s Casino Royale), or Jack White and Alicia Keys (for 2009’s Quantum of Solace).  In fact, the only songs I liked were Skyfall and the one that synth-rock band Garbage did for The World is Not Enough (1999).

 

I should add that I definitely do remember Madonna’s song for Die Another Day (2002), but only because it was bollocks.

 

Incidentally, there’s been talk on social media about how much Writing’s on the Wall sounds like Michael Jackson’s Earth Song, which was a hit for the alleged Prince of Pop twenty years ago.  Earth Song is imprinted on British minds as the song that Jackson performed onstage at the 1996 ceremony for the British Rock and Pop Awards (BRITS).  During the performance, with no trace of self-awareness, Jackson was suspended above a throng of young children who made out they worshipped him like a Jesus-style messiah.  (This was after he’d had to pay a large sum out-of-court to settle a charge that he’d had underage sex with a boy called Jordan Chandler.)  Famously, this distasteful, self-aggrandising and idiotic spectacle prompted one member of the BRITS audience, Jarvis Cocker, front-man of the Britpop band Pulp, to protest by invading the stage, bending over and fanning a pretend-fart at the cameras.

 

I’d like to think that at the start of Spectre when Sam Smith’s Earth Song-clone plays over the credits and we’re treated to the sight of ghostly naked ladies floating through the ether as is the custom in all James Bond credits sequences, a ghostly Jarvis Cocker will suddenly float through the ether too, bent over and fanning pretend-farts out of the screen.  But it probably won’t happen.

 

From clashmusic.com

 

Pulp, actually, have some James Bond connections.  On Shaken and Stirred, a compilation of covers of Bond songs put together in 1997 by latter-day Bond composer David Arnold, they attempted a version of All Time High, the Rita Coolidge effort that graced (or disgraced) 1982’s Octopussy – although the song was such a dog that even they couldn’t do much with it.  Around the same time, they submitted a song to the Bond producers that they hoped would be the theme for Tomorrow Never Dies – but it was rejected.  The song subsequently turned up as a B-side on the Pulp single Help the Aged (1997).  It’s a pity.  While Pulp’s Tomorrow Never Dies is hardly in the same class as 1995’s Common People or Disco 2000, it’s rousing enough when it gets going and it’s certainly better than the Sheryl Crow dirge that was used.

 

I’ve been reading recently about James Bond songs that were commissioned from and / or submitted by famous performers over the decades but were ultimately turned down.  It’s a fascinating ‘what if…?’ subject.  Here’s the article in question, from the online edition of the magazine The Week.

 

http://theweek.com/articles/576016/johnny-cash-alice-cooper-blondie-fascinating-history-rejected-james-bond-theme-songs

 

As well as Pulp and Tomorrow Never Dies, these musical Bond might-have-beens include the Pet Shop Boys, whose tune This Must Be the Place I’ve Waited Years to Leave was intended as the theme for 1987’s The Living Daylights; St Etienne, who also had a go at recording a Tomorrow Never Dies song; and Swedish teeny-bop dance-pop dorks Ace of Base, who tried to get the gig for 1995’s Goldeneye.  That last film was the first Bond one to take place after the end of the Cold War – a fact that Ace of Base remarked upon in their masterful, Bob Dylan-esque lyrics: “We’re in the ’90s, nothing is the same / The Cold War is replaced by different actors using different names.”

 

From biography.com

 

One artist I’m sad didn’t get a chance to provide a Bond theme song was shock-rock legend Alice Cooper.  In the mid-1970s – when he was notorious for a stage show that involved the bloody chopping up of fake babies and mock executions by electric chairs, gallows and guillotines – Cooper recorded a song for 1975’s The Man with the Golden Gun.  The reason his song didn’t make it into the film wasn’t because of its quality but because he submitted it one day after the deadline.  Mind you, the song that was used for the film was sung by someone who was almost as terrifying as Alice Cooper: Lulu.

 

Six years later, great New York / New Wave band Blondie contributed a song to the 1981 Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, only to have it turned down in favour of one sung by the Scottish pop starlet Sheena Easton, who’d just become famous on the back of an appearance in the proto-reality TV show The Big Time.  Again, Blondie’s For Your Eyes Only isn’t up to the standard of their classic hits, such as Union City Blue (1979) or Call Me (1980), but it’s jaunty enough and preferable to the pallid song that did end up as the theme.  Incidentally, Easton made history as being the first singer of a Bond song to actually appear in the opening credits while the song was playing.  At the risk of sounding like a male chauvinist pig, I have to say that I’d rather have watched the delectable Debbie Harry cavorting through those credits instead.

 

From popmatters.com

 

But surely the most fascinating song commissioned, but not used, was for 1965’s Thunderball.  It was sung by Johnny Cash – yes, Johnny Cash! – and it begins with the lyrics, “There’s a rumble in the sky and all the world can hear it call / They shudder at the fury of the mighty Thunderball”.  This gives the song an apocalyptic quality reminiscent of Cash’s The Man Comes Around (2002), which itself accompanied the credits sequence of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.

 

Admittedly, I doubt if Cash’s song had any chance of beating the Tom Jones Thunderball that was used in the end because it’s unashamedly country-and-western in tone.  It doesn’t conjure up the image of an insouciant Sean Connery in a tuxedo searching for SPECTRE-hijacked nuclear missiles in the 1960s Caribbean as much as it conjures up the image of a squinting Clint Eastwood in a dirty poncho, neckerchief and bullet-holed hat riding into a dusty one-horse town in the 1850s Wild West to sort out a power struggle between rival gangs.  Still, it’s a fascinating collision between two great icons of popular culture, the Man in Black and the Man with the Licence to Kill.  Though while Connery’s Bond is undoubtedly a ruthless, cold-hearted shit at times, he isn’t in the same league as some of Cash’s characters, such as the one in Folsom Prison Blues (1955), who “shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die.”

 

From billboard.com

 

Thanks to the miracle of Youtube, you can now watch the credit sequences of Tomorrow Never Dies, The Man with the Golden Gun, For Your Eyes Only and Thunderball accompanied by the alternative tracks by Pulp, Alice Cooper, Blondie and Johnny Cash.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHpH-iziTho

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tV8v697SBY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3anh2SV-7s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-AN5mJF13A

 

Finally, there’s another category of non-Bond Bond songs: ones that weren’t written with the Bond movies in mind but which, when you hear them, cause you to think, “Wow!  That should’ve been a James Bond song!”  A while ago, I saw Justin Hawkins, of the tongue-in-cheek glam-metal band The Darkness, on the heavy-metal channel Scuzz TV and he argued that Nirvana’s 1993 anthem Heart-Shaped Box would’ve made a great Bond song.  It’s an interesting idea, although I can’t quite hear the resemblance myself; and I’m sure the sensitive Kurt Cobain wouldn’t have been happy to have his song played against a montage of ghostly naked ladies floating through the ether and silhouettes of Roger Moore in his flared Saville Row suit.  But in fact, on the Internet, someone has tried to turn it into a Bond song:

 

http://forum.renoise.com/index.php/topic/42312-remix-heart-shaped-box/

 

One song that was so achingly Bondian that I could never understand why the filmmakers didn’t snap up the rights to it immediately was 6 Underground, performed by the glossy 1990s trip-hop band the Sneaker Pimps.  Mind you, the song’s Bondian sound is hardly surprising, considering that it borrowed a sample from 1963’s Goldfinger – not from the theme song sung by Shirley Bassey, but from the John Barry-written tune Golden Girl, which plays during the scene where Connery discovers Shirley Eaton’s body covered in gold paint.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eBZqmL8ehg

 

From playbuzz.com

 

Lately, I’ve read comments on social media claiming that one of the greatest songs-that-should’ve-been-a-Bond-one is Supremacy (2012) by the alternative / progressive rock band Muse.  I’m not a big Muse fan but I have to agree.  Indeed, if I were watching a spectacular Bond opening sequence – such as Roger Moore skiing off a cliff and opening his Union Jack parachute in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, or Pierce Brosnan riding a motorbike after a pilotless plane and into a near-bottomless chasm in Goldeneye – and then Supremacy’s thunderous guitar suddenly kicked in for the credits, the massive surge of adrenalin I’d experience would probably be enough to kill me.  It’s my old age, you see…

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avM_UsVo0IA

 

James Bond in Scots

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

I have at least one seriously silly thought every day and I’ve decided to share today’s seriously silly thought with you.  What would the titles of all the James Bond movies sound like if they’d been formulated not in Standard English, but in Scots?  Well, maybe like this:

 

Dr No                                                             Dr Naw

From Russia with Love                               Frae Russia wi Winchin’

Goldfinger                                                    Gauld Pinkie

Thunderball                                                  Thunner Baw

You Only Live Twice                                    Ye Onie Bide Twa Times

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service                On the High Heid-Yin’s Secret Service

Diamonds are Forever                                 Diamonds are Firiver

Live and Let Die                                            Bide an’ Let Dee

The Man with the Golden Gun                    The Gadgie wi the Gaulden Gun

The Spy Who Loved Me                               The Spy Whae Winched Me

Moonraker                                                     Moon Howker

For Your Eyes Only                                      Fir Yer Een Onie

Octopussy                                                      Octo-Fannie

A View to a Kill                                              A Shuftey tae a Malky

The Living Daylights                                     The Bidin’ Daylichts

Licence to Kill                                                Licence tae Malky

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Goldeneye                                                      Gaulden Ee

Tomorrow Never Dies                                  The Morra Nivir Dees

The World is not Enough                             The Wirld isnae Eneuch

Die Another Day                                            Dee Anither Day

Casino Royale                                                Ceilidh-Hoose Royale

Quantum of Solace                                       Smeddum o Solace

Skyfall                                                             Sky Cowp

Spectre                                                           Bogle

 

All right, some poetic licence – as opposed to a licence to kill – has been deployed here.  Certain Scots words I used because I liked the sound of them, not because they captured the exact shade of meaning.

 

For example, I know that the Scots noun ‘pinkie’ refers to your little finger only, not to any old finger; and the verb ‘bide’ means ‘live’ as in ‘reside’, not ‘live’ as in simply ‘be alive’.  Also, I don’t know of any direct Scots equivalent of ‘Her Majesty’; so for the title of the sixth Bond movie (the only one to show 007 wearing a kilt) I used the term ‘high heid yin’, which means the boss, the person in charge of an organisation.  Although if you believe the rumours about what people living near Balmoral Castle — which since 1852 has been the Royal Family’s private residence in Scotland — call the Queen and her kin, maybe ‘the auld German wifie’ would have sufficed.  As for Ceilidh-Hoose Royale, well, that’s me being really daft.

 

Incidentally, by penning this post, I risk incurring the wrath of fulminating wee columnist John Macleod, who in the most recent Scottish edition of the Mail on Sunday lambasted the fad for translating literary works — especially works for children — into the Scots tongue.  He cited one of Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, The Black Island, as an example of the horrors that happen — in 2013 Susan Rennie had the temerity to translate it, as The Derk Isle, into the frightful devil’s gobbledygook that is Scots.  As the learned Macleod knows, Tintin should only be read in the civilised eloquence of Hergé’s native Standard English.

 

Anyway, I’m sure this man would approve…

 

From www.pinterest.com 

 

By the way — happy belated 85th birthday, you grumpy auld bugger.

 

I love you really, Roger!

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

I believe that as you get older, and if you possess even half of a conscience, you find yourself brooding more and more on the sins that you committed in your past.  You can never forget the cruel, spiteful and hurtful things that you’ve done over the years.  The memories of those things hang around, lurking in the recesses of your soul.  And as you move through life, and inexorably approach your final destination, they become ever-more restless and vocal – like ghosts moaning and rattling their chains and psychically knocking the furniture around with increasing volume, agitation and violence.  I’m sure there comes a point when, in your old age, your guilt tortures you to the point where you’re absolutely desperate to atone for those dark and distant misdeeds.

 

No doubt that’s the reason why, lately, I’ve found myself dwelling uncomfortably on a sin I’ve committed during the years that I’ve written this blog.  Yes, I’ve been beastly to Roger Moore.

 

If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll know how it goes.  I write an entry about James Bond – of whom I’m a big fan, both in his literary incarnation written by Ian Fleming and in his cinematic incarnation masterminded by the Broccoli family – and something gives me reason to refer to the third actor to play 007 in the movies, from Live and Let Die in 1974 until A View to a Kill in 1985.  And then I make a comment likening Roger Moore’s acting ability to that of a plank, or a floorboard, or a block of wood, or a sheet of mahogany, or a slab of teak, or a lump of concrete, or a vat of dried cement, or an Easter Island statue, or one of the monoliths that were featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Or, still on the subject of his acting ability, I give vent to an unkind pun about ‘Roger Mortis’.  Or I say something snarky about Roger’s left eyebrow being the most expressive part of his entire body.  Or I crack an ungentlemanly joke about James Bond getting ‘Roger-ed’ in the 1970s and 1980s.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Well, I have decided that the time has come to make amends.  I realise that my Crimes Against Roger are of such a magnitude that I can never fully cleanse myself of the bad, anti-Roger karma I’ve created, but I will at least have a go.  Here is a blog-entry dedicated to being positive about the crinkly, safari-suit-wearing, eyebrow-elevating James Bond Number Three.  Here is an account of all the good things that Roger has done over the years.

 

There are some good things…  I know there are some good things…  I just have to search around a bit to find them…  Oh yes!  Here they are.

 

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

Cited by Moore as his favourite among the films he’s made – he agreed to star in it for much less than his usual fee – The Man Who Haunted Himself is a bizarre psychological-horror-cum-ghost-story.  It was also the final film directed by Basil Deardon, who’d worked on the legendary supernatural anthology movie Dead of Night back in 1945.

 

The Man Who Haunted Himself is a tale of a well-to-do businessman called Harold Pelham, played by Moore, who’s badly injured in a car crash and undergoes a weird incident during the subsequent emergency surgery – he briefly seems to die on the operating table and then two heartbeats appear on the monitoring machine rather than one.  Thereafter, the supposedly-recovered Pelham finds himself being stalked by a sinister doppelganger.  Pelham never encounters this doppelganger himself; but, behind his back, it ingratiates itself among his family, friends and colleagues and does things, like making important business decisions and having an affair, for which he gets the credit / blame.  Pelham is so unnerved by this that his behaviour becomes alarming to his friends, family and colleagues.  Indeed, he acts so out-of-character that they begin to wonder if he might be, you know, an imposter.

 

(c) EMI

 

I saw this movie on TV when I was a kid and was extremely freaked out by it – probably because by then I was accustomed to seeing Moore play suave and unflappable characters in TV shows like The Saint (1962-1969) and The Persuaders (1971-1972).  So I wasn’t ready to see him play someone who spends a film in a state of increasing mental disintegration and becomes a gibbering, possibly insane ruin by its end.  It got bad reviews and made little money at the time of its release, but it’s now regarded as a cult classic – championed, I suspect, by people my age who also first saw it as kids and also found the sight of Roger Moore cracking up seriously disturbing.  Its admirers, incidentally, include Pulp singer, cultural commentator and raconteur Jarvis Cocker.

 

The Persuaders (1971-1972)

Okay, I’m cheating a little when I cite The Persuaders as a good thing.  This comedy-action TV series Moore made for Lew Grade in the early 1970s, in which he and Tony Curtis played a pair of jet-setting playboys / adventurers who constantly get into and out of scrapes, is really pretty vacuous.  But what makes it unforgettable is its theme music – a marvellous composition by John Barry that’s mysterious, swirling and rather gothic.  Hearing it at the start of each episode, you’re led to expect a completely different type of TV show, a far darker and edgier one, from what you actually get.  I think the fact that no less a personage than Johnny Marr, the former guitarist with The Smiths, plays The Persuaders theme when he and his band come onstage these days is an indication of its quality.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t99QQIXez4M

 

John Barry, of course, would have much more to do with Roger Moore in the years ahead – for Barry was also James-Bond composer numero uno.  In fact, if I had to have some music played at my funeral, it would probably be a toss-up between the Persuaders theme and Barry’s instrumental from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1968).  Though knowing my luck, someone would probably hit the wrong track on the John Barry compilation CD, with the result that my remains were carted away to the sound of Lulu singing The Man with the Golden Gun.

 

(c) ITC

 

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Say what you like about the quality of Roger Moore’s other James Bond films – and in my opinion they range from the underwhelming to the atrocious – but you can’t deny that The Spy Who Loved Me is the one that deserves its place in the premier league of great 007 movies.  On paper it looks as lazy as all the other Bond movies being made around that time – a car that travels underwater, a villain who kills people by dropping them into shark-pools, a giant henchman with steel teeth and a plot that’s been copied from 1967’s You Only Live Twice (only with stolen submarines instead of stolen spacecraft).  But it’s done with such style and élan that Moore, writers Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum, producer Cubby Broccoli and so on get away with it.  And of course, the pre-titles sequence – the one that made it a rule that the opening scene of each new Bond film had to contain a big stunt – is a corker.

 

No wonder that in season two of I’m Alan Partridge (2002), Steve Coogan gets immensely upset when he discovers that Michael-the-Geordie has taped over his copy of The Spy Who Loved Me with an episode of America’s Strongest Man.  “Now you’ve got Norfolk’s maddest man!” he rages.  Quite.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czWLEbNwjCI

 

(c) ITC

 

His humanitarian work

Moore has been a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, since 1991; and, sweetly, he once lent his voice to a UNICEF-sponsored cartoon called The Fly Who Loved Me (2004).  He has also been involved in the campaign by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, against the gruesome practices used in the making of foie gras and he helped to persuade the department store Selfridges to stop stocking the stuff.

 

No other actor is capable of doing Roger-stuff

Yes, there are plenty of moments during Moore’s seven Bond movies when, as a serious fan of Ian Fleming’s superspy, I’ve wanted to hide behind the sofa in embarrassment.  But if I switch off my brain’s critical faculties, I have to admit there’s a certain, if facile, charm in seeing Roger Moore go through his paces – silly though the situations are.

 

And I doubt very much if the other actors who’ve played James Bond since the 1960s could go through the same escapades and emerge from them with their dignity intact, the way that Roger Moore – somehow – manages to do.  I suspect Timothy Dalton would look a bit of a dick if he performed a corkscrewing car-jumping stunt, accompanied by comedy noises and with Sheriff J.W. Pepper in the passenger’s seat – but Roger did just that in The Man with the Golden Gun (1975) and nobody thought less of him.  (They certainly thought less of the film, though.)  And I’m sure Daniel Craig would look a right fanny if he escaped from some villains in a gondola that turned into a speedboat and then turned into a hovercraft – but Roger did so in Moonraker (1979) and nobody accused him of being a fanny.

 

Why, even the mighty Sean would have difficulty keeping his poise and self-esteem if he had to dangle from a ladder on the back of a speeding fire engine (driven by Tanya Roberts).  But – you guessed it! – Roger did that in A View to a Kill (1985) and got away with it.  Just about.

 

Yes, when it comes to doing Roger-stuff, nobody does it better.

 

Glang!  Glang-a-lang, glang-a-lang, glang-a-lang…  Glang-a-lang!

 

(c) The Belfast Telegraph

 

The man with the golden teeth

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Even Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, modern-day producers of the James Bond movie franchise, would struggle to dispute the claim that the best Bond villains – the ones imprinted on the public consciousness – are the villains whom Ian Fleming created in his original novels about the British superspy between the 1940s and 1960s.  When Fleming’s imagined megalomaniacs, psychopaths, thugs, hoods and vagabonds subsequently made the leap from page to screen, everybody loved them.  Think Blofeld, Goldfinger, Dr No, Oddjob, Rosa Klebb, Red Grant, Scaramanga and so on.

 

When the moviemakers ran out of Bond novels to film and started making up their own titles, stories and characters, the resulting celluloid-only villains never quite managed the same impact as the ones born in Fleming’s imagination.  Sure, there were some who were effective: Christopher Walken’s Max Zoran and Grace Jones’s Mayday in A View to a Kill (1985); Robert Davi’s Sanchez in Licence to Kill (1989); Robert Carlisle’s Renard in The World is Not Enough (1999); Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva in Skyfall (2012); and the late, great Vincent Schiavelli’s Dr Kaufman, all-too-briefly seen in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).  However, you’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone that these characters belong in the premier division of great Bond villains.  No, the greats are almost exclusively the creations of Fleming.

 

I say ‘almost’ because there’s one Bond villain who didn’t feature in the books and who was designed only for the screen, but whom everybody remembers.  Yes, step forward (or lumber forward) Jaws, the seven-foot two-inch henchman to Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Hugo Drax in Moonraker (1979), played by Richard Kiel.  Kiel, unfortunately, passed away on the 10th of this month at the age of 74.

 

Actually, I should qualify that.  The inspiration for Jaws came from Fleming because in the 1962 novel of The Spy Who Loved Me (which has nothing to do with the movie version), there’s a thug called Sol Horowitz, known as ‘Horror’, who has steel-capped teeth.  Jaws – named after a certain shark-movie directed by a young Steven Spielberg, which did rather well at the box office in the mid-to-late 1970s – doesn’t so much have steel-capped teeth as steel-plated ones that look like they were installed by a seriously-deranged dentist.  On the movie set of The Spy Who Loved Me, Jaws’ metal dentures were so uncomfortable that Kiel could only bear to wear them for less than a minute at a time.

 

The Spy Who Loved Me was the third James Bond movie to star Roger Moore in the lead role and, although I have issues – severe issues – with Moore’s run of Bond movies, I can happily admit to liking this one.  For my money, it’s the only time between the early 1970s and the late 1980s when the Bond-movie team really got its act together and found an acceptable balance between spectacle, humour and outrageousness.  It even, very occasionally, has a soupcon of seriousness.  To be honest, Kiel’s character does push the film a little too far into absurdity because his character is not only seven-foot-two and equipped with a set of giant metal gnashers but he’s also invincible – he survives being buried under falling slabs of rock, being thrown out of the window of a speeding train and being accosted by a shark.  As the critic and Bond expert John Brosnan once noted, the Bond films have enough of a credibility problem with one character who’s superhumanly indestructible – Bond himself.  When you put a second such character in them, you’re asking for trouble.

 

But what the heck?  For sheer presence, physicality and menace, Kiel – who doesn’t utter a word throughout the film – is brilliant and he counts as the last of the truly iconic Bond villains.  Indeed, I’m convinced that in Skyfall there’s a little nod to Kiel’s greatness when Javier Bardem’s bad guy removes a set of dentures to reveal his real teeth, which are hideously deformed and mangled.  At that point, surely, older viewers the world over murmured nostalgically under their breath: “Jaws!”  I know I did.

 

Unfortunately, if The Spy Who Loved Me represents Roger Moore’s finest hour as 007, then the following movie, 1979’s Moonraker, represents him and the film-franchise at its worst.  Intended to cash in on the box-office success of another late-1970s movie, Star Wars, it’s a far-fetched tale involving space shuttles, space stations, space battles and an evil genius called Hugo Drax who plans to wipe out humanity by bombarding it from orbit with deadly nerve gas.  Mind you, the film’s silliest moment – for me the worst moment of the entire film series – is an earthbound one, when Moore escapes from some would-be assassins in Venice in a gondola that transforms into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft.

 

Leaving no populist stone unturned, the filmmakers brought Kiel back as Jaws, but stripped him of his menace by upping his character’s jokiness.  The nadir comes when they give him his own love interest, a petite, pigtailed and bespectacled blonde played by French actress Blanche Ravalec.  From there on, poor old Jaws starts to turn into a sentimental sap and at the end of the film he even becomes a good guy who saves Moore’s life.  He was a far more interesting character when he was biting people’s throats out with his steel teeth.

 

That said, Moonraker’s pre-credits sequence, wherein Moore and Kiel do battle in mid-air while they plunge towards the ground from an airplane – for much of which Moore is without a parachute – sets the pulse racing like no other sequence in the Bond films up until then.  It’s just a pity that the sequence ends in absurdity, with Kiel failing to get his own parachute open and crashing through the roof of a circus big-top, which then slowly collapses around him.

 

Away from the Bond films, Kiel was a regular actor in American TV shows during the 1960s and 1970s, making appearances in The Twilight Zone, Lassie, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Dream of Jeanie, My Mother the Car, Gilligan’s Island, The Monkees, I Spy, Kolchak: the Night Stalker, Barbary Coast, McMillan and Wife and Starsky and Hutch.  He had a semi-regular gig as a henchman on the Western / spy / sci-fi show The Wild, Wild West – which is now seen as a very early example of the ‘steampunk’ genre – but for my money his best TV role came in an episode of the old, Boris Karloff-hosted horror anthology series Thriller.  Kiel played a villain / monster in a loopy but memorably atmospheric instalment of Thriller called Well of Doom, which was set in a Hollywood-studio imagining of what a typical Scottish moor was supposed to be like – i.e. it was thickly a-swirl with fog at all times.

 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, fame brought him roles as a villain and / or henchman in films like Silver Streak (1976), Force 10 from Navarone (1978) and tatty Italian Star Wars rip-off The Humanoid (1979).  Perhaps his best film was Clint Eastwood’s second-last western, Pale Rider (1985), in which Eastwood overcame the threatening Kiel by swinging a sledgehammer into his nuts.  Unsurprisingly, Jaws proved to be a legacy that Kiel found hard to shake off.  He lent his voice to the character in the 2004 computer game James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing and cameoed in the 1999 action-comedy Inspector Gadget as a character referred to as ‘the Famous Bad Guy with Silver Teeth’.

 

But there was a lot more to Kiel than seven feet and two inches of brawn.  He could also claim to be an author, for he once co-wrote a biography of the 19th-century Kentucky abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay.  And fascinatingly, while he was trying to establish himself as an actor in the early 1960s, he held down a part-time evening job as a mathematics instructor.  Incidentally, I was always rubbish at maths and after studying it for five years I barely managed to scrape a ‘C’ in the subject in my Scottish Highers examinations; but I suspect I would’ve addressed it with more diligence if my maths teacher had been Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me.

 

Bond in miniature: Octopussy and The Living Daylights

 

(c) Vintage Books

 

When, as a boy, I read most of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, the one I was least enamoured with was For Your Eyes Only.  Actually, FYEO wasn’t a novel but a collection of short stories featuring Bond.  In one of them, Quantum of Solace – which had nothing to do with the 22nd official Bond movie, made with Daniel Craig in 2008 – all 007 did was sit and act as a listener while somebody else narrated a story about a different set of characters.

 

The problem, I felt, was that Bond was too big for the confines of a short story.  For me at the age of 11, a good Bond story needed a super-villain with a suitably imposing HQ, and a nefarious scheme involving espionage, criminality and / or terrorism, and a love interest, and a number of action set-pieces in which said super-villain tried, unsuccessfully, to bump Bond off.  And of course, with Ian Fleming as writer, there’d also be a wealth of background detail culled from Fleming’s experiences as a globetrotting journalist, naval intelligence officer and bon viveur and from his research – research was something he was scrupulous about.  Obviously, cramming all these things into a short story was not viable.  And the truncated slices of Bondery that appeared in FYEO seemed to me, well, a bit weird.

 

I recently read a comment made by esteemed poet Philip Larkin about Bond’s suitability for a short-fiction format: “I am not surprised that Fleming preferred to write novels.  James Bond, unlike Sherlock Holmes, does not fit snugly into the short story length: there is something grandiose and intercontinental about his adventures that require elbow room and such examples of the form as we have tend to be eccentric and muted.”  I’m delighted to see a personage like Larkin backing up my thoughts on the subject – great minds think alike and all that.

 

Larkin, however, wasn’t talking about FYEO but about Fleming’s other collection of James Bond short stories, Octopussy and The Living Daylights, which was published in 1966, two years after Fleming’s death.  This book constitutes Bond’s final appearance in print, as penned by his creator.  It originally consisted of just the two stories mentioned in the title, although subsequent editions beefed it up with the addition of two more, The Property of a Lady and 007 in New York.  Nonetheless, it remains a slim volume.  Even with four stories, it comes to a mere 123 pages.

 

Since then, of course, Octopussy and The Living Daylights have lent their titles to Bond movies, in 1982 and 1987 respectively.  A film has yet to be made called The Property of a Lady and to be honest I think Adele or even Shirley Bassey would have difficulty wrapping her vocal chords around the title in a Bond-movie theme song.  (“The proper-TEE… of a la-DEE…!”  No, I can’t imagine it.)  Obviously, 007 in New York wouldn’t cut it as a movie title at all.  Mind you, there was a TV movie made in 1976 called Sherlock Holmes in New York starring, God help us, Roger Moore as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing detective, so anything is possible.

 

Octopussy and The Living Daylights was one of the few Fleming-Bond books I hadn’t read in my boyhood, so when I encountered a copy of it in a bookstore recently I thought I’d give it a shot.  How would I get on with it?  Three-and-a-half decades after I’d read FYEO, would I find the short-story James Bond any more palatable?

 

The opening story, Octopussy, is the longest one in the collection but Bond is only a secondary character in it.  Rather, the story concerns a Major Dexter Smythe, described acidly by Fleming as “the remains of a once brave and resourceful officer and of a handsome man…”  Now “he was fifty-four, slightly bald and his belly sagged in the Jantzen trunks.  And he had had two coronary thromboses…  But, in his well-chosen clothes, his varicose veins out of sight and his stomach flattened by a discreet support belt behind an immaculate cummerbund, he was still a fine figure of a man at a cocktail party or dinner on the North Shore, and it was a mystery to his friends and neighbours why, in defiance of the two ounces of whisky and ten cigarettes a day to which his doctor had rationed him, he persisted in smoking like a chimney and going to bed drunk, if amiably drunk, every night.”

 

The North Shore mentioned in that excerpt is the north coast of Jamaica.  During the post-war years Smythe and his wife, now deceased, established themselves there after escaping from hard-pressed, austerity-era Britain: “They were a popular couple and Major Smythe’s war record earned them the entrée to Government House society, after which their life was one endless round of parties, with tennis for Mary and golf (with the Henry Cotton irons!) for Major Smythe.  In the evenings there was bridge for her and the high poker game for him.  Yes, it was paradise all right, while, in their homeland, people munched their spam, fiddled in the black market, cursed the government and suffered the worst winter weather for thirty years.”

 

Yet this easy, comfortable and enviable life in Jamaica didn’t fall into Smythe’s lap.  Gradually, Fleming enlightens us on how Smythe was able to afford it.  In a back story that has echoes of B. Traven’s 1927 novel and John Huston’s 1948 movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, we learn that in the Austrian Alps at the end of World War II, he stumbled across something immensely valuable that he hoarded for himself.  To do this, however, he had to commit murder.  Octopussy describes what happens when Smythe’s ‘ancient sin’ finally catches up with him.  The bearer of the bad news – that the authorities have found out what he did back in the war and intend to arrest him – is a ‘tall man’ in a ‘dark-blue tropical suit’ with ‘watchful, serious blue-grey eyes’.  It’s Bond – though Bond isn’t just carrying out a professional errand.  Eventually we discover that he has a personal stake in bringing Smythe to justice.

 

Once you accept that the story is about Smythe rather than Bond, it proceeds very agreeably.  The plump and comical Smythe, who paddles about the reef in front of his villa and rather pathetically talks to the fish that swim there – plus a unfriendly, tentacled mollusc whom he’s christened ‘Octopussy’ – gradually loses our sympathy as Fleming peels back the layers and we discover the cruel, and unnecessary, deed he committed to enrich himself decades earlier.  Bond is hardly a paradigm of virtue but, equipped with a conscience and a rough-and-ready code of ethics, he’s the antithesis of what’s represented by Smythe.  The scene where the flaccid and weak-willed Smythe confesses his crime to Bond is admirably low-key, but Fleming infuses it with a cold, sadistic tension.

 

The Property of a Lady, on the other hand, is a conventional Bond adventure in miniature.  It has 007 turn the auctioning at Sotheby’s of an artwork designed by Carl Faberge – according to the catalogue, “(a) sphere carved from an extraordinarily large piece of Siberian emerald matrix weighing approximately one thousand three hundred carats” – into a trap to catch the KGB’s director of operations in London.  Also involved is a female Russian double-agent working in the British Secret Service, whom the service is aware of and uses to feed fake information back to Moscow.  To be honest, the plot didn’t make sense to me – I didn’t see how Bond, by snaring London’s top KGB man at Sotheby’s, could avoid alerting Moscow to the fact that British intelligence had cottoned onto the double agent’s existence and were using her for their own ends.

 

Still, the story is readable and the scenes set in Sotheby’s allow Fleming to show off his knowledge – acquired through research or through personal experience – of the world’s most famous broker in fine art.  When Bond expresses surprise that the auctioneer doesn’t bang his gavel three times and declare, “Going, going, gone,” an expert informs him, “You may still find that operating in the Shires or in Ireland, but it hasn’t been the fashion at London sales rooms since I’ve been attending them.”

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Elements from both Octopussy-the-short-story and The Property of a Lady turn up in Octopussy-the-1982-film, which starred Roger Moore.  In the film, the title character is not an octopus but a beautiful and mysterious woman played by Maud Adams, whose father, it transpires, once received a visit from Bond similar to the visit that Major Smythe received in the original story.  (The revelation that Bond knew her father serves, uncomfortably, to underline the 17-year age-difference between Moore and Adams, especially during the inevitable scene where they go to bed together.  By 1982 Moore was getting a bit long in the tooth and really shouldn’t have been doing love scenes.)  The film also has a proper octopus in it, an unfriendly one, and there’s some business too about a Faberge artwork being auctioned off at Sotheby’s.

 

However, if you’ve seen Octopussy-the-movie and don’t remember these things, it’s hardly surprising, because scriptwriters Michael G. Wilson, Richard Maibaum and George McDonald Fraser managed to bung everything into it bar the proverbial kitchen sink.  It has a plot involving the explosion of a nuclear warhead in West Germany, and a circus, and an exiled Afghan prince, and feuding Russian generals, and a sidekick called Vijay played by the real-life Indian tennis star Vijay Amritraj, and a Sikh henchman armed with a blunderbuss, and knife-throwing identical twins, and the latest piece of cutting-edge hi-tech equipment developed by Q, which is a hot-air balloon.  It sees Roger Moore disguised as a circus clown, disguised as a gorilla, disguised as a crocodile and pretending to be Tarzan, complete with a Tarzan-esque yodel.  Much of it takes place in a version of India that combines Indiana Jones with Carry On up the Kyber.  (“Sounds familiar!” quips Moore when he hears a snake charmer play a snatch of Monty Berman’s James Bond Theme on his flute.)  Actually, Octopussy is a terrible film.  It truly belongs in the 007 Pit of Shit alongside 1979’s Moonraker and 2002’s Die Another Day.

 

The third story in the book, The Living Daylights, sees Bond assigned a mission in Berlin.  He has to kill a Soviet sniper whom the KGB have lined up to shoot a defecting scientist while he flees from the east to the west of the city – the story is set shortly before the creation of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie.  Bond has a crisis of conscience when he discovers that the enemy sniper is a woman, an attractive blonde whom he’s seen posing as a member of an orchestra that’s performing on the Communist-Bloc side of town.  This story is incorporated, more or less intact, into the early part of the 1987 movie The Living Daylights, which was the first one to star Timothy Dalton as Bond.  In the film, however, the action is moved to Bratislava, the defector is a KGB officer and his defection is planned to take place during an orchestral performance in a concert hall.

 

Although the rest of the plot of The Living Daylights-the-film is rather convoluted and unsatisfactory, and there are a few daft moments left over from the previous movies in the series (such as one where Dalton and Maryam D’Abo ride down a mountainside using a cello as a sleigh), at the time it seemed to me a breath of fresh air.  It was an attempt at a slightly more sensible Bond film and it had an actor in the lead role trying to depict Bond as the moody, occasionally conscience-stricken character that Fleming had originally written.  (In fact, when he took on the role, Dalton made a point of reading Fleming’s books.)

 

(c) Eon Productions 

 

Alas, Dalton received a rough ride from the critics.  After spending years deriding the Roger Moore-era Bond movies for their campness and silliness, as soon as Dalton appeared those same critics discovered they’d been unconscious Moore-fans all along.  They started moaning about the films becoming too ‘humourless’ and started pining for the good old days when jolly Roger would fight off a giant henchman with steel teeth on top of a cable car with a shaken-not-stirred Vodka Martini and a raised eyebrow, or would escape from the villains in a gondola that cunningly transformed into a nuclear-powered submarine…  Gah!  It just wasn’t fair.

 

The final story, 007 in New York, is a trifle – Bond is sent to the Big Apple to warn a former Secret Service member that the man she’s cohabiting with is actually a Soviet agent, though he spends most of the story’s eight pages planning the shopping, eating, drinking, clubbing and wenching that he’s going to do while he’s there.  This allows Fleming to show off his knowledge of the city – Bond decides to visit “Hoffritz on Madison Avenue for one of their heavy, toothed Gillette-type razors, so much better than Gillette’s own product, Tripler’s for some of those French golf socks made by Izod, Scribner’s because it was the last great bookshop in New York and because there was a salesman there with a good nose for thrillers, and then to Abercrombie’s to look over the new gadgets…  And then what about the best meal in New York – oyster stew with cream, crackers and Miller High Life at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central?  No, he didn’t want to sit up at a bar…  Yes.  That was it!  The Edwardian Room at the Plaza.  A corner table.”

 

Fleming was known to have a predilection for sado-masochism, so it’s telling that 007 in New York also sees Bond considering a visit to a bar he’s heard about that “was the rendezvous for sadists and masochists of both sexes.  The uniform was black leather jackets and leather gloves.  If you were a sadist, you wore the gloves under the left shoulder strap.  For the masochists it was the right.”  Bond has an old flame in New York whom he intends to meet up with and enjoy some nightlife with, including the S-&-M-themed nightlife, and it’s here that a tiny sliver of 007 in New York makes it into the movies too.  The old flame’s name is Solange, which is the name of the character played by Caterina Murino in Casino Royale, which saw Daniel Craig’s debut as Bond, in 2006.

 

The story also had an influence on Solo, the Bond novel recently written by William Boyd.  While Solo includes ‘James Bond’s recipe for salad dressing’, 007 in New York treats us to a recipe for ‘scrambled eggs James Bond’.  I should say, though, that I have my own special recipe for making scrambled eggs and I think it’s way better than Bond’s one.

 

007 in New York is tied up with a gentle, though unexpected, twist that’s worthy of Somerset Maugham – a writer whom Fleming was a big admirer of.  And that, unfortunately, is it.  Fleming had passed away prior to this collection’s publication and no further Bond material appeared under his name.  Thus, Octopussy and The Living Daylights marked the end of James Bond as a literary phenomenon…  For all of two years, until 1968, when Kingsley Amis published Colonel Sun.

 

Boyd and Bond: book review / Solo, by William Boyd

 

(c) Jonathan Cape

 

Before I begin this review of Solo, the new James Bond novel written – with the blessing of Ian Fleming’s estate – by William Boyd, I should say that I like Boyd.  Alright, I haven’t actually read any of his other books, but I’m familiar with some of his screen-work and I’ve read some of his journalism.  He comes across as a decent and sensible type, the sort of bloke whom you’d be happy to sit down and drink a pint with.  This is more than can be said for a few of his contemporaries, who come across as the sort of smug, self-satisfied gits you’d probably find yourself punching before you got halfway through that pint.  I won’t mention any names but I’m sure you know who I mean.  (Okay, I will mention names: Salman Rushdie, A.N. Wilson and Martin bloody Amis.)

 

Also, I feel a slight kinship with Boyd, as both of us have connections with the fine Scottish Borders town of Peebles.  According to an introduction he once wrote for an edition of Alasdair Gray’s landmark novel Lanark, Boyd worked in his youth as a kitchen-porter in the Tontine Hotel on Peebles High Street.  When he travelled to his workplace from his parents’ house, which was three miles along the road from Peebles, he would sometimes get a lift from Stephanie Wolfe-Murray, who would soon set up the now-legendary Scottish publishing house Canongate Books (responsible for publishing Lanark in 1981).

 

Like Boyd, I spent time in Peebles’ hotel trade too.  In my mid-teens I worked as a dishwasher, assistant gardener and general dogsbody at the Venlaw Castle Hotel, which overlooks Peebles on the side of Venlaw Hill.  I used to cycle to work and my journey would take me through a neighbourhood called Dalatho Crescent – which in those days was regarded as The Bronx of Peebles.  (It feels more respectable these days, though maybe that’s only because I’m bigger now.)  Some of the kids who mooched around Dalatho Crescent took a dislike to me, for some reason, and would yell abuse every day as I cycled past.  So while William Boyd got to travel to his job at the Tontine Hotel in the company of the founder of the most important publisher in modern Scottish literature, I travelled to my job at the Venlaw Castle Hotel with street urchins yelling after me, “F**k off, ye f**kin’ wanker, ye!”  I guess that’s where Boyd’s fortunes and my fortunes diverged.

 

I also consider Boyd an excellent choice to write a James Bond novel, as he and Ian Fleming’s super-spy have a few things in common.  There’s the shared Scottish background for a start – according to Fleming’s later books, Bond’s father was Scottish (although his mother was Swiss).  That might be why in Solo, at one point, Boyd describes Bond convalescing at a special military installation south of Edinburgh, which I suspect is actually Glencorse Barracks near Penicuik.  Boyd also has him dining in an oyster restaurant just off Edinburgh’s Princes Street, which is surely the Café Royal.

 

And Boyd, like Bond, spent time being ‘anglicised’ at a posh private school in Scotland.  Boyd attended Gordonstoun in the Scottish Highlands – an experience that inspired him to write the 1983 TV film Good and Bad at Games, an indictment of the bullying that goes on in British boarding schools – while Bond was sent to Fettes Academy in Edinburgh.  Little mention was made of Fettes in Fleming’s original novels, but in Solo Bond is reminded of his alma mater when he accidentally bumps into a former schoolmate – an event that, it must be said, he isn’t thrilled about.

 

Incidentally, during his screenwriting career, Boyd has also worked with three of the actors who’ve played Bond in the ultra-profitable movie franchise that’s been with us since the early 1960s: Pierce Brosnan in 1990’s Mister Johnson, Daniel Craig in 1999’s The Trench and gruff old Sean Connery himself in the 1994 adaptation of his novel A Good Man in Africa.

 

But having said all that, I now must admit that I was a little disappointed in Solo.  Boyd has evidently put a lot of care into the book, but ultimately I couldn’t escape the feeling that what I was reading was just a clever facsimile of an Ian Fleming James Bond novel.  Clever, yes; but a facsimile nonetheless.

 

I’ll start, though, with what Boyd gets right.  He sticks to the timeframe that Fleming established for Bond’s life in the original books, meaning that Bond was born in 1924 and saw military service during World War II – indeed, among Solo’s more effective moments are those where Bond reminisces about his first experience of killing, which happened when, serving as a lieutenant in 1944, he stumbled across a trio of German soldiers in the grounds of a Normandy chateau.  Solo is set at the end of the 1960s, just after the first moon landing, which puts Bond in his mid-forties.  (Actually, at the beginning of Fleming’s early-1950s novel Moonraker, it’s mentioned that 45 is the age at which Bond can expect to retire from MI6, but in Solo thoughts of retirement never enter his head.  We can only assume that he’s already navigated his mid-life crisis and found a second wind.)  M, who in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1963 was commenting darkly about ‘the beatnik problem’, seems surprisingly unperturbed by the hippy movement and the Summer of Love.

 

Keeping true to the spirit of Fleming, Boyd makes Bond very particular about what he eats, drinks, wears and drives.  On page 7 he orders a breakfast of ‘four eggs, scrambled, and half a dozen rashers of unsmoked back bacon, well done, on the side’, while eleven pages later he’s test-driving a four-wheel-drive Jensen FF, the smell of whose leather upholstery ‘worked on him like an aphrodisiac.’  Later, Boyd even gives us 007’s personal formula for making a perfect salad dressing – a recipe I shall certainly file away, alongside Keith Richards’ recipe for bangers and mash.

 

I also like the fact that Bond’s main love interest in this novel, Bryce Fitzjohn, is an actress whose screen name is Astrid Ostergard and whose speciality is gothic horror movies with titles like Vampiria, Queen of Darkness.  The company that employs her, we learn, is called Amerdon Studios – which is obviously a fictional version of the real-life Hammer Films, whose horror movies were at the height of their popularity in the late 1960s.  It’s a nice touch, especially considering how the cinematic overlap between Bond girls and Hammer starlets has been a large one – off the top of my head, I can think of Ursula Andress, Honor Blackman, Martine Beswick, Joanna Lumley, Julie Ege, Jenny Hanley, Anoushka Hempel, Valerie Leon and Caroline Munro, who’ve been both.

 

Alas, Solo lacks fizz in other departments.  The initial setting for the action is a war-torn African republic called Zanzarim, whose government is trying to bring to heel a breakaway (and oil-rich) province called Dahum in its south.  This is promising enough and Boyd – who was born in Ghana – shows a convincing eye for detail.  It feels like a cop-out, though, that he has to use an imaginary African country as his setting, rather than use a real one.  Worse, later on, Boyd relocates the action to Washington DC, which just isn’t interesting enough to be an effective setting – especially as Bond seems to spend a long time staking out a boring-sounding office plaza: ‘Three six-storey glass and concrete office blocks… a large granite-paved public space… stone benches and a generous planting of assorted saplings…  An oval pool with a fountain and a plinth-mounted piece of modern sculpture.’  The mansion house that appears in the book’s climax is disappointingly generic as well.

 

Solo also disappoints with its depiction of the villains – a mysterious multimillionaire called Hulbert Linck and a war-disfigured mercenary called Kobus Breed.  Linck isn’t in the book long enough to make any impression.  Breed gets more to do, but is portrayed as a fairly straightforward psychotic thug – his calling card is to hang up the corpses of his victims with hooks through their jaws – with few quirks or eccentricities to engage the reader’s interest.  That said, I like how Boyd uses Breed’s possible presence to give the book its melancholic ending.

 

And there’s something else lacking, although I can’t quite put my finger on it.  Perhaps it’s the fact that in 2014 nobody can ever quite write a Bond novel in the way that Fleming did – because in our more politically correct times, nobody can invest Bond with quite the same amount of snobbishness, and sexism, and general un-PC-ness, which Fleming did between the 1940s and 1960s.  Sure, Boyd attempts to connect Bond with his dark side a few times.  We see him viciously taking out his frustrations on a trio of young Washington DC muggers who get more than they bargained for when they attempt to rob him, and having a disturbingly voyeuristic snoop around Bryce’s London home just after he’s met her, and confessing late in the book that he feels ‘a little astonished at his own savagery’.  Yet Boyd’s Bond, like all the attempted recreations of Bond in the 21st century, feels a shade too nice.

 

The book has its good points, then, but at the end of the day I can only judge Solo to be, well, so-so.  Despite his talents and despite the fact that he obviously tackled the job conscientiously, William Boyd doesn’t quite have Ian Fleming’s ability to write a Bond novel with the requisite polish and sparkle.

 

But then, who does?