Great British crime movies of the 1970s

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

 

If you’d lived in the United Kingdom in the 1970s but your only contact with the outside world had been through the medium of television, you may well have believed you were surrounded by a dystopian society.  One where every bank and security van was in constant danger of being attacked by beefy men with sawn-off shotguns and stockings pulled down over their heads.  One where every street was the potential scene of a violent punch-up and every road was the potential scene of a destructive car chase.  One where the only bulwark against the tide of lawlessness and anarchy was a police-force composed entirely of hard-boozing, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed thugs who wore kipper ties with their shirt-collar buttons undone.  Really, you’d have been too afraid to leave your house.

 

This is because 1970s British television was awash with crime and cop shows – often violent and often populated by revolting low-life criminals and heroes who weren’t much better in their morality: for example, Special Branch (1969-74), Villains (1972), New Scotland Yard (1972-74), The Sweeney (1975-78), Gangsters (1975-78), The XYY Man (1976-77), Target (1977-78), Out (1978), Hazell (1978-79) and Strangers (1978-82).

 

Needless to say, these shows had a big impact on impressible kids like me.  My school playground at breaktimes reverberated with the sound of me and my mates acting out things we’d seen on TV the night before, shouting, “You’re nicked, sunshine!” and “You grassed me off, you slag!” and “No bastard copper’s gonna take me alive!” and “We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner!”  My parents were happy to let me watch such programmes – as long as I wasn’t watching that horror rubbish, which had been scientifically proven to be bad for you.

 

Admittedly, 1970s American television was riddled with cop shows too, and British TV producers were probably just working on the supposition that what worked for American audiences would work for British ones.  But the Yank shows just didn’t seem to compare with their Limey counterparts in terms of bad attitude and grubby, sweaty, bad-breathed and greasy-haired authenticity.

 

I suspect a prime reason for this was because the 1970s saw the British film industry die on its arse and British directors, writers and actors who might have expected to ply their trade on the big screen found themselves plying it on the small screen instead.  This helped inject some uncompromising cinematic rawness into the domestic telly crime genre.  Meanwhile, alas, the cinematic counterpart of that genre seemed non-existent.

 

Well, it was almost non-existent.  A few crime movies got made in 1970s Britain too and, though they’re as rare as hen’s teeth, these exert a fascination for me today.  Only two of them ever achieved a degree of fame and the rest are virtually forgotten – but I find all of them cherish-able.  Here are my favourites.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Get Carter (1970)

This is one 1970s British crime film that everyone knows, although I don’t recall it getting much attention until the mid-1990s, when thanks to Britpop, Damien Hirst, etc., the ‘cool Britannia’ scene took off and Get Carter’s star Michael Caine suddenly became a retro-style icon.  Ironically, Caine’s nattily dressed Jack Carter and Roy Budd’s edgy jazz score aside, there isn’t much in Get Carter that feels stylish.  The drab, monochrome terraced streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – if the film’s premise is that Michael Caine has returned to his hometown to sort out trouble, whatever happened to Caine’s Geordie accent? – the shabby pubs, the seedy racecourses, the shit clothes and haircuts, the Neanderthal attitudes…  It’s bloody depressing, actually.  If 1970s Britain really had been like this, I can almost understand why when Maggie Thatcher came to power, she bulldozered the place and cleared the way for the 1980s.

 

One thing about Get Carter that’s often overlooked is the performance of the late, great Ian Hendry as the film’s scuzzball villain, Eric Paice.  “Do you know,” Carter tells him at Newcastle Racecourse in High Gosforth Park, “I’d almost forgotten what your eyes look like.  They’re still the same.  Piss-holes in the snow.”  Hendry was originally meant to play the virile Carter, but by 1970 heavy drinking had taken its toll and instead he was given the supporting role of the memorably weasley Paice.  Hendry resented losing the lead role to Caine and things didn’t go well the night before the filming of the racecourse scene when director Mike Hodges and his cast attempted to give it a read-through – Hendry, supposedly, was three-sheets-to-the-wind.  Despite Hendry’s drunken provocations, Caine is said to have kept his professional cool, although he may have enjoyed the irony of the film’s climax, which sees Carter force-feed Paice a bottle of whisky before clubbing him to death with a shotgun.

 

Villain (1971)

Inspired by the real-life exploits of 1960s London crime-lords Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Villain has Richard Burton, no less, in the role of a gay, mother-fixated and paranoidly violent gang-boss who, against the counsel of wiser heads, gets himself involved in a raid on a factory’s wages van that ultimately causes his downfall.  Meanwhile, trying to stay in one piece through all of this is Ian McShane, playing a smooth but unimportant pimp who has the unenviable job of being both the object of Burton’s affections and the victim of his sadistic rages.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Villain has a wonderful supporting cast – T.P. McKenna and Joss Ackland as fellow gang-bosses, Del Henney and Tony Selby as henchmen, and Nigel Davenport and Colin Welland as the coppers doggedly trying to bring Burton to justice.  (Interestingly, McKenna, Henney and Welland all turned up in the cast of Sam Peckinpah’s troubling Straw Dogs, made the following year.)  The film suffers from having too many sub-plots, though the one where McShane helps Burton escape the law by getting a sleazy Member of Parliament who’s been using his pimping services to testify for him is memorably believable and nauseating.  Played by Donald Sinden, you never hear which political party the MP belongs to.  But you can guess.

 

Sitting Target (1972)

Ian McShane had to suffer some dysfunctional relationships in early 1970s British crime movies.  No sooner had he finished being Richard Burton’s lover / punchbag in Villain than he had to cope with being best friend to a psychotic Oliver Reed in Sitting Target, directed by the underrated Douglas Hickox.  With McShane in tow, Reed escapes from prison early in the film, determined to catch up with his wife Jill St John and give her what’s coming to her.  Reed doesn’t want revenge on St John, as you might expect, for her terrible performance as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  No, it’s because he’s discovered she’s betrayed him for another man.  The film’s big twist, when we find out who that other man is, isn’t altogether a surprise.

 

Sitting Target has many pleasures, including Edward Woodward playing a policeman assigned to protect St John against the marauding Ollie.  But nothing quite matches the thrilling early sequence where our two anti-heroes, plus a third convict played by the wonderful (and recently departed) character actor Freddie Jones, bust out of prison in desperate, skin-of-the-teeth fashion.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Hennessy (1975)

I wasn’t going to include Don Sharpe’s Hennessy on this list because it’s about terrorism rather than crime.  Indeed, its story of a former IRA explosive expert (Rod Steiger) who decides to destroy the British government and the Queen by blowing up the state opening of parliament, after his wife and child are killed by the British Army, makes it the first movie to tackle the issue of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  However, as the final film on the list is choc-a-bloc with IRA men, and as Richard Johnson gives a lovely performance as the weary, dishevelled, cynical copper – is there any other type in British crime movies? – trying to thwart Steiger’s plan, I thought I’d give it a mention.

 

The film is admittedly patchy but it has a top-notch cast that also includes Lee Remick, Trevor Howard, Eric Porter, Patrick Stewart (bald as a coot even then) and a super-young Patsy Kensit playing Steiger’s ill-fated daughter.  The climactic scenes set in the House of Commons, involving the Queen, landed the filmmakers in hot water because they used real footage that Buckingham Palace had approved without knowing it was going to end up in a film.  Also, the film’s subject, an incredibly touchy one at the time, meant that Hennessy scarcely saw the light of day in British cinemas.

 

Brannigan (1975)

Okay, Brannigan – also directed by Douglas Hickox – is the joker in this pack.  It features John Wayne as a tough American cop who arrives in a London of bowler hats, brollies and historic landmarks that exists only in the imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters, and who then causes mayhem as he behaves like a Wild West sheriff dealing with an unruly frontier town.  This involves such memorable sequences as Wayne doing an Evel Knievel-style car stunt where he hops across Tower Bridge while it parts to let  a ship pass below.  And Wayne triggering a cowboy-style brawl in a pub near Leadenhall Market.  And Wayne roughing up a minor villain played by the cinema’s greatest Yorkshireman, Brian Glover.  (“Now would you like to try for England’s free dental care or answer my question?”)  If you’re in the wrong mood, Brannigan is the worst film ever made.  If you’re in the right mood, it’s the best one.

 

© United Artists

 

The Squeeze (1977)

Barely had John Wayne swaggered through the London underworld than another Hollywood star did the same in Michael Apted’s The Squeeze – Stacy Keach, playing a London private eye with an industrial-strength drink problem. During occasional moments of sobriety, Keach investigates the kidnapping of his ex-wife (Carol White, who played the title role in Ken Loach’s ground-breaking 1966 drama Cathy Come Home).  She’s remarried a posh security officer (Edward Fox) tasked with overseeing the delivery of large sums of money.  Keach finds himself tangling with a kidnap gang who intend to enlist Fox’s unwilling help in mounting an armed robbery.

 

The Squeeze suffers from being overlong, with too much time spent wallowing in Keach’s booze-soaked misery. But this is outweighed by its good points.  I like its depiction of late 1970s multicultural London and its sympathetic portrayal of Keach’s Jamaican neighbours.  Also, Stephen Boyd (who died soon after the film’s completion aged just 45) and David Hemmings give good turns as the villains.  Allowed to use his native Northern Irish accent in a movie for a change, Boyd disturbingly plays a well-heeled crime-lord who dotes over his own family whilst having zero empathy for the family he’s threatening to destroy with his kidnapping scheme.  Meanwhile, Hemmings is a delight as a pragmatic career criminal who doesn’t share his boss’s sunny optimism about things and gets increasingly disgruntled as Keach closes in.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures

 

And connoisseurs of 1970s British popular culture will be fascinated to see anarchic comedian Freddie Starr in the cast too.  Starr is endearing as Keach’s best mate, a reformed petty criminal trying to make a living as a taxi driver. Indeed, such is Starr’s loyalty to Keach that he saves his neck three times towards and during the film’s climax, most memorably by running the villains off the road in his taxi.  Starr, who died in May this year, was from all accounts an unreconstructed arsehole in real life.  So remember him this way.

 

Sweeney II (1978)

The greatest of all 1970s British cop shows, The Sweeney got two movie spin-offs, Sweeney! In 1977 and Sweeney II a year later.  I don’t think Sweeney!, which attempted to involve Flying Squad heroes Jack Regan (John Thaw) and George Carter (Dennis Waterman) in an espionage plot, is much cop, but Sweeney II captures the spirit of the TV series.  With Regan and Carter on the trail of a gang who spend most of their time living it up in Malta as wealthy British ex-pats but who return to Britain from time to time to stage vicious bank robberies, the films marries bloody, sawn-off-shotgun-powered violence with some scabrous humour.  As one of Regan’s sidekicks, Derek O’Connor gets the funniest lines: “It’s a combination of nerves and smoking too much,” he says when explaining his libido.  “I get a hard-on like a milk bottle.”

 

© Euston Films / EMI

 

Sweeney II is good, loutish fun, then, but it manages to be topical too.  London’s real Metropolitan Police force was investigated for corruption in the late 1970s and the film reflects this with the character of Regan’s commanding officer, played by the excellent Denholm Elliott, who’s facing a long stretch in prison on account of being “so bent it’s been impossible to hang his pictures straight on the office wall for the past twelve months.”

 

The Long Good Friday (1980)

Although it was released at the start of the 1980s, John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday was made in 1979, so I’m classifying it as a 1970s film.  And it definitely feels like it’s drawing the curtain on a particular era with its tale of an old school London gangster (Bob Hoskins) convinced he’s about to make a mint in the brave new world of Thatcherite London, where everything is up for sale to the corporations and developers – until one day when he suddenly finds himself tangling with a ruthless foe, the IRA, that shows him to be hopelessly out of his depth.

 

The final scene sees Hoskins become a prisoner in his own, hijacked car and get driven to his doom – an IRA man played by a youthful Pierce Brosnan snakes up from behind the front passenger seat to hold him at gunpoint.  Although Hoskins doesn’t speak, the succession of emotions that flit across his face as it dawns on him that he had it all, but now he’s blown it all, make this the most powerful moment in British crime-movie history.

 

© Black Lion Films / Handmade Films / Paramount British Pictures

 

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

 

007 and I

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

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

 

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