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.