© Eon Productions
A news story printed last week raised a few eyebrows. It even raised some ultra-stiff, Roger Moore-style eyebrows. It transpired that the Radio Times magazine had just announced the results of a poll in which its readers were asked to identify the best actor to have played James Bond.
While the overall winner of the poll was hardly a surprise, many people were shocked at who ended up in second place – and indeed, at who didn’t manage to get into the top three. Thus, this seems an opportune time to update and re-post the following meditation, first published on this blog in June 2016, on how I’d rank the six cinematic James Bonds.
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. (Well, it flares up in pubs whenever they’re allowed to open during the current Covid-19 pandemic.) It’s Sean Connery.
The argument, of course, centres on the question, “Who is the best James Bond?”
Actually, I’ll go further and offer a ranking of all the actors who’ve played James Bond over the years, from best to worst. I’ve limited my ranking to the Bonds of the official franchise made by Eon Films, by the way. 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. Or for that matter, God help us, the endearingly naff TV quiz-show host Bob Holness, who played Bond in a 1956 South African radio adaptation of the third Bond novel Moonraker (1955).
So in descending order, we have:
- Sean Connery
- Timothy Dalton
- Daniel Craig
- Pierce Brosnan
- George Lazenby
- Roger Moore
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, 58 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 Shirrr Sean.)
© Eon Productions
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.
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-odd 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 brought a believable toughness to 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.
© Eon Productions
Fifth, and second from the bottom, is Australian George Lazenby, who definitely wasn’t much cop as an actor. Ironically, his single Bond movie, 1968’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is perhaps the best one 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 nicely. Here Bond appears vulnerable and wounded and Lazenby is believable in terms of what the character has to go through. I couldn’t imagine ‘Big Sean’ breenging through the movie in his usual insouciant manner and having the same emotional impact.
And in last place… Well, I’ll say one thing for the late Sir Roger Moore, which is that his Bond movies were massively popular in their day. (In fact, I’ll say two things – offscreen, he was clearly a good guy. He did masses of work as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF on behalf of the United Nations Children’s Fund. He was also 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.)
During his reign as 007 the franchise flourished and made millions. So even if I didn’t think much of old Roger as James Bond, or of most of the Bond films in which he appeared, vast numbers of other people evidently did.
© Eon Productions
The above-mentioned Radio Times poll saw Sean Connery secure first place in the battle of the Bonds. Surprisingly but gratifyingly, Timothy Dalton finished in second place, while Pierce Brosnan finished in third. (I’d ranked Daniel Craig third, but I shan’t begrudge Brosnan his success.) So that’s Connery, Dalton and Brosnan: a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Irishman. For the Radio Times’ readers, the Celtic Bonds are evidently the best ones.