Essay: The Spectre Of 007
With the spectre of ‘Spectre’ on the horizon, it’s worth taking a look at the very peculiar world of James Bond in more detail.
Bond is the idealised man for a generation of men who missed the war. It is hard to overestimate the effect 007 had on post-war readers and audiences. Here was the first English hero who didn’t own a cardigan (until now – read on). He didn’t need one because he was likely to be in Jamaica, a place that could only be vaguely imagined by a nation that had emerged from war broke and exhausted. Thinking of ‘Goldfinger’ (the subject of Anthony Horowitz’s latest piece of mimicry in the cheesily titled ‘Trigger Mortis’) we remember the gilded Shirley Eaton, Pussy Galore, the Aston Martin, Oddjob and the Fort Knox countdown, one of 007’s many urgent bomb deadlines.
Daniel Craig brought back the image of a bloke in a jumper when he turned up for his photo-call recently. Compare his real-life shot to his pouty Photoshopped boatrace for the ‘Spectre’ poster.
But why not? He’s Bond, dammit. When fans speak of Sean Connery’s finest hour, they forget that Connery’s 007 is first spotted in ‘Goldfinger’ with a stuffed seagull attached to his head, or that he talks flippantly about heroin-soaked bananas before the opening credits roll. In fact, after he has blown up a drugs empire filled with cartoonish barrels of nitro-glycerine, had a fag, snogged a semi-nude woman and fried an attacker in his bath, it seems horribly appropriate that camp icon Shirley Bassey should start screaming out the title song.
Bond was Fleming’s fantasy-male counterpart, a spy perfectly versed in the kind of elitist knowledge that became smarmy and redundant. In ‘Moonraker’, Bond is described as cold, dangerous, alien and un-English, a saturnine man in his mid-thirties, someone who may have worked in Nairobi or Malaya, but definitely not the sort of chap one usually saw at the piquet tables of Pall Mall. But to post-war ration-book Englishmen for whom a roulette wheel represented exoticism and a cigarette case sophistication, he could hardly fail to become a hero.
The Fleming books are a long way from what the films were to become. In ‘Goldfinger’ Bond and his bird have an exciting trip around, er, Herne Bay (the dreariest of British seaside resorts) before Bond slaps her on the bottom and tells her to fetch him a baguette. It wasn’t exactly Monte Carlo. For a full breakdown of the book, check out ‘007 On And Off The Page’ on this site.
How desirable his lifestyle must have seemed, getting on planes, ordering cocktails and quizzing waiters about menus at a time when half a grapefruit and a Babycham was the height of sophistication. In the films, he was aided by the compositions of John Barry and the designs of Ken Adam, whose dazzling steel ellipses seemingly quadrupled the size of every lair. The full extent of Barry’s haunting instrumentation is revealed on the soundtrack of Goldfinger, which is simultaneously brassy, lush and spare. Bond segued into the mood of The Avengers and The Prisoner, linking them in the national psyche so that John Steed could resort to making a joke about Cathy Gale being off on a secret mission at Fort Knox.
But that’s only part of the story, and one that author Simon Winder gleefully explores in ‘The Man Who Saved Britain’, although it will no doubt mystify the kind of punters for whom 007 represents the acme of wish-fulfilment. Winder links the rising popularity of Bond to the humiliation and disappointment of a nation gradually deprived of empire, international status and respect. No wonder Bond was eventually sent into space; the age of the great British explorer was over.
The erosion of British power at the hands of inept politicians and military leaders allowed the louche snobbery of Ian Fleming’s character to gain a national grip. Fleming was perceived by his readers as a raddled avatar for the special agent, invariably photographed in dickie, DJ and cigarette-holder, posed to match his creation in much the same way that Noel Coward – another Jamaica dweller – had been posed supine in a silk dressing gown.
The books work best when they show Bond doing the things Fleming himself enjoyed; playing golf, diving, drinking in night-clubs, visiting the West Indies, fulminating on the problems of British youth, making snide cracks about the animalistic behaviour of foreigners, being a lounge-lizard around young women. That this behaviour was so unquestioningly accepted by a largely working class readership is one of the great mysteries. Mr Winder is especially good on the pitfalls of Fleming’s lurid writing style, as in Casino Royale, when Bond embraces a female traitor and slips ‘his hands down to her swelling buttocks’ which he points out gives readers the impression that ‘her principal symptom of arousal is to inflate like a child’s paddling pool’.
Bond has been with us longer than the second Elizabethan era, and has followed the British monarchy’s fate, sliding from a distant, understated statesmanship role model to something ersatz and faintly ridiculous, so it comes as a shock to reread Fleming’s work now. The books feel as though they were produced in the 1930s, with endless references to the protocol of clubs in St James’s that compelled the average reader to believe they were being allowed to share a secret world belonging to gentlemen of unimaginable class and distinction.
And this was the point, that Bond was an escape from the terrible embarrassment of being English, at a time when the ineptitude of our international policies was causing commercial and military strength to drain away, leaving us with feelings of collective shame and irrelevance. The public had come to believe that Britain’s espionage network did anything other than create traitors. Bond’s self-assurance was so impregnable that his women needed ludicrous identities and inflatable sexuality to compete. Nobody looked so sophisticated or ever smoked a snout like Connery. It is a rule, of course, that no matter how old an icon becomes, he is usually allowed the embrace of a young woman, something that reached levels of horror in the late Roger Moore films.
The Fleming books would have vanished had they not been translated into hypersaturated widescreen romps. A farrago of adulation has accompanied each appearance of the super-agent. In a time when fathers and sons shared reading material, the public was glad of a chance to switch from the heroics of Neville Shute and Eric Ambler to tales that did not rely on stiff upper lips. Fleming plundered the tropes of the future, a world of atomic secrets, covert operations and a nascent cold war, when the new superpowers might require an outsider to handle the problem of megalomaniac warmongers.
To have reinvented this knackered trope of manliness so cleverly and so often is something the production company Eon are rightly proud of. Toning down sexism, ditching the fags, addressing the question of obsolescence and reminding us of the covert nature of espionage was important, but not as important as ditching the interchangeability of the plots.
Recced locations that weren’t used in one film used to always be dumped down into the next. Stunts and second unit action were pitched and shot separately. The arrival of a real story with references to a character’s past instead of just a cipher in ‘Skyfall’ marked the next stage of intelligent reinvention. I’ll be there for the next one.