Essay: The Spectre Of 007

The Arts

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.

CheekbonesJumper

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.

fake-seagull

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.

1870a

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.

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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.

15 comments on “Essay: The Spectre Of 007”

  1. Bradstreet says:

    Charlie Higson’s review of Winder’s book in THE GUARDIAN got it right when he called the style ‘hysterically over-the-top’. The book reminded me of something that might have been written by the Social Studies teacher who taught at our school. If you got bored with the lesson, you simply made some sort of slightly patriotic comment and left him to rant about how awful Britian (and especially England) was until it was time for break.

    Higson also makes a good point about how the movies were made by two Americans and largely written by an American and financed by American money. They weren’t made to front some piece of colonialist propaganda. They were designed to earn money from an American/International audience.

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    You really have to separate the books from the movies, usually the only thing they share are the character and title.
    The Bond novels follow a straight line from Bulldog Drummond, through Fu Manchu and The Saint with the added violence that was coming in via American pulps (Raymond Chandler wasn’t very impressed by Bond, but he wasn’t a thriller writer). It would be interesting to see a high quality TV series of the original books set in the original time frame.
    The movies are good up to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service which suffered from all the malarkey about Connery v Lazenby; after that it all went horribly wrong. The other movie franchise that supplied exotic foreign travel and cartoon women were the ‘Carry On’s’ and the whole mash up led to Austin Powers.

    The strange thing isn’t that British working class audiences enjoyed Bond but that the whole thing captured America and the rest of the world.

    Its amazing that, throughout the world, the two literary characters that can be identified by almost everyone are James Bond and Sherlock Holmes – one over 100 years old and the other 60.

  3. snowy says:

    Hmmm… it is a bit more complex than the view afforded by your very nice essay. As pointed out by Bradstreet and Peter, the temptation to go off on a great long wibble is quite strong. But I’m going to zero in on just one point of contention.

    “Here was the first English hero who didn’t own a cardigan…”

    You then go on the reference ‘Goldfinger’, but omit the infamous cardigan with built in knickers. [Note that even this unlikey hybrid doesn’t prevent Jimmy pulling.]

    [I’ve put a link above to an image of the garment, the site itself might interest people whose personal Venn has a big overlap in Films/Vintage Clothing.]

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Enjoyed both essays, Chris’ and the toweling playsuit one.I’d forgotten about that outfit. My question always is hair and suits? How are they kept immaculate? Nothing ever stains suits or shirts unless it’s part of the action and hair is always just right. I know it’s all fantasy and a badly fitting suit would be a distraction, but those pant creases are always right and no accidental double crease ever mars them. Of course he has a tailor and dry cleaner not just a wife.
    And speaking of baguettes, Google claims this is the 22nd anniversary of the official recognition of the baguette. Really? By whom?

  5. Vivienne says:

    Weren’t best tailored trousers provided with a stitched crease? Done well would be invisible but would go with the buttons on the cuffs that really undid and all that stuff that made people in the know and of the right class recognise one another.

    I used to read the books under the desk in what my school called Divinity lessons. Probably 13 so they seemed glamorous.

  6. Bradstreet says:

    Peter Dixon: Chandler was very impressed by Bond and was a close friend of Fleming (there is a recording of a radio conversation between the two authors that can be heard on the tube).

  7. DC says:

    @Peter Dixon. It has been a while since I read it but I remember the OHMSS film being quite close to the book. Also Lazenby’s Bond was quite a “flat” character which is how I perceived Bond when I read the books. The problem with OHMSS is the plot as much as anything else.

    Because the films had such flamboyant Bonds the stories had be be over-egged to keep up. Witness Roger Moore and Moonraker. I actually quite enjoyed the book which bears precious little resemblance to its film counterpart.

  8. Peter Dixon says:

    Bradstreet: My apologies – I was thinking of a review of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ that Chandler wrote for The Sunday Times in 1956 entitled “Bonded Goods’ ( reprinted in The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler) which struck me at time of reading (probably about 1990) as somewhat ambivalent. He certainly suggests that the plots are already formulaic and becoming prone to padding whilst praising Fleming’s style of journalistic prose. Chandler, of course, always wanted to be an ‘English’ author.

    DC: Clumsy writing on my part – what I meant was that the films went wrong after OHMSS which I regard as one of the better Bond’s.

    Just goes to show that you shouldn’t write early on a Sunday morning and with a hangover!

  9. chris hughes says:

    Totally agree that we have to separate books and films. One of the reasons for the phenomenal success of (I think) From Russia With Love is that paper rationing had finally come to an end and the paperback could be published in unlimited supplies. But the films hit the younger filmgoing generation right between the eyes in the sixties with the allure of foreign hotels, exotic drinks and food, a wardrobe with clothes for special occasions (who had tuxedos and evening dresses?), fast cars and sex – and gave an extra frisson to ‘swinging Britain/England/London’. The books, when I read them, seemed much less exciting – and he always appeared so middleaged to me. Apart from that, agree with the article that the newer ones are much better films. Point of order, though, Mr Chairman, what has Herne Bay ever done to you? – not in the least dreary, it’s laidback, content with itself and happy to be as thoroughly unlike its overpriced, overprimped and overtrendy near neighbour just along the coast…..

  10. Wayne Mook says:

    Bond is very much a pulp character, and in the UK they were popular, Cheyney’s Lemmy Caution, Hank Janson, The Saint by Charteris and others. These characters were popular before the war, Hannay, Drummond and so on. There has always been a place for pulp characters and they are usually far from PC. People just like escapist, thrilling fiction. And if you can put a twist on it or add something then all the better.

    Wayne.

  11. snowy says:

    Er, ahem, only me. And may I just say you are all doing a splendid job pointing out the vast gulf between the books and the films. Absolutely first class, carry on.

    It’s just that I’ve re-read my comment, shocking vanity, shameful, sorry. But I seem to have accidentally traduced other commentators. Bit of a blot that, the text should have been

    “Hmmm… it is a bit more complex than the view afforded by your very nice essay, as pointed out by Bradstreet and Peter, The temptation to go off on a great long wibble is quite strong, but I’m going to zero in on just one point of contention.”

    [The original could be read as an implication that I was being disrespectful.]

    Apologies all round, er…, keep up the good work.

    [More tonic, less gin, more tonic, less gin.]

  12. admin says:

    Bradstreet: The Bond films were never considered an American franchise, as Michael Wilson, who has a huge amount of say in what goes into them, will tell you. Of course they’re designed to make money, but as someone who worked on several Bonds at a pretty close-up level I can tell you there were always conversations about ‘British legacy’ and a constant ongoing argument about US level of creative involvement.

    Although I think swapping Herne Bay for Miami was probably a good idea.

  13. chris hughes says:

    Well, I would agree about the swap – the north Kent coast today is not the spot for wearing that snazzy one piece towelling affair…

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    I think we do under estimate how much the world know about these islands, especially as clichés. Keeping the British aspect probably is what made it stand out from a lot of the other spy films of the 60’s.

    In pulp fiction in the US, a lot of heroes were rich industrialists, The Spider springs to mind, so the well mannered adventurer is well embedded.

    I think the Herne Bay switch to Miami was a winner. It adds to that wish fulfilment and the colour of the films.

    Wayne.

  15. Anthony says:

    I bounced off the film makers aparent misogyny in skyfall quite hard, particularly the treatment of M towards the end. Head of MI6 running through the dark from deadly pursuit waving an eye catching torch. Probably should give it another go since I seem to be in the minority regarding that particular movie.

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