Bond Is Back (But He Never Went Away)
There are certain constancies to British life, things which have been set in place all my life; the Queen, London, the Beatles and Bond being among them. Every generation is seeing changes of course but London has a fundamentally stable culture. The first 007 book was published when I was 5 years old, and I’m pretty sure that Bruce Forsyth was on television, just as he is today. We have a middle-right government in power, as usual. The centre always holds.
A few nights ago I saw ‘Spectre’ along with most of the nation’s populace, not to see something new but to see something comfortably familiar, from an exciting opening sequence through various glamorous locations to a climax featuring a countdown to a bomb exploding. This was the formula set in place by the time of ‘Goldfinger’ (still probably the archetypal Bond) and it really hasn’t changed.
One notable difference recently, though, is that Bond’s back-up team is in the shadows instead of rappelling out of helicopters. This reflects the newly covert, highly surveilled information-currency-dealing world of spies and spying. And it’s nice to see Q and M and Moneypenny being used as proper characters and not just data-dumping office drones. The refreshed look and feel is entirely down to Sam Mendes’ smarter direction.
Is ‘Spectre’ grittier than usual? Not really; it has moments of supreme silliness and a lot of chasing around wet streets, but Daniel Craig’s Bond actually has a bit of history whereas all old Bonds operated in standalone adventures. Now there’s connective tissue, and the films are improved for it. The locations are also more unusual, reflecting the public’s familiarity with picture-postcard destinations. Watch the first ten minutes of ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ with the sound off and you’ll think you’re watching your mum’s holiday snaps.
‘Like ‘Skyfall’, ‘Spectre’ takes us closer to Ian Fleming’s vision except that to Fleming MI5 was invulnerable, an extension of public school into adult life. Fleming used largely British locations and never suggested that Bond was playing an endgame based on his own redundancy in the modern world. This (albeit in a very different way) is the game I play with the Bryant & May books, constantly returning to the characters’ vulnerability and their unit’s imminent demise.
But between the fights and chases there’s a melancholy, elegiac edge to Bond now, best caught in the lonely shot of a night train crossing the African plains with no-one aboard but Bond, a villain and a much younger girl, as if to say that by following his path he is the last of a species. The film appears to end with the finality of a closing series, but anyone with a creative turn of mind can see what will come next…the formula certainly works better than Marvel’s long-term plans, which appear to have run dry of ideas. Craig is a solid Bond avatar, and as long as the 007 series can be given a wipe-down and polish every few years it will continue to please audiences and make money.
55 years ago Tony Hancock sat in a doctor’s waiting room ready to give blood, and told the boring man he’d been waiting with, ‘Just think, Cliff Richard might get some of your blood. That’ll slow him down a bit.’ It didn’t; Cliff’s still around, and so are most of the other trappings of British pop culture.