JAMES BOND and ME.

23 Feb

Last week I went on a journey into my teenage past. I watched the fourth Sean Connery/James Bond film: “You Only Live twice” on TV, made in 1967. I enjoyed the time travel immensely. It was a huge blast of sixties nostalgia. Yes, it was terribly dated, but that’s why I liked it so much. It was a product of its time and for me it summed up much that was exciting about that decade. This is especially so when I recall my first reaction to the early Bond films and subsequently to Ian Fleming’s spy novels that they were based on. They made a massive impact on the adolescent me.
The first 2 Bond films I saw were “Dr No” and “Goldfinger”, on a double bill at my local Odeon cinema. I was 15 at the time. Up to that point James Bond 007 and Ian Fleming had failed to make any significant impact upon me. I only went to the cinema that night to be with my mates. I was still largely an innocent, naïve child, living a quiet, sheltered life in a provincial town. Up to that point the highlight of my family’s life had been the weekly visit to the Methodist Sunday School and evening service at the chapel. But now, as my adolescent hormones started to kick in, I felt hungry for something different. Already, listening to pop music and watching football had caused more than a few ripples on the surface of my safe but mundane existence. Now, in one electrifying evening at the “flics” I was blasted into an adult world of: danger, suspense, thrills and spills, modern technology, politics, crime, foreign travel, exotic locations, glamour, girls and sex.( well strong hints of it anyway.) That’s no mean achievement for just 3 hours entertainment! My imagination was fired and suddenly life seemed to be full of enthralling possibilities.( even though many of them were to remain mere fantasies and I eventually became a teacher, not a spy.)) Life was no longer the boring, insular existence that I had thought it to be. The Bond films and novels were classic pieces of escapism and they exploded into my life at exactly the right moment — when I was just starting to feel trapped and in a rut. OK — one can criticise them now for their: casual violence, crude sexism and racial stereotyping, but, to the 15 year old version of me, never having had a girlfriend, never having travelled abroad, never having taken a risk or made any forays into the unknown, they represented tremendous EXCITEMENT.
So I went to see all the Bond films of the 60’s ( up to “Diamonds Are Forever” in 1971) and devoured all the novels and short stories, published by Pan in their cheap paperback form from the local market. They immersed me in an intriguing alternative world, almost a parallel universe compared to my everyday existence. Of course the violence and sex fascinated me, even though Fleming and the film’s producers were masters of the dot, dot, dot. Today, it all seems tame compared to what can be witnessed in many films or books. The violence, including killing, is sanitised, with little blood or drawn out suffering. “Sex” consists mainly of a bit of kissing but the context leaves plenty of opportunity for the imagination to take off. Tame it may seem, but at the time it opened my eyes to a world previously unseen and largely unimagined. On top of this agent 007 also introduced me to: espionage, international relations, the “Cold War”, the “Space Race”, modern technology, gambling, card games, fast cars, smoking ( though I never indulged), drinking and foreign cultures. Fleming’s books were not flat- out action thrillers, consisting mostly of car chases, fights, murders and explosions, like many of the more recent Bond films. Instead they often took their time to describe a sophisticated meal, an exotic cocktail or a complicated card game. They were also set in colourful locations, far away from the grey, damp cold of the austerity Britain of the 1950’s, the era when the first ones were written. Fleming wrote “Casino Royale” in 1952 when rationing in Britain was still a grim, post-war reality and “make do and mend” was still the motto of many. However he set it mainly on the French Riviera and wrote it in his tropical Jamaican retreat: “Goldeneye.” So from the start James Bond represented exoticism and escapism. Later books were to take his readers on armchair excursions to: Turkey and the Balkans ( “From Russia With Love”), Switzerland and the United States (“Goldfinger”), Haiti ( “Live and Let Die”), and Japan ( “You Only Live Twice”), to name but a few. In the film of “You Only Live Twice”, the one I recently viewed again, we see traditional Japanese costumes, ritualistic tea drinking, oriental massage, martial arts demonstrations and a prolonged village wedding ceremony. It’s not all frantic action. In “Live and let Die”, Fleming provides a long discussion about voodoo. It’s not all: crash, bang, wallop or wham, bam, thank-you maam! So, for me at 15, 16 17 and 18, James Bond was an educational, mind-opening experience as well as an adrenaline- filled adventure. Unfortunately in the books and the early films we get a strong whiff of the author’s rather unpleasant chauvinism towards other races as well as towards women. There are also homophobic passages which are unacceptable to the modern reader but which belonged to their time as homosexuality was still a crime in Britain up to 1967. Good or bad though, acceptable or unacceptable, all these Bond novel themes opened up important issues for me and provided valuable food for thought whether I agreed with Fleming/Bond or not. They instigated many a debate in my mind. For my adolescent self they were a godsend, providing hours of educational diversion as well as pure escapism.
As I saw the early films before I dipped into the books, James Bond has always meant Sean Connery for me.( I don’t count the comic film version of “Casino Royale” played by David Nivien.) As I read the novels, Connery provided the picture in my mind whenever “Bond” was mentioned. He seemed a perfect fit — strong, tall, muscular but also graceful and charming. People commented on his easy, laconic manner, sense of humour and supple movement. I believe my female friends when they tell me that the 1960’s Connery oozed sexual charisma. Despite his rough working class upbringing in Scotland he also skilfully portrayed the sophistication and upper class snobbery of Fleming’s character.( based partly upon Fleming himself.) Apparently, Ian Fleming did not immediately approve of the choice of Connery, as he didn’t match the character imagined in his head. However he was quickly converted and in a later book, ” On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, he even wrote a potted Scottish/ Swiss biography that approximately matched Connery’s own. Fleming admitted that he had Sean Connery in his mind when he wrote his later Bond stories. He even made Bond slightly less cold and cruel in response to Connery’s injection of warmth and humour into the character in those early films. Thus the film company had a big problem when Connery tired of the role even though it had given him tremendous fame and success. After “Dr No”, “From Russia With Love”, “Goldfinger and “Thunderball”, Connery had to be persuaded to reprise the role in “You Only Live Twice” in 1967. He had ambition to be a more serious actor and did not want to end up being type-cast. However the experiment with George Lazenby in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was a disappointment for many because of his lack of any acting ability and the wooden deliverance of his lines. Lazenby’s only previous claim to fame was being a model and appearing as the “Big Fry man” in the TV chocolate adverts. This was hardly much of a recommendation. It was hoped that his looks and muscularity would carry the day, but they didn’t! Lazenby also didn’t get on with Terence Hunt, the director and announced he would step down from the role even before the film was released. To me, it was a good adventure film which suffered because of the disappearance of Connery. This was not poor Lazenby’s fault. He might have even grown into the role if he had stuck around a bit longer. But he didn’t. So it was that Connery was persuaded to return to do “Diamonds are Forever” in 1971. To most of us Bond fans it was as if the real James Bond had returned to vanquish the imposter. Then however, Connery really did relinquish the role apart from an “unofficial”. off-franchise return in the early 1980’s in the non- Fleming story ” Never Say Never Again”. He probably needed the cash boost and the title is obviously a joke based on his broken resolution. By then however, Roger Moore was well established in the official role and to many younger people he was the “real” James Bond.
I have never accepted Roger Moore as James Bond, even though he was considered for the film role before Sean Connery. At the time Moore was too busy with his TV adventurer role “The Saint”. He didn’t land the part until 10 years later. I refused to go and see his Bond films but have watched bits of them on TV in the subsequent years. I find it difficult to take him seriously as an actor. He is very wooden and unconvincing. He copied Connery’s sense of humour in the role but played it as if the whole story was a joke rather than a serious thriller lightened by occasional humour. Anyway, by the 70’s when Moore took over the role, I was no longer a teenage fantasist. I was now married, in a full time job and from 1973, a father. You could say I had grown up and grown out of James Bond.
The whole James Bond thing has now become a money-spinning franchise. Ian Fleming died in 1964 but his most famous creation lived on, creating a life of its own. The main motivation for all this seems to be to make money. I believe it the second most lucrative film franchise of all time ( after Harry Potter.) The Fleming family and estate have commissioned several different authors to write subsequent Bond books and keep the money flowing in. Similarly the film producers didn’t stop once they had run out of original Fleming stories. They commissioned new script writers and kept raking in the profits. This lucrative franchise is still running of course and there seems no end to it. There have now been 25 different Bond films involving 7 actors in the lead role. Bond’s controller at MI6, “M”, has now changed from a man ( Bernard Lee) to a woman ( Judy Dench). That wouldn’t have happened in the sexist, pre-feminist 50’s and 60’s. I have found reasons to dislike and reject most of the “imposter” Bonds. Roger Moore- too wooden; Timothy Dalton — too short; Daniel Craig — also too short, too fair and with more than a hint of cauliflower ears! David Niven, back in the 50’s was too old and too jokey. I quite liked the Irish actor Pierce Brosnan . I went to his Bond movies in the 90’s when I was taking my own teenage son on cinema trips. Brosnan certainly looked the part and was a decent actor. However, I have largely remained a Sean Connery purist and have little or no interest in stories not written by Ian Fleming. James Bond is not like silly Dr Who. He cannot magically reincarnate himself just to suit the needs of the TV or film company. For me, James Bond belongs to the 1950’s and 60’s, the era in which he was created and in which his original stories are set. I feel it has been a mistake to have turned him into a Peter Pan like time- traveller, totally cut off from his roots. ( Except that the people who have done this are a lot richer than I ever will be.)
I feel it’s just plain greedy and silly to just keep continuing with a franchise which artistically, culturally and historically, has far out-lived its sell-by date. The current films have been reduced to formulaic action movies. What were once fresh ideas ( technological gadgetry, exotic locations, dramatic combat, glamorous seduction) are now so routine as to be stale clichés.
I suppose the biggest reason why I have been turned off the post- Connery Bond films is that I am not a hormone-charged, impressionable adolescent anymore. Sadly I have grown up and it takes a lot more than car-chases, spectacular explosions and glamorous women to get me interested in a film nowadays. I now expect a good, deep, interesting plot, authentic dialogue, realistic locations and skilled acting to draw me into a film. James Bond doesn’t do it for me anymore. But I do admit to more than a frisson of excitement when a be-suited 007 suddenly swung round, raised his Walther PPK and fired a single shot out of my TV, the screen quickly filling up with blood. Then came the deep bass guitar strings and strident, screaming brass of John Barry’s theme tune, followed by the dulcet tones of Nancy Sinatra singing : “You only live twice, or so it seems, one life for yourself and one for your dreams.” Suddenly I was back in the 60’s, where James Bond belongs. For 90 minutes it was great to be a teenager again!

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