Premium Bond: the life and times of the world’s most famous spy

James Bond may be hitting serious middle age but there’s plenty of life in the old spy yet. Super villains, megalomaniacs, metal-toothed psychotics and bloodthirsty hitmen everywhere will be irritated to learn that interest in 007 is greater than ever. And this year Bond mania reaches fever pitch as the world celebrates the spy’s first literary appearance in Casino Royale 55 years ago and – more importantly – the 100th anniversary of the birth of writer Ian Fleming, the man who created 007 and gave him the most famous licence to kill in cinematic history.

By Andy Round

In November the 22nd Bond film will be released, a new Bond book, Devil May Care, written by Sebastian Faulks will be published on the writer’s birthday, May 28, celebratory postage stamps have been issued and on April 17, a yearlong exhibition to celebrate Fleming’s life opens at the Imperial War Museum.

The exhibition entitled ‘For Your Eyes Only’ will feature Fleming’s research notes for From Russia With Love written in Istanbul; a selection of annotated Bond manuscripts; a blood-splattered shirt worn by Daniel Craig in Casino Royale; Halle Berry’s bikini from Die Another Day; Goldfinger’s golf shoes and … basically, more Bond memorabilia than you can throw a sharpened bowler hat at.

In an age where film franchises have been completely reinvented by comic book super hero films, there may be a suspicion that Mr Bond and his amazing 21-film history may be looking a bit, well, old-fashioned. Perhaps that’s its enduring strength. It seems incredible that it’s 46 years since a bikini-clad Ursula Andress first emerged from the surf and asked the smooth-talking spy: “What are you doing here, looking for shells?” And Sean Connery’s 007 replied: “No just looking.”

Since then Bond has visited most of the world’s countries; been told he’s going to die on innumerable occasions; exhausted himself with too many Bond girls and indulged in dangerous liaisons that have included trains, planes and automobiles as well as barns, space stations, gypsy tents, submarines and a motorised iceberg. You get the idea. And you have to admire Bond’s resilience. Yes, he’s flirted with the Cold War, of course he’s joined the space race and naturally he’s stopped nuclear disasters, but we never believed any of it.

Reality is never Bond’s style, but you always know who the bad guys are and cheer on the hero. What’s even better is that there has never been a difficult situation he couldn’t solve with a dry one-liner. After a particularly vicious showdown in Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond pushes the villain in to a printing press and remarks: “They’ll print anything these days.” It’s corny, it’s trite, but it’s part of the celluloid hero role model that ensures men want to be like him and women want to be with him.

Bond is everything his creator, novelist Ian Fleming wanted to be. Fleming may have had the bespoke suits, fast cars, women and a nice place in Jamaica but he lived his life vicariously through his more entertaining legend.

Fleming was born into an affluent banking family in 1908. After failing at Eton, Oxford and Sandhurst, he turned to journalism and successfully worked for Reuters before heading to the City in London. When World War II shattered Europe, the British Secret Service recruited him. His desk-bound life at the Naval Intelligence Division was never as exciting as his alter ego’s but the experience provided him with the source material and stability to write his first Bond book Casino Royale.

The book revealed the cold heart of a ruthless spy killer masked by a superficially sophisticated and sensitive façade. When Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Salzman bought the rights Bond was immediately softened, given lines as dry as a decent Martini and cheerfully became the biggest movie franchise in history all neatly wrapped up in flash gadgets, Aston Martins, Savile Row suits, Turnbull & Asser shirts and surrounded by great allies, evil villains and beautiful women. Without these supporting props and cast, Bond just wouldn’t be Bond. We expect them. Bond would be lost without his M, Moneypenny, Q, Felix Leiter and Ernst Blofeld.

After 46 years, of course, there had to be updates. M moved away from the paternalistic disapproving-but-fond Bernard Lee to the efficient female line manager of Judi Dench. The Bond girls became less arm candy (Ursula Andress) and evolved into stronger, independent role models such as Denise Richards as the (still) improbable nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough and, bless ’em, even the villains had to change from heading up the KGB (General Anatol Gogol in The Spy Who Loved Me) to the simply psychotic Renard (Robert Carlyle in The World Is Not Enough).

Still at the core is the great man himself. Seven men have played Bond so far (if you include David Niven and many purists don’t) and popular vote always seems to favour Sean Connery as the quintessential 007. In many respects he wasn’t the best actor because he simply played himself right down to the Scottish accent, but he perfectly captured Bond’s dark side and seemed closest to the character in Fleming’s novels.

Roger Moore was the antithesis of Connery and incorporated a more tongue-in-cheek approach to complement his armoury of unfeasible gadgets. In the white-suited, Lotus-driving ’70s, Moore’s Bond was less of a brute than Connery’s and had more wit and charm refined from years starring in The Persuaders and The Saint. He was certainly a bigger a success than George Lazenby, the unknown actor who had briefly preceded him for one film only, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Even Lazenby, who was better known as a model, admitted he brought nothing to the role.

After the lightness of Moore and the misery of Lazenby a more serious actor was required. Enter the Shakespearian performer Timothy Dalton. This 007 may not have had the iconic air of Connery, but in The Living Daylights and Licence To Kill there was a sense of realism about the character that seemed completely appropriate for the more demanding ’80s.

The one thing that Dalton did not have, sadly, was animal magnetism. He was technically good and loyal to Fleming’s vision; however, the ’90s were calling out for a more ruthless version.

Pierce Brosnan is credited with reviving the Bond franchise after some difficult post-Connery years and made them more popular than ever. His combination of ruthlessness, good looks and gentlemanly behaviour was box office gold. It is now claimed that more than 50 per cent of people in world know who James Bond is, but whether or not Brosnan was the best Bond is open to debate.

By 2005, good looks, gadgets and one-liners were not enough to save the franchise. Almost overnight the concept of the action hero had become more sophisticated, increasingly morally ambiguous and undeniably grounded in reality.

The Bourne Identity’s gritty Matt Damon was demonstrating how to kill villains with a skilfully applied rolled-up magazine and racing battered Minis round Paris; agent George Clooney was grappling with the murky politics of international espionage in Syriana and, perhaps more significantly, Keifer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer in the award-winning 24 television series just made everything look more exciting. Who cared about some guy in an expensive tux sipping silly drinks?

The reinvention of Bond was no longer an indulgence it was a necessity. Dramatic changes were installed. 2006’s Casino Royale returned Bond to the roots of the original book, portraying him as a cold-blooded assassin who has only just attained his infamous licence. Of course, all the location hopping, dramatic stunts and glamorous women were maintained, but the clunking double entendres were out, replaced by a sweaty, bruised, vulnerable hero.

The casting of blond-haired Daniel Craig had proved controversial with Bronson fans threatening to boycott the film and numerous websites providing an outlet for blog-obsessed venom, but the actor’s craggy-faced calculated cruelty proved to be a box office winner. The critics celebrated the film as a “terrific debut” with one describing it as “Bond, but not as we’ve known it”.

Craig is now comfortably ensconced in 007’s handmade brogues for the next two Bond films. If these are anything like Casino Royale, it looks likely that the iconic franchise will, in Bond’s own words, “Continue to keep the British end up.” Ian Fleming would be delighted.

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