This week past, I heard a talk by a former high security official, who cannot be identified. One of the audience, warning that her query would be cheesy, asked him (or her) what s/he thought about James Bond, and if secret service life was in any way related? S/he said it wasn’t like that, but that Bond was useful to the secret services. Why? Because he bolstered the myth, and the myth of a secret service was among its dearest possessions, dearer than Aston Martins which fire rockets at global criminals but which, said the high official, we didn’t have anyway.
This did not disappoint, for Bond is mythic, or nothing. The high official recognised this and – for s/he was bookish as well as spookish – referred us to the essay “James Bond and the Decline of England” by David Cannadine, in which the historian notes that critics “acclaimed (Bond) as a welcome escape”. We got just that this past week, in Bond: The South Bank Show (ITV, Wednesday) and Ian Fleming: Where Bond Began (BBC1, Sunday).
Would that they had been more astringent. When the Bond books appeared in the 1950s from the clockwork pen of Ian Fleming, they had Paul Johnson calling Dr No the “nastiest book I have ever read”; the scholar Bernard Bergonzi wrote of “the total lack of any ethical frame of reference”. Melvyn Bragg (The South Bank Show) might have put that to Daniel Craig, the latest Bond, in the interview that formed the programme’s spine.
Instead, Daniel giggled that he was nervous about being interviewed by Melvyn and Melvyn giggled about Daniel enjoying sexy bits in the new Bond film, Quantum of Solace. We saw many bits of that film, the programme teetering on the edge of promotion.
Why does Bragg do this? Is it a way of saving TSBS, a rare holdout of discovery and discussion? Fair enough if so, but there should be space, still, for allowing we who want to improve ourselves to be made to think, rather than goggle or giggle. TSBS was that, and is so sometimes still, but to enter movie trailer-land is to dilute the brand.
In Where Bond Began, Joanna Lumley mentioned (only every other minute) that she had been a Bond girl, but it was better, both as a programme which informed and as an appreciation of Bond. Fleming, whose snobbishness, daring, “lack of ethical reference”, observational powers, greed and self-discipline produced a hero, sold 100m books. The films which were (loosely) inspired by them remain the most profitable series of movies ever made, claimed the programme. As Lumley frequently observed, women like a bastard, and the sado-masochism which Johnson and others have noted in the gallant commander seems to transmit a frisson to men and women alike, throughout the four decades of Bond films.
Both programmes revealed, almost casually, why Sean Connery – whom Fleming dismissed, after their introductory lunch, as a “jumped-up stunt man” – was so perfect: it was his sardonic grace. Murray Grigor, who co-wrote Connery’s curious memoir (Being a Scot), told me Connery had told him that he got the part because Broccoli and Saltzman, the producers who had auditioned him, looked at him cross the street when he left and his cat-like tread convinced them he was their Bond.
No one, including Craig now, has been able to copy it – hence the proletarian Connery launched the patrician hero, figment of an Etonian imagination, deep into the consciousness of the global audience, criminals and all.
Love, as opposed to sex, has seeped into the films (not the books) bit by bit. In Casino Royale, the previous film, Craig’s Bond actually falls in love, and in Quantum of Solace, he is, apparently, still getting over it.
Alan Yentob’s inquiry into love’s literary and cinematic forms (Imagine, BBC1, Tuesday) was satisfyingly self-improving, and confirmed, if in a more refined way, that bastards are as popular in the up- as well as the downmarket. Wuthering Heights tops the romantic favourites (Heathcliff: the bastard gets his) followed by Pride and Prejudice (Darcy: bastard turns out good, especially when Pemberley is taken into account).
Top, that is, if you discount Mills & Boon’s output, of which one is sold in Britain every three seconds, and 130m a year sold worldwide. That fact, not examined, somewhat cut the feet from under a strong theme of the programme: that love stories usually end badly (M & B always end well). Still, some great opinions, like those of Adam Phillips, the psychoanalyst, who said that you need something as powerful as love to break away from your parents; that, in Casablanca, Bogart and Bergman choose duty in order to keep their love transcendent; and that “24 Hours from Tulsa”, the lyricist Hal David’s number for Gene Pitney, captures “the randomness of the adulterous moment”. (“I asked her if she would stay/ She said, OK”).
Bond knew about that.
More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd