Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Bond 25 - some speculation


The announcement that the next James Bond film will be released in November 2019 was both exciting and frustrating. On the one hand, at last we have solid news about Bond’s next screen adventure. On the other hand, it’s over two years away. When it finally comes out, it’ll be four years since the last film, Spectre, representing the longest gap between films since Licence to Kill (1989) and GoldenEye (1995). Still, looking on the bright side, the anticipation for the new film will be massive and doubtless the film will be a bigger success because of it.
 

The long wait also means that there is plenty of time to speculate wildly about the new film. So, I thought I’d kick my speculation off with some thoughts about what we might expect from Bond 25.
 

We have precious few details to go on, but there are some factors that might be relevant. In my review of Spectre, I suggested that the film had escaped the tag of being Daniel Craig’s Moonraker or Die Another Day. In retrospect, I’m not so sure. I rather think now that the film does represent the end of a cycle, meaning that the next film will recalibrate the series and be more down to earth.

That said, it’s worth bearing in mind that the film may be Daniel Craig’s last film. Or it’ll be the first film of a new Bond actor. Either way, the film will be a reaffirmation and celebration of Bond, and so will attempt to meet audience expectation of what constitutes a Bond film. Putting those two factors together, Bond 25 could well be a good, solid adventure, which exotic locations, jaw-dropping stunts and so on, but built around a plausible espionage plot. Think From Russia with Love or For Your Eyes Only, rather than You Only Live Twice or The Spy Who Loved Me

I don’t think the humour level will be any greater than the level in Spectre, but I do make one plea. Whatever happens, please don’t make it personal for Bond. We’ve had enough of him going rogue.
 

What about Blofeld? He’s too good a character to leave out, but I wouldn’t mind betting that the step-brother angle will be quietly dropped. I expect the story won't explicitly continue the story arc of Spectre either.
 

It's likely the script will once again mine unfilmed passages from the Fleming novels, and there is plenty still to film. But now that an element of continuation novel Colonel Sun has been used in a Bond film, could we see more use of continuation novels? I don’t think so, but an exception could be made for Trigger Mortis, which featured a plot outline and dialogue written by Ian Fleming.
 

As for title, there’s been no urgency to use Fleming’s unused titles, but I’ve always thought that some of his chapter titles would make good film titles. But I have another idea. The trend these days has been for eponymous titles, such as Jack Reacher, Rambo, John Wick, and of course a whole host of superhero films. I have started to wonder, especially in an increasingly competitive market, whether we might eventually see a Bond film called, simply, James Bond, or perhaps Bond, James Bond. Maybe Bond 25 will be that film (but I hope I'm wrong!). Remember, you read it here first.   

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Alternative James Bond memes

There’s an image circulating on the internet of Sean Connery – he’s bearded, so it’s not a Bond-related image, but he’s wearing a dinner jacket and still has the look of Bond – accompanied by the words, ‘A book fell on my head. I can only blame my shelf’. This is one of the many vaguely amusing images that can be found on the internet when searching for ‘James Bond meme’.
 
Some James Bond memes
For most people, the word ‘meme’ refers to any image combined with words for humorous effect or to make a point of some kind and disseminated by social media. Anyone can create them (though presumably few people bother about copyright) and there are various meme generators available.


‘James Bond memes’ is also the name of my blog, which has been running since 2010. In this case, the name refers to another – and original – meaning of ‘meme’. The word was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In his seminal 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins drew a parallel between biological and cultural evolution, arguing that the two are governed by a similar mechanism. 


The things that make up culture – the ideas, traits and tropes – can be regarded as the units of cultural selection, the process that determines what in culture survives to spread and become a trend or fashion, and what dies or fades away, in much the same way that genes are the units of natural selection. Richard Dawkins called these cultural units 'memes'. Successful memes, like successful genes, are those that are selected or favoured to be replicated often and accurately, and have longevity. 


The cultural environment is also crucial. Memes that are not sympathetic, or cannot adapt, to the prevailing cultural environment may struggle to compete with existing, successful memes, and be not be replicated to any great extent to survive in the longer term. The prevailing environment creates selection pressures that constrain and shape behaviours and choices.


That’s probably enough of the evolutionary theory, but it is worth noting that internet memes are also memes in the Dawkins’ sense of the term. They survive by being transmitted between people (usually via social media), and the most successful memes are those that are copied frequently, become widespread, and just won’t go away. 


It’s easy to see from an internet search which James Bond memes are the most successful ones. There are numerous images of Daniel Craig’s Bond with the Queen (an image taken from the 2012 London Olympics film). A recent version has Bond saying, ‘And Donald Trump, Ma’am’, with the Queen responding, ‘Yes, but make it look like an accident 007’. What makes the meme particularly successful is that it uses ideas or memes that are already well established in popular culture – the image of Bond walking with the Queen and corgis at his heels, and the meme of Bond as assassin (although, as I’ve argued on this blog, he’s nothing of the sort). What also gives the meme an advantage is that it is also adaptable. Other versions I’ve seen include UK and EU politicians; the name can be replaced by any bête noire du jour.

 
Bond takes a walk with the Queen

To be a successful meme, it also needs to have the right Bond. It’s hard to be particularly precise about such matters, but the Bonds of Daniel Craig and Sean Connery are clearly the most popular, followed by those of Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore. A meme featuring Timothy Dalton or George Lazenby is unlikely to be generated very often or shared very widely. There are probably several reasons for this, but the current Bond (Craig) has an advantage, as does the first Bond (Connery), the Bond that appeared in the most films (Moore), and the Bond that introduced the film series to the social media generation (Brosnan). The ubiquity of these Bonds is also helped by their association with some of most successful entries and most iconic moments in the film series. 

Successful internet James Bond memes include those that draw on Bond-related memes that have become successful in their own right, such as the phrases ‘shaken, not stirred’ and ‘the name is Bond, James Bond’, and the uniform of Bond’s dinner suit. The last is particularly useful, as it unifies the various portrayals and makes the character instantly recognisable. We ought to note, too, that the legend accompanying the images is not necessarily positive, tapping into popular notions about, for instance, Bond’s drinking habits and relationship with women.


Of the Bond villains, Blofeld as portrayed by Donald Pleasence (and his cat) probably generates the most successful memes, though Scaramanga, Alec Trevelyan, and Le Chiffre don’t seem to be far behind. 


While the ‘internet meme’ has become the primary definition of the meme, it also behaves in the way first defined by Richard Dawkins. In that respect, it’s no different from the James Bond memes explored elsewhere in this blog – the ideas and influences found within the Bond books and films and the Bond-related ideas that have made an impact on popular culture.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Almost a Bond novel: a review of Forever and a Death


Warning: this post contains minor spoilers
 

Picture the scene. James Bond dons his wetsuit, jumps into the murky, debris-filled water in a flooded tunnel, and swims in a race against time. His goal – to defuse a series of bombs that threaten the existence of the city above. If this scenario seems plausible, that’s because it’s based on a film treatment written for the follow-up to GoldenEye (1995).

Ultimately, the plot idea, along with the rest of the story outline devised by thriller writer Donald E Westlake, was never used, but, in fine tradition (think of Ian Fleming and Thunderball, Peter Vollmer and Per Fine Ounce, and Anthony Horowitz and Murder on Wheels), the author put the material to good use and created a novel. The result is not exactly a Bond novel, but is an exciting page-turner all the same.


In Forever and a Death (a solid, typically vague, Bondian title, though I don’t know whether Westlake gave his treatment this title), Singaporean businessman Richard Curtis has a new device, the soliton, that can reduce buildings erected on reclaimed land to rubble. Facing financial ruin following the handover of Hong Kong to China, he plans use it to destroy Hong King Island, wreak his revenge on the territory, and at the same time steal the gold in its vaults. Standing in his way are two environmentalists, Jerry Diedrich and Luther Rickendorf, a diver named Kim Baldur, and Curtis’s engineer, George Manville, who, having built the soliton, finds himself on Curtis’s hitlist when he begins to question Curtis’s judgement and plans. 


The plot could easily grace a Bond film. There are shades of Goldfinger (1964) and A View to a Kill (1985) in the final act, and the novel contains the sort of elements that we’ve read in the Bond books or seen in the films: thrilling underwater swims, gunfights on boats, daredevil escapes, a beautiful woman, global travel, and submarines. Richard Curtis can also call on the services of several henchmen, who are nasty pieces of work, though more in the line of Horror and Sluggsy in the novel of The Spy who Loved Me, than Jaws or Oddjob. 


So, out of all characters set to oppose Richard Curtis, who is the James Bond figure? There is no spy sent to investigate Curtis, and the police are a little slow on the uptake. (I was reminded of A View to a Kill and Sir Frederick Gray’s response when Bond expresses suspicion towards Zorin: ‘Impossible. He's a leading French industrialist.’ Curtis is similarly able to deflect suspicion from himself almost simply by dint of his reputation as a successful businessman. In today’s world of perceived corporate greed and exploitation, that doesn’t ring quite so true.)


Initially, it’s George Manville who seems to take on the mantle of James Bond. He’s resourceful, knows a thing or two about guns, and makes love to the heroine, Kim Baldur. But there are long periods when he is absent from the narrative. In any case, his moral ambiguity, at least at the beginning, is more redolent of the anti-heroes of an Eric Ambler novel than of Bond. The environmentalists, who take on some of the investigative elements, are candidates for Bond, but again are sidelined across many chapters. Kim Baldur also has Bondian characteristics, for instance having a crucial role at the end which would have gone to Bond had it appeared in a Bond book or film. It seems that all these characters play Bond to some extent, as if, in recasting his story outline, Donald E Westlake divided Bond duties between them.


Indeed, somewhat in defiance of convention, it’s the villain who’s the central character, who dominates the narrative and is rarely away from the book’s pages. This is his story, not that of George Manville, Kim Baldur or others. (I must admit that the villain’s name is a little distracting, since in the UK, the name is associated with Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley, Four Weddings and a Funeral and other creations far removed from Bondian plots.) 


The structure of the novel and its characterisation reminds us that we aren’t reading a James Bond continuation novel or a novelisation of a never-produced Bond film script, but a Donald E Westlake novel, complete with the traits of his work, among them a focus on flawed characters and multiple viewpoints. 


This took nothing away from my enjoyment of the book. It’s a terrific read, containing edge-of-your-seat descriptions, shocking moments of violence that somehow keep you glued to the page, and a masterful, subdued ending that almost elicits pathos from the villain’s fate. The afterword, provided by Jeff Kleeman, recounts the history of the novel and its role in Bond lore, and is also a must-read. 


Forever and a Death by Donald E Westlake is published by Hard Case Crime/Titan Books.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Where is James Bond's big gun?

The poster for Live and Let Die, created by Robert McGinnis, is iconic and a classic piece of Bond art, but there’s something on the poster that’s been puzzling me. In the centre of the artwork, a woman sits on top of the barrel of a field gun or anti-aircraft gun, which is being fired by James Bond.


I’ve watched Live and Let Die countless times, but I can’t remember ever seeing James Bond wield a gun of that sort. Unless it’s a case of blink and you miss it, the gun doesn’t appear in the film. What’s surprising, though, is quite how central the image is to the publicity of the film.

Apart from the poster, a large image of the gun is shown in the gatefold of the soundtrack album. Interestingly, the image here is a photograph. This rules out artistic licence, and means that Roger Moore filmed a scene featuring the gun or posed with it. It’s reasonable to conclude that the gun was used for publicity only or the scene ended on the cutting-room floor.



If the latter, the photograph may offer a clue about the gun’s intended placement in the film. Roger Moore is shown wearing a pale open-necked shirt, possibly the same shirt he wears for his scenes in Mr Big’s poppy field. Had Mr Big installed the gun in the poppy field to protect his crop? Perhaps there was a scene in which Bond discovers the gun and uses it to destroy the helicopter that’s attacking him. (That's another puzzler - what happens to the helicopter?)

The gun itself is shown in more detail in the photograph. To me, it looks like a Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun, but I haven’t been able to identify it precisely. A photograph in the US edition of Roger Moore’s Live and Let Die diary shows Roger Moore being shown how to use a gun mounted on a US Coast Guard boat. It's hard to tell, but it could be the same gun as that in the poster (Roger Moore is also wearing a pale open-necked shirt), in which case, the photograph on the soundtrack album would appear to be a publicity shot.

If anyone knows more about James Bond’s missing gun, then post a comment at the end of this post. I’ll be glad to hear from you.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Find Your Fate and the GoldenEye connection

There's a fascinating article by Philip Poggiali in issue 36 of MI6 Confidential about the series of James Bond-themed 'Find Your Fate' books, which were published in 1985 to coincide with the release of A View to a Kill. In the books, the reader assumes the role of James Bond and chooses options along various narrative threads to save the world from the dastardly plans of an evil genius.

As I was reading the article, I was struck by a coincidence between one of the books and GoldenEye, released in 1995. I tweeted about it back in October last year, but I thought I'd post about it here as well.

In Programmed for Danger, by Jean M Favors, the reader once again becomes James Bond to search for the Z-Disc, a revolutionary energy device that's been stolen from Zorin's base in the French Riviera.


The cover, drawn by Cliff Spohn, of Programmed for Danger by Jean M Favors
The cover of the book, by Cliff Spohn, gives a hint of the adventures within, with scenes of the southern French landscape, the circuitry of the Z-Disc, and depictions of Roger Moore's Bond that appear to be based on images from earlier films; the image of the beshirted Bond could come from the scene in Mr Big's poppy field in Live and Let Die

In the best Bond tradition, there's a car chase: a speeding Aston Martin and a Ferrari in hot pursuit is shown in the corner of the cover image. If this seems a familiar, it's because a speeding Aston Martin and a Ferrari in hot pursuit also feature in GoldenEye. The vehicle models are different – the Aston on the front cover seems to be the V8 Vantage that Bond would drive two years later in The Living Daylights – but the scene is otherwise closely replicated in the 1995 film. We can even find a scene in the film with the cars at almost the same relative position as shown on the cover. What's more, the car chases in both the book (as far as I can tell) and the film are set in the French Riviera.

 
Spot the difference: Programmed for Danger and GoldenEye
Coincidence or somehow prescient? It's pure coincidence, of course, but it's fun to think that the production team, when drafting GoldenEye, were flicking through the 'Find Your Fate' books for inspiration!

To read more about the 'Find Your Fate' series, see issue 36 of MI6 Confidential, which is available to buy here.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and spy fiction of the 1950s, '60s and '70s

I've thoroughly enjoyed reading Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Harper Collins, 2017), Mike Ripley's examination of the golden age of British thrillers. It's a period that began, the author contends, with Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, published in 1953, and ended in the late 1970s with tough heroics of Jack Higgins' novels and the methodical thrillers of Frederick Forsyth. In between, there were Fleming wannabes, the realistic spy thrillers of Len Deighton and John le Carré, and a whole host of bestselling books by authors who remain hugely popular still, such as Alistair MacLean, or are now long out of print and largely forgotten.


The identification of this period as a golden age is contentious – others would argue that that period belonged to the likes of John Buchan, Sapper, Peter Cheyney, and E Phillips Oppenheim – but there's no denying that the twenty year period saw an explosion of British thriller writers (many influenced by Ian Fleming or more generally the success of James Bond) who would dominate the thriller market across the world.

For me, the book gave me a sense of nostalgia. Not that I read any of these books at the time. Being born in the 1970s, I was too young, but some of the books that Mike Ripley mentions were on the bookshelves at home, among them Eric Ambler's The Levanter, John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (or was it Smiley's People?), and When Eight Bells Toil by Alistair MacLean. Such thrillers seeped into my consciousness at an early age.

Later, I began collecting thrillers, mainly published in the mid/late 1960s, that attempted to fill the void left by Ian Fleming, their heroes often being described on the back cover as the new James Bond or even better than James Bond (as if that were possible). Many of these are discussed by Mike Ripley too, such as DIECAST by John Michael Brett, Sergeant Death by James Mayo, and Where the Spies Are by James Leasor.

 
Some of Bond's many rivals
Since reading Mike Ripley's book, I've been inspired to catch up on the many thrillers that I've missed. I decided, fairly randomly, to begin with a novel by Desmond Bagley, the author of some sixteen adventures and spy novels which invariably featured rugged locations, even more rugged heroes, and Land Rovers. Bagley wrote between 1963 and 1983, the book I chose, Running Blind, being published in 1970.



Running Blind is a Cold War thriller than falls somewhere between the realistic environment of George Smiley and the more fantastic world of James Bond. In the novel, former British agent Alan Stewart makes a routine visit to Iceland, where his girlfriend lives, but is met by another agent, who persuades him to deliver a package. When an attempt is made on his life, he realises he's been set up, forcing him to go on the run across Iceland's volcanic terrain, pursued by Russian, British, and American agents.  

It's an exciting read, and while it's rather different to the James Bond books (except, maybe, John Gardner's Nobody Lives for Ever), the influence of Ian Fleming, or indeed the James Bond films, is not far away. There's a moment when Alan Stewart enters the room of Slade, a British agent whom Stewart suspects of having gone over to the Russians. Stewart looks out for a trick of the trade – hairs dabbed with saliva and stuck across the doors of the wardrobe that would be dislodged if the doors were opened.

A device of a similar nature is described in Casino Royale. When James Bond returns to his hotel room at Royale-les-Eaux, he inspects the hairs lodged in the drawer of the writing desk to make sure the drawer hadn't been opened. It's possible, though, that Desmond Bagley had been thinking of the film version of Dr No, in which Bond dabs a hair with saliva and sticks it across the doors of his wardrobe.

 
James Bond takes precautions
At another point, when Stewart confronts Slade, Slade tells him that he's 'been reading too much Fleming'. Then, as Stewart turns out the contents of Slade's wallet, he observes wryly that he found no plans for the latest guided missile or laser death ray that a master spy might have been expected to carry. A nod perhaps, at least with regard to the laser, to the film of Goldfinger

I expect that Running Blind will be the first of many thrillers from the 'golden age' that I'll discover and rediscover thanks to Mike Ripley's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and along the way be reminded (as if I needed reminding) of the enormous influence that Ian Fleming's work has had on thriller and spy fiction. As Mike Ripley notes, Casino Royale wasn't so much the spy novel that ended all spy novels, but the novel that launched many more.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

More on the 'Bond is what every man would like to be...' phrase

When Raymond Mortimer described James Bond as 'what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like to have between her sheets', little did he know that the phrase would have a life of its own.

I've written previously about the phrase, for instance how it's been incorrectly attributed to Raymond Chandler, and noting some of the variations that have since arisen. Recently, I've spotted more uses and variations of the phrase, though not in connection with James Bond.

Rooting through a pile of books in a charity shop, I came across a booklet that promoted the publication of Flashman on the March (2005), the final volume of the Flashman Papers, which chart the scandalous adventures of the notorious Victorian soldier, bully and cad (brilliantly written by Octopussy scribe George MacDonald Fraser). The booklet contains a short story, synopses of the novels, and appreciations by famous fans, including politicians Boris Johnson and John Major, and author Bernard Cornwell.

On the back of the booklet are the words, 'Women want him. Men secretly want to be him. Harry Flashman just wants to get away with it.'



I had already noticed, saying as much in a tweet in 2012, that a form of the phrase had been used to describe another fictional protagonist, Lee Child's Jack Reacher. The back cover of the 2011 book Without Fail includes the words: 'Men want to be him. Women want to be with him.'

The latest (full-length) Jack Reacher novel, Night School, now in paperback, offers yet another, more contemporary, variant of Raymond Mortimer's phrase. The praise lavished on Lee Child's books, printed inside the front cover, includes this from journalist Lucy Mangan: 'I am very much in love with Jack Reacher – as a man and a role model. If I can't shag him, I want to be him.'



These examples demonstrate that the phrase – the what-every-man-would-like-to-be meme –  continues to have currency in popular culture. Its success derives in part from its original association with James Bond, but also its adaptability, whether that be in its structure (many versions exist), application (its use isn't confined to Bond) and fitness in changing cultural environments (for example with regard to language and social norms).