Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Sir Roger Moore - an appreciation

Sir Roger Moore in 1973 (By Allan Warren (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Sir Roger Moore was the James Bond of a generation. He was the James Bond of my generation. Some of my earliest Bond-related memories are of Roger Moore's Bond films, and unwittingly, he was responsible for my becoming a Bond fan. With his death, which was announced today, it's as if I've lost a childhood friend.

I grew up with Roger Moore's Bond in more ways than one. Live and Let Die, his first Bond film, was released in the same year that I was born. My earliest memory of Bond is watching Goldfinger on television, but I also have an early memory of The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger Moore's third and best film as 007. The Egypt-set scenes particularly stick in the mind. Among my toys in my later years was, naturally, an Corgi Aston Martin DB5, but I also treasured my Lotus Esprit and Stromberg helicopter from The Spy Who Loved Me. When I was around 10 or 11, I began to have aspirations to be a cartoonist (which stayed with me for a while, but thankfully faded as the rejection slips started arriving in quantity). Anyway, I'd write and draw my own James Bond comic strip, and of course it was Roger Moore's Bond that I'd depict. Conversations with my schoolmates always eventually got round to Bond. Even now, I remember the lengthy discussions I had about tarot cards in Live and Let Die and the lyrics to the title song of A View to a Kill

Goldfinger set the Bond formula, but for me, The Spy Who Loved Me is every bit as archetypal. The film redefined the pre-title sequence; its triumphant ski-jump stunt brought well-deserved applause from cinema-goers and became the benchmark for every pre-title sequence that followed. Subsequent pre-title sequences have been bigger, but not necessarily better.

The Spy Who Loved Me contains plenty of Roger Moore's trademark charm and saucy seaside-postcard humour ('Sorry, something came up'), and I love it. But it also has its serious moments, and Roger Moore was equally adept at those. Watch the moment when he reveals to Anya that he killed her lover, himself a Russian agent, and tell me he can't play it straight.

Later films perhaps saw him sharing more screen time with his stunt double, but they remain perfect entertainment. Octopussy is another case where Roger Moore moved effortlessly between humour and seriousness. Anyone who can draw edge-of-your-seat tension from a scene while wearing a clown suit must be a brilliant actor.

Roger Moore was famously self-deprecating about his acting talent, and he often said that the only film in which he really flexed his acting muscles was The Man Who Haunted Himself. To my shame I've never seen the film, though I have seen Gold, his 1974 film based on a Wilbur Smith novel, where we perhaps see a similar side of him. That's not to dismiss the Bond films in any way. To make the Bond films look as good as they do takes real skill and dedication, and that's what Roger Moore had in abundance. 

I was lucky enough to have seen Roger Moore twice on stage, and was thrilled to have met him – sort of – after one of the shows for an autograph. They say never meet your heroes, but Roger Moore is one hero I would gladly have spent more time with.

So let me raise a vodka martini, shaken but not stirred (not something he ever stipulated himself, curiously), and thank Sir Roger Moore for introducing me to Bond, entertaining me enormously over the years, and keeping the British end up.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Ian Fleming's Kitzbühel holiday and On Her Majesty's Secret Service

The Spring 1965 number of The Book Collector, coming almost a year after his death, included a personal memoir of Ian Fleming by Percy Muir, the bibliophile and bookseller who helped put together Fleming's collection of 'books that had started something'. Part of the memoir is reproduced in the special edition of the journal devoted to Ian Fleming.

One of the many fascinating aspects of the memoir is an account of a summer holiday that Percy Muir and Ian Fleming spent together in Austria in, I think, 1930. Muir explains that Fleming was attending the university at Geneva and in the June invited him over. Muir duly arrived in Geneva and stayed with Fleming in his flat before they headed to Kitzbühel. Muir writes that the holiday was a 'riotous success'.

As I was reading the memoir, I couldn't help wonder whether I was seeing the origins of certain aspects of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Obviously the holiday was in the summer, so there was no skiing (and in any case, neither of them would climb any mountains), but Fleming had learnt to ski in Kitzbühel (he was competition standard by the age of 21), and the novel is imbued with his own experiences.

It's the minor details in the memoir that particularly interest me. Percy Muir tells us that Ian Fleming's Geneva flat was a two-bedroomed place over a ski-workshop. There is, of course, a ski-workshop in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Presumably, one ski-workshop looks pretty much like another, and Fleming's likely to have seen a few, but he might have been thinking of the one he lived over when he wrote the passage in which James Bond enters a ski-workshop at Piz Gloria and surreptitiously takes a thin plastic strip.

Then there's Percy Muir's recollections of Ian Fleming's social life in Kitzbühel. He recalls that Fleming was 'extremely fond of women and was constantly entangled with them' and had three 'entanglements' at the resort. If ski resorts and female company were inextricably linked in Fleming's mind, then it's no coincidence that in On Her Majesty's Secret Service – more than in any other Bond novel – Bond is himself surrounded by women ('Ten Gorgeous Girls', as Fleming describes them).

 
Bond with the 'Angels of Death'. An OHMSS lobby card
These connections are admittedly slight, but considering also the opening of the book with Bond's memories of childhood beach holidays, it is nevertheless not to hard to gain the impression that On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of Fleming's most personal books.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Eric and Ernie play Bond in The Intelligence Men


In 1965, top TV comedy duo Morecambe and Wise brought their brand of comedy antics to the big screen. Being the mid '60s when Bondmania was at its height, it seems inevitable that their first film (they made a further two films, and there was also a TV movie in 1983) would be a spy film. While the film, The Intelligence Men (1965), is not overtly a Bond spoof - certainly not to the extent that Carry On Spying, say, parodied the Bond series - it nevertheless contains nods to the films.

The plot, for what it's worth, sees hapless MI5 agent Ernie Sage, played by Ernie Wise, recruit café owner Eric Morecambe (played by, er, Eric Morecambe) to the service. Eric's mission is to pose as a Major Cavendish, infiltrate the sinister Schlect organisation (or is that S.C.H.L.E.C.T.?), and foil a plot to assassinate a Russian ballerina on tour in London and destabilise Anglo-Soviet relations.

The story is a little weak, but the film is amusing enough, and for the Bond fan there is the added enjoyment of spotting the Bond references. For instance, the name of the criminal organisation has the ring of SPECTRE about it, and there's a running joke about the prevalence of beautiful female spies. At another point, Ernie refers to Eric having a licence to kill.

Then there's a rather funny scene, full of the characteristic Morecambe and Wise shtick that made them a national institution, in an MI5 office when Eric is briefed about the mission. Some of the dialogue clearly references the Bond films:

'Where are the special shoes?', Eric asks. 
'What special shoes?', Ernie replies. 
'Yes, the special shoes with knives in the toecaps.' 
'We don't have things like that.' 
'Yeah, and the fountain pens. They shoot bullets.' 
'No, we don't have things like that. We go around like perfectly normal people.'

The sequence highlights the immediate impact that Rosa Klebb's shoes, as featured in From Russia With Love (1963), made on popular culture. The fountain pen, on the other hand, doesn't reference the Bond films specifically, but is a more general spy-related trope. James Bond wouldn't be equipped with such a device until Moonraker (1979), and the tradition of the trick pen is rather older than Bond, going back at least to the Second World War. Nevertheless, the pen taps into the audience expectation for gadgets in a spy film, for which the Bond films were largely responsible, and cinema-goers may well have associated the pen with Bond all the same.

 
Eric Morecambe demonstrates the special shoes
 

Other points of interest in the film is that it features Richard Vernon, who was fresh from his appearance in Goldfinger (1964) as Smithers, and William Franklyn, who is said to have been considered for the role of James Bond.

If you have a chance to watch the film, I recommend you do so. It’s part of the wave of spy spoofs released during the period of Bondmania, but it also showcases the comedic talents of a legendary double act.

Friday, 5 May 2017

From Norfolk, with Love - Ian Fleming, archaeologist

I’ve combined my interests in Ian Fleming and archaeology with a contribution to the Arch365 podcast, which is part of the Archaeology Podcast Network. In my podcast, I explore Ian Fleming's brief foray into archaeological surveying in 1953 at Creake Abbey in Norfolk, where he assembled a team of Royal Engineers to carry out a systematic search for buried treasure.

Ian Fleming didn’t find any treasure, but he did succeed in carrying out one of the earliest archaeological surveys using metal-detecting equipment in England, and for that reason, could be considered an archaeological pioneer. 

Have a listen – the podcast isn’t very long – and find out about one of Ian Fleming’s lesser known activities.

https://www.archaeologypodcastnetwork.com/arch365/124


Thursday, 27 April 2017

Kingsman returns with a very Bondian trailer

Judging by the trailer, released this week, Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Golden Circle looks likely to contain as many nods to the Bond films as the film it follows, Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014).

In the sequel, the Kingsman headquarters are destroyed by some unknown enemy (who presumably got the idea from Raoul Silva and Blofeld, who were responsible for destroying MI6 headquarters in Skyfall and Spectre), and the Kingsman agents join forces with a spy organisation in the US to defeat the common foe.

Apart from the big explosion, the trailer promises all sorts of Bond-like thrills, including an underwater car (not so much Wet Nellie as Wet Taxi), gadgets galore, a henchman with a mechanical arm that doubles as a projectile (wasn't there something like that in a Young Bond novel?), London-set chases, and a snowy mountain-top lair, complete with cable car stunts.

 
The submersible taxi in Kingsman: The Golden Circle
This last aspect is of course highly redolent of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which evidently continues to inspire film-makers. Other films that have looked to the 1969 Bond film include Inception (2010) and Johnny English Reborn (2011), not to mention Spectre.

 
A mountain-top lair in Kingsman: The Golden Circle?
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is released on 29 September, and I shall be at the front of the queue to see it. Does the film hint at the direction of the next Bond film? I'm starting to wonder. Some may claim that this and the Fast and Furious series (reviews of the latest episode have alluded to the film's Bondian qualities) are beginning to out-Bond Bond, and it wouldn't surprise me if the producers of Bond 25 are keeping a weather eye on such releases.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Maxwell Knight - the real M


When Ian Fleming came to write the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1952, he turned to people he knew for inspiration for some of his characters. Take Bond's spy chief, M. In manner, it seems most likely that M was based on Fleming's wartime chief in the Naval Intelligence Division, Admiral John Godfrey. The code name may have had another source, however: Maxwell Knight, legendary MI5 spymaster who was known by the letter M.

While the connection between Maxwell Knight and the Bond novels is superficially a slight one, a new biography of Maxwell Knight by Henry Hemming has suggested other intriguing links.

Maxwell Knight's career in espionage began in the 1920s when he was recruited by Sir George Makgill to Makgill's private spy organisation. His task: to root out Communist activities by joining the British Fascisti, a powerful right-wing organisation which was waging its own campaign against the Communists, and secretly report back to Makgill. In time, Knight discovered that he was a better spymaster than spy, and was recruiting and running his own agents, who under Maxwell's guidance infiltrated Communist groups. After a brief spell in MI6, Maxwell Knight joined MI5, gave himself the code name M and set up M Section, which continued the secret fight against Communism.

By the mid 1930s, MI5 was waking up (slowly, it must be admitted) to the rising threat of the new Fascist movement, led by Sir Oswald Mosley. As the clouds of war gathered, M's agents set their sights on Fascists and Nazi sympathisers and scored notable hits against them.

M's work continued during the Second World War, and both his section and legendary status expanded. M retired in 1961, and he died seven years later. During his long career as spymaster, M busted spy rings, wrote the manual on tradecraft, trained a large number of highly successful agents, and was also largely responsible for bringing down the Fascist movement in Britain.

Curiously, all the time Maxwell Knight served in MI5, he was well known by the public, though as a thriller writer, and in particular a naturalist. He took part in many BBC broadcasts about animals, and for most of his life kept a menagerie of animals in his own apartments. His MI5 work of course remained a secret, but his expertise with animals allowed him to step out of the shadows.

On the face of it, the real M and Fleming's M have little in common, but reading Henry Hemming's superb biography, I was struck by just how often the worlds of Maxwell Knight and Ian Fleming overlapped. Presumably, Ian Fleming met Maxwell Knight from time to time while Fleming served as assistant to Admiral Godfrey. The two certainly had mutual acquaintances, among them author Dennis Wheatley. I was intrigued by the fact that one of Maxwell's agents was bookseller and bibliographer Graham Pollard. After the war, Pollard occasionally contributed to The Book Collector, the journal that Fleming owned and relaunched in 1952. An obituary of Graham Pollard published in the journal in 1977 described his work for the Communist Party, but not that he had been spying on its members. It's interesting to speculate whether Fleming knew about Pollard's activities when Fleming was on the journal's editorial board and cast his eye over Pollard's contributions.

What comes through very strongly in Henry Hemming's book is Maxwell Knight's hatred of Communism and his desire, born from personal experience, to crush it in Britain. I could not help be reminded of James Bond's epiphany at the end of Casino Royale, when having suffered at the hands of SMERSH and been betrayed by Vesper Lynd, he resolves on a personal level to 'take on SMERSH and hunt it down'. The real M would have approved.

When reading about the early career of Maxwell Knight, I was reminded too of Fleming's M's tricky relationship with MI5 and Special Branch. In Moonraker M tells Bond, who is about to operate on home soil, that he 'didn't want to tread on Five's corns'. Later, Bond reflects on how well Scotland Yard commissioner Ronnie Vallance avoids the corns of both MI5 and the uniformed police. It was these sort of 'corns' or conflicts that led to the creation of MI5 as we know it, and to a large extent Maxwell Knight had been responsible. Before joining MI5 and setting up M Section, he worked for MI6, but operated in Britain, and also worked closely with members of Special Branch. These amorphous boundaries were eventually clarified (although the real M would always act with a certain amount of independence).

Henry Hemming's biography is every bit as thrilling as the spy fiction, such as those by John Buchan, that inspired Maxwell Knight and his agents to pursue a career in espionage. What's more, the author has carried out painstaking detective work and identified some of Knight's agents who might otherwise have remained unknown. The book is a fascinating read that breaks open the secret vaults of British Intelligence to shine a fresh light on a remarkable spymaster and his organisation.


M: Maxwell Knight, MI5's Greatest Spymaster, by Henry Hemming, is out on 4th May and published by Preface 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Meet the James Bond of...

If you've been kept awake at night asking yourself which Korean fish is most like James Bond, you can sleep easy, for I have the answer: it's pollock. According to the Korean Herald, the wild pollock (or pollack), which has been brought to near-extinction through over-fishing and global warming, is 'the James Bond of Korean seafood' because of the many identities and names accorded to it biologically and on the dinner table.
 
Pollock, the James Bond of Korean seaford. Image: By © Citron /, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24350181
Wild pollack isn't the only thing to have been compared to James Bond. Every so often, when I trawl online media for James Bond news, I find stories in which a person, other creature, or thing is described as the James Bond of their career or environment. The comparison is sometimes amusing, as is the case with the fish, but there is a broader point. The evocation of James Bond reveals which characteristics or memes journalists and others associate with Fleming's creation. No doubt, too, the mention of James Bond raises the profile of the piece and attracts readers.

Just the other day, I learnt from a report in the Times of India that French winemaker Jean Charles Boisset is 'the James Bond of the wine world'. The winemaker is apparently a flamboyant dresser and likes doing things in style, and as a result has been identified by many as a James Bond figure.

Then there's Natalie Bellamy and Sophie Spencer, who, working together as the Fussy Shopper, have been described as 'the James Bond of personal shopping'. As the Daily Mail reports, the pair sources rare and eye-wateringly expensive items for the super-rich and celebrities, sometimes in exciting, Bondian, ways. On one occasion, they flew to France to buy a jacket, skied to the shop, which happened to be on top of a mountain, and then skied down with the jacket.

How about the James Bond of philanthropy? That's Chuck Feeney, the billionaire turned millionaire who has given away $8bn over the past 30 years. It was his methods that led Forbes to compare him to James Bond: Chuck Feeney's philanthropic work has been clandestine and globe-trotting.

Chuck Feeney isn't the only one who's been dubbed James Bond because of the travel. Jan Chipchase, a 'trend forecaster' and founder of the global design and innovation consultancy Studio D Radioduran, has been called the ‘James Bond of Design Research’ as he travels the globe learning about human behaviour to inform his clients' decision-making and innovation strategies. Jan Chipchase (a Bondian name, if ever there was one) has additionally been described as one of the smartest people in tech, which possibly encouraged the James Bond moniker.

The 'James Bond of' phrase has been applied to fictional characters too. The hero of Jonathan Lethem's novel, A Gambler's Anatomy, is described in a review by Ron Charles in the Washington Post as the 'James Bond of backgammon'. The book, featuring a professional gambler named Alexander Bruno, is, the reviewer suggests, a James Bond-esque novel, which 'combines a little of the intrigue of James Bond with all the sexiness of backgammon'.

James Bond's association with technology means that buildings can also be considered Bond-like. A children’s nursery that opened recently in Oxford is equipped with a fingerprint entry system, a roof that changes colour with the seasons, a secret garden with a mini amphitheatre, and a cinema room. No wonder Dr Genevieve Davies, who opened the building, called it 'the James Bond of nurseries'.

The connection with James Bond isn't always a positive one. One Julius Mwithalii from Meru in Kenya became known as ‘James Bond of Meru' when he attempted suicide by hanging himself on a helicopter. The attribution would appear to trivialise a distressing incident, although as journalist Iregi Mwenja points out, the resulting publicity, partly because of the comparison, has raised awareness of certain social issues, which is no bad thing.
 

This brief survey has shown that 'the James Bond of' phrase has currency in the cultural environment. It's applied widely, and to people or things with little or no connection to the masterspy. Anyone in the public eye who travels the world, is technologically minded, has style or lives a life of intrigue and danger could be the next 'James Bond of'. Perhaps we all have a little bit of James Bond in us. In my own career, I like to think I'm the James Bond of archaeology (or is that Indiana Jones?). What are you the James Bond of?