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Thursday 2 May 2019

the future for james bond

007: Time to live or let die?

  • The 25th Bond film has been announced but is the brand worn out? Is Bond’s use and abuse of women offensive rather than entertaining?
  • Just like a Marvel superhero, the secret agent does not – and never did – represent the ordinary man but is a fantasy of the dashing English action-man
  • When the nation’s borders feel increasingly diminished, the books and films hold to a comforting version of imperial greatness

By Catherine Nixey and Mariel Richards


Catherine Nixey
 

It’s not just his fondness for rape. Though that has, admittedly, made things a bit awkward between us. Nor is it his habit of cold-blooded killing that is starting to make our once warm relationship with James Bond feel a touch strained. Instead, like Al Capone being fingered for tax evasion, it is the more minor things that are starting to grate most: Bond’s dorky obsession with cars; or his awful double entendres, which make him sound like a dad trying to be risqué. All in all, it’s hard to disagree with Judi Dench’s M’s assessment of him as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur”.

Still, sexist, misogynist dinosaur he may be, but Bond is a blockbusting sexist misogynist dinosaur. Last month, the twenty-fifth Bond film, once rumoured (thankfully wrongly) to be called Shatterhand was launched in Jamaica. The usual blend of hoopla and stage-managed secrecy has begun. Awkward black-tie publicity shots, with the cast looking more sixth-form summer ball than secret agents saving the world, have been released. Tempting facts are being judiciously drip-fed to an eager public.

Idris Elba with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, co-writer on the next Bond film

And some of these announcements really are tempting. For one thing Phoebe Waller-Bridge is to be co-writer. For another, Daniel Craig has said that “Bond has always sort of adapted for the times”, hinting that change is afoot. Other things, though not announced, can be assumed. For the twenty-fifth time, dinner jackets will be worn and women seduced. For the twenty-fifth time, Martinis will be drunk. And for the twenty-fifth time things will go boom and foreign people will die acrobatic deaths in exotic locations. Which we needn’t feel too sad about as they are, after all, foreign.

Still, it’s hard to see how far one can tweak Bond to fit the modern world. Age may not have wearied Ian Fleming’s creation – in the last film (if we believe Fleming’s dates) he seduced two women at the age of 98 – but the years have started to condemn. Loudly. How, in the #MeToo era, can we possibly accommodate a man whose previous girlfriends include women called such things as Pussy Galore and (really) Plenty O’Toole? A man who, more seriously, looks forward to a certain sexual encounter because “the conquest of her body… would each time have the sweet tang of rape”?

Radical changes have been suggested. The next Bond, some say, should be a woman. Or black. All agree he should be less misogynist and sexist. And absolutely less fond of rape. Which is all very well and good. But there is a problem. If you have a snowflake-soft, #MeToo approved, female, black, Bond, then do you still have Bond? Or is that character then something else altogether?

In a recent interview the Doctor Who writer and actor Mark Gatiss baulked at the idea. “What is it about James Bond that you want to change? Is it just the sex or is it everything else? In which case you’ve got a different character anyway.”  Or, as the (not #MeToo approved) phrase has it: if my grandmother had wheels she’d be a bicycle.

Pierce Brosnan and Sophie Marceau on the set of ‘The World is Not Enough’

Surely the kindest thing to do to this character is not to tweak him. But to stop him. To revoke his licence. Indeed Danny Boyle, who had been down as director for Bond 25, is rumoured to have wanted to kill Bond off. The franchise, produced by Barbara Broccoli, promptly returned the favour, and suddenly Boyle was no longer director. Goodbye, Mr Boyle… (Or possibly it was Broccoli wanted to kill him off and Boyle who didn’t. The world of film, like espionage, is secretive.) Whatever. The Boyle-Broccoli collaboration has gone, which for nomenclature reasons alone is probably a blessing. But the questions remain.

Anthony Horowitz, author of two Bond novels (including the most recent, a Casino Royale prequel in which Bond gets that licence) bats such questions away. “I think it wouldn’t work making Bond a woman because it wouldn’t be Bond any more… I think there is an element to the Bond films which is broadly masculine.”

One of the reasons all this matters is because of what Bond means to us today. These days, he is often regarded less as a piece of fiction than as an archaeological artefact; as an accurate – and embarrassing –specimen of Englishness. With his Etonian education and Church’s brogues, Bond is yet more evidence of a Britain we’d sooner forget, a Britain of privilege and public schools; of men who’d sooner kill a foreigner than commit a faux pas; and would rather shed blood than a tear. Bond is yet another part of Britain’s past that has become a problem to be solved by its present.

Daniel Craig as Bond in Casino Royale

Oh, but we are taking him far too seriously, says Barry Forshaw, the Financial Times crime and thriller critic. Bond has always been preposterous. He “is essentially a superhero… It’s an impossible squaring of a circle to make Bond a realistic character”. One may as well make a Marvel character obey the laws of physics as Bond obey the laws of society.

He was also always, to many, repellent. Reviewing Dr. No in the New Statesman in 1958, Paul Johnson described it as “without a doubt the nastiest book I have ever read,” adding that there were “three basic ingredients in Dr. No, all unhealthy, all thoroughly English: the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult”.

This was fantasy from the start. A fantasy of foreign travel, for one thing. Read or watch the early Bonds now and you will notice that there is, Forshaw says, “quite a lot of time spent in airports and checking into hotels”. Food, too, was lingered over. The first Bond came out a year before rationing ended and belongs, like Brideshead Revisited, to the genre known as “hungry literature”. Its sentences salivate over the scrambled eggs which Bond orders with salmon, and with the same fastidious care as those Martinis. One Bond even offers a recipe (“Break the eggs into a bowl. Beat thoroughly…”).

This too, says Horowitz, was all part of the fun. “The sensual nature of these books was absolutely what a slightly austerity-starved Britain needed at the time.” Or as Fleming wrote: “Bond’s luxury meals are simply saying ‘no’ to toad-in-the-hole.” It was too rich for Fleming’s own taste – “I myself abhor Wine-and-Foodmanship” he wrote, but the foody gimmickry was there, like “bindweed” in his novels. And so he had to continue it.

In so many ways these books are not quite what they seem. The fabled extravagance was born of austerity. And the fabled nationalism was a response not to Britain’s greatness – but her decline. They don’t glory in what we have, they yearn for what we have lost. The books he wrote between 1953 and his death in 1964 are not ebullient Empire books. They are Suez books.

Bond books at a 2008 Imperial War Museum exhibition

“The filmmakers knew and Fleming knew as well that this was a dream of empire that had vanished,” adds Forshaw. In Bond’s world it is British agents who keep the CIA agent Felix Leiter waiting. In From Russia with Love, the Russian spy agency SMERSH declares that the British intelligence agency is the most dangerous and must be destroyed. “Everybody reading that book smiles. It may not be true,” says Horowitz, “it may just be a fantasy memory of what we once were…[But] it schmoozes them.”

If the politics is romantic bunk then the spying is often little more accurate. It’s often said Fleming drew heavily on his wartime experience in Room 39 of Naval Intelligence, the room in which he and his fellow intelligence officers cooked up such Q-worthy schemes as exploding tins of food. “The secret gadgets come out of that world,” says Horowitz. “He’s very much a product of the war.”

So the spying was based in fact. But for Charlotte Philby, granddaughter of double agent Kim Philby and debut author of the spy novel The Most Difficult Thing, the atmosphere served up is largely fictional. In Bond, poison pens and nifty dashboard buttons provide an effective smokescreen to hide the far more – and more female – emotional reality of spying.

When Kim Philby – recruited by a woman – defected to Russia, not only did he betray his country but he also betrayed his wife, leaving her and their five children behind in Britain. The women and families have been written out of spying in part, suggests Charlotte Philby, because their stories are so obviously painful.

But in Bond, “espionage takes place in these sexy, darkened, elite clubs; it’s all a bit of fun and games”. Admittedly, says Charlotte Philby, “on the surface,” her grandfather would have had a glamorous time, sitting drinking in his favourite St Ermin’s Hotel or the Athenaeum. “But actually the reality is people being brutally killed and families being left without parents.”

Kim Philby at a press conference around 1955

Charlotte Philby, for the record, doesn’t think her grandfather ever read Fleming. He was more of an Anthony Trollope man, apparently, or Graham Greene. She certainly never saw any Bonds on his shelves when she visited him in Moscow as a “twinkly old man” when she was five.  “I imagine he would have thought they weren’t quite the thing.”

James Bond. Not quite the thing then, and in many ways not quite the thing now. Except, of course, he is. The last film grossed over $880 million worldwide. The next is likely to do as well. So should we take away Bond’s licence? Certainly not, says Horowitz. “But even if we did he’ll continue without it.”

Besides, as Forshaw points out, it’s all nonsense anyway. The licence, like the rest of Bond, is “a total invention of Fleming’s. It’s a lovely notion. But who would be wielding that licence today? If it’s Boris Johnson sending people out to kill on behalf of Britain…”

It hardly bears thinking about. And perhaps that is the point. We live in a Britain that is now, as it was then, a place diminished. We are a country facing international embarrassment and an inevitable-seeming slow decline. Surely with such a reality we need the fantasy of Bond more than ever.

So, Mr Bond. You can keep your fantasy licence after all.

Catherine Nixey is a commissioning editor at Tortoise

 


No. Revoke that licence

Mariel Richards

 

I love action movies. I will happily pass over a gritty documentary for lone heroes shooting and exploding their way to a violently triumphant victory.

That said, I like my heroes to be actual heroes not rehashed, tired examples of men we “tolerate”. Bond is not a hero. He’s trash.

Yes – he is a sexist, misogynist dinosaur.  And no, I don’t think we can forgive that just because his franchise makes lots of money. Eon, MGM and Universal shouldn’t earn the price of our £10 cinema tickets on the back of it, even if Phoebe Waller-Bridge is now on hand to save the day (I love you, Phoebe, I just don’t think there is a big enough Band-Aid). He’s not even very good at his job – he seems far too good at getting discovered /shot /betrayed /set on fire etc to be genuinely effective in the long run.

Even if I were to try to defend this fictional character based on his fictional exploits, I can’t. His crimes go above and beyond the #MeToo moment. Yes, he is a fantasy but why indulge in a fantasy that shows a man abusing women and people of colour, however “glamorous” the set-up?

Yet, as with most powerful white men, it seems we are ready to forgive Bond for all his mistakes just because he is that – a white man embodying an outdated Britishness we are all supposed to look up to, with its many shades of Empire.

I’m not just saying this for the women. There is a rising crisis of suicide and bad mental health among young men who feel they can’t open up and talk about their problems because it’s not “manly”. Bond’s emotionally repressed, testosterone-fuelled misogynistic manhood doesn’t help.

It’s time to stop sweeping damaging portrayals of tired English masculinity under the $880 million rug. Let’s have more superheroes whom we love as real heroes – ones who explode and shoot stuff without cheerfully abusing women and people of colour.

Let’s celebrate real heroes who manage to interact with people of colour without subjugation and disrespect (Dr. No) and assuming yellow face (You Only Live Twice), who can sit in the same barn as a woman without resorting to rape (Goldfinger) or discuss histories of sexual trafficking without then further sexual manipulation and abuse (Skyfall). Let’s all just watch absolutely anything else instead. The SpongeBob Movie, anyone? I hear that is airing next year too.

Let’s all pray that in this 25th Bond, we see him killed off. In Licence to Kill, he says: “I’ll do anything for a woman with a knife.” Well, there’s the perfect assassin and the perfect ending. That way, we could say he’d been asking for it all along.

Mariel Richards is head of strategy at gal-dem, a magazine that seeks to redress the underrepresentation of women and non binary people of colour in the media and creative industries. She is also its former arts editor

All photographs Getty Images

Further reading

  • In For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, Ben Macintyre, The Times newspaper’s Derring-Do Correspondent, takes on Bond and his gadgets. Great fun.
  • To see a real-life assassination, read the lethally effective 1958 review of Dr. No by Paul Johnson which is up, in full, on the New Statesman website. Peppered with such phrases as “no literary skill” and “a vague series of incidents in a sort of luxury hotel”, it scored a direct and painful hit.
  • Bond was always about air travel as much as espionage. In Thrilling Cities, published in 1963, Fleming cut out the middleman, offering a straight travelogue on such impossibly exotic places as Berlin (and passing blithely xenophobic comments on their inhabitants. The Germans, we learn, are “anyway a hysterical race”.)