As an iconic character, James Bond as secret agent 007 surreally blurs the lines between truth and fantasy, spinning out new histories and futures as his iterations continue, seemingly forever. And maybe that’s only what we should expect when one spy invents another.
It was really Ian Fleming who lived something closer to Bond’s life, though from the very beginning, the elements the author would shape into Bond were being adapted and embellished as he went. Fleming was the son of a WWI hero, Valentine Fleming, and the grandson of the banking giant who created Flemings bank. Always living in the shadow of his father, Ian nonetheless forged a serious career as a spy, rising to the rank of Commander. (Sound familiar, Commander Bond?)
At Goldeneye, Fleming’s own villa built on land in Jamaica he purchased in 1946 and named after a wartime operation, he insisted the staff called him Commander. For many years, they all thought he was a bird watcher with all the books he had on the subject, but that was a feint, too, because it was a living man named “James Bond” who was the famous ornithologist and the inspiration for the agent’s name.
Aspects of Bond were also based on Sir Fitzroy Maclean, Fleming’s friend and fellow Eton schoolboy. Maclean was Churchill’s special envoy to Yugoslavia during the WWII, and is believed to have exited the water, on some secret mission, with a tuxedo on under his wet suit! But Maclean, though traveled, didn’t quite graduate to 007’s unpredictability and glamour, because he and his wife were still trucking supplies to war-torn former Yugoslavia in their seventies.
After Fleming’s 1953 novel of the same name, in October, 1954, CBS’s Casino Royale aired as a short-lived dramatic
series pilot on American television. This was the first time Bond would be portrayed in the flesh, and Barry Nelson played Jimmy Bond, then a “Combined Intelligence” agent instead of Mi6, who was challenged by famous movie-baddy Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. Barry Nelson would go on to play other TV good guys, but mostly genial ones, and guest-starring on crime shows like Magnum P.I. and Murder, She Wrote. There have been numerous Bonds since him, but this first is mostly forgotten, history re-written.
The most recent movie Bond, Daniel Craig, seems to be winning people over, even though he was not that well-received at the start. But we all know who seems to be the favourite.
Dr No appeared in 1962, Bond’s silver-screen debut with a nervous Sean Connery stepping into the shoes of the secret agent. Dr. No was played by Joseph Wiseman, who spent the remainder of his life mortified that this villain was what he was remembered for and not his beloved stage acting. And Eunice Gayson, who played Sylvia Trench in Dr No and Goldfinger, reportedly got Connery drunk at the start of filming to loosen him up. Previously an Edinburgh milkman but serious about acting, Connery had already been on stage in the musical South Pacific, and had delivered one of the first televised man-on-man kisses in a play produced in 1960. (This event, too, would be erased from memory, not to be re-incarnated on the BBC for another 27 years.) Not formally educated, he took responsibility for his own personal development and devoured ten books a week when not working, a discipline which never left him. Sean Connery is renowned for fierceness towards co-stars who are tardy in timekeeping or remembering their lines. When Bond plays golf at Stoke Poges golf club with Goldfinger, Oddjob slices off the statue’s head with his steel reinforced hat. But that didn’t puncture Connery’s subsequent lifelong passion for golf and the precision he adopted in all aspects of his life.
His entire fee of one million pounds for Diamonds are Forever (1971) was donated to the Scottish International Educational Trust which supports Scottish people and ventures with cold, hard cash. In a time when five thousand pounds could buy you a house, a million was serious stuff. This was, however, the same man, who when interviewed by Barbara Walters, refused to retract his view that women need a good slapping every now and again. Bond has always mixed fantasy with reality, and Connery underlines the confusion for me. No matter how unpleasant, no Bond would apologise for anything, would he?
The 007 films have always been pretty true to Ian Fleming’s books, but the author died in Kent, England in 1964, so no new stories from him. (One wonders if he would’ve laughed at Bond’s comedic turn with Peter Sellers as 007 in 1967’s re-interpretation of Casino Royale as a spoof in which every agent becomes a Bond, and Woody Allen is the ultimate villain. Is it a spoiler after 4 decades?) Still, through Fleming’s estate, James Bond strides on relentlessly, despite his creator’s death, ignoring the flops and misfired incarnations, and the books keep coming.
The most recent re-conception in print, Jeffery Deaver’s Carte Blanche launched with Royal Marines descending from the roof of London’s St. Pancras station to deliver the first copies. Surreal enough for you? I hope they had more success than one of the ninjas I met from You only Live Twice, who said he got a nasty rope burn and a vicious little rash after getting entangled during his descent from the roof of the volcano. He didn’t last as long as Bond, but he was still going on about it twenty years after the wrap party.
For more homage to Bond in his many incarnations, check The Bond Hotline as we continue celebrating our favorite secret agent.
Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia, where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish. His next book, The Politics of Murder (The X-Press UK/US), will be published July 31, 2011.