Tuesday, 16 January 2018

On re-reading Live and Let Die

Christmas brought me the set of three Bond novels – Casino Royale, Goldfinger and Live and Let Die – published by Vintage Classics. The last I was particularly keen on reading. Not only does it have an excellent introduction by John Cork (as do they all), but the edition comprised a never-before published version of the text.

As the introductory note to the text states, the Vintage Classics edition is a combination of the standard UK edition and the US edition. Fleming’s original American publisher, Macmillan, made several changes to the UK edition, with Fleming’s approval, mainly relating to the American scenes, descriptions and language. For this Vintage Classics edition, the two original editions were compared and combined, and what could be described as a definitive edition has been produced.

The most obvious difference between this edition and the UK edition is that chapter 5, perhaps the most problematic part of the book (to say the least), is shorn of the lengthy conversation at Sugar Ray’s between a black couple that Bond and Leiter listen into. The chapter is also given its US title, Seventh Avenue. Along with other, smaller, changes, this gives the book a fresh, pacier, feel, and makes the reading experience very much less uncomfortable. 

Some other thoughts came to mind as I was reading the book. Superficially, the film version of the book diverges significantly from the book, but a surprising amount of the book survives to lesser or greater extents in the film. Bloody Morgan’s treasure is replaced by drugs, but the book’s essential plot elements – voodoo, the Harlem setting, the train journey, Mr Big’s cave and his network of agents, Bond’s capture, the disappearing table in the bar, sharks, the mine that destroys Mr Big’s operation, Solitaire and Bond being tied up together at the denouement of the book, and so on – are also on the screen. Some of these elements were, of course, picked up again and filmed more faithfully for For Your Eyes Only and Licence to Kill, but there’s more of the book in the film than one may think. 

I was reminded of some of the quite ordinary things Bond does in this novel. Eating cornflakes is one. Catching a bus is another. It’s almost impossible to imagine Bond waiting at the bus stop, boarding the bus, fiddling with change, buying a ticket, looking for a spare seat, and keeping an eye on the stops. Would any continuation Bond novelist dare have Bond catch a bus? Probably not, and if they did, they’d risk writing a parody in a similar vein to Sebastian Faulks’ piece in his Pistache volume that describes Bond in a supermarket. The episode is reminder that Fleming could make even the most ordinary acts sophisticated and exciting (the New York setting helps), and that he created a hero that his readers could relate to. Bond may not quite be one of us, but he’s far from the upper-class, ‘clubland’ hero of the earlier 20th century. I wouldn’t mind betting that Fleming took the same bus journey. There is a bus ride in the film version, but the use of the bus is far from being of an ordinary nature. 

It is worth noting, too, that Live and Let Die contains the first use in a Bond book of the phrase, ‘all the time in the world’. Bond tells Solitaire, ‘When the time comes I want to be alone with you, with all the time in the world.’ Fleming was evidently much taken with the phrase. It’s not only used in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, appearing in the final chapter and serving as that chapter’s title, but is used twice in Diamonds are Forever: ‘But now there was all the time in the world’, and ‘Bond suddenly felt they had all the time in the world.’ So associated is the phrase with Bond that it would be my choice for the title of the next Bond film, although the fact that it has already been used in a film title – being the sub-title to Spy Kids 4 – might rule its use out.

A final point to make is that the Soviet connection in Live and Let Die seems very weak. As John Cork points out, at no point does Mr Big spout Soviet ideology, nor does he mention the Soviets in respect of his operations. Indeed, the Soviet angle is barely mentioned again after M’s briefing. One wonders why Mr Big would need the Soviets at all. His operation is self-financing, and he’s in control of a business and crime empire. Ian Fleming could be considered as much a crime fiction writer as a spy fiction writer, and Live and Let Die certainly joins Diamonds are Forever, Goldfinger, The Spy who Loved Me, and the short story 'Risico' in the crime category.

Are any more Vintage Classics editions of the Bond novels planned? I hope so!

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

What Little Nellie did before Bond

Little Nellie, the autogyro designed and built by Wing Commander Ken Wallis and flown by him in the film You Only Live Twice (1967), is one of the most celebrated vehicles in the James Bond series. In the film, James Bond uses the autogyro, supplied by Q Branch, to reconnoitre the Japanese landscape to find out where SPECTRE’s rockets might be launching from. A cine-camera fixed to his helmet allows him to photograph every inch.
Bond flying Little Nellie in You Only Live Twice

Curiously, Little Nellie had been used for a not too dissimilar purpose a few years earlier.
Thuxton, a small village near Dereham in Norfolk, is the site of a deserted medieval village or DMV – the remains of a settlement that existed in the medieval period, but for some reason (possibly plague or changes in climate, population or land use) was abandoned. In the early 1960s, the DMV at Thuxton still survived as bumps in the ground, marking the positions of dwellings (tofts), streets and fields. During that time, however, Thuxton, along with other such sites, was threatened with deep ploughing, and so it was important to excavate and survey as much as possible before the earthworks disappeared forever. 

That’s where Little Nellie stepped in. While archaeological excavations were taking place, Ken Wallis flew across the site in his autogyro on several occasions and took aerial photographs of the medieval tofts and yards. These images captured fine views of the excavation and the village layout, and were used by the archaeologists to help them understand the history of the site. The images form part of the site archive and can be found in Norfolk’s Historic Environment Record at Gressenhall.

For Wing Commander Ken Wallis and Little Nellie, it was a mission not on Her Majesty’s secret service, but on Norfolk’s archaeological service.
Just for fun (and while we're on the subject of photography), I took this stereo image of Little Nellie, a signed photo of Ken Wallis and Fleming's novel. Look at the image through a stereoscope to see it in glorious 3-D! (Or relax your eyes as if looking at a 'magic eye' image.)

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

How to organise a James Bond party

The festive season meant one thing for many places of work: the annual office Christmas party. My place of work was no exception, and this year the party was extra special – it was Bond-themed. The idea wasn’t mine, but my reputation as a Bond fan preceded me, and I was soon invited to join the organising committee.

We brainstormed ideas at a meeting in a pub a month or so before the party. We quickly agreed that the party would be fancy dress, or at least, Bond-inspired attire would be encouraged. We were going to hire a DJ and I knew where to get hold of some essential Bond tunes that, if they didn’t exactly get people dancing, would be certain to get them posing as if performing in the film series’ title sequences.

Other ideas were soon generated. We would decorate the venue (a trendy craft beer establishment called Tap Social on the outskirts of Oxford) with hangings, giant cardboard dice, and table props that would give the allusion of a casino. We would set up a projector and play random clips from the films. We would have a cardboard standee of Bond with the face removed for people to poke their heads through in the manner of the amusing cut-out scenes you get at the seaside.

Some ideas were interesting, but not so practical. I said I could bring my roulette wheel and we could create fake chips for people to play with. Everyone could start with, say, ten pounds-worth of chips, and the person with the most money at the end of the night would win a prize. Understandably, though, no one wanted to be croupier all night. (There are specialist firms that do that sort of thing; best leave it to the professionals.) I also wondered about having a menu of Bondian drinks, but the venue, which brewed its own beer, wouldn’t be able to stock the necessary ingredients.
The cut-out, available from Amazon and other internet retailers
Still, we had plenty to make the party go with a Bondian bang. We toyed with the idea of creating our own cut-out, but in the end, I decided to buy one (a wise investment, I thought: never say never again). The DJ was booked, the venue informed of our plans, and the projector was secured. Two of our committee members burnt the midnight oil to make playing-card hangings, martini glass props, dice, and masks of all the Bonds and other well-loved characters from the films. The head of our graphics department created a poster inspired by some of the classic film posters, and everyone helped to set the venue up and generate a buzz among staff. 

Poster created by Magdalena Wachnik. (We're all archaeologists, hence the trowels.)

What can I say about the party on the night itself, other than it was the best office Christmas party I’ve ever been to? The turnout was great, the bar staff friendly and helpful, and spirits were high. I also noticed lots of people watching the projected film clips, which acted as a sort of mini chill-out zone.
Some of the masks and table decorations
What about the Bond-inspired dress code? I admit I was tempted to arrive in my Daniel Craig-style swimming trunks, but naturally I opted for the classic dinner suit. Other staff members wore suits, there were Bond girls galore, and we were also joined by Bond and Estrella from Spectre’s Day of the Dead festival, Blofeld and a toy white cat, and Q, or a Q Branch technician, in a white lab coat complete with trick pens. It felt very 1967 Casino Royale, but in a good way.

The party's just getting started

It all goes to show that, when it comes to James Bond, and my fellow party organisers, nobody does it better.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Aldi spoofs Bond in its Christmas advert

The Christmas TV campaign for the supermarket Aldi is likely to be of interest to Bond fans. Featuring a talking carrot called Kevin, the campaign draws inspiration from well-known films or film genres as it showcases the supermarket’s Christmas range of food and drink. Naturally, James Bond is one of the genres given the spoof treatment.


Aspects of the Bond films are referenced in one of the special adverts that focuses on wine and champagne. It begins as (most) Bond films do with a gun barrel sequence. As Kevin the carrot tries out his new water pistol retreived from his Christmas cracker, he passes the cardboard tube of the cracker, which from our perspective resembles the gun barrel of the Bond films. (Kevin, incidentally, wears a bow tie.)

The sequence then passes seductively over some of the supermarket's festive products – the wine from Bordeaux ‘had a licence to chill' – before we see Kevin again with his Bond girl (or, rather, carrot), Katie. A party popper, serving as a Thunderball-style jetpack, is attached to his back. 'You only live twice,' he says before shooting into the air and dropping into the wine cooler.

The advert is short and sweet, but long enough to express a few of the essential Bond memes in a mini film adventure. The advert is interesting, not just because it features a carrot as Bond, but because, in a way, the subject is highly appropriate for the season. After all, no Christmas is complete without a Bond film. Judging by the TV listings in the festive edition of the Radio Times, this Christmas will be no different, with several Bond films, including Spectre, on offer.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Ian Fleming in A Constant Heart

Until the publication this year of her diaries, Maud Russell’s pivotal role in Ian Fleming’s James Bond career largely remained unknown. Were it not for Maud’s loan of £5000, Ian Fleming may not have been able to buy Goldeneye, his winter retreat in Jamaica where he wrote all the Bond novels. In addition, Maud’s husband, Gilbert, may have had a hand in Fleming’s wartime appointment to the Naval Intelligence Division (NID), from which Fleming derived so much inspiration.

The diaries, edited with care by Maud Russell’s granddaughter, Emily Russell, focus on a seven-year period from the eve of the Second World War in 1938 to the end of hostilities in 1945. Ian Fleming and Maud first met in December 1931, or possibly early 1932, and their friendship – and intimacy – deepened, especially during the war, when Maud became Ian’s confidant and she herself gained a position at NID. The diaries are not clear on the matter, but it is likely that Maud and Ian were lovers.

The diaries offer a personal view on the course of the war – Maud alludes to momentous events in passing as she writes about her own life and those of her family and friends – and for students of Ian Fleming (and James Bond), they provide insights into the very foundations of Fleming’s life as a novelist.

Reading the diaries, I was struck by several aspects. Ian Fleming became enchanted by Jamaica while visiting the island for a naval conference in 1942, and had vowed to return there after the war and build a home. Maud’s diaries after this time, however, suggest that it was the thought of escaping to a tropical paradise that had really attracted Ian, and that, to some extent, the choice of island had been a secondary consideration. Maud records in October 1943 that one evening she and Ian discussed ‘Tahiti – or any escape island – and the formidable future till after 12 o’clock.’ Tahiti came up again in conversation in January 1944. Maud wrote that almost every time she saw Ian, he wanted ‘to talk about cottages, seashores, Tahiti, long naked holidays on coral islands and marriage’. Tellingly, that evening, Ian had also spoken about writing ‘a novel or two’ after the war.

The diaries give us, too, an insight into Ian Fleming’s activities at NID. We tend to assume that Fleming barely saw any action during the war, and largely stayed out of harm’s way in Room 39 at the Admiralty. Maud’s diaries, however, reveal that Fleming participated in several secret missions in France and elsewhere that placed him in danger.

In November 1940, Maud records that Ian ‘has been on some dangerous job again,’ and indeed Fleming had escaped serious harm when a house at which he had been staying was ‘blown away’. Maud also described Fleming’s journey close to the end of the war to Schloss Tambach in Germany to retrieve military documents. I was surprised to read, as well, that, earlier in 1941, Ian Fleming had considered resigning from his NID duties and joining a motor torpedo boat crew where he would see more action. Of course, the idea may never have been a serious one, but it perhaps reveals an early fascination with underwater action that would be expressed later in his novels Live and Let Die and Thunderball.

These and other incidences to which Maud Russell refers confirm the impression gained from other accounts that the war was the making of Ian Fleming and that it was a very formative period for him. More generally, the diaries reveal Maud’s humanity, warmth and intelligence, and identify her as an essential witness to aspects of the war that are often left out of the history books. Emily Russell’s book is enthralling and deserves a place on the bookshelf of every Fleming aficionado, alongside those other indispensable first-hand accounts, the letters of Ian Fleming (edited by Fergus Fleming) and those of Ann Fleming (edited by Mark Amory).

A Constant Heart: The War Diaries of Maud Russell, 1938-1945, edited by Emily Russell, is Published by the Dovecote Press

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

An interview with Henry Hemming

The latest issue of MI6 Confidential, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of You Only Live Twice, has just been published. In this special issue, the film's dubbing editor, Norman Wanstall, talks to Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury, there is an article on a never-produced film treatment inspired by the novel of You Only Live Twice, and, poignantly, the magazine contains the final interview with the late Karin Dor, who played Bond girl Helga Brandt.

I'm honoured also to have contributed to the issue. Away from You Only Live Twice, the magazine includes my interview with historian Henry Hemming about his book, M: Maxwell Knight, MI5's Greatest Spymaster. In the interview, we talked about Maxwell Knight's life, his motivations, his extraordinary success running agents, and, of course, the extent to which Fleming's M was based on the spymaster.

It's a fascinating issue, and anyone interested in James Bond and the world of espionage, fictional or otherwise, should buy a copy. For details of how to purchase a copy, or subscribe to the magazine, click here to visit the MI6 Confidential website.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Some Bond memes in Archer

Better late than never, I’ve finally got round to watching Archer, the animated spoof espionage series featuring the suave, irresponsible, and misogynistic secret agent, Stirling Archer. Naturally, the whole series draws very heavily on the James Bond films for inspiration, and H Jon Benjamin, who voices Archer, reveals in an interview with MI6 Confidential that his performance is based to some extent on Sean Connery’s Bond. Apart from referencing Bond in a general sense, the series alludes more specifically to the films, and I noted a few of these references while watching season one.

The ninth episode, ‘Job Offer’, in which Archer takes a job with a rival agency, Archer and Lana, his colleague and former lover, are tied on a metal table and threatened by a laser beam, à la Goldfinger. ‘Skytanic’ (episode 7) has an airship that brought to my mind A View to a Kill. The sixth episode, ‘Skorpio’, in which Archer rescues Lana from an arms dealer, features Archer in frogman mode and involved in an underwater battle that could have been taken from the storyboards of Thunderball.
A scene from 'Skorpio', Archer, season 1
James Bond is name-checked a couple of times in the series, and the cover of the season one DVD clearly derives from the poster of Live and Let Die.

Fictional spies of earlier vintage are not forgotten either. In ‘Dial M for Mother’ (episode 10), Malory Archer, agency chief and Archer’s mother, has a copy of Greenmantle by John Buchan beside her on her bed. The episode title is especially interesting. It references a Hitchcock film, of course, but it takes on extra significance in the context of James Bond: M was Ian Fleming’s nickname for his mother, Eve, and according to Fleming’s biographer, John Pearson, Eve provided some of the inspiration for James Bond’s chief.
A scene from 'Dial M for Mother', Archer, season 1
Issue 25 of MI6 Confidential has an excellent article on Archer, which includes interviews with the cast and the creative team, and is well-worth reading. Meanwhile, I’ll get on with catching up on the remaining seven series.