Saturday, 3 May 2014

OHMSS on the BBC - a review

Even a radio adaptation of a James Bond novel cannot avoid alluding to the cinematic Bond. On Her Majesty's Secret Service, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 3rd May, was the fourth radio adaptation of Ian Fleming's books by Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres, and as with the last, From Russia, with Love, starred Toby Stephens as Bond. This version was a reasonably straight adaptation of the novel, at times giving us Fleming's words verbatim. But hints of the film series sneaked in. This wasn't the only factor, however, which gave the radio play a familiar feel.

The plot of On Her Majesty's Secret Service is likely to have been well known to most listeners (but in case anyone isn't familiar with it, this paragraph contains spoilers). On the point of resignation following his fruitless hunt for Blofeld, James Bond encounters Contesse Teresa di Vincenzo. After saving Tracy from ignominy at the casino and spending the night with her, Bond is taken to her father, Marc-Ange Draco, head of the crime syndicate, the Union Corse. From Draco, Bond discovers that Blofeld is at Piz Gloria in Switzerland masquerading as the Comte de Bleuville, who is eager to have his title recognised. Bond travels to Switzerland disguised as heraldry expert, Sir Hilary Bray, and there meets a host of beautiful women with odd dietary needs and learns about Blofeld's mysterious allergy research laboratory, ultimately related to a plot to destroy Britain's food production. Bond's identity is eventually discovered, but he escapes to St Moritz and is helped to safety by Tracy. Bond returns to Piz Gloria with a team of Draco's men, but Blofeld evades capture. Bond and Tracy marry, but Blofeld is close by and kills Tracy.

The plot of the radio adaptation deviated little from the book, but there was still room to expand a few roles. Tracy's childhood threat to swim in the sea and never come back is delivered by a young Tracy, rather than just being described by Draco, and in another scene again only reported on in the book, Draco phones Tracy to tell her where in Switzerland she can find Bond. Back in London, Bond professes knowledge of London's Windmill Theatre, a review theatre famous for its nude shows, which closed in 1964.

Toby Stephens, settling comfortably back into the role, was excellent as Bond. His delivery was pure Fleming, and thankfully with no trace Die Another Day's Gustav Graves. In another nice piece of casting, the role of Blofeld's consort, Irma Bunt, went to Joanna Lumley, who appeared briefly in the film version as 'the English girl', one of Blofeld's Angels of Death. Blofeld was played by Alfred Molina. Being no stranger to villainous roles, Molina was also well cast, and his turn as Blofeld ought to serve as an audition for a part (Blofeld?) in a future Bond film.

M, played by John Standing, was his usual irascible self, though his invitation to Bond to “pull a [Christmas] cracker” was very out of character. In the novel, M tells Hammond, his former Chief Petty Officer, to “throw them out.”

Inevitably, the radio drama contained a few conventions and tropes of the Bond films. Q (played by Julian Sands) was on hand to 'pay his respects' at Bond's wedding; in the novel, of course, there is no Q, though there is a reference to the Technical Section. The novel's Mary Goodnight (Bond's secretary) was replaced, as in the film, by Miss Moneypenny, who, like Q, also guests at Bond's wedding; in the book the wedding is attended only by Draco, the British Consul General and Head of Station M. And in the style of his usual manner of introduction in the films, Bond introduced himself to the women in Blofeld's institute as “Bray, Hilary Bray”.

There were a few anachronisms – Bond exclaiming, “Oh, wow!” after being told Ruby's surname didn't seem Bondian somehow – and Bond even swore at one point. Admittedly he does swear in the books, but the words are never written in full, so when an expletive is used, in this case the 'S' word, it jars.

For all its quirks, the radio version of On Her Majesty's Secret Service was very enjoyable and entertaining. The cast was on top form, and the abridgement lost nothing of Fleming's voice. One cinematic convention that the play didn't copy was the promise at the end of each film that James Bond will return. That's one promise I hoped had been made.

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