Sunday, 31 January 2016

A footnote to Ian Fleming's Oxfordshire

Earlier this month, the excellent Artistic Licence Renewed website published an article of mine about Ian Fleming's Oxfordshire. The piece takes readers on a tour of the places in the county closely associated with Fleming, including his grandparents' home of Joyce Grove in Nettlebed, and his childhood home of Braziers Park in Ipsden.

Another place worth visiting, though not mentioned in the article, is the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock. The museum tells the story of two Oxfordshire regiments, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and the Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars. It is this latter regiment that may of interest to Fleming aficionados, because it was the regiment in which Valentine Fleming, Ian's father, served.

Valentine Fleming had enlisted in the yeomanry regiment by the time he had been elected Conservative member of parliament for the Henley Division of South Oxfordshire in 1910. He was in good company; his friend and fellow officer in the Hussars was Winston Churchill. Just four years later, Britain was at war, and in August 1914 the regiment headed to Flanders on the Western Front. Tragically, Major Valentine Fleming was killed in May 1917 while in command of a squadron of Hussars who were defending their position at Gillemont Farm against two companies of German infantry.

The Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, which is situated in the grounds of the Oxfordshire Museum, has a display about Valentine Fleming's role in the Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars, and his sons, including Ian, are mentioned too. Incidentally, the museum is a stone's throw from Blenheim Palace, which was the home of Winston Churchill, and latterly doubled for the headquarters of Spectre in the latest Bond film.

Speaking of Winston Churchill, the Second World War leader is given a starring role in Peter Fleming's witty novella, The Flying Visit (1940), which imagines Hitler parachuting into England to appeal to the people, but being thwarted by a hard-of-hearing villager, a fancy dress party, and a toilet cubicle. As with his brother Ian, Peter Fleming had nothing but admiration for Churchill, and in this book, Churchill is naturally decisive and suitably pragmatic.

I mentioned in my tour of Fleming's Oxfordshire article that while Ian Fleming knew south Oxfordshire intimately, the county makes only the most fleeting appearances in the Bond books. This is in contrast to Fleming's other haunts in London, Kent and Jamaica, which became important locations in James Bond's adventures.

Peter Fleming does not ignore his home county, with The Flying Visit being set mainly around the hills above Henley, a location that takes in Nettlebed, where Peter lived throughout much of his life. Hitler lands near the hamlet of Bix, which neighbours Nettlebed, and there is a reference to Huntercombe, where Peter's grandmother, Kate, as well as Ian, played golf. And it is not difficult to imagine that the fictional village of Fidney, through which Hitler stumbles, owes something to Nettlebed itself. The Flying Visit is well worth a read.


Eddershaw, D, 1998 The story of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry, the Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars, 1798–1998, Oxfordshire Yeomanry Trust
Lycett, A, 1995 Ian Fleming: the man behind James Bond, Turner

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Lady from Shanghai: another connection between Orson Welles and James Bond?

The other week I happened to watch The Lady from Shanghai (1947), a classic film-noir written and directed by Orson Welles, and starring Welles alongside Rita Hayworth. The film's denouement is set within a deserted amusement park, through which Welles' character, sailor Michael O'Hara, makes his way before reaching the hall of mirrors, where (spoiler alert) he confronts and kills femme fatale Elsa Bannister, (played of course by Hayworth), who set O'Hara up for a murder he didn't commit.


As I was watching the film, I couldn't help thinking of The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), in which Bond makes his way through Scaramanga's private fun house before reaching a hall of mirrors, where he confronts and kills Scaramanga. The mirrored room also appears in the pre-credits sequence where mobster Rodney (Marc Lawrence) tries his luck against Scaramanga.


While the screenwriters of the Bond film (Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz) need not have been directly influenced by Welles' film, the earlier film reminds us that the idea of a hall of mirrors as a sinister, confusing place was well established by the time The Man With the Golden Gun was made. The film drew on this tradition, and the meme has echoes in other films with mirror-room scenes, such as Enter the Dragon (1974), Conan the Destroyer (1984), and even in Die Another Day (2002), when Bond passes an array of mirror and double-helix-pattern hangings in his search of Zao in the genetic therapy clinic.

If we can count the fun house sequence in The Lady from Shanghai as having a connection with James Bond, then it adds to the short list of existing links. Orson Welles played Le Chiffre in the 1967 version of Casino Royale, and another of Welles' films, The Third Man (1949) is cited by John Glen as having influenced aspects of The Living Daylights, which Glen directed. In his book, The Making of The Living Daylights, Charles Helfenstein describes how John Glen worked on The Third Man (as did another Bond director, Guy Hamilton) as a sound editor, and that the sound of the film's famous footsteps are his. Helfenstein also points out that Ian Fleming chose the 'Harry Lime theme' (Welles' character in The Third Man), as one of his 'Desert Island Discs'.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Did the Baftas snub Spectre?

The film award season is well underway. Spectre won the award for Best Original Song at the Golden Globes, and the theme song is now up for an Academy Award (come back, Sam Smith, all is forgiven). The lack of other awards or nominations here isn't particularly surprising, especially given Spectre's lukewarm critical reception in the US.

The picture in the UK, however, is rather more curious. When the nominees for the 2016 Baftas were announced last week, there was one notable omission: Spectre hadn't been given the nod in a single category, including the technical categories. Was this a deliberate snub by BAFTA members, reflecting a degree of snobbery towards the Bond films, or was Spectre simply not that good?

When Dame Pippa Harris, chair of the BAFTA film committee, was asked by the BBC's arts editor, Will Gompertz, why Spectre (and Star Wars: The Force Awakens) had been overlooked, she gave an interesting answer: “There's a tendency with both comedies and action films for awards, generally speaking, to overlook them... When it comes to the awards season, people tend to look at what they consider to be serious dramas.”

I think Dame Pippa is being a little disingenuous here. It's true that over the course of the Bond series, few films have been recognised by BAFTA (though in fairness, the technical categories were only introduced in 1984), but Daniel Craig's Bond films have been lauded by members. Skyfall received eight nominations in 2013, while in 2007 Casino Royale received nine. Even Quantum of Solace, which divided critics, Bond fans and general cinema-goers alike,  received two nominations in 2009. Overall, then, the lack of nominations for Spectre does raise a Roger Moore-like eyebrow.

Two aspects interest me. First, Dame Pippa's response, effectively that action films can't compete with serious films, is something of a common trope, a meme that may have been true in the past, but less so now. Indeed, it belies BAFTA's own recent history (and in any case, what is Mad Max: Fury Road, which has received seven nominations, if not an action film?).

Second, why wasn't Spectre nominated? There could be all sorts of reasons related to the competition from other films or the quality of the film itself; possibly a bit of both. I wonder, though, whether the lack of nominations reveals something about the perception of Spectre and its place in the Bond series.

Daniel Craig's Bond films have been exceptional, being both highly popular and well received critically, and winning over many who would not have regarded themselves as Bond fans. Spectre does, however, seem to mark a turning point. With the re-introduction of a villain of old, the reinstatement of the gunbarrel to the beginning of the film, the upping of the humour level, and a bonkers plot twist, Spectre begins to look more, well, traditional.

Perhaps that's how BAFTA members saw it. Spectacular and enjoyable as it was, the film was an excellent Bond film, but not an excellent film. One for the fans, to be judged against other Bond films only, just like most Bond films before Casino Royale. (Up till then, only Goldeneye (I think) had been nominated for a Bafta, despite many of the Bond films, particularly the Brosnan-era ones, enjoying very positive reviews on their release.)

So did Bafta snub Spectre? Probably not. But perhaps it was a case of Spectre returning to the mean. Normal service has resumed. For a Bond film to be nominated for awards, it needs to diverge significantly from the traditional structure of the series, and jettison once again some of those standard Bond memes.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Aspects of the James Bond books possibly inspired by Robert Harling

One of the most fascinating books among the recent crop of Bond-related publications is Ian Fleming: A Personal Memoir (2015) by Robert Harling, published by the Robson Press. Robert Harling became a close friend of Ian Fleming, having met him just before the outbreak of the Second World War, then serving in the Fleming's commando unit, the 30 Assault Unit, and meeting regularly after the war to dine and talk about their shared interests: printing, typography, intrigue, and women.

In the book, Robert Harling reminisces about his time with Fleming and recounts their numerous conversations (some, particularly those concerning women and sex, making slightly uncomfortable reading). The book offers a unique insight into Fleming's wartime experiences, his complicated and troubled personal life during and after the war, and his decline in health.

The book also identifies some of the seeds that would lead to the creation of James Bond. It was, after all, to Harling, following a visit to Oxford together, that Fleming announced that after the war, he was going to write the spy novel to end all spy novels.

As I was reading the book, a number of incidences and conversations reminded me of aspects of the Bond novels. Harling does not explicitly make the connections, but it is interesting to speculate that Harling was responsible for introducing ideas into Fleming's mind that would later be expressed in Bond's adventures.

For example, during a meal at Scott's, Fleming and Harling discussed a trip that Harling had made to Turkey. Harling described to Fleming a remarkable man he met in Istanbul: one Vladimir Wolfson, a White Russian who defected to Britain, attended Cambridge, was recruited by naval intelligence, and became SIS's resident in Istanbul. Something of a fixer, Wolfson supplied Harling with much-needed maps and charts, ensure that Harling was able to freely explore the city, and generally made Harling's stay in the city a very comfortable one. “Made for the job?”, Fleming asked of Wolfson. “Absolutely” came Harling's reply. Reading this, one cannot help recalling Darko Kerim, head of station T (Turkey) in From Russia, with Love (1957).

We also meet Captain Lewes, who during the war was an intelligence chief-of-staff with Allied Naval Commander Expeditionary Force and was naturally known to Fleming. Harling describes Lewes as a pompous, officious officer, whose busy-bodying rubbed members of 30 AU the wrong way. Lewes “had also become a tetchy stickler for traditional naval discipline and dignity,” writes Harling. Remind you of anyone? Possibly Captain Troop, the Secret Service's paymaster, who, according to Fleming in From Russia, with Love, has “qualities which irritate and abrade”, and is “parsimonious, observant, prying and meticulous” and “a strong disciplinarian and indifferent to opinion”.

During one of their many conversations after the war, Ian Fleming revealed to Robert Harling that he had finished writing his first spy book – Casino Royale (1953). Fleming asked Harling what he thought of the name of his hero, James Bond. “Not in the same league as Sherlock Holmes... but brief and memorable,” Harling decided. When asked what name he would choose, Harling replied that he might borrow the name of one of Fleming's friends, Hilary Bray. Fleming must have thought he was onto something, because ten years later Bond would assume the identity of a fictional Hilary Bray in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963).

Harling also imagined Bond as a married man, suggesting to Fleming during lunch in the late 1950s or early 1960s that he write a new set of novels featuring the action duo of James and Jemima Bond. Fleming jokingly dismissed the suggestion, but curiously Bond would marry in, once again, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (although it is worth noting that thriller writer Raymond Chandler also discussed the idea with Fleming of Bond marrying) and Jemima would be used as the name of one of Commander Pott's children in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1964).

Robert Harling's recollections are funny, engaging, surprising and moving. They are also self-effacing; Harling omits to mention that he was immortalised in two Bond novels – Thunderball and The Spy Who Loved Me – or that he was responsible for the tea-chest font that adorned the celebrated Chopping covers of the Bond series, and does not entertain the possibility that he was an inspiration for the character of Bond. 

Reading his book, it seems possible that Harling left his mark on the Bond books in other ways. Robert Harling's memoir is essential reading that no aficionado of Fleming and Bond fan should be without.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Why and how did Kingsley Amis write Colonel Sun?

The writer and critic Kingsley Amis wrote a fair bit about James Bond. Using the name William Tanner, M's chief-of-staff, he wrote The Book of Bond, or Every Man his Own 007 (1965), a guide for wannabe James Bonds about what to eat and drink, what to read, what to wear, what to say, and so on. The James Bond Dossier, one of the earliest critical examinations of the James Bond novels, was published in the same year, this time under Amis' own name, while 1968 saw the publication of the first continuation Bond novel, Colonel Sun, written by Amis under the pseudonym Robert Markham.

But that's not all. To coincide with the publication of Colonel Sun, Kingsley Amis wrote an article, 'The new James Bond', about why he took up the challenge of writing a Bond novel and how he developed some of the ideas that would feature in the book. The article was republished, along with other literary musings originally published in the New Statesman, the Spectator, the Sunday Telegraph and other periodicals, in What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Questions (1970, Jonathan Cape).

The essay offers a fascinating insight into the process of creating a James Bond novel, though no less interesting is Kingsley Amis' explanation for picking up Bond's adventures where Ian Fleming left off. Yes, money was a consideration, but so too, more curiously, was the thought how cross with Amis the intellectual Left would get. Amis was amused at how the same left-wing critics would accuse him both of writing the book for financial reward and also of embracing the ideology of Fleming and Bond.

On that point, Kingsley Amis does concede that, like Bond, he is “pro-Western, pro-British, even, by and large, pro-American”, putting him at odds with the intellectual Left, whose favoured literary spies, he considered, were those created by Len Deighton and John le CarrĂ©. Above all, though, Amis thought it “an honour to have been selected to follow in the footsteps of Ian Fleming”.

As Mark Amory suggests, much of Amis' reasoning may have designed to address the criticisms not of the intellectual Left, but of the right-wing Ann Fleming, who was scathing of Amis' selection and efforts. “It's a left-wing plot”, she wrote in a letter to Evelyn Waugh, and in an unpublished review of Colonel Sun, considered that Amis would “slip 'Lucky Jim' into Bond's clothing.” Amis alluded to Ann's criticism when he wrote in his piece that “fears were expressed in some quarters that I might produce a sort of Lucky Jim Bond”.

As for the ideas that contributed to Colonel Sun itself, Kingsley Amis chose Greece as a location for Bond's adventure because Bond had never been there and the eastern Mediterranean was a region of British and Russian interests. But considering the traditional Britain-versus-Russia set-up too old-hat (to some extent echoing the policy of the makers of the Bond films who had shied away from having Russia as the main adversary), Amis instead created a Chinese threat and had Bond team up with a Russian agent (some ten years before the film Bond would join forces with a Russian agent).

The starting point of Colonel Sun, set as it was in the Home Counties, was determined by the close proximity of Sunningdale (a golf-course frequented by Bond), M's house in Windsor, and Heathrow (then London) Airport. Lacking the experience to plausibly take Bond skiing or gambling, Amis returned Bond to the golf course. While Amis had never played golf, he was able to take advice from a friend who had.

Amis did, however, draw heavily on his wartime experiences to arm Bond and to put Bond in realistic situations for which the use of Second World War firearms and hand-grenades were appropriate. His intention was to make Bond a “gun and fists man”, in contrast, as he saw it, with the gadget-laden hero of the films. Amis also took a tour, notebook in hand, of the Greek mainland and the islands of Naxos and Ios.

Just as Kingsley Amis followed in Ian Fleming's footsteps with the writing of Colonel Sun, he also followed in Fleming's footsteps with his article, as in 1962 Fleming prepared an article called 'How to write a thriller'. In fact, it has become something of a tradition for Bond novel authors to write about their experiences creating new adventures for Bond. The paperback edition of Devil May Care (2009) included a short essay about how Sebastian Faulks wrote the novel, and Jeffery Deaver published a piece on writing Carte Blanche in 2011. All are well worth a read.

Amory, M (ed.), 1985 The Letters of Ann Fleming, Collins Harvill