Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Aston Martin DB5 revolving number plate

The other day, as I was idly looking at my James Bond Aston Martin DB5 number plate keyring (bought at the Bond in Motion exhibition a while back), it struck me how well thought out the registration plates are.

As everyone who's paid attention to Q's briefing knows, the DB5 that features in Goldfinger is equipped with revolving vehicle registration number plates.

There are three plates, a British one carrying the registration BMT 216A, a French plate with the registration 4711-EA-62, and a Swiss plate marked LU 6789. In the film, just the British plates are seen, although the other two were displayed during publicity tours. The revolving mechanism of the plates was designed by Jimmy Ackland-Snow.

The plates appear to mirror Bond's journey on the trail of Goldfinger from England to Switzerland via France, as described in the novel, although in the film Bond and Goldfinger take a direct flight with British Air Ferries from England to Geneva.

Nevertheless, there's a particular point of interest in the French plate. Its final two digits indicate that the plate was registered in the department of Pas-de-Calais in northern France. As discussed in an earlier blog post, this region is the likely location of the fictional coastal town of Casino Royale, at least according to information in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Whether by accident or design, the number plate is a nice link to this Bondian location.

The initial letters of the Swiss plate indicate that the plate was registered in the canton of Lucerne. The region plays no role in the novel or the film, but some of the exterior scenes of Goldfinger's Swiss factory were filmed around Lucerne.

Worrall,  D, 1993 The most famous car in the world: The complete history of the James Bond Aston Martin DB5, Solo Publishing

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Ian Fleming and The Traveller's Tree

One of the most thrilling – and chilling – aspects of Live and Let Die, when I read it for the first time aged 11 or 12, was the description of a voodoo ceremony took from Patrick Leigh Fermor's 1950 book, The Traveller's Tree. At the time, I had never heard of the book, and thought nothing of the extended excerpt. To me, the passage was an essential part of Fleming's novel, adding veracity to the tale and putting me into Bond's shoes; I was learning about voodoo with Bond.

Thinking about it now, it does seem a little odd that Fleming lifted almost verbatim several pages of a celebrated book (in fact, passages from two chapters) that had not long been out before Live and Let Die was published in 1954. Fleming's novel does not suffer unduly for it, but it does leave Fleming open to an accusation of lazy writing.

One can't imagine today's editors being so indulgent towards their authors, but the use of the extract does reflect Fleming's love of books and admiration for, and almost a deference to, experts and writers. Fleming may also have been motivated by a desire to thank Patrick Leigh Fermor, known as Paddy, for the mention Paddy gave him in The Traveller's Tree. (Incidentally, Fleming's footnote in Live and Let Die that gives the publisher and price of the volume is absent from current editions.)

As source material and part of Bond's library, The Traveller's Tree is firmly part of Bond lore. I was therefore keen to read Artemis Cooper's superb biography of Paddy to learn more about the origins of the book.

The idea for the book emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War, in which Paddy, serving with the Intelligence Corps and then the Special Operations Executive, fought alongside the resistance in Crete (one of his spectacular achievements was the kidnapping of General Kriepe, the commander of German forces on the island). Among Paddy's comrades-in-arms was Costa Achillopoulos. In 1947, Costa was commissioned to produce a book of photographs of the Caribbean, and he asked Paddy to accompany him and write the text for the book and as many spin-off magazine articles as possible.

Once in the Caribbean, Paddy was soon to encounter its diversity and exoticism, and the deprivation among many of its inhabitants (he discovered that slavery continued to cast a long shadow). While in Jamaica, he also paid a visit to Ian Fleming's home, Goldeneye, being a close friend of Ann Fleming. Paddy witnessed the voodoo ceremony which appalled Bond so much in Haiti. Paddy was fascinated by voodoo's admixture of African and Catholic religion and rituals, and saw in its origin, at a time of slavery, a sort of freedom from the harsh reality of the adherents' lives, and a link with their ancestral past.

Paddy travelled to Normandy in 1948 and began to write The Traveller's Tree (the title was Costa's). In the weeks that followed, Paddy moved around France and Italy, usually staying in monasteries where he was able to write without the distraction of convivial company, parties and bright lights, to which he was susceptible. The writing didn't come easily at first – he was overwhelmed by the amount of material he had collected – and at the monastery of Saint-Jean-de-Solesmes resorted to taking benzedrine. But later, in the monastery of San Antonio, near Tivoli, Paddy was particularly productive.

The Traveller's Tree was published in 1950 by John Murray to enthusiastic reviews, and it was awarded the Heinemann Foundation Prize. Artemis Cooper's biography of Paddy is also well worth reading, and gives not just a fascinating account of Paddy's life and the background to The Traveller's Tree, but also an insight into the literary and social scene in which Ian Fleming also moved, if somewhat on the periphery.


Cooper, A, 2012 Patrick Leigh Fermor: An adventure, John Murray
Fermor, P M L, 1950 The Traveller's Tree: A journey through the Caribbean islands, John Murray

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Is James Bond really a paid assassin?

There's a piece of dialogue in Spectre that slightly disturbs me. In the scene in the restaurant car of the train, Madeleine Swann asks Bond, “Why, given every other possible option, does a man choose the life of a paid assassin?” Bond replies that it was either that or the priesthood. It's an amusing line, but it does concern me that Bond seems to accept the view that he's an assassin, which he isn't, at least not according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, which defines the verb to assassinate simply as 'murder (a political or religious leader)'.

Even if one takes a wider definition of assassin (Wiktionary defines assassinate as 'to murder someone, especially an important person, by a sudden or obscure attack, especially for ideological or political reasons') or, say, that of a hitman ('a contract killer'), he isn't really those things either. While the Bond of the cinema has occasionally been ordered to kill an identified target – Pushkin in The Living Daylights (1987), for example – Bond generally kills in the course of a mission, and usually when his own life is threatened; the killing is an unpleasant, though justified by-product, rather than the primary goal.

And yet, Bond the scriptwriters have insisted on labelling Bond as an assassin. Octopussy, as with Madeleine Swann, calls him a paid assassin, and Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), who is undeniably a hitman, equates himself with Bond. “We are the same,” he tells Bond. In this instance, it's a charge Bond refutes. “When I kill it's under specific orders of my government, and those I kill are themselves killers.”

Similarly in the novels, Bond's missions are not to kill an identified target, although admittedly, on occasion, Bond is given this role. In 'For Your Eyes Only', Bond talks himself into killing Cuban hitman Gonzales with M's tacit approval, and in 'The Living Daylights', Bond is ordered to kill a Russian sniper, although in this case, it's in order to protect the life of a fellow agent.

The identification of Bond as an assassin is deep-rooted. In a review for the volume of For Your Eyes Only (1962), the Times Literary Supplement refers to Bond as a licensed assassin. In the anthology of spy stories, To Catch a Spy (1964), the volume's editor, Eric Ambler, writes in his introduction to one story, 'On Slay Down' by Michael Gilbert, that it could be subtitled, 'The recruitment of 008'. In the story, Mr Calder, an agent of an unnamed organisation (presumably MI5 in this case) travels to Slay Down near Salisbury Plain in order to kill a Maria Lipper, a clerk working in the Air Ministry who has been passing information to the opposition.

By labelling him 008, Ambler equates Calder, a cold killer (and therefore in some measure an assassin), with Bond. The story, published in 1962, is reminiscent of Fleming's short stories, 'Property of a Lady', in which Bond disrupts payment by the Soviets to a double agent (curiously the double agent is also called Maria), and '007 in New York', in which Bond is sent to New York to warn a former Secret Service employee that she's living with a KGB agent. Given the similarity, 'On  Slay Down' could be a Fleming short story, but in neither of Fleming's stories, is Bond ordered to kill.

The Bond-as-assassin meme is a long-lived and persistent one, but one that doesn't quite fit Bond's role, either in the books or the films. It's a pity that Bond isn't allowed in the films to defend himself against the accusation more robustly.

Friday, 11 March 2016

James Bond and Danger Mouse

The animated adventures of the super secret agent rodent, Danger Mouse, and his sidekick Penfold (a hamster) were reintroduced to great acclaim in October last year. The original series, broadcast between 1981 and 1992 and written by Brian Trueman, drew heavily on the James Bond films, but also on the 1960s' television series, Danger Man (starring Bond contender Patrick McGoohan). The rebooted series, now into a second batch of its projected 52 episodes, has retained those influences, and for me it has been fun spotting the Bond references.

The show contains all the familiar Bondian elements well established in the original series. In the best tradition of classic spy fiction, in which spy chiefs are known by a single letter (Bond's chief is M, Ashenden's is R, and Eric Ambler's Dimitrios has G), Danger Mouse's chief, a chinchilla, is known as Colonel K. Danger Mouse's nemesis is Baron Silas von Greenback, a toad, who, with his vague Eastern European origins, penchant for over-elaborate schemes to rule the world, and a white caterpillar on his lap, is clearly modelled on Blofeld.

There are some new characters, too, including Professor Squawkencluck, a chicken who invents and supplies Danger Mouse with gadgets. And echoing Bond's sometimes fractious relationship with Q, on whom the character is based, the professor doesn't appreciate Danger Mouse's casual attitude towards her inventions. Speaking of gadgets, Danger Mouse's gadget-laden car, the Danger Car, includes an ejector seat (as used in the episode 'From Duck till Dawn'), and has more than a hint of Bond's Aston Martin DB5.

Danger Mouse is, of course, the series' Bond figure. While his appearance owes more to Danger Man, but his quips, cool attitude, and raised eyebrow give him a definite Bondian quality, particularly of the Roger Moore era. And like Bond, Danger Mouse is a not very secret secret agent, being well known to all the villains, a paradox that is acknowledged in the episode 'From Duck till Dawn'.

Apart from the Bondian characters, the episodes contain a number of additional allusions to Bond. Episode titles typically play on existing film titles, Bond films included. Thus, there is one episode called 'Never Say Clever Again', and another called 'Greenfinger'.

In the episode 'The Hamster Effect', during a flashback which reveals how he met Penfold, Danger Mouse introduces himself as 'Mouse, Danger Mouse'. This naturally recalls Bond's famous style of introduction, although it should be noted that John Drake, the hero of Danger Man, introduced himself in the same way.

Another episode, 'Danger at C Level', brings to mind the film of The Spy Who Loved Me, featuring as it does an underwater base that resembles Stromberg's Atlantis. I also thought of Blofeld's bath-o-sub, and the pod in which Bond and Anya are jettisoned from Atlantis, when Greenback makes his escape from his underwater base in a pod-like vehicle.

Penfold has his own Blofeld moment in the episode 'Sinister Mouse'. Alternative realities, the basis of the plot, mean that opposite versions of the characters exist, and Penfold is not exempt. At the end of the episode, a swivel chair is turned towards the viewer to reveal evil Penfold, complete with a white cat(erpillar) of his own.

The rebooted series of Danger Mouse is great fun, and well worth watching, especially for those Bond memes, as well as its nods to other genres, such as horror and science-fiction. Roll on the next batch of episodes.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

James Bond: The Secret History - a review

Given the huge amount of information about James Bond available in print and on the internet, the title of Sean Egan's new book, James Bond: The Secret History (2016, John Blake) seems a touch optimistic. Are any secrets left to reveal? Egan's book doesn't contain much that's new, but it does explore areas of the world of James Bond that are likely to be less familiar to many readers, Bond fans included.

The book is part history of the books and films, and part analysis of the Bond phenomenon, and essentially its aim is to explain how a character created in the aftermath of the Second World War became the global success it has been for over fifty years. The author runs through the staples of Bond histories, among them the somewhat peripatetic life of Ian Fleming, the presidential boost, the struggles to get Bond to the television or cinema screen, the Thunderball case that cost one man his health and utterly consumed another, the endless studio wrangles, and the casting and recasting of Bond.

Along the way, the author examines the impact of Bond in popular culture through aspects as diverse as parodies, literary and cinematic imitators, toys, and computer games, and, based on his own interviews, presents the recollections of those who experienced the world of Bond first-hand, including continuation author Raymond Benson, composer Monty Norman, and Fleming friend and biographer John Pearson. Egan also draws on existing sources, which occasionally leads to repetition of inaccuracies. Contrary to popular opinion (even that of Cubby Broccoli), James Fox could not have turned down the role of Bond for moral reasons, for the simple reason that he was never considered.

Sean Egan brings attention to curious elements of the Bond books that, to be honest, had escaped me. For example, it's not certain that the zeroes in '007' are actually zeroes, rather than ohs, and it hadn't occurred to me that a line in Casino Royale alludes to Bond masturbating (that's a mental image I can't now unsee). Just as revealing is evidence that Dr No was intended as a subtle parody of Fleming's creation, and news that Raymond Benson had written a stage play of Casino Royale that went as far as rehearsals on Broadway.

There's much enjoyment to be had from the author's wry turns-of-phrase. I admit I chuckled at the descriptions of Bond and Sir Godfrey Tibbett in A View to a Kill as 'a not-exactly dynamic duo', and of the fight in Never Say Never Again between Bond and an assassin at Shrublands as 'well choreographed and real-looking...not least because Bond spends much of it running away'.

But die-hard Bond fans be warned. Egan's iconoclastic views are likely to make uncomfortable reading. In fact, pointing out the implausibilities and substandard plotting, the author has barely a good word to say about any of the Bond books or films, although he surprises with the things he does like. (The Spy who Loved Me, derided by most for its Mills & Boon heroine, and the near-absence of Bond, is in Egan's view an excellent novel, right up to the point that Bond appears.) In truth, there is much in Egan's words that Bond fans wouldn't totally disagree with, and in a way the criticism is a product of James Bond's very success. Any book or film held up to the light to the extent that Bond has been is likely to exhibit flaws.

While James Bond: The Secret History does not offer anything particularly secret, it does contain nuggets that will certainly be unknown to many readers (this reader included). The book is an entertaining trot through Bond lore, neatly weaving the various strands – literary, cinematic, and that of the wider Bond phenomenon – into a single, page-turning narrative, and provides a perspective on Bond that will surprise, please and irritate in equal measure.

James Bond: The Secret History by Sean Egan is out now, published by John Blake Publishing in hardback and priced £16.99