I make no apologies for including Ian Fleming in this series of writers of literary classics, but perhaps some explanation is due. Though few would find literary merit in the James Bond books that he created, there is no doubt that they were the origin of a genre that has proved madly popular in the second half of the twentieth century, and now beyond.
Spy stories, as we have seen previously, have been around for a long time. Even if The Secret Agent does not quite fit within the mould, in that the practitioner of espionage is not an ideal hero, John Buchan certainly created a model protagonist in Richard Hannay. But the plots in the books in which he appeared were different from each other, other characters often were the centre of interest, and reflection and analysis were more important than action.
James Bond changed all that, through books based on a formula that included lots of sex and violence, a simple plot and an uncomplicated villain. Though occasionally Fleming tried to introduce some subtleties, as when Bond grieves for his murdered wife, or is brainwashed into trying to kill his boss, the books swiftly revert to type, with roller coaster type action and little time to think.
Fleming himself lived some of this life himself, though vicariously, as an organizer of special forces rather than a regular participant in their activities. He was yet another of those British writers who worked in special military agencies during the Second World War. The list includes Angus Wilson and Anthony Powell and George Orwell and Noel Coward, in education and propaganda as well as intelligence. Fleming however, as noted, had more active involvement with actual soldiers on the ground, and it is probable that he was involved in planning special missions that enabled the acquisition of crucial information. At the same time, it has been suggested that he was not always practical, in that his plan to drop a captured German airplane into the sea, with disguised Britishers aboard whom the Germans would then rescue, was countermanded on the grounds that the plane would sink rather than float.
Fleming, who had done well at Eton but failed to get into the Foreign Office, moving instead to stockbroking after a brief stint as a journalist, was rescued from all that by the war and the special responsibilities he undertook. He published his first Bond book in 1953, and before long was earning enough to retire to Jamaica and concentrate on his writing. In 1962 his fame spread even more dramatically with the filming of Dr No, for which he had wanted to cast his neighbor in Jamaica, Noel Coward, as the villain.
He had also wanted the hero played by David Niven, but sensibly the producers opted for Sean Connery while, with Coward’s very definite refusal, they found a less well known and much more sinister villain.
The intensely masculine Connery also probably contributed to the popularity of the film, since a return to the debonair slightly unreal heroes of a declining upper class would not have had the sex appeal that turned Bond into a cult figure. Given too the brilliant casting of Ursula Andress, the name as well as her initial appearance wearing very little suggesting the essential characteristics of a Bond heroine, the films were able to run and run. They are still running, with a different Bond girl for each, a different villain (recently a North Korean who has plastic surgery so as to pretend to be an Englishman), a different dynamic tune, and for as long as possible the same hero, though sadly Connery aged, others got bored, and one, George Lazenby, when the producers settled simply for what is termed beefcake, failed miserably.
For Bond certainly had style, and it was Connery’s genius that allowed that to come through, in addition to the sexuality. The trademark assertions, such as the desire for a martini shaken not stirred, required an element of subtlety. Bond after all was in counter-espionage, not espionage, intended to respond to the villainy of others, not move into action on his own. He had therefore to understand what made his opponents tick, and respond appropriately, if not always subtly.
Many of these were megalomaniacs, such as Dr No or Hugo Drax who was building a rocket that was intended to turn suddenly on the West, But many were loosely bound together in an organization called SMERSH, that was meant to be based in the Soviet Union, which was assumed capable of harnessing the energies of these monsters in its efforts to overcome the West. Indeed, most famously in From Russia with love, the Soviets were directly involved, with wonderful attempted murder on a train, involving poisoned shoes and a nasty old woman as well as a ravishing young one.
But Fleming himself was as interested in individual absurdities, so he also created another ridiculous outfit called SPECTRE, headed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, he who came back to fight another day after his first villainies were defeated, and disposed of Bond’s wife. There was also Francisco Saramanga, the bizarre Man with the golden gun, who had three nipples, and was played by Christopher Lee. Lee happened to be Fleming’s cousin, and he had earlier proposed him for either Dr No or even James Bond, which suggests again that his own vision of his hero was not the one that became established.
Fleming however died after just two films had been made, so he cannot be held responsible for what happened afterwards, with more and more preposterous gimmicks, and less and less attention to his original plots. However it is likely that he would have approved, for he had grown to like Connery and even tried to create a Scottish ancestry for Bond to authenticate the performance further. He also contributed to the creation of the second spy series that became popular in the sixties, ‘The Man from UNCLE’, another ridiculous acronym but this one I think representing the good guys, one of whom was a nice Russian, played by another Scotsman.
UNCLE however is now long forgotten, along with most of the other spy heroes of those days, who were replaced by Nightriders and X-Men and so on, none of them likely to last. Bond however continues popular, and I cannot help feeling that this is mainly because of his provenance, his connection to the British establishment, his capacity to dress up and create a sense of civilization. This may be skin deep, but it helps to create a sense of purpose that justifies the violence and intrigue used only to preserve what is being attacked by outsiders, at least in theory.