Sunday, 22 November 2015

(Thoughts on ‘Spectre’ and the wonderful world of James Bond)
My wife and I sometimes partake of a pleasurable activity known as ‘Doing a Jimmy’. This isn't Cockney slang for a bodily function but our pet name for watching a James Bond film. It derives from a very silly offering back in the sixties when Woody Allen - cashing in on Bondmania - played a spoof character called Jimmy Bond.
Whenever we do a Jimmy, we always take care to do it ‘ironically’, thereby maintaining our moral and intellectual superiority while compromising none of our enjoyment. If we do it late at night in the privacy of our own home, things often get a bit out of hand with whoops and cheers of delight as our hero sends a carful of baddies plunging over a cliff, or howls of playful derision as – having dispatched the evil villain to oblivion – he tosses off some remark like, ‘It’s a pity he couldn’t keep his head in a crisis’.   
Much as we love our Jimmys, we seldom actually pay good money for one. Last Saturday was an exception. The weather was frightful, my 97 year old mother-in-law was making us feel guilty (as usual) for 'never taking her anywhere' and my wife’s nephew was nobly enduring a two day stay in a town with as much social life as an abandoned cemetery. So we caved in and all set off to our local Kino to check out ‘Spectre’ – the latest and much-hyped slice of Bondage.
I won’t give away the plot or bore everyone with a review. Suffice it to say that it was all rather splendid on the big screen (especially the train tootling across the desert into the sunset) and very "authentic" except for one or two little lapses, like when our hero suddenly acquires an aeroplane from nowhere (as you do) in order to pursue the villain down a mountain pass; and when he hands his evening suit to a guard on a train saying, ‘Will you press that for me, please?’ I’m going to try that next time I’m on the Hastings-Brighton line. 
Afterwards, over tea and cake, the analysis began. My mother-in-law, as usual, was the most outspoken, proclaiming that Craig Douglas’ suits were too ‘nippy’ (she meant Daniel Craig, of course) and that the heroine was too young for him, as though, instead of the customary carnal quickie, they were planning to settle down together in a cottage in the Cotswolds. Her best contribution was, ‘I’d never be able to make love after killing all those people – I’d be too exhausted’. I’m not sure which of the two scenarios suggested by that remark is more alarming. 
Despite having been an ardent Jimmy fan for more than half a century, I’ve become increasingly aware of the awkwardness of the character in the contemporary world – especially now, when directors take such delight in their hero’s tangled personal back-story. Are we supposed to take him as a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out or just a little bit seriously? If so, one cannot help wondering at the emotional content of an apparently friendless and family-less existence devoted to indiscriminate slaughter, witty one-liners and a string of meaningless copulations? Ian Fleming, a product of the wealthy upper classes who was hewn in wartime intelligence, gave birth to Bond more than sixty years ago, publishing the first novel, ‘Casino  Royale’, in 1953. This was the age of chisel-jawed wartime heroes like Biggles and Bulldog Drummond – the sort of chaps who were more concerned with zapping jerries than with their inner emotional complexities–so Bond seemed comparatively well rounded, not to say glamorous and colourful in those days of post-war austerity. I clearly remember finding a thumbed copy of ‘Dr No’, discarded by my elder brother, at the awkward age of twelve, and it was like finding the entrance to Aladdin’s cave. As a painfully slow dyslexic reader I had only ever made it through ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Black Beauty’ and James Bond proved to be my unlikely guide into literature. The books were so readable, so pacey and exciting with their exotic characters and sunny locations and, best of all, those beautiful women with ‘breasts’ (I’d never heard the term before) who actually made love to our hero (something of which Biggles, I am sure, would have heartily disapproved.)
Surprisingly, despite his glamour, Bond did not make it onto the screen until nearly ten years later, with ‘Dr No’, starring rugged, lishpy and flarey-nostrilled Sean Connery – then unknown but now every granny’s favourite Jimmy. Yet the world was changing by then and James Bond already seemed out of step with it. Under his stylish exterior, he embodied patriotism, Empire, the class system, the old order – all the things sixties popular culture was trying to sweep away – and his condescending attitude to women was hardly in tune with the budding cause of feminism. Also, of course, he tended to kill people – which didn't sit too well with flower power and all those anti-war sentiments of peace and love – relaxing afterwards with the perfect Martini (shaken not stirred) while the rest of the world was pulverising its brains with pot. Judi Dench, as a new and alarmingly female ‘M’ in ‘Goldeneye’, famously calls Pierce Brosnan’s Bond a ‘sexist misogynist dinosaur’ but the truth is that dear old Jimmy was a bit of a sexist misogynist dinosaur from the very start.
Every decade since the sixties has been different and Jimmy has managed to remain out of sync with all of them. It’s interesting how different actors and directors dealt with this problem. Roger Moore of the quizzically arching eyebrows did it by hamming Bond up into almost a comic character - a technique which worked quite well at first but eventually got so silly as to make the films unwatchable (with giant winking fishes and groan-inducing lines like ‘Something just came up’.) Under Pierce Brosnan, Bond went off into the realms of fantasy with invisible cars, ice palaces at the North Pole and Korean gentlemen turning themselves into Toby Stevens with the help of very talented plastic surgeons.
I’ve noticed in the Daniel Craig films that Bond’s failure to keep in step with the ‘real’ world has not so much been glossed over as cleverly incorporated into the character - and this, ironically, is a reward for his longevity. Once Her Majesty’s obedient, if somewhat unruly, servant, he has become the loose cannon, the rogue operator, disobeying orders and doggedly doing things the good old-fashioned way while his masters tie themselves up in diplomacy, bureaucracy and political correctness. Having saved the world, of course, he always gets the last laugh, the grudging approval of his superiors and the girl. He has turned himself into the trusty old maverick who reminds us of basic values and a simpler, rosier world that never really existed – a kind of Jeremy Corbyn of covert operations.  
Then there’s that other interesting evolution – that of the ‘Bond girl’. In the early films the Bond girl was little more than Jimmy’s decorative but helpless appendage who depended entirely on his manly strength and resourcefulness for her survival and who, once the world had been saved, could be happily bonked and binned with tearful acceptance of the inevitable. In the latter films the Bond girl (though still stunning of course) has become deeper, more serious (she has a degree), more distinctive and self-reliant. In a good light she could almost be mistaken for a real person. There is also the suggestion that Jimmy has grown deeper in his relationships – there’s some pain, some anguish, a bit of baggage, and the suggestion that the impossibility of a lasting relationship (mainly because he’s got a new film to make) is causing him mild regret.
Which brings me to my own contribution to the tea and cake analysis of ‘Spectre’ – one which left my audience agog with admiration at my film buffness. It was the idea that it was not so much plagiarising the other Jimmys as nodding affectionately in their direction. The Day of the Dead was straight out of ‘Live and Let Die’, the sexy (and completely ridiculous) train ride across the desert ‘From Russia with Love’, and, most blatant of all (though you’d need to be a nonagenarian to spot it), Jimmy and the heroin’s abduction to Blofeld’s desert hideout where an unctuous minion greets them with, ‘We’re so glad you’ve arrived safely. Your host is expecting you for cocktails at six.’ The words winged me wistfully back over half a century to that well-thumbed paperback I read at the age of twelve – Dr No. His adversary, ever thoughtful, had even had a dress laid out on the heroine’s bed just as Dr No’s jolly ‘housekeeper’ did for Honey Ryder (since she’d turned up in nothing but that world-famous white bikini which propelled a generation of teenage boys into manhood). It was almost as though Jimmy was rounding things off, summing things up and – dare I suggest it? – saying goodbye.
At the end of 'Spectre', Jimmy has Blofeld wounded and defenceless in his power and he does something completely unexpected and rather beautiful to him (I won’t say what) before strolling off into the (proverbial) sunset with the girl. Into what future? That cottage in the Cotswold, being brought his afternoon tea and slippers by a woman thirty years his junior? I think not. A man who has saved the world more times than most of us have had hot dinners will not be so easily terminated. Those hints of finality in ‘Spectre’ will turn out to be just a tease and James Bond will rise again in a new and ever more splendid incarnation – as he always does – so my lovely wife and I can carry on doing our Jimmys all the way to the telly lounge in the old people’s home.         


  1. The James Bond concept was very much of its time...and has now been superceded by faster, more up to date stuff. It's a bit like re-doing the Smiley books. You either have to stick to the original format or do them as pastiche. I never watch them, never did..they are men's fantasy filme, BH needless to say, loves them...and I LIKE your mother-in-law!

  2. Thanks Carole, I think you've neatly summarised the problem facing those who want to keep resuscitating poor old Bond. I suppose young people who enjoy him know nothing of his history so are prepared to take him at face value. I suppose the truth is that film-makers are prepared to keep anything alive as long as it's making them money. Yes, m-in-law is a pretty game old bird, bless her!

  3. Peter, I really enjoyed this post. Am hoping to see the film soon with husband and youngest son. We shall sit in the cinema ensuring that we maintain our "moral and intellectual superiority while compromising none of our enjoyment".

  4. Thanks so much Wendy. I think you'll enjoy it, if only for the photography and effects, but you'll need to leave your belief suspended outside the door. But hey! That's Bond. And you'll be tickled by the train scene. This is definitely not London South-Eastern!