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James Bond… Live and Let Live
With the 50 year anniversary of James Bond’s film début being marked by the current release of ‘Skyfall’ I thought I would like to explore the Bond phenomenon a little deeper and why this peculiar British genre has acquired such international appeal. Skyfall, the latest in a line of 23 action-packed films from EON Productions that have in 50 years grossed an astounding $5 billion, second only to the much more recent Harry Potter saga,
I personally discovered James Bond in the late 1950s, when I’d be about 14 years old, when copies of Ian Fleming’s book ‘Moonraker’ were in circulation among school friends. This book was a revelation to us all, brought up as we had been, on ‘ripping yarns’ by John Buchan, Kipling, Conrad, Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson. To my surprise and delight, I discovered, on my parents’ bookshelves a copy of Fleming’s second novel, ‘Live and Let Die’, which I also devoured with great enjoyment. By then I was an addict, and every one of Fleming’s succeeding 10 books became compulsive reading for boys of my generation. These books were formative reading for a British teenager in middle-England in the 1960s; suddenly sex was on the agenda and the international world of glamorous women, spies and high living was being described and illustrated in vivid detail.
However, the James Bond of Fleming's books is a wholly different character to the flamboyant, and sometimes ridiculous, film persona Bond has become over five decades. For this reason I would urge you to read the original stories in book form, as they are truly compelling and 'un-put-down-able', even now after five decades.
But what about the author, Ian Fleming; how did he come to write such gripping stories which have survived so long in the world’s imagination? Ian Fleming came from a wealthy background; born in Mayfair, London in 1908 and educated at Eton, his father was killed in the First World War, and the young Ian was apparently something of a tearaway at Eton, being eventually removed by his mother. A brief sortie at Sandhurst Military College also failed to quell the aberrant youth, and he was despatched to the Tennerhof in Kitzbühel, Austria, a small private school run by the former British spy Ernan Forbes Dennis. With much improved language skills he attended university at Munich and Geneva. After some romantic interludes, a spell as a journalist in Moscow with Reuters, as a merchant banker in London and further romantic complications, the Second World War intervened, and in May 1939 he was recruited into naval intelligence with the rank of lieutenant, later commander in the Royal Navy.
Naval Intelligence was where the 21 year old Fleming discovered his natural aptitude, and among many fascinating twists during a distinguished war service he proposed the ultimately successful “Man Who Never Was” ruse, tricking the Axis powers into believing that the invasion of Italy from North Africa would be elsewhere. His recommendation read: "A Suggestion (not a very nice one) in which a corpse dressed as an airman, with despatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that has failed. I understand there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Naval Hospital, but, of course, it would have to be a fresh one." The story was told in a popular film some years later in 1956.
He also worked closely with the top secret Bletchley Park on Operation Ruthless; a plan aimed at obtaining details of the Enigma codes used by the German Navy, was instigated by a memo written by Fleming. The idea was to "obtain" a German bomber, man it with a German-speaking crew dressed in Luftwaffe uniforms, and crash it into the English Channel. The crew would then attack their German rescuers and bring their boat and Enigma machine back to England. Much to the annoyance of Alan Turing and Peter Twinn at Bletchley Park, the mission was never carried out. So although Fleming never saw action in the field, his imagination and ability to ‘think-outside-the-box’ kept him close to some of the most amazing and successful intelligence projects which ultimately shortened the war and thus saved many thousands of lives.
But what of the man? A heavy smoker and drinker, Fleming died of a heart attack aged only 56 in 1964, two years after EON Productions first film, Dr No, first hit the cinemas. He wrote all the James Bond stories at his Jamaican estate, ‘Goldeneye’ on the north coast of the island. From his background, education and war service one can see where many of the book themes might have come from, but he was a true British eccentric and one gets the impression he could be rather arrogant and effete; probably not the sort of person who would be received well by today’s contemporary celebrity culture.
In the UK the first James Bond film, 'Dr No' was received with to moderate enthusiasm, which over time increased internationally to become a long-standing success. Fleming never saw the filmic phenomenon his character, James Bond, was to become, but it is interesting to compare how Fleming himself visualised James Bond, and whether he would approve of the panoply of actors who have played the role.
In his books Fleming insisted his character exuded an exclusive British style and distinction. He even demonstrated many early examples of branded 'product placement’ with Bond’s cigarettes, lighter, drinks, watch, his cars of course and clothing all being nominated from the higher echelons of contemporary brands. So although the film-makers have long ago exhausted the 12 original novels and even most of the short stories, the appetite for Bond action shows no sign of abating and the latest Bond, Daniel Craig, seems to be returning to the true essence of the original character in stories with seriously good acting and few comedic quips.
Long may the legend continue - a good tale well told was always the fundamental hook of the James Bond stories and although now padded with impossibly exciting special effects, the narrative is still the core which continues to draw us to the films, and don't forget the original books.
While on the subject of James Bond I thought I'd trawl our vast catalogue of superb quality British products and select a few products that the guys and girls round the office thought he might select and wear. Here are their selections...
Oh and any Bond girls out there would be wearing Liberty Freedom ...obviously.
..........with maybe one of those gorgeous silky scarves from Lily & Lionel.