Friday, 25 March 2011

James Bond – licensed to write

It’s said that everyone has a novel in them. For James Bond, it’s a manual. In chapter 5 of Goldfinger we read that for the past year, Bond has whiled away the boredom of night duty by compiling a handbook of unarmed combat, called Stay Alive! The book brings together the self-defence techniques practised by secret agents across the world, including the dreaded (and ultra-secret) organisation of Soviet espionage, SMERSH. Bond hopes that the handbook would be added to the official manuals of the British secret service. In the event, the book is never referred to again, and it is likely that the book remains unfinished.

I’m certain that James Bond is not the only fictional character to have written a book (excluding novels written in the first person as diaries or memoirs and the like; here I mean works mentioned incidentally in the text), although off the top of my head I can only think of Flashman’s Dawns and Departures of a Soldier’s Life, the official memoir of the Victorian cad and scoundrel, whose more private and unvarnished adventures were ‘edited’ by Octopussy screenwriter, George MacDonald Fraser.

In any case, it is fitting that Bond’s literary output (apart from a haiku composed in You Only Live Twice) should be an instruction book. His bookshelf included two golf manuals and a guide to card games.

And, of course, Ian Fleming gave Bond his own interest in knowledge. In his pursuit of information, Fleming amassed a vast collection of academic treatises, guides, and manuals – books, which, in Fleming’s words, ‘started something’, or ‘made things happen’. His library, which is now kept at Indiana University, included such works as The Golfer's Manual; Being an Historical and Descriptive Account of the National Game of Scotland; with an Appendix (1857), by Allan Robertson, The Laws of Ping-Pong; compiled by the Ping-Pong Association (1902), and Walter Camp's New Way to Keep Fit, published in 1922 (one for Bond, perhaps). No doubt Fleming was looking forward to adding Stay Alive! by James Bond to the list.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Quantum of gadgets: How to measure fantasy levels in the James Bond films

Peter Hunt, the director of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) was keen to re-introduce some realism to the Bond series. ‘It’s one of the best Fleming stories’, he noted. When director John Glen embarked on the production of For Your Eyes Only (1981), he said, ‘It was time to get back to the spirit of Ian Fleming’s books.’ Of the actions scenes, Glen says, ‘I endeavoured to make them as realistic as possible.’ Later, when preparing for Licence to Kill (1989), Glen said, ‘This was going to be a harder-edged Bond film than any that had gone before’. Director Martin Campbell described Casino Royale (2006) as ‘more realistic and emotionally involving’, adding, ‘How many control rooms can we blow up? How many madmen can take over the world?’.

There is a pattern of excess followed by purge evident in the evolution of James Bond films. The series follows a trajectory of increasing fantasy, then is reset to something approaching plausibility. The films then recommence an upwards path towards greater fantasy as the cycle is repeated. The films mentioned above are those which critics and makers of the Bond films have acknowledged counter the excesses of previous films and bring a more human and realistic Bond (as Fleming wrote him) to the screen. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service followed You Only Live Twice, which included a volcano lair complete with rocket-launching pad and monorail. For Your Eyes Only brought Bond down to earth after he had been in space in Moonraker. The Living Daylights, the film that preceded Licence to Kill, was relatively realistic, but there was still a touch of Roger Moore silliness that did not sit well with the student of Fleming’s works, Timothy Dalton. Casino Royale avoided the quip-heavy dialogue and edge-of-world-war-three antics of Die Another Day.

The pattern is obvious enough when we watch the films, but can we measure the pattern in any way? One possibility is to take the total number of gadgets per film as an index of fantasy. The more fantastic the film, the higher the number of gadgets it contains. The chart shows the frequency of gadgets for each film (placed in chronological order). We can see that the number of gadgets rises with each successive film, beginning with Dr No (1962), until You Only Live Twice (1967), which sees a slight drop. There is, however, a much steeper fall with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There is then a prolonged period of fluctuation, with frequent rises and falls until GoldenEye (1995), which heralds a relatively steady increasein the frequency of gadgets, reaching a peak with Die Another Day (2002). Casino Royale featured relatively few gadgets, and its sequel, Quantum of Solace had even fewer. Interestingly, the number of gadgets Bond uses does not always move relative to the total number of gadgets. In Live and Let Die (1973), for example, Bond relied on his wits (and charm) more than gadgets, but the film itself represented a peak. (The additional gadgets refer to objects like cars, which have been counted once in the total per film, but contain a range of other gadgets.)

The chart suggests that the frequency of gadgets does have validity as a fantasy index, and identifies the films long regarded as being relatively realistic and closest to Fleming. It also shows that the peaks and troughs in the cycle of excess and purge are more frequent than the traditional focus on the four films mentioned at the start of this piece would suggest. To these, we can potentially add The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), which is relatively gadget free.

From an evolutionary perspective, the changing frequencies in gadget numbers are the product of selection pressures that act on the meme for gadget choice. For example, in the 1960s (which included films from Dr No to You Only Live Twice) the cultural environment favoured zany and surreal films, and this was manifested in the selection of an increasing number of gadgets put to outrageous use. The cultural environment changed in the late seventies, which saw the rise of the blockbuster, led by Jaws and Star Wars, that favoured spectacle and inevitably more gadgets. The Spy Who Loved Me (1976) and Moonraker (1979) are certainly products of this environment. More recently, films makers have adapted to an environment that has demanded harder-edged, realistic portrayals. The series of Bourne films is an early response to this, and the Bond producers followed suit with Casino Royale.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

James Bond’s sporting life

In between his secret missions, James Bond has time for some sport. We know from his high-stakes match with Goldfinger that he is a keen golfer, but he also skis, which was very useful when he had to escape Blofeld’s clutches in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond is a strong swimmer, as we learn in Live and Let Die, and Bond reveals in Thunderball (chapter 22) that skin-diving is one of his hobbies. Bond was sporty in his youth as well. His obituary in You Only Live Twice (chapter 21) tells us that at school Bond was an athlete and a boxer, and that he also established a judo class.

As with so much of his biography, Bond enjoys the same sports practised by his creator, Ian Fleming. Fleming took up golf at an early age. He was introduced to the game aged 8 at his preparatory school at Durnford, although only learnt to play properly when he was 15. From then on he played frequently throughout his life. Fleming learnt to ski in his teens in Switzerland. By the age of 21 he was sufficiently proficient to ski competitively, and he took regular skiing holidays in Kitzb├╝hel during the 1930s. Already a keen swimmer, Fleming discovered diving when he built his house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica after the war. He accompanied Jacques Cousteau on a dive to explore the wreck of an ancient Greek vessel in the Mediterranean in 1953, and his time at Goldeneye was often spent swimming in the waters close to his home.

Like Bond, Fleming excelled at athletics at school. At Eton, he won a long-jump competition and a hurdles title, and he achieved the very rare feat of becoming champion athlete or victor ludorum two years in a row.

It is a fair assumption that James Bond equalled Fleming in terms of his sporting abilities. But just how good is Bond? In his book, Bounce: How champions are made, Matthew Syed exposes the myth that the achievements of top sportsmen and women derive from innate ‘god-given’ talent. Instead, success at sport (and most other things) is a matter of practice – lots of it. It is estimated that champions are made after some 10,000 hours of practice. How close is Bond to this figure?

Like Fleming, Bond learnt to ski during his teens, though in Austria under Hannes Oberhauser, rather than Switzerland (see OHMSS). Let us assume that Bond was 13 when he learnt to ski, and that he spent two weeks of every winter holiday, plus a week during half term, skiing in Austria. We know from his obituary that Bond left school at 17. This gives us 21 days skiing a year for four years. If he spent five hours on the slopes each day, we have a figure of 420 hours. In Bond’s words, a pretty good skier, and had the war then his career not intruded, Bond might have been well on the way to becoming an expert (his musings in OHMSS suggest that he had not been skiing since the start of the war).

What about golf? James Bond was also introduced to golf in his youth. In Goldfinger (chapter 8) we learn that Bond ‘was quite useful when he was a boy’. In Diamonds are Forever (chapter 7), Bond reveals that he shoots a round in the mid eighties – a respectable score that would, I understand, win Bond some low-ranking club tournaments. If we assumed that Bond started playing aged 8 and spent four hours each week playing golf, then by the time he reached 35, he would have clocked up 5,616 hours. Half way there, and a figure that certainly explains his round score. The figure, however, is probably much less than this. A round of golf each week is optimistic (and unlikely during the war years), and in any case Bond may have only started to play seriously in his teens. If Bond’s mid-eighties score actually reflects Fleming’s own abilities, then it is reasonable to suggest that Bond’s claim is unrealistic. Give Bond another 10 years or so (Fleming was 48 when he wrote Diamonds are Forever), and after many more hours of practice, the score might be more accurate.

Lycett, A, 1995 Ian Fleming: the man behind James Bond, Turner Publishing, Atlanta

Saturday, 5 March 2011

007 is the magic number

James Bond goes by two names. There’s James Bond, of course, but we also know him by his code number, 007. The two are interchangeable. It would be difficult to find anyone who does not recognise that 007 refers to James Bond. In fact, it seems that 007 is better known than James Bond. A Google search for James Bond brings up 36 million results. A search for 007 has 234 million results. How has Bond’s number become so successful that it has eclipsed the name James Bond as the identifier of Ian Fleming’s spy?

If we trawled through the vast amount of literature available on Bond lore, we’d find some competing theories on how Fleming came by the number 007. Fleming was well-read, so he was no doubt aware that Elizabeth I’s favourite secret agent and astrologer, ‘Dr’ John Dee, signed his communications ‘007’, the double zeros representing eyes. Then there’s the view that Fleming took the number from a short story by Rudyard Kipling, ‘.007’, about an American locomotive. According to Philip Gardiner, author of The Bond Code, Fleming was making an astrophysicist’s joke – 0.007 apparently relates to the mass of hydrogen required to bind the particles that form an atomic nucleus.

The truth is likely to be much simpler. Following the successful interception during the first world war of a top-secret German document identified in German diplomatic code as 0075, all classified documents in British military intelligence were given a double-0 code. This continued into the second world war. Fleming himself mentioned in an interview that top-secret signals were prefixed with the code. There is no doubt that he saw the code ‘00’, followed by a number, very frequently, and it stuck with him.

Quite why double-0, and 007 in particular, appealed to Fleming so much is uncertain, but some of the reasons could be the same as those that ensure that 007 remains well known today. The number has an aesthetic quality – it looks good, probably due to the juxtaposition of the round with the angular. Then there’s the manner it’s said, which gives the code name a rhythm, moving the mouth and tongue in a mildly pleasing way. The code is not ‘zero-zero-seven’, or ‘oh-oh-seven’, but ‘double-oh-seven’. Even Fleming pronounced it this way. It is also worth considering the size of the number. A three-digit number is easier to remember than a number with more digits, but it is long enough to give it an distinct identity. A one or two digit code is more likely to be confused with other, non-Bond-related, numbers.

There are other advantages that 007 has over the name James Bond. ‘007’ is effectively a logogram, like Japanese kanji, that stands for a word (in this case James Bond). This is very useful. For instance, the use of 007, rather than James Bond, is better in non-English speaking countries. This is evident by the non-English titles of Bond films, among them ‘Agent 007 Versus the Satanic Dr No’ (Spain), ‘To 007, From Russia With Love’ (Italy), ‘The Queen’s 007’ (Japan, OHMSS). The number uses fewer characters than James Bond and is therefore good for newspaper headlines. The film producers made the number more memorable by turning the seven into the butt of a gun. Effectively the code became a symbol and trade-mark.

The code number 007 is a highly successful meme. It has fecundity, being replicated often, it is replicated accurately, and it has longevity, surviving so far for almost 60 years. Why Ian Fleming chose 007 may be a matter of debate, but one thing is certain: to paraphrase the grail knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he chose wisely.


Gardiner, P, 2008 The Bond code: the dark world of Ian Fleming and James Bond, New Page Books, Franklin Lakes
Macintyre, B, 2008 For your eyes only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, Bloomsbury, London
Nourmand, T, 2003 James Bond movie posters: the official 007 collection, Boxtree, London