Friday, 28 February 2014

Turbott Wolfe and James Bond

William Plomer's d├ębut novel, Turbott Wolfe, had a profound effect on Ian Fleming. Fleming read the book in 1926 as a teenager and was so impressed by it that he wrote a fan letter to Plomer. The two struck up a friendship, and in time Plomer became Fleming's literary editor.  

Turbott Wolfe was so crucial to Fleming's career as a novelist that it is not unreasonable to suggest that had Fleming not read the book, Casino Royale might never have been published by Jonathan Cape, and the publication history of the Bond books would have been very different.

In an article published on the excellent Artistic License Renewed site, an art and literary James Bond blog and tribute to Richard Chopping, I discuss the connection between Turbott Wolfe and James Bond, and consider what it was about the novel that impressed Fleming so much.

Click on the link to read the article, Ian Fleming and William Plomer's Turbott Wolfe.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Why was Dr No the first Bond film?

My bedtime reading at the moment is David V Picker's memoir about his time in the film industry, Musts, Maybes, and Nevers: A Book About the Movies. In this very entertaining book, David Picker recalls his time as a film producer and, primarily, a studio executive, first at United Artists, then Paramount and Columbia. As head of production at United Artists, David Picker's job was to identify worthwhile and potentially profitable projects, help develop them, secure the money, and ensure that the films were delivered on time and to budget. Among the films he 'green-lit' were Midnight Cowboy, A Hard Day's Night, and, to the gratitude of millions of Bond fans, Dr No.

David Picker's account of how he said yes to Dr No offers an interesting perspective to the well known, and complex, story of how Fleming's novels made it to the screen (big and small), involving false starts, split ownership of rights, expiring options, and Fleming's idiosyncratic way of doing business. There are two aspects of Picker's tale, however, that differ from the standard narrative: the question of why Dr No and not Thunderball was chosen as the first Bond film, and Fleming's attitude towards films.

In his autobiography, When the Snow Melts (1998), Cubby Broccoli tells us that he and co-producer Harry Saltzman decided to film Thunderball as the first Bond film, but switched to Dr No to avoid legal complications when Kevin McClory, who had co-written the screen treatments on which Fleming's novel was based, filed an injunction to stop the film's development. This has long been the accepted version and is repeated in a number of books chronicling the history of the Bond films, among them Andrew Lycett's biography of Ian Fleming (1995), The Incredible World of 007 by Lee Pfeiffer and Philip Lisa (1995), and Bond Films by Jim Smith and Stephen Lavington (2002).

According to David Picker, however, the issue was simply about money. United Artists had set a budget of $1.1 million and David Picker felt that Thunderball would be too expensive to film. Dr No, on the other hand, seemed more achievable based on the parameters UA set. Picker implies that the suggestion of Dr No was his and that he persuaded Broccoli and Saltzman to consider the change. How far this is true is uncertain; everyone has their own view of an event, and it may be the case that the prohibitive cost of filming Thunderball was raised by Picker in addition to any discussion about pending litigation.

As for Ian Fleming's attitude to films, David Picker writes that his early attempts (independent of Saltzman and Broccoli) to secure the rights to film the Bond rights came to nothing, because, as he puts it, “Mr Fleming didn't like movies” and refused to sell the rights. I was surprised by this, as according to Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming very actively pursued film and TV deals. Indeed, Fleming deliberately made Moonraker cinematic to attract film makers, and his novel Dr No was based on one of his screen treatments, Commander James Gunn. While Fleming's interest flagged after so many expressions of interest and preliminary developments stalled, it doesn't appear likely that Fleming ever refused to sell the rights to his novels.

I have to admit being sceptical of both David Picker's claims. That they have gained little foothold in 'Bond history' may be a reflection on the degree of their veracity. From a memetic perspective, they have had little chance of competing with the established narrative, not least because David Picker's version has been little known. In contrast, the memes that legal action prevented Thunderball from being the first Bond film and that Fleming was willing to make a deal for film rights have become well established in the cultural environment, and reinforced through repetition with the publication of each new history of the Bond films.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Spy Who Loved Me: failed experiment or misunderstood classic?

As the authors of two recent introductions to the novel (Nick Stone in the Penguin edition and Douglas Kennedy for the Vintage edition) observed, The Spy Who Loved Me, first published in 1962, is anomalous. Written in first person from a woman's perspective, Ian Fleming's tenth novel hardly deserves the label of a James Bond thriller. When Bond does enter the narrative in the final third of the book, he walks into plot of a cheap crime novel featuring two hoodlums intent on fraud, violence, and murder. Yet, it is one of my favourite Bond novels. It was probably the second Bond book I read, and it was just as exciting as my first (On Her Majesty's Secret Service).

I've returned to the book several times over the years, and have never failed to be pulled in by its gripping, pulp-fiction-inspired narrative. And each reading has brought fresh insight. The latest re-reading is no exception.

Ian Fleming was avid reader of American hard-boiled crime fiction, and especially admired the works of its some of its chief exponents, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. If Fleming was attempting to emulate those authors in his own work, then The Spy Who Loved Me is arguably his finest effort (Diamonds Are Forever also owes more to American detective fiction than it does spy fiction or Bulldog Drummond-style tales of derring-do). Fleming's intention seems clear enough when Bond finally appears. As the book's narrator, Vivienne Michel, observes, he is dressed in a “uniform that the films make one associate with gangsters – a dark-blue, belted raincoat and a soft black hat pulled rather far down.” Later, when he introduces himself to the hoodlums, Sluggsy and Horror, Sluggsy exclaims, “This shamus is a limey dick! A gum-shoe!” In this novel, then, James Bond is less British agent, and more Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.

There are other aspects of the novel that recently caught my attention. One of them was Vivienne's background. As she relates, her parents were killed in an accident (a plane crash) when she was eight, and she was subsequently brought up by her aunt. Sound familiar? Fleming gave Bond a similar back-story when he wrote Bond's obituary in You Only Live Twice (1964). If the origins of some of the ideas behind Bond's childhood lie in The Spy Who Loved Me, then this potentially gives the earlier novel enormous significance. Had Fleming never written The Spy Who Loved Me, his account of Bond's childhood might have been very different.

That is not the only possible connection between The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice. After Vivienne Michel escapes from Sluggsy and Horror, she is recaptured and is violently abused. Crawling into the kitchen of the motel, she makes herself some scrambled eggs and bacon (what else?), and slowly as the food brings warmth and nourishment, Vivienne regains her strength and desire to survive. “Love of life is born of the awareness of death, the dread of it”, she considers. Her statement seems to prefigure Bond's haiku expressed in You Only Live Twice: “You Only Live Twice / Once when you are born / And once when you look death in the face.” Both convey a similar sentiment.

Speaking of Sluggsy and Horror, it has often been claimed that while Fleming forbade the filming of his novel, a vestige of the novel survived in the character of Jaws in the film of The Spy Who Loved Me. The henchman's metal teeth seems to have been based on the steel-capped teeth worn by Horror. But I wonder whether Sandor, who appears in the film alongside Jaws, was written with reference to the description of Horror's co-conspirator, Sluggsy, who is short and hairless.

Of course, any novel or film set in an American motel cannot fail to bring to mind Alfred Hickcock's Psycho (1960), and indeed Fleming seems to have referenced the film in the novel. Vivienne ponders the criminal threats motels face, which include murderers who leave “corpses in the shower.” There is no record of Fleming watching the film, but it is possible that this sentence reflects at least an awareness of it.

The Vintage edition of The Spy Who Loved Me that I recently acquired is the fifth edition of the book I own. Comparing the editions, I noticed that there were two things missing from it. There is no co-author. The novel is by Ian Fleming only, whereas my Penguin, Triad Grafton, Book Club and Cape editions purport to be written by Ian Fleming with Vivienne Michel. The Vintage edition also lacks the short preface that begins, “The spy who loved me was called James Bond”, which reveals that Vivienne's co-author persuaded his publisher to bring out their book. Interestingly, these paragraphs are also absent in the Penguin edition, but present in preceding editions. I think it a shame that these aspects have been dropped, as they are important in setting up a conceit that justifies the style of the book.

Not that, in my view, its existence needs to be justified. The Spy Who Loved Me may be anomalous, but it is also a brave experiment, an exciting pulp-fiction crime thriller, and an important work in the development of James Bond, containing as it possibly does the origins of memes that would be expressed in later forms.

Friday, 7 February 2014

James Bond's Winter Olympics

During the 2012 London Olympics, I wondered which sports James Bond might have been tempted to watch after parachuting into the stadium. Based on what we know from the books and Fleming’s past, the list was a long one: judo, boxing, athletics (track and field), shooting, and swimming. James Bond is, of course, also a winter sportsman, and I imagine that he would be looking forward to catching up on some of the television coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Which sports would he be keen to watch, and which ones would he avoid?

Given his interest in skiing, James Bond is likely to enjoy the downhill events. Bond is no mean skier himself. We know from the novel On Her Majesty's Secret Service that he enjoyed some success on the slopes in Austria as a teenager at the Hannes Schneider School and the Kandahar Ski Club, winning his Golden K badge for achieving a good standard in ski racing and possibly entering the famous Arlberg-Kandahar Challenge Cup. On film, Bond has been a frequent visitor to the slopes (On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only, A View To A Kill, The Living Daylights, and The World Is Not Enough). But while Bond would doubtless admire the racers at Sochi, he might think wryly, “Yes, very good, but try doing it when someone's behind you on skis at 40 miles per hour trying to put a bullet in your back.”

Not all skiing events, though, are likely to hold as much appeal for Bond. Bond would be forgiven for wanted to avoid the biathlon. Last time he watched the event (For Your Eyes Only), one of the competitors try to kill him. Still, his escape and subsequent extended pursuit led to Bond performing a rather nice 360 twist that might have earned some high marks from the judges of the freestyle skiing.

And while Bond's thinking of events he might like to avoid, he might also prefer to give the ice hockey a miss. He was knocked about a bit last time he entered the arena (For Your Eyes Only), although he did manage to score three goals, albeit by unconventional means.

Then there's the ski jumping. Bond doesn't have a bad record in this event. When he attempted his jump in Cortina (For Your Eyes Only), he appeared to reach close to K or critical point, which is considered par. His distance wouldn't have won him any medals, but it's respectable nonetheless. 



 

When it comes to figure skating, Bond is strictly an observer. He professes some knowledge of figure skating, having seen Olympic champion Jacoba Brink skate many times (For Your Eyes Only), but he doesn't seem to skate himself. At both occasions where he's been at an ice rink, he's been without skates.

It's possible that James Bond would want to follow the snowboarding events. Indeed, it could be claimed that James Bond was a pioneer of snowboarding, particularly freestyle. Though snowboarding emerged in the late 1960s, it became an Olympic event as recently as 1998, thirteen years after Bond had demonstrated his freestyle skills (off and on the snow) in Siberia (A View To A Kill). His equipment then was rudimentary, and naturally Bond might be interested to see how the sport has developed, though will no doubt be thankful that bad Beach Boys' covers have not become an essential part of the sport's culture.



 

I'm not sure whether Bond would be keen on seeing the curling. He attempts the sport at Piz Gloria (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), but it’s a clumsy effort, Mr Bond, as he himself admits. Bond might be happy to not have to take part in the event himself, though perhaps would enjoy seeing the experts at work.

When it comes to the bobsleigh, James Bond has considerable experience, and would be keen to watch all the action. He piloted a two-man bobsleigh at Murren, Switzerland, and on skis followed a four-man crew in Italy (On Her Majesty's Secret Service and For Your Eyes Only). And he knows just what the competitors in the skeleton event will be feeling. Ian Fleming reveals in On Her Majesty's Secret Service that Bond attempted the Cresta Run and experienced sixty seconds of naked fear.

All in all, James Bond will probably be glued to the television over the next two weeks following all the Winter Olympic action. He might, however, be a little disappointed that the games are in Russia (too many bad memories), and wish that they – and he – were in Austria instead.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Stevenson Mackenzie: naval officer, spy, James Bond fan

An obituary in the Times caught my eye recently. It marked the death, aged 95, of Lieutenant-Commander Stevenson (Steven) Moir Mackenzie, who served as a naval officer of the Secret Flotillas during the Second World War and subsequently as an officer in MI6. We learnt something else about him too: he was a James Bond fan.

Steven Mackenzie's clandestine wartime role, smuggling agents across the English Channel, brought him into contact with Ian Fleming, who no doubt was enthralled by reports of Steven Mackenzie's exciting and dangerous exploits. These were the sort of stories that might have inspired Fleming's writing, although there is no evidence that Fleming used any of Mackenzie's experiences, both during and after the war, in his James Bond adventures. However, elements of the novels match Mackenzie's background so closely that it is unsurprising that Mackenzie, as the Times revealed, enjoyed reading the books.

As a child, Steven Mackenzie attended Eton, where he excelled at sports, particularly the Wall Game, rowing, rugby and boxing. As Fleming tells us in Bond's 'obituary' in You Only Live Twice, James Bond also attended Eton and later, when he had been transferred to Fettes in Edinburgh, enjoyed considerable sporting success too, though in individual sports, notably athletics, rather than the team sports favoured by Mackenzie. Boxing, however, was a sport common to both; Bond was a strong enough boxer to have fought for the school twice.

The choice of Fettes is interesting. Bond's obituary reveals that Fettes was his father's old school, but what made Fleming pick that one? After all, while much of Bond's schooling reflects that of his creator (including attendance at Eton and sporting success), there had been no obvious connection with Fettes; Fleming's father, Valentine, had attended Eton. Fleming's Scottish heritage may have played a large part in the choice, but the obituary of Steven Mackenzie mentions a detail that suggests another intriguing possibility: Fleming took the idea from Mackenzie, whose father, Moir, went to Fettes.

The possibility that Fleming 'inherited' the meme of sending Bond to 'his father's old school' from Mackenzie seems a remote one, but Fleming and Mackenzie were well acquainted; they met during the war for operational reasons, and continued to meet after the war socially for lunch at Boodle's. It is not too unreasonable to suggest that Steven Mackenzie mentioned Fettes and his father to Fleming during their inevitable conversations about their school days at Eton. That Fleming drew inspiration from Mackenzie is of course highly speculative and I wouldn't want to claim it as fact, but the coincidence of Bond's schooling and Mackenzie's background is interesting nevertheless.

After the war, Steven Mackenzie, like Bond, was recruited into MI6, but unlike Bond followed a more conventional career path involving a series of foreign postings, among them Germany, Hong Kong, and Brazil, becoming director of the Far East and the Americas, and then Head of Station in Buenos Aires. His career path was not too dissimilar from another Bond-like figure, Peter Lunn, an Old Etonian and MI6 agent during and after the war, who served as station head in Berlin, Bonn and Beirut.

Reading about Steven Mackenzie reminded me that James Bond's background and post-war recruitment into MI6 follow that of real agents and are utterly authentic in the context of early Cold War intelligence services. Where Bond's trajectory diverges from convention is his career path. Rather than serve in a succession of foreign postings, perhaps with promotion to section head after ten or fifteen years, Bond is essentially London-based in the double-0 section, although according to John Griswold's chronology, Bond has one foreign posting in to Jamaica in 1947-9, and before is on special duties involving smuggling operations.

Steven Mackenzie's obituary, like others discussed in a previous post, illustrates how significant a figure James Bond has become in the cultural environment. Favourite books are not normally a matter for obituaries, but the success of James Bond, allied with Mackenzie's connection with Ian Fleming (the importance of which is itself elevated by the success of Bond) and Mackenzie's clandestine roles, make it a point of interest. Incidentally, the obituary of Mackenzie in the Daily Telegraph makes less reference to Fleming, a difference possibly explained by Ian Fleming's connection with Times newspapers, which has created a more receptive environment for the perpetuation of James Bond as a cultural phenomenon.


Reference:
Griswold, J, 2006 Ian Fleming's James Bond: Annotations and chronologies for Ian Fleming's Bond stories, Author House