Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Spy's Bedside Book

As a measure of the growing success of Ian Fleming's James Bond adventures, three passages from the novels were included in The Spy's Bedside Book, an anthology of spy stories and episodes edited by Graham Greene and Hugh Greene and published in 1957. The stories range from tales of Napoleonic intrigue to descriptions of Cold War spycraft, and present the absurdities, banalities and brutalities of espionage.

The three excerpts from Fleming's books are from Casino Royale (1953), Moonraker (1955) and From Russia, with Love (1957). The passage from Casino Royale is in a section called 'Professional Perquisities', and sees Bond ordering dinner for himself and Vesper Lynd in the restaurant of the Hotel Splendide. The passage from Moonraker, placed in the anthology under 'Tricks of the Trade', is from a scene in Blades, M's club. Bond has ordered vodka and proceeds to sprinkle pepper into the glass to take the residual fusel oil to the bottom of the glass. The passage from From Russia, with Love, placed in a section called 'Delights of the Profession', describes Bond's attaché case, the bag of tricks put together by Q Branch.

It is arguable how much of Bond's origins can be found in the writings of John Buchan, William Le Queux, and other early 20th-century spy writers, but these three passages do not seem out of place among tales of imperial and wartime adventures. Apart from Buchan and Le Queux, other authors in the anthology include Sir Robert Baden-Powell, T E Lawrence, Compton Mackenzie, and Rudyard Kipling. There is also room for some of the authors that Fleming most admired: Eric Ambler, Somerset Maugham, E Philips Oppenheim, and Fleming's brother, Peter.

My copy of the book, incidentally, is a former library copy, having once belonged to the library of Seaton Burn County Modern School in Northumberland. For me, what is perhaps as fascinating as the stories are the marginalia and annotations made by some of the book's readers. The marks made on the list of contents pages are especially interesting. The first name of Richard Garnett, who contributed to the Dictionary of National Biography, has been crossed out and replaced by 'Alf', forming the name of a sitcom character who first appeared on British television in July 1965. The name of co-editor Hugh Greene is at one point altered to Hughie Greene [sic], who was a popular television gameshow host on ITV from the mid 1950s to late 1970s. And in all three listings of the Bond passages, Ian Fleming has been underlined, drawing attention to the entries.

Given the date of the Alf Garnet reference, the annotations must date to or after the period of 'Bondmania' that began with the release of Goldfinger in the cinema in 1964. The juvenile scribblings inevitably reflect the cultural environment of the time and provide a little insight into the increasing popularity of James Bond.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Poppy Is Also A Flower - further James Bond connections

In the latest edition of MI6 Confidential (excellent as always), there's a fascinating article about the production of The Poppy Is Also A Flower, a UN-sponsored film broadcast in 1966 on US television and given wider release in the cinema in 1967. The film follows UN agents Benson and Sam Lincoln (played by Stephen Boyd and Trevor Howard respectively) on the trail of a shipment of opium from its source in Iran to the point of distribution in Europe, and features a host of Hollywood stars, including Grace Kelly, Yul Brynner, Rita Hayworth and Omar Sharif.

As explored in the piece in MI6 Confidential, the main interest for Ian Fleming aficionados is that the screenplay was based on a story by Ian Fleming (he is duly credited on the titles of the film), and was directed by Terence Young, who directed Dr No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965). I was sufficiently intrigued by the article to watch the film (available via You Tube), and as I did so, spotted a number of other connections between the film and the Bond series.

Trevor Howard, who was touted as a potential Bond for Dr No, though never seriously considered for the role by Broccoli and Saltzman, was given his chance to play Bond in the film. His character, Lincoln, has some obvious Bondian traits. He is charming, irresistible to women, and an action man, and for part of the film wears a dinner-suit. Lincoln is killed off towards the end of the film, after inveigling himself under a false identity into the villain's circle and surreptitiously searching the villain's yacht (reminiscent of Largo's boat in Thunderball). 'Bond duties' are subsequently taken up by his partner, Benson, who till then has a far quieter role.

The thrilling denouement is set on Le Train Bleu, a luxury express train which ran between Calais and the French Riviera. As if to accentuate the obvious parallel with From Russia With Love (which used the Orient Express), the train sequence includes a bruising fist-fight in a carriage between Benson and an enemy agent, Captain Vanderbilt, played by Anthony Quayle. Here, Terence Young cannot have failed to draw on his experience filming the seminal fight scene between Bond and Grant in From Russia With Love. Curiously, earlier in the film, Poppy features a wrestling scene between two near-naked women, which echoes the gypsy fight also in From Russia With Love.

Among the star-studded cast of Poppy is a familiar face from the Bond films. Harold Sakata, most famous for playing Oddjob in Goldfinger, appears as Martin, an intermediary in the opium trade. And if most of the Italian and French cast members sound familiar (and identical), it is because they seem to have been dubbed by Robert Rietty, who provided the voices for, among others in the Bond series, Largo in Thunderball and Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice.

The Poppy Is Also A Flower isn't a great film – its plot and cast are perhaps overly burdened by the the film's august sponsor and worthiness of the anti-drugs campaign that the film was designed to promote – but it is entertaining enough, and worth watching for the Bond connections. The James Bond films appear to have provided inspiration for many aspects of the plot and characterisation, which was no doubt influenced by Ian Fleming's small, but critical involvement in the project's early stages, and Terence Young's experience directing three of the four Bond films that had been filmed up till then.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The enduring popularity of Richard Kiel's Jaws

When the death of Richard Kiel was announced on 11th September, the story made news headlines around the world, and generous obituaries were published in major newspapers. This is testament to the respect and affection people around the world felt for the actor, and a measure of the extent to which Jaws, James Bond's steel-toothed adversary in the films The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979), had pervaded cultural space.

Much of the responsibility for this must lie in Richard Kiel's interpretation of the role. He imbued the character with the perfect combination of menace, humour and humanity – remarkably without uttering a single word until his final scene as Jaws in Moonraker. As Kiel said on the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Reunion, recorded days before his death, “I said if I were to play the part, I want to give the character some human characteristics, like perseverance, frustration.”

The popularity of Jaws also stems, inevitably, from his physical attributes and macabre method of dispatching his victims. The flash of metal teeth as Jaws grimaces in pleasure at the prospect of a killing. The ease with which he bites through a metal cable, almost as if it were, say, liquorice. The view of Jaws advancing down a side street in outlandish carnival costume towards Manuela, Bond's Rio assistant, who is rooted on the spot in fear. His i
ndestructibility in his relentless pursuit of Bond. These are moments that stay with audiences long after the films have ended, and make Jaws so memorable. It helps, too, that Jaws has the same name as an equally (or more) famous shark. In contrast, Sandor and Chang, Jaws' fellow henchmen in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker respectively, have largely been forgotten among all but keen Bond fans.

Jaws was a product of the The Spy Who Loved Me's scriptwriters (director Lewis Gilbert suggests in his autobiography that Jaws was the creation of Richard Maibaum, rather than Christopher Wood). However, while the character doesn't appear in Ian Fleming's original novel (published in 1962), the scriptwriters may well have drawn inspiration from the novel. When the book's heroine, Vivienne Michel, first encounters Horror, one of the two criminals intending to murder Vivienne and burn down the motel she's managing, she recalls that “when he spoke there was a glint of grey silvery metal from his front teeth and I supposed they had been cheaply capped with steel.” Horror doesn't use his teeth to kill, but it's possible that Jaws was born from this description, as well as traits or memes of other characters, most plausibly Dracula's penchant for biting necks.

Jaws has had life after Moonraker, thanks to his continued popularity. For example, the character was resurrected for the 007 Legends computer game (2012) and was one of three henchmen from the film series (the others being Nick Nack and Oddjob) to appear in the animated series, James Bond Jr (1991-2). The three characters, incidentally, also appear together during the 'Minions Anonymous' scene in the credits of the film, Inspector Gadget (1999). Richard Kiel is featured as the 'Famous Bad Guy with Silver Teeth'. The Eon series itself surely alluded to Jaws in The World Is Not Enough (1999), with the character of Bullion, Valentin Zukovsky's
gold-toothed bodyguard played by Goldie.

Jaws was additionally referenced in a number of television commercials starring Richard Kiel. In one, for the Sampo Visa Mini credit card, Kiel is in a supermarket approaching the check-outs counters. His menacing size and scowl on his face frightens the check-out girl, but when Kiel takes out his credit card (the number of which ends '007'), she relaxes and smiles, revealing metal braces on her teeth.

In another advert, for Shredded Wheat, Richard Kiel sits at a table in a restaurant and proceeds to bite off the tines of a fork and a fragment from a dinner plate before ordering three shredded wheat (a diner at a neighbouring table is incredulous that Kiel would eat three shredded wheat).

The James Bond films have produced characters that have become as well established in popular culture as James Bond, and enjoy cultural recognition in their own right. Jaws is one of them, owed principally to Richard Kiel's unforgettable, terrifying, and sympathetic, characterisation.  

Thursday, 4 September 2014

A pilgrimage to Ian Fleming's grave

The monument marking Ian Fleming's grave
Returning from a holiday on the south coast of Devon (unfortunately I missed the chance to visit the beach at Salcombe; Ian Fleming spent his childhood holidays there and recalled them in the opening chapter of On Her Majesty's Secret Service), I decided to take a detour to the village of Sevenhampton, near Swindon in Wiltshire. It is in this village, in the church of St James (appropriately), that Fleming is buried.

Getting to the church wasn't straightforward. Sevenhampton is hidden away, and a crucial road sign at a crossroads had been knocked down. Eerily, an oncoming car that looked suspiciously like a Bentley 4½ litre fitted with an Amhurst Villiers supercharger - the type of car that both Fleming and Bond drove - passed me. A good sign that I was on the right track, I thought! Eventually entering the village, I had to park the car in a lane, and walk back to the main road before turning down a private driveway, then going through a gate and along a footpath to the entrance into the churchyard. Even before one reaches the church, the tall, pyramidal, monument marking Fleming's grave is clearly seen and dominates the churchyard.

The grave is in fact a family tomb. Plaques on the monument additionally identify the graves of Ann Fleming, Ian's wife, and Caspar, their son. The plaque dedicated to Ann, who died in 1981, offers the inscription, “There is none like her, none,” a line taken from Maud (Part XVIII), a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The epitaph to Caspar, who died tragically young in 1975, reads, “To cease upon the midnight with no pain,” which is a quotation from Keats' Ode to a Nightingale.

The plaque dedicated to Ian Fleming is different in a few ways. It doesn't give Ian's full name (the other two provide middle names), it gives the dates of his birth and death (the other plaques record only the years of birth and death), and in addition to the epitaph, includes the words, “In Memoriam”, which the others lack. I'm not sure how significant these differences are, but they are interesting nonetheless.
The plaque dedicated to Ian Fleming
Ian Fleming's epitaph has a classical source. It reads, “Omnia perfunctus vitae praemia, marces,” and is taken from On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), a six-book didactic poem written in honour of the Greek philosopher Epicurus by the Roman writer Lucretius, who lived during the first half of the 1st century BC. The line comes from book three (DRN 3.955-62), which in part explores the fear of death, and can be translated as, “Having enjoyed all life's prizes, you now decay.” On their own, the words allude to the inevitability of death and the impermanence of life and material things, but also allude to Fleming's intense, somewhat hedonistic, take on life. The phrase also seems echoes James Bond's philosophy, as revealed in You Only Live Twice: “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my days.”

Within its original passage, however, the line has a rather more negative connotation. 

“Take your tears away from here, wretch, and quell your complaints. Having enjoyed all life's prizes, you now decay. But because what you want is always at a distance, you shun what is at hand, your life has slipped away incomplete and unenjoyed, and death stands by your head unexpected, before you can leave things satisfied and full.” (Translation by James Warren.)
The passage clearly concerns premature death (Fleming was just 56 when he died of a heart attack), but from its Epicurean viewpoint ridicules the notion that the pursuit of pleasure leads to fulfilment. While happiness, according to Epicurus, derives from the absence of suffering, overindulgence can be a cause of pain, and ultimately unhappiness and death.

I don't know who chose the words – it's possible that Ian Fleming had discovered the phrase and requested that it be inscribed on his gravestone, though it seems more likely that the words were chosen by others (perhaps Ann's literary friends) – but the censorious tone of the rest of the passage makes the wording an odd, and not entirely flattering, selection.

I wonder whether a more sympathetic epitaph might have been provided. The tribute offered by William Plomer at Fleming's memorial service (“Don't let us indulge in vain regrets that he didn't live longer, but let us be glad that he lived so intensely”) is a touching alternative. But in a way Fleming had already provided his own epitaph. In chapter 15 of From Russia, with Love, Kerim Bey talks to Bond about the threat of dying from the 'Iron Crab' (that is, a heart attack). “Perhaps," Kerim says, "they will put on my tombstone 'This Man Died from Living Too Much.'” The words could equally apply to Ian Fleming himself.


Lycett, A, 1995 Ian Fleming: The man behind James Bond, Turner
Warren, J, 2006 Facing death: Epicurus and his critics, Oxford University Press