Thursday, 25 February 2016

Why 007 is the magic number - revisited

Back in 2011, I considered the factors that made Bond's code number, 007, such a successful meme in the cultural environment, the number being memorable and highly recognisable the world over. I suggested that its effective use as a symbol and trade mark, its adaptability (for instance the seven being depicted as the handle of a gun, and the incorporation of 007 into film titles), and the common way that it is pronounced – double oh seven – are strong contributing factors.

Since then, there's been some interesting research by mathematician Alex Bellos on how numbers are perceived in culture and the role numbers have in daily life, and I was reminded about this recently. The work may add another factor to what makes 007 so successful.

For part of his research, Alex Bellos carried out a survey among members of the public to find out their favourite number. Top of the list, out of an infinite sequence of numbers, was seven. When asked to characterise the number seven, respondents suggested words such as magical, intelligent and masculine, but also awkward and overconfident (most of which could apply to Bond!).

Alex Bellos describes his research in the book, Alex Through the Looking Glass (2014, Bloomsbury). In it, he writes about the cultural significance of the number seven – there are seven days a week, seven wonders of the world, seven deadly sins, and so on – but he dismisses the idea that these are what makes seven so special.

Instead, the number's significance, Alex Bellos suggests, lies in its oddness. Seven has unique arithmetic properties (for example, it cannot be multiplied or divided within the group of numbers one to ten). And when asked to think of a number, people are most likely to think of seven or a number ending in seven.

Returning to James Bond, we can therefore also suggest that 007 is successful, because seven is an odd number in more ways than one, and because of the way the number seven is brought so readily to mind. Alternative code numbers, say 002 or 005, just wouldn't be so good. While people would recognise the name James Bond easily enough, they might be more hard-pressed to remember his code number.

As I intimated in my 2011 blog post, Ian Fleming's creation of the code number 007 was inspired, and has surely contributed to James Bond's longevity and popularity.

Friday, 19 February 2016

A look at Some Kind of Hero

While there have been many books over the years that have charted the history of the Bond films, none has been as detailed, fascinating or, to be honest, daunting, as Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury's volume. Stacking up at some 600 pages (with a further 100 for footnotes, references etc.), Some Kind of Hero: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films (2015, The History Press) could be described as the Bond film reference book to end all Bond film reference books, and I think it would be well deserving of the title.

The book begins, of course, with a chapter on Ian Fleming, before describing the tortuous path that eventually led to the deal between Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli to produce a series of Bond films, starting with Dr No in 1962. The book then runs through the background, scripts, production, casting, and much more for each film, pausing now and again to devote special chapter to key players and events. 

With so much written on Bond elsewhere, the authors could have taken the easy route by bringing together what has already been published. The authors haven't ignored those existing sources, but at the same time have assembled a huge amount of information gleaned from their own interviews with actors, production crew, producers and studio executives, and also trawled through some very useful archive material. One voice is notably absent, that of the original film Bond, Sean Connery. The authors made valiant attempts to secure an interview, but the odds were always going to be against them.

Reading the book, the overwhelming impression I gained of the business of making Bond films was that it's a wonder that any Bond film manages to be made at all.

There is the usual game of studio executive musical chairs, with Eon Productions having had to deal, seemingly, with new faces each time at United Artists, then MGM, more often than not a result of the almost never-ending saga of financial troubles, mergers, takeovers, and complex legal arrangements, all of which have threatened production and the survival of the Bond series.

And that's before one gets to the scripts. These days especially, many scriptwriters, most uncredited, have a hand in the screenplays. I hadn't appreciated, for example, that the director will usually bring in his own writers to rework existing drafts, or will even do some rewriting himself. Many ideas never make it to the final shooting script (and looking at some of the synopses of those early drafts, I'm glad they didn't), but often the final script is very different to the first draft. This can work to the film's advantage – Paul Haggis' involvement on Casino Royale (2006) transformed the film – but sometimes the work is a rewrite too far. Die Another Day (2001) began life as a fairly straight Cold War-style thriller with a good dose of Fleming, until director Lee Tamahori upped the fantasy, culminating in the invisible car and the execrable CGI.

More positively, the authors highlight aspects which demonstrate why the Bond series has lasted more than fifty years, among them the top actors, the expertise and dedication of the production crew, the sheer scale of the Bond films, the power of the series to film in places that would have been closed to any other production, and ability of Eon to respond to changing audience expectations and cultural environments. I was particularly impressed to read that screentesting for potential Bonds involves not just a run-through of classic Bond scenes, but a whole re-staging, with full sets, music, lighting and so on. At least for those screentests, the actors really are Bond.

I admit I skipped over the detailed plot synopses; by now I'm pretty familiar with the films, as I expect most readers will be. And despite the size of the volume, there are gaps. Each chapter ends abruptly at the point of the film's release, but I wanted to know more about how the films were received, both critically and by the cinema-going public. There's a chapter on Bondmania of the 1960s, but what of the enduring Bond phenomenon? There are few accompanying images, but then again, this is no coffee table book. The book is slightly marred by an unfortunate typo (probably a 'find-and-replace' that wasn't subsequently checked) that is repeated through the volume, right down to the final line.

But you can't fault the authors' knowledge, scope, tenacity, and story-telling. Some Kind of Hero is some kind of book, and is essential reading for Bond aficionados.

Friday, 12 February 2016

The curious case of GoldenEye

There is one curious legacy of the film GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan's debut Bond film released 20 years ago, and that is the adoption of the title's form, with its distinctive mid-word upper case 'E' (an example of CamelCase or medial capitals), by those writing the name of Ian Fleming's Jamaican home. Look at the website of the Goldeneye Resort, of which Fleming's home is now only one part, and you'll notice that its name is given as GoldenEye. What's more, this form has been occasionally used since 1995 in the pages of the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica's foremost newspaper.

For example, a piece published on 4th August 2010 stated that 'GoldenEye provides simple, contemporary Jamaican style luxury'. On 14th June, the Gleaner reported on the first Bizot Party at 'GoldenEye Hotel Resort’s Bizot Bar', where signature cocktails such as The GoldenEye Punch were being served. And the edition of 29th November 2013 reported on 'the opportunity to buy into GoldenEye' with a shares being offered in lagoon units.

It has to be said that the CamelCase form of the name isn't particularly common in the Gleaner, and that 'Goldeneye' is preferred. This hasn't always been the case, however. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Ian Fleming was resident at the property, Goldeneye was usually rendered in the Gleaner as Golden Eye (for example in the editions of 2nd March 1951, 31st March 1959 and 15th May 1961). In contrast, the use of the form Goldeneye was rare during the same period.

Ian Fleming, as suggested by his correspondence to his wife Ann and others, gave the name of his winter retreat as Goldeneye. While Fleming was not especially consistent with names (he wrote to and about Ann or Anne, and about his son Caspar or Kaspar or Kasper), he does appear to have been consistent with Goldeneye, probably because it was the name of a wartime operation with which he had been involved.

Why the Gleaner preferred Golden Eye is uncertain, although it suggests that reporters were unfamiliar with how Fleming wrote the name, and that they were prompted by analogy with, say, Golden Eye, the name of eye treatment widely available in the island, and The Golden Eye (1948), a popular film featuring Charlie Chan.

The spelling of Goldeneye has evolved and diverged and encompassed competing forms. During Fleming's lifetime, Goldeneye competed with the variant Golden Eye, but Golden Eye has declined to become virtually extinct (it is absent from recent Gleaners). Goldeneye has since become the dominant form, but GoldenEye, the variant that emerged in 1995, has offered further competition. Its use is largely restricted to the matters relating to the film, but the huge success and popularity of the film, and its use in official publicity for the Goldeneye Resort, has allowed the variant or meme to spread beyond its cinematic context, a trend that is likely to continue.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

James Bond in Allen Dulles' Great Spy Stories from Fiction

Allen Dulles, director of the CIA from 1953 to 1961, has a special place in James Bond lore. Dulles was keen to meet Ian Fleming after being persuaded  by Jacqueline Kennedy to read the James Bond books, and a few years after that began an enduring friendship with Fleming after they met for dinner in London (subjects discussed at the dinner table included the U-2 surveillance aircraft). Fleming subsequently mentioned Dulles in his books, in Bond has among his reading Dulles' classic book of tradecraft, The Craft of Intelligence (1963). (Bond himself is a subject of discussion in Dulles' book, which must have made Bond question his effectiveness as a secret agent.)

Dulles continued to pay tribute to Fleming in another of his books, Great Spy Stories from Fiction (Collins, 1969), an anthology of spy stories by, among many others, Len Deighton, Eric Ambler, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, John Le Carré, and, of course, Ian Fleming. Dulles' recollections of Fleming introduced an extract from the first Bond book Dulles read, From Russia, with Love. Bond is not confined to this section, however, and looms large throughout the volume.

In his introduction to the Bond extract (chapter 28: La Tricoteuse, renamed here as 'The End of James'), Dulles explains how Fleming anticipated changes in public interest (for example from straight spy stories to adventures that featured international criminal organisations), why Bond bears little resemblance to real spies, why the CIA was always on the look-out for agents with Bond's qualities in spite of this, and how Bond's gadgets inspired the CIA's own inventions.

There are more references to Bond in other parts of the anthology. Allen Dulles, in his foreword to the volume, identifies the essential elements common to many spy stories, singling out From Russia, with Love as a novel that comprises most of them, including the quest, reaching the target, and the chase. The introduction to a section on 'the mysterious East' considers that you cannot write about the East if you haven't been there, and cites James Bond as a jet-set agent, having visited Tokyo in You Only Live Twice. A section on 'gimmickry' is inevitably introduced with a reference to Bond's trick attaché case in From Russia, with Love.

The section in which the James Bond excerpt appears is entitled, 'Some losers'. The public, Dulles argues, expects its fictional heroes to best the enemy and be winners. So when those heroes lose the battle, it's a shock for the readers, especially when one of the losers is James Bond, the most popular of all the modern fictional spies, according to Dulles.

The inclusion of James Bond in this anthology of spy fiction reflects Allen Dulles' love of the Bond books, as well as his friendship with Ian Fleming. The frequent references to Bond, however, is testament to the significant, even predominant, place that Fleming's creation had in spy fiction and popular culture by the late 1960s. No anthology or discussion of spy fiction would be complete without Bond.