Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Sir Roger Moore - an appreciation

Sir Roger Moore in 1973 (By Allan Warren (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Sir Roger Moore was the James Bond of a generation. He was the James Bond of my generation. Some of my earliest Bond-related memories are of Roger Moore's Bond films, and unwittingly, he was responsible for my becoming a Bond fan. With his death, which was announced today, it's as if I've lost a childhood friend.

I grew up with Roger Moore's Bond in more ways than one. Live and Let Die, his first Bond film, was released in the same year that I was born. My earliest memory of Bond is watching Goldfinger on television, but I also have an early memory of The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger Moore's third and best film as 007. The Egypt-set scenes particularly stick in the mind. Among my toys in my later years was, naturally, an Corgi Aston Martin DB5, but I also treasured my Lotus Esprit and Stromberg helicopter from The Spy Who Loved Me. Conversations with my schoolmates always eventually got round to Bond. Even now, I remember the lengthy discussions I had about tarot cards in Live and Let Die and the lyrics to the title song of A View to a Kill

Goldfinger set the Bond formula, but for me, The Spy Who Loved Me is every bit as archetypal. The film redefined the pre-title sequence; its triumphant ski-jump stunt brought well-deserved applause from cinema-goers and became the benchmark for every pre-title sequence that followed. Subsequent pre-title sequences have been bigger, but not necessarily better.

The Spy Who Loved Me contains plenty of Roger Moore's trademark charm and saucy seaside-postcard humour ('Sorry, something came up'), and I love it. But it also has its serious moments, and Roger Moore was equally adept at those. Watch the moment when he reveals to Anya that he killed her lover, himself a Russian agent, and tell me he can't play it straight.

Later films perhaps saw him sharing more screen time with his stunt double, but they remain perfect entertainment. Octopussy is another case where Roger Moore moved effortlessly between humour and seriousness. Anyone who can draw edge-of-your-seat tension from a scene while wearing a clown suit must be a brilliant actor.

Roger Moore was famously self-deprecating about his acting talent, and he often said that the only film in which he really flexed his acting muscles was The Man Who Haunted Himself. To my shame I've never seen the film, though I have seen Gold, his 1974 film based on a Wilbur Smith novel, where we perhaps see a similar side of him. That's not to dismiss the Bond films in any way. To make the Bond films look as good as they do takes real skill and dedication, and that's what Roger Moore had in abundance. 

I was lucky enough to have seen Roger Moore twice on stage, and was thrilled to have met him – sort of – after one of the shows for an autograph. They say never meet your heroes, but Roger Moore is one hero I would gladly have spent more time with.

So let me raise a vodka martini, shaken but not stirred (not something he ever stipulated himself, curiously), and thank Sir Roger Moore for introducing me to Bond, entertaining me enormously over the years, and keeping the British end up.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Ian Fleming's Kitzbühel holiday and On Her Majesty's Secret Service

The Spring 1965 number of The Book Collector, coming almost a year after his death, included a personal memoir of Ian Fleming by Percy Muir, the bibliophile and bookseller who helped put together Fleming's collection of 'books that had started something'. Part of the memoir is reproduced in the special edition of the journal devoted to Ian Fleming.

One of the many fascinating aspects of the memoir is an account of a summer holiday that Percy Muir and Ian Fleming spent together in Austria in, I think, 1930. Muir explains that Fleming was attending the university at Geneva and in the June invited him over. Muir duly arrived in Geneva and stayed with Fleming in his flat before they headed to Kitzbühel. Muir writes that the holiday was a 'riotous success'.

As I was reading the memoir, I couldn't help wonder whether I was seeing the origins of certain aspects of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Obviously the holiday was in the summer, so there was no skiing (and in any case, neither of them would climb any mountains), but Fleming had learnt to ski in Kitzbühel (he was competition standard by the age of 21), and the novel is imbued with his own experiences.

It's the minor details in the memoir that particularly interest me. Percy Muir tells us that Ian Fleming's Geneva flat was a two-bedroomed place over a ski-workshop. There is, of course, a ski-workshop in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Presumably, one ski-workshop looks pretty much like another, and Fleming's likely to have seen a few, but he might have been thinking of the one he lived over when he wrote the passage in which James Bond enters a ski-workshop at Piz Gloria and surreptitiously takes a thin plastic strip.

Then there's Percy Muir's recollections of Ian Fleming's social life in Kitzbühel. He recalls that Fleming was 'extremely fond of women and was constantly entangled with them' and had three 'entanglements' at the resort. If ski resorts and female company were inextricably linked in Fleming's mind, then it's no coincidence that in On Her Majesty's Secret Service – more than in any other Bond novel – Bond is himself surrounded by women ('Ten Gorgeous Girls', as Fleming describes them).

 
Bond with the 'Angels of Death'. An OHMSS lobby card
These connections are admittedly slight, but considering also the opening of the book with Bond's memories of childhood beach holidays, it is nevertheless not to hard to gain the impression that On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of Fleming's most personal books.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Eric and Ernie play Bond in The Intelligence Men


In 1965, top TV comedy duo Morecambe and Wise brought their brand of comedy antics to the big screen. Being the mid '60s when Bondmania was at its height, it seems inevitable that their first film (they made a further two films, and there was also a TV movie in 1983) would be a spy film. While the film, The Intelligence Men (1965), is not overtly a Bond spoof - certainly not to the extent that Carry On Spying, say, parodied the Bond series - it nevertheless contains nods to the films.

The plot, for what it's worth, sees hapless MI5 agent Ernie Sage, played by Ernie Wise, recruit café owner Eric Morecambe (played by, er, Eric Morecambe) to the service. Eric's mission is to pose as a Major Cavendish, infiltrate the sinister Schlect organisation (or is that S.C.H.L.E.C.T.?), and foil a plot to assassinate a Russian ballerina on tour in London and destabilise Anglo-Soviet relations.

The story is a little weak, but the film is amusing enough, and for the Bond fan there is the added enjoyment of spotting the Bond references. For instance, the name of the criminal organisation has the ring of SPECTRE about it, and there's a running joke about the prevalence of beautiful female spies. At another point, Ernie refers to Eric having a licence to kill.

Then there's a rather funny scene, full of the characteristic Morecambe and Wise shtick that made them a national institution, in an MI5 office when Eric is briefed about the mission. Some of the dialogue clearly references the Bond films:

'Where are the special shoes?', Eric asks. 
'What special shoes?', Ernie replies. 
'Yes, the special shoes with knives in the toecaps.' 
'We don't have things like that.' 
'Yeah, and the fountain pens. They shoot bullets.' 
'No, we don't have things like that. We go around like perfectly normal people.'

The sequence highlights the immediate impact that Rosa Klebb's shoes, as featured in From Russia With Love (1963), made on popular culture. The fountain pen, on the other hand, doesn't reference the Bond films specifically, but is a more general spy-related trope. James Bond wouldn't be equipped with such a device until Moonraker (1979), and the tradition of the trick pen is rather older than Bond, going back at least to the Second World War. Nevertheless, the pen taps into the audience expectation for gadgets in a spy film, for which the Bond films were largely responsible, and cinema-goers may well have associated the pen with Bond all the same.

 
Eric Morecambe demonstrates the special shoes
 

Other points of interest in the film is that it features Richard Vernon, who was fresh from his appearance in Goldfinger (1964) as Smithers, and William Franklyn, who is said to have been considered for the role of James Bond.

If you have a chance to watch the film, I recommend you do so. It’s part of the wave of spy spoofs released during the period of Bondmania, but it also showcases the comedic talents of a legendary double act.

Friday, 5 May 2017

From Norfolk, with Love - Ian Fleming, archaeologist

I’ve combined my interests in Ian Fleming and archaeology with a contribution to the Arch365 podcast, which is part of the Archaeology Podcast Network. In my podcast, I explore Ian Fleming's brief foray into archaeological surveying in 1953 at Creake Abbey in Norfolk, where he assembled a team of Royal Engineers to carry out a systematic search for buried treasure.

Ian Fleming didn’t find any treasure, but he did succeed in carrying out one of the earliest archaeological surveys using metal-detecting equipment in England, and for that reason, could be considered an archaeological pioneer. 

Have a listen – the podcast isn’t very long – and find out about one of Ian Fleming’s lesser known activities.

https://www.archaeologypodcastnetwork.com/arch365/124