The Centenary of Ian Fleming’s birth has produced a range of 007 books, films and exhibitions offering the best opportunity yet to look at the factual background of the extravagant fiction.
Ian Fleming’s birth 100 years ago is being commemorated by new editions of the James Bond novels and films (on DVD), biographies, exhibitions, and even a set of postage stamps featuring the covers of six 007 novels. As summer reading, The Times gave away copies of 6 of the 14 novels. There is also a new “authorised” James Bond novel, Devil May Care, by Sebastian Faulks, which has became the fastest selling hardcover fiction title in Penguin’s history. It’s also the 50th anniversary of the first 007 novel to be filmed – Dr. No. As part of a series of centenary programmes, BBC also did the first-ever radio dramatization of it this year, starring Toby Stephens (Die Another Day’s villain) and David Suchet (ITV’s Poirot) as Dr No.
Just out is the 22nd 007 film in the ‘official’ series made by Eon Productions. Quantum Of Solace is a direct sequel to Casino Royale, the film which two years ago this month “rebooted” the film franchise, by going back to the very first 007 novel (from 1953) and taking a more realistic approach. The QoS premiere is being accompanied by widespread media coverage, including a BBC biographical documentary, Where Bond Began, presented by former “Bond girl” Joanna Lumley. Also co-presented by Lumley, with Stephen Fry, was a tribute show at the London Palladium organised by Fleming’s niece, The Story Of James Bond – A Tribute To Ian Fleming, to mark the end of official Centenary events.
As well as various documentaries, there have already been several TV films dramatizing the life of 007 creator Ian Fleming. These include ITV’s Goldeneye: The Secret Life Of Ian Fleming (1989) starring Charles Dance, Spymaker: The Secret Life Of Ian Fleming starring Sean Connery’s son Jason (1990), and the BBC’s more realistic 2005 docudrama Ian Fleming: Bondmaker, starring Ben Daniels. Now Leonardo DiCaprio has announced plans to produce and star in a bigscreen Hollywood biopic. (Scriptwriter Damian Stevenson: “It’s the real James Bond … In England, Ian Fleming’s exploits are much better well known. Talking to people out here, no one had any idea that M was based on a real person, Miss Moneypenny was based on a real person.“) These biopics (especially Spymaker) tend to recast Fleming’s own life as a foreshadowing of Bond’s. Fleming’s own life and world was nevertheless the inspiration for his famous creation, and pales only in comparison with it.
Ian Fleming (1908-1964) was never a spy or agent, but he was a world traveller and an Intelligence official during WW2. Before WW2 he, like his fictional alter ago, had been dismissed by his school over a brief liaison with a nightclub hostess (he got VD). Like Bond, he spent time in Austria mountain climbing and skiing (also inspiration for scenes in OHMSS. Later as a journalist in Russia reporting on a political “show trial” of some British engineers accused of spying provided him with a pre-Cold War taste of Soviet ruthlessness. When war began, family contacts and his own personal abilities landed him the job as personal assistant to the Director Of Naval Intelligence. There, he wrote up various action-plan scenarios which were mostly not adopted, but which he later worked into the plots of Bond novels when he fell victim to postwar boredom. (His wife Anne has said his life and work were part of a quest to avoid the boredom of ordinary life.)
He would reuse the name of one planned operation (to maintain an intelligence presence in Spain in the event of a German takeover), which became the name of his postwar home in the Bahamas and later the title of a Bond film: Goldeneye. His job involved liaison with other intelligence services, including the foundling American service, the CIA’s wartime forerunner OSS, working in Washington with Colonel Donovan, FDR’s intelligence liaison representative before Pearl Harbor. (The Bond novels would often feature a friendly CIA liaison man, Felix Leiter, and became fashionable after a real-life acquaintance surnamed Leiter recommended the books to JFK, and he in turn publicly described them as bedside reading.) Fleming was one of the few officers with access to Britain’s greatest wartime secret, the Ultra decrypts obtained by replicating the output of the Germans’ typewriter-like Enigma coder/decoder – the acquisition of such a device becoming the plot hinge in From Russia With Love.
Becoming manager postwar of the Sunday Times’s foreign-correspondents network, he would be well aware of the political situation around the world. The standard story is that he wrote his first Bond novel when he was facing the prospect of marriage as the end of his hedonistic youth when his longtime married mistress became pregnant in 1951. Fleming had already lost his favourite female companion in the Blitz, the pain of personal loss to sudden death being something that had would find its way into novels like Casino Royale and OHMSS, giving them an emotional depth (which until recently the films would generally avoid to promote 007’s playboy image). His future wife Anne had also lost her partner in the war, her titled first husband having been killed in action, and she had remarried, this time to a press baron. Now her divorce was quickly arranged so she could be remarried before the birth of her and Fleming’s 2nd son Caspar (their first illegitimate son had been stillborn). Ian’s old brother Peter, an intelligence agent and travel writer, had already become a successful author. Some accounts suggest Fleming had long planned to write “the spy story to end all spy stories.” Criticisms tend to focus on the “sex, snobbery and sadism” aspects of the novels, which undoubtedly exist, but these criticisms tend to obscure the authenticity which grounds the fantasy aspects. (It is ignoring this that has tripped up would-be imitators.)
Fleming’s journalistic experience and personal crusade against boredom created a seamless blend of factual background and fantasy. As Fleming later put it, ‘I extracted the Bond plots from my wartime memories, dolled them up, attached a hero, a villain, and a heroine, and there was the book.” The first novel, Casino Royale, was inspired by a wartime plan meant to bankrupt an Axis agent payment system in Spain by beating the enemy agent handler at the gaming table – though in fact Fleming didn’t have the skills of his fantasy hero. The Allied wartime agent ‘Dusko’ Popov (codenamed Tricycle as he could keep 3 women going at once) had however managed such a coup at the gambling tables in 1942 Portugal, and had brought off other intelligence operations using his cover as an international playboy businessman. From Russia With Love has scenes reminiscent of the 1952 film Five Fingers, starring James Mason as a spy in Turkey, which is itself based on a true wartime episode, that of the double-crossing of the agent codenamed “Cicero”.
In Thunderball, the underwater action with battles between frogmen was inspired by battles with Italian frogmen who used a ship with an underwater hatch (the Olterra) to mount “human torpedo” accounts in Gibraltar Harbour. Similarly, the search for the bomber downed in the sea was inspired also inspired by the mysterious crash that killed Polish General Sikorski. Both the underwater hand-to-hand battles between frogmen and the attempt to salvage secrets from a bomber sunk in shallow water are depicted in the 1958 film The Silent Enemy (starring Laurence Harvey), dramatizing the wartime work at Gibraltar opposing the Italian frogmen by RN Cdr Lionel Crabb (whose own death during an underwater Cold War spying mission examining the hull of a visiting Soviet warship would be an ongoing mystery). Fleming did act as RN liaison for a commando unit he called his Red Indians. A “license to kill” is of course more of a wartime special-ops prerogative – you kill anyone who jeopardises your mission, from sentries to local informers. Over the past year, the press has come up with nomination after nomination for the real-life model for 007, M, Moneypenny etc., based on characters Fleming met in the war. The name James Bond, from the name of a neighbour who was the author of A Field Guide To Birds Of The West Indies, was supposedly chosen as a plain rather name for a character who was meant to be a “blunt instrument”. (Though I’ve suggested elsewhere there might have been more to it than that, with a link going back to his boyhood – So, Mister Bond, We Meet Your Family At Last…) Bond’s derring-do nature was similar to prewar Clubland heroes like Bulldog Drummond, and there was a real-life precedent in legendary MI6 agent Sidney Reilly, who disappeared in 1920s Russia. But mainly Bond was based on various wartime acquaintances (“He was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war.”)
This grounding was the key to the success of the early novels. Starting from Fleming’s own experience and knowledge (plus some journalistic research), they took matters farther into a wish-fulfilling fantasy of operational success. But this would have been meaningless without the factual background which readers also found convincing and thrilling. Even the prop gadgets that became the series’ trademark (widely copied) were convincing because Fleming used authentic makes. Whereas the brand names evoking 007’s glamorous lifestyle had a snob appeal (wholewheat toast with Jersey butter and Norwegian honey from Fortnum’s for breakfast before he dons his Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch etc), professional kit like guns were real makes and models chosen for authenticity. Famously, he even changed 007’s gun between novels from a Beretta [sic] to a Walther PPK 7.65 calibre automatic after an ex-officer reader who knew and wrote about handguns pointed out the Biretta was a “ladies’ gun.” Fleming put a scene in his next book where 007 gets his Beretta replaced by a Walther, using the reader’s surname, Boothroyd, for the name of the MI6 Armourer in the scene, though in the later films “Major Boothroyd” became just “Q”. Q’s gadgets, like the film plots, did become more fantastic, and this eventually led to the entire series becoming something of a self-parody and undergoing a restart, modelled on the more realistic Bourne Identity and sequels, where the gadgets, fighting techniques etc. are all grounded in reality.
Quantum Of Solace
The latest 007 film, a tale of relentless pursuit not based on any Fleming work, is ironically from a short story in the style of Somerset Maugham recounting a post-dinner-party anecdote. There, a bored Bond hears of the domestic-drama back-story lurking behind the polite social façade of a colonial enclave, a tale of emotional survival. Afterwards he no longer feels excited at the impending prospect of one his secret-agent intrigues. It’s as close as Fleming got to ordinary realism.
There is now no shortage of books about Fleming’s life and his real-life sources of inspiration. This was not always the case, despite the flood of “Bondmania” press coverage from 1963 on. The first biography (1966), by Fleming’s former press assistant John Pearson, ran into legal difficulty simply because it said Fleming wrote Thunderball. It turned out Fleming did not write the story by himself as a novel, it being rather a novelisation of a 1959 film story by Fleming and several others. (It was because Fleming lost this case just before his death that a rival 007 Bond film was made using the same story elements Thunderball was taken from – Never Say Never Again.) The aftermath of this long-running legal wrangle is still with us, as the Fleming estate forced the pulping last year of a book about the 1963 legal case (The Battle For Bond, by Robert Sellers, Tomahawk Press), on grounds they owned the copyright to court documents reproduced in the book. (A revised edition was issued this year.) Details of the parallels between Fleming’s life and the 007 novels can be found in Donald McCormick’s 1993 The Life of Ian Fleming and Andrew Lycett’s Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond, published in 1995 and still available.
To commemorate the Fleming Centenary, we have Simon Winder’s The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into The Disturbing World Of James Bond (Picador), which looks at how the books mirrored the 40s and 50s. (“Fleming invented Bond as solace for a war-battered, exhausted, economically imploding imperial state.”) There is also The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen (University of Nebraska Press 2005) by Jeremy Black, professor of history at the University of Exeter, The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader by Christoph Lindner, and Ben Macintyre’s For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming And James Bond (Bloomsbury). The latter is a tie-in book for an exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum, running till 1st March 2009, For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming And James Bond, on the historical background to the 007 novels. (Says its curator, “Fleming’s wartime career informs so much of the Bond novels,” he says. “He takes a wartime chassis and grafts Cold War body parts on to it.”)
For an example of one of the many press stories on 007’s wartime inspiration, see the BBC’s “The Real World Behind James Bond”, based on MI5 documents declassified in 2005.
Fleming’s wartime connections with the commando unit he called his Red Indians, #30 Assault Unit, are detailed here.
For more information on Fleming centenary events, see http://www.ianflemingcentenary.com/