The spying game
After five decades of outrageous villains overblown action, cool gadgets, casual sexism and the odd reboot, the Bond franchise is stronger than ever. Now Oscar winner Sam Mendes is at the helm. DONALD CLARKEjoins Craig, Broccoli, Dench and co onboard the 007 juggernaut
IT WASN’T QUITE as funny as many forelock-tuggers suggested, but that James Bond sketch in the Olympics opening ceremony certainly kicked up some diverting questions about the British establishment. Here’s the bad joke.
Did you see that gifted actor turning up to support an endangered institution in its jubilee year? Ha ha! You see what I’ve done there? You thought Daniel Craig was the actor, but I was actually talking about Queen Elizabeth. Can I be on Have I got News for You? now? A spring trip to Pinewood Studios – the Buckinghamshire home of Bond since 1962 – confirms that the 007 people are taking their 50th anniversary very seriously indeed. Barbara Broccoli, daughter of Cubby Broccoli, the series’ first producer, presides like the hostess of an inter-war house party. We get to hold the actual gun that Sean Connery used in From Russia With Love.
We get to sit behind the wheel of an Aston Martin (and, in come cases, pretend we can drive).
It would be easy to argue that “a great deal is resting on the success of Skyfall”. The latest James Bond film, directed by Sam Mendes, arrives in the wake of all those poor reviews for Quantum of Solace. In the interim, MGM, current holders of the Bond franchise, went broke and cast the entire project into doubt.
But let’s not be silly. Quantum still managed to take more than half-a-billion dollars worldwide. The British royal family survived the abdication and Elton John’s lachrymose tribute to Princess Diana. It would take an international catastrophe – some bald man with a cat launching nuclear Armageddon, say — to stop Skyfall from swallowing the box office whole.
Still, you do have to feel for Daniel Craig. When Dr No emerged in 1962, this son of a Cheshire publican was still six years away from arrival on the planet. His performance in Casino Royale – tougher, less camp than any previous incumbent – was seen to have reinvigorated the institution. Bond seemed a little more like a human being. He seemed less like a walking embodiment of ancient traditions. It’s a little like being one of those supposedly groovy young princes (the priapic 007 is, mind you, more of a Harry than a William).
So, is the Bond of Skyfall going to develop as a character? Will he actually be allowed to learn, adapt and mature?
“I just think that we were lucky enough to get a break, even though it was enforced,” Craig says, pondering the three-year delay caused by the MGM debacle. “They had to sort the money out. That gave us a moment to get the script sorted. We could develop a script and develop a story. But it’s a James Bond film. To say that we are doing a really deep character study would be to tell a lie. But when you have a really good script, you can start throwing up ideas. Exciting ideas come up on the day. There is an emotional journey here.”
Discussing Skyfall with the Bond team is (I imagine) a little like attempting a conversation about the upcoming D-Day landings with General Eisenhower’s high command. At this stage, the plot is shrouded in absurd levels of secrecy. We know that Judi Dench’s M will have a great deal more screen time than ever before. Javier Bardem plays the deranged villain. Much of the action takes place in the United Kingdom.
“There is this thing on the front of the script saying you mustn’t talk about it,” Dench explains. “This script was delivered to me when we were all in the garden. We were all having a drink and this man completely in black with a script under his arm arrived. He saw us, placed it in the hall and never talked to us. Then he was gone. ‘That’s the Bond script,’ I said. ‘You all have to go now.’”
The relationship between M and Bond has become more interesting since Dench arrived (can it be so long?) 17 years ago for GoldenEye. There is a faint hint of the maternal in the intelligence chief’s exasperated sighs towards her unreconstructed servant. This M seems to see through the macho posturing of Ian Fleming’s imperial enforcer.