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.
“M is revealed to have been a stripper in Morocco,” Craig jokes about the current project. “We have footage to prove it.”
From the beginning, the Bond films profited from the work of untouchable movie professionals. Ken Adam’s sets have never been bettered. John Barry’s early scores remain untouchable. But the franchise has struggled to attract top-flight directors. Solid British toilers such as Michael Apted and Lewis Gilbert have had a go. The otherwise uncelebrated John Glen directed as many as five (increasingly ho-hum) episodes in the 1980s.
For the first time, the latest film boasts a director with an Oscar to his name. Sam Mendes has never been shy about declaring his passion for the series. It remains, however, an intriguing choice for both director and producer. Lauded for his early theatre productions, Mendes has secured his position in cinema with diverse, seriousminded pictures such as American Beauty, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road.
“He does have a passion for Bond,” Craig confirms. “Not that the rest of us don’t. But he’s a huge Bond fan and he’s spent two years just concentrating on making this the best Bond movie we can. He’s employed the best actors. That’s his forte. He knows the material he is working with. But he also does not shy away from making it a bit camp and a bit funny. He’s become something else while making that film.”
But can he handle the action?
“Oh, there’ll be no action in this. Ha ha! We’ve decided to forgo all that. It’s a tough decision. There is just a lot of sitting around chatting. No, we have the best people in the business doing the action, and he’s part of that.”
Later on, we are lured to a small room in the upper floors of Pinewood to puzzle over items from the James Bond archives. It is akin to entering a sacred reliquary. Here is Oddjob’s deadly hat from Goldfinger. Here is the titular weapon from The Man with the Golden Gun. Aware that they are now dealing with a state institution, the keepers of the icons have travelled the world buying them back from the estates of collectors. The items are a bit frayed and scuffed. But even the most Bond-phobic film enthusiast will, surely, feel slightly awed in the presence of Broccoli’s version of the Crown Jewels.
Such reverence is not necessarily helpful when developing a contemporary film franchise. There has, in Bond pictures, always been a tension between honouring the past and pushing energetically forwards. Do we want to return to the ruder, even more sexist, considerably more racist hero of Fleming’s durable novels? (Not so much.) Do we want to ape the new energies of successors such as Jason Bourne? (Quite a bit.)
The film-makers are under more pressure than ever as they release a film celebrating the franchise’s golden jubilee.
“The things like the cars, the women, the guns: it’s our job to cram those things into the movie,” Craig says. “I don’t think we are aware of the 50th anniversary. We are aware of the fact that this is a rare place to be. The chance to make movies like this is very rare in our business. If you don’t grab that chance with both hands, it’s a bit of a waste of time.”
There’s a physical side to that. Whereas Sean Connery or (God love him) Roger Moore spent as much time drinking champagne in bed as hanging from parapets, Craig finds himself playing a much more physical Bond. If he’s not leaping from bridges, he’s smashing villains’ heads against convenient sharp edges.
“Talking about my regime is boring, but I try to get as fit as possible. It’s all cardiovascular stuff. I have picked up a few injuries, but that is par for the course. I get physio once a week. I broke both legs and a little finger. No, not really – just a few strains.”
As the afternoon fades, we are led through a vast reproduction of a crumbling city – a rare vista of urban decay in London’s greenbelt – towards the armoury where a solid professional introduces us to machine guns, sleek rifles and, yes, a Walther PPK semi-automatic pistol. It is, indeed, the actual item that Connery brandished in the second Bond film. Would we like to pick it up?
Younger journalists shrug. Your current correspondent pulls himself from the floor, pads his damp brow with a handkerchief and, grasping the handle enthusiastically, does his best to avoid looking like a complete idiot. I suppose a British royalist would feel the same way if offered the chance to wear the Imperial State Crown.
Some little magic flows through my pathetic fingers. This venerable institution still retains its power. Get out the bunting. Sound the anthems.
* Skyfall opens today
From The Beatles to Bourne: Five decades through the Bond filter
The 007 films were seen as key artefacts of the swinging decade, but James Bond himself remained a figure of the post-war, post-imperial hangover. Ken Adam’s funky sets brought modernist chic to plastic living rooms and vast industrial lairs. None of this impressed James very much. “There are some things that just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s just as bad as listening to The Beatles without earmuff!” Connery famously quipped in Goldfinger.
Britain’s most miserable decade (of the 20th century, anyway) triggered escapism rather than tortured self-analysis from its most famous agent.
Still, as Roger Moore got older, the films’ increasing seediness did offer some echoes of the chaos at home. Most nods towards modernity were, however, pop-cultural rather than political: 1973’s amusing Live and Let Die gestured towards Blaxploitation; 1979’s Moonraker looked pathetic as it tried to jump on the Star Wars bandwagon.
You would struggle to find any echoes of Thatcherism in the later, cheesy Roger Moore vehicles. But the presence of Grace Jones in A View to a Kill (for which 57-year-old Moore required a host of stunt doubles) showed that the new pop had registered with producers. Later in the decade, a kinder, less sexually active Bond – played by boxy Welshman Timothy Dalton – nodded to the rise of Aids and the onset of political correctness. A 99 without the Flake, alas.
Time for a few crises. Various legal difficulties delayed the production of a new Bond film until the decade was halfway over. The Dalton films had underperformed. Most seriously, the Soviet Union had decided to collapse and Bond was now left without a default enemy. Not to worry. Pierce Brosnan returned to a series that – in a decade drenched with irony – backed off from the Dalton-era responsibility and re-embraced absurdity, fantasy and vaguely sexist quips. Well, this was the era of Loaded magazine.
Brosnan made one film in the decade, Die Another Day, but it was becoming clear that the tone of the pictures was again looking dated. In the years after 9/11, the better action pictures were grimmer, crunchier and less frivolous. Not for the first time, the producers claimed they were “returning to the novels” when rebooting the franchise. Amazingly, Casino Royale did, indeed, stick closer to the text than any Bond film since the 1960s. But the most conspicuous influence was the noisy Jason Bourne series.
Skyfall perspectives – Dench, Broccoli and Craig
“MGM were under financial difficulties,” Broccoli says in her taut, business-like manner. “That caused us tremendous amounts of stress. We were ready to make the film. We are here making a great movie and those difficulties are behind us.” - Barbara Broccoli
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.’” - Judi Dench
It’s a James Bond film. To say that we are doing a really deep character study would be to tell a lie.- Daniel Craig