THE FIRST thing you see when you walk into the James Bond exhibition Designing 007 — 50 Years of Bond Style, in London, is a dead body, a naked, gold, female dead body, face down on a bed.
Women in 007 movies come to a sticky end, famous for their double-entendre names, their inability to resist Mr Bond, and their premature, violent deaths.
Bond women (or ‘girls’, as they are called) are expendable once their function — decorative and/or sexual — has been fulfilled. This is in contrast to the suave, indestructible Bond, who survives explosions, car smashes, plane crashes, sharks, machine guns, highly trained baddies, and cat-stroking villains set on world domination. But to get hung up on the casual misogyny of the franchise is to miss the point, right? Look at the gadgets, the gear, the girls! If you’re a Bond fan — and judging by the exhibition crowds on a weekday morning, many are — then Designing 007 is your ultimate Bondfest.
Everything Bond is laid out in glass cases against a backdrop of screens showing highlights of famed action sequences involving cars, helicopters, skis, jetskis, speedboats, motorbikes, and parachutes. All the famous props are here — Oddjob’s bowler hat, Jaws’s metal teeth, Scaramanga’s golden gun (complete with golden bullet), Rosa Klebb’s flick-knife shoes, the garden rake with the listening device, a suitcase of diamonds, all straight off 50 years of film sets.
There’s also a Bond fashion collection, from Goldfinger’s gold dinner jacket to the numerous evening gowns worn by the numerous expendable goddesses, who have names like Pussy Galore, Octopussy, Misses Goodhead and Goodthighs, Xenia Onatopp, Plenty O’Toole, Kissy Suzuki, Chew Mee, Misses Warmflash and Goodnight; there are even a Bambi and a Thumper, accompanying Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever. It’s all a bit Benny Hill.
Among the 400 items that make up the exhibition (including a 1964 Aston Martin) is a cabinet of swimwear, featuring that most iconic of bikinis, the one worn by Ursula Andress in 1962’s Dr No. Alongside it is the similar orange bikini worn 40 years later by Halle Berry in Die Another Day, and Daniel Craig’s sky-blue swimming trunks from Casino Royale, a nod to the baggier ones worn by Sean Connery in Thunderball. All very easy on the eye.
So who is your favourite Bond? Given the impossibility of taking any of them seriously, Roger Moore might be the perfect Bond — unlike his more straightfaced counterparts, he seemed on the verge of corpsing at his own cheesy lines. The rest of them — Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig — blur into a macho sequence of terrible one-liners and indestructibility.
But you have to love the baddies — like Blofeld, who says “I’ve been expecting you, Meester Bond” while stroking a glamorous white cat. The megalomaniac head of Spectre, who is keen on taking over the world, appears in six Bond movies — From Russian With Love, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, Never Say Never Again and For Your Eyes Only. He is played by various actors including Donald Pleasance, Telly Savalas and Max Von Sydow, just as his pussy has been recycled several times. There’s a disconcerting photo of identical white fluffy cats in tiny cages off-camera, all waiting for their close-ups.
You might think a franchise that revolves around endless, bonkers gadgets, protracted action scenes, improbable sexual allure and implausible froideur would have come straight from the fevered imagination of a fantasist, but you’d be wrong. Apparently, Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, mined his own real-life experiences to come up with the character, and then added some Pussy Galore. So action packed was Fleming’s own life, that he is the topic of an upcoming action biopic to be directed by Duncan Jones, director of Moon (and son of David and Angie Bowie). The first Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953 by Jonathan Cape — to commemorate its 60th anniversary, writer William Boyd has been commissioned to write a new Bond novel, which will be published next year.
So how did Ian Fleming manage to base such a fantastical character on his own personal experiences? Conveniently, Fleming, whose centenary was in 2008, was a naval intelligence officer and a journalist — both ideal occupations for someone wanting to write about a gung-ho secret service man.
Fleming was from a background of merchant bankers — born in Mayfair in 1908, he was the son of an MP, and educated at Eton and Sandhurst, before going to university in Geneva and Munich. His father died in the First World War, and Fleming served in a James Bond-ish role during the World War II, before settling down to fictionalise his experiences. His James Bond novels — 12 altogether, and nine short stories — have since sold 100m copies worldwide. (Weirdly, he also wrote the children’s story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, again demonstrating his fascination with cars and gadgets).
Fleming’s WWII escapades were quite something. While not much involved in hands-on combat, he was the brains behind many daring schemes to part the enemy from their intelligence. Once the war ended, he relocated to Jamaica, having fallen in love with the island on a previous visit.
Calling his house Golden Eye, he began writing a story about “an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened.” He named his character after a real-life ornithologist who had written a book about Caribbean birds — another of Fleming’s interests — because he wanted his character to have a boring name. “James Bond is the dullest name I have ever heard,” he said. He had no inkling the book would ever be published, until a friend persuaded him to submit it — and even then, Jonathan Cape were reluctant. Only the intervention of Fleming’s brother Peter, also a writer, resulted in Casino Royale ever getting into bookshops.
The rest you know. Bond, a compound of various secret agents and military commandos Fleming had met during the war, spawned a franchise that became an empire. Fleming’s personal life — affairs, flings, and a determination to remain single even after marriage — was reflected in his increasingly un-dull character. The Bond signatures — impeccable manners, a penchant for martinis, insane driving skills and all round jolly-good-fellow Britishness — developed in conjunction with the character’s popularity.
With Fleming long dead (he died in 1964, just two years after the first Bond film, Dr No), the franchise continues with its unchanging formula of action, glamour and bad one-liners (which is why it makes for such easy parody — just ask Mike Myers or Rowan Atkinson). The next movie, Skyfall, is out later this year, is directed by Sam Mendes, and stars Daniel Craig again. More of the same, except with better technology. In trying to drag the franchise out of the pre-feminist dark ages, M is now played by Judi Dench, a Bond woman rather than a Bond girl. But when will we see a black James Bond?
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