Oh Bondage …

An original Corgi edition of the ‘Goldfinger’-tie-in Aston DB5. About £750-odd now. I had one, when I was six. If only my parents had hidden it from me; a determined child can do a lot of damage with a hammer and a few fireworks.

‘Bond tensed in the darkness and reached for his teeth.’

The above sentence was written by the late Alan Coren and comes from a satire he wrote for Punch magazine in the 1980s, a meditation upon the fate of fictional heroes in later life. Coren’s piece came to mind whilst I was watching No Time To Die, the latest 007 saga and the final outing for Daniel Crag in the role. I confess that I only went to see the film out of a sense of duty, knowing that I was going to be writing this post, as I am not a big fan of the Eon/Bond franchise. However, I will also confess to having slightly enjoyed No Time To Die, against what felt like my better judgement. 

By way of prologue we get a seemingly endless pre-credit sequence – actually two pre-credit sequences, opening with the secret backstory of Bond’s girlfriend – detailing the carnage of Bond’s emotional life by means of a romantic trip to Italy interrupted by the usual chases and ultra-violence. This climaxes with Bond’s novelty Aston Martin DB5 transforming itself from vintage grand tourer into every schoolboy’s fantasy weapon. (How do you think Bond insures his various Astons? Can you imagine what his premiums are like? And the DB5 is a government vehicle, isn’t it? So why is he on holiday in it? Wouldn’t Accounts be asking why he didn’t hire a Fiat?) Anyway, after the credits we get to see Bond in retirement in Jamaica, a nod to Ian Fleming’s love of the island: a solitary fifty-ish gent who lives a simple life consisting of yachting, fishing, brushing his teeth under a waterfall, and meeting CIA and MI6 agents in local bars. And we’re off again. The screenwriting seemed improved this time; the addition of Phoebe Waller Bridge to the credits is clearly significant, as there are flashes of real wit that stand out from the standard lumpenbond dialogue (it would not be a Bond film without the odd line thudding on deck like a harpooned albatross). But the story is a strange mixture of elements; this time, SPECTRE threatens the world with a doomsday bioweapon stolen from a British government lab, picturesquely situated in a skyscraper in the middle of London, as opposed to hidden away in the depths of Wiltshire. This sinister nano-bot virus can be genetically tailored to target individuals or entire populations, inducing fatality – with grotesque physical symptoms – within moments. (This aspect of the plot reminded me of a similar device in The Satanic Rites of Dracula, wherein Christopher Lee – as he unhappily described it – played the lord of the undead as ‘a mixture of Howard Hughes and Dr. No‘.) This genuinely nasty idea sits rather oddly with the slapstick violence of the action set pieces, although Ana de Armas’s brief appearance in one of them, playing a  gauche spy, was an opportunity to exercise some of the aforementioned wit (especially Ms Armas’s nonchalant dispatch of the regulation vodka martini, a welcome acknowledgment of the absurdity of that fixture of 007’s world).

Daniel Craig inCasino Royale

Daniel Craig’s fifteen-year turn as 007 has been an opportunity for the film-makers to give Bond sensitivity and depth, which is where the rot sets in. Of course, the entire 007 project is an adolescent fantasy. Ian Fleming made no bones about this. Fleming’s biographer Andrew Lycett suggests that Bond is the kind of agent Fleming would have liked to have been, rather than the largely desk-bound operative he was at the Admiralty during WW2. That said, Commander Fleming was uniquely positioned to research methods of covert warfare which he later elaborated upon in his novels. Contacts in the Ministry of Supply furnished him with details of gadgets issued to agents in the field: hollow golf balls or shaving brushes, gas pens, shoelaces that could be used as saws, and so on. The germ of Casino Royale appears to have been a visit to a casino in Estoril in 1941, whilst en route to a diplomatic meeting in Bermuda. Fleming was intrigued by the idea that it would have been quite something if the nondescript Portuguese businessmen he had played (and lost) against had really been Nazi agents. And elements of Thunderball were derived from his knowledge of the Italian Navy’s submersible operations around Gibraltar in 1942. As to Bond’s sexual predilections, these seem to have sprung directly from Fleming’s id. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming puts these words into the mouth of his female narrator: ‘All women love semi-rape … It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made the act of love so piercingly wonderful.’ (And, it should be noted, there is a startling scene in the 1965 film of Thunderball where Connery’s Bond forces himself upon Molly Peters‘s masseuse, a rape treated as a bit of prurient/comic business). Fleming was, it seems, keen on sado-masochism, although the various desires recorded in his letters to Ann Rothermere, his lover and, eventually, his wife, sound comically suburban rather than genuinely perverse. Elsewhere he referred to Bond as a ‘blunt object’ and not a hero, although he seems to have been conflicted as to the true morality of his own creation. The fetishisation of good living in Fleming’s novels obviously reflects the author’s enjoyment of the high life; but Bond is a spy, so his catalogue of lifestyle snobberies makes him rather conspicuous, which you would have thought would been a liability in his profession. In the novels he drives a 3.5 litre ‘blower’ Bentley, which is almost as ludicrous as the fully weaponised Aston Martin DB5 Sean Connery drives in Goldfinger, and which has been resurrected for Daniel Craig’s use. But on the whole it is futile to pick holes in Fleming’s project, as it is Never-Never Land. John Betjeman, in a letter to Fleming, compared Bond to Sherlock Holmes: ‘The Bond world is as real and full of fear as Conan Doyle’s Norwood and Surrey and Baker Street. I think the only other person to have invented a world in our own time is Wodehouse.’ That makes sense but it becomes problematic when fantasy leaches into reality.

Ian Fleming

Personally, I cannot stomach the novels. I enjoyed them when I was twelve, but a recent attempt to read one I was unfamiliar with (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) ended at the start of chapter two. I quite like some of the films. For all the antediluvian sexism of Connery-era Bond the cartoonish nature of the enterprise was offset by the loving treatment of travel and high living, as well as the swirling gorgeousness of John Barry’s scores. By the 1970s, with Roger Moore essaying 007 as a man in a safari suit whose gait suggested a slight case of piles, the film-makers simply opted to parody Britain’s post-imperial delusions; hence Bond becomes the protagonist in a series of hi-tech pantomimes which, whatever their merits as cinema, seemed appropriate treatment for the material. I remember watching Octopussy in a cinema in New Orleans in 1983, and being the only audience member to get Roger Moore’s very British joke at the expense of BBC TV’s dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse. Moore’s 007 even dresses up as a clown at one point; one can’t imagine Daniel Craig’s special agent plumbing such depths. But Octopussy doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a joke (starting with its title). The trouble, it seems to me, is when the 007 franchise is adduced as indicative of national character: that Bond represents Britain. This was put into queasily explicit form at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, when Daniel Craig was drafted in to play Bond alongside HM The Queen, who was playing herself. A funny idea, except … the absurdity seemed out of place. A piece of entertainment had fused with an idea of national identity in a way that now seems rather worrying. I write this at a time when the British Government’s position over the Brexit agreement re: Northern Ireland has moved into the realm of macho fantasy, a mendacious confection as absurd as the machine guns and bulletproof glass fitted to Bond’s Aston. No sane person would want to disinter Bulldog Drummond, the proto-Blackshirt forerunner of Bond, who worked off his post-Great War energies by beating up uppity foreign villains; but I can’t be alone in thinking that 21st Century Bond caters to a similarly delusional notion of British supremacy. We’re still celebrating VE Day in a world that no longer needs us.

There is one aspect of No Time To Die where the screenwriters missed a trick. The fiendish techno-virus was overseen and kept secret by Bond’s boss, M. Bond is certainly unhappy about this turn of events but it seems to this viewer that, rather than maintain the status quo, it would have been refreshing to have seen Bond going for M’s throat, then following the trail right to the top. After all, we currently have a Prime Minister who possesses many of the essential qualities of a Bond villain, and it would have been satisfying to have seen a ‘Borisfeld’ immolated in some suitably resonant context. Killed by his own hair, perhaps.

N.B.: A dry martini is made with gin, and is stirred, not shaken. (The drink goes watery if you shake it.)

See also: A Drunk At The Flicks

A Drunk at the Flicks

Margaret Rutherford and Stanley Holloway in ‘Passport To Pimlico’. (No, not really.)

The recent and untimely death of the director Roger Michell seems to mark the end of an era. In a career that straddled theatre, television and film, Michell specialised in mature, mainstream dramas about the problems of grown-up folk written by the likes of Hanif Kureishi, Joe Penhall, Ian McEwan, not to mention his grounding in Osborne, Beckett, Pinter, etc.. Such dramas look increasingly out of place both on screen and in the theatre: a bit lacking in adrenaline, perhaps, or not socially committed enough maybe; it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Michell generally catered to a thoughtful, greying audience that is quietly dying off. But one item on Roger Michell’s CV stands out, anomalously, from the rest: Notting Hill, his 1999 international smash-hit from Richard Curtis’s script. 

You don’t need me to tell you about the crushing success of Mr. Curtis’s brand of light comedy; nor do you need me to tell you that Notting Hill features an unlikely romance between Hugh Grant’s bookseller and Julia Roberts’s Hollywood star, played out in an atmosphere of self-deprecating privilege. My chief memory of this film is inextricably linked with a personal one. One evening, nearly twenty years ago, my sister and I returned from a visit to the pub to find my sister’s lodger watching Notting Hill on television. My sister’s lodger was a young woman in her twenties, a good fifteen or twenty years younger than myself or my sibling, and she was watching the film with touchingly rapt enthusiasm. Our interruption was ill-timed. We walked in at the end of the dinner party scene (the bit that aficionados refer to as the ‘brownie scene‘), just before the moment when Gina McKee’s wheelchair-bound character confesses that she and her partner will never be able to have a baby. At this point, I am afraid that my sister and myself erupted in booze-fuelled laughter, grotesque, immoderate, hysterical laughter, to the genuine distress of the poor girl who had been enjoying the film. She said that the pair of us were ‘evil‘ and went up to bed. I would not wish anyone reading this to think that I come from a family of ghouls: our reaction was a simple and honest (albeit slightly pissed) response to a shabbily manipulative bit of screenwriting. The only reason that character was disabled was so her physical impairment would act as a counterweight to the unexamined entitlement that constituted the entire project: un-earned gravitas tossed onto the prevailing frivolity like olives on a pizza. (Curtis also used a deaf character as a ‘heartwarming’ prop in Four Weddings And A Funeral, so one wonders what other long-term medical conditions he might employ in future projects. Psoriasis perhaps? Lots of jokes there. Tourette’s? Trigeminal Neuralgia? Piles?) But plenty of people loved it, so what do I know? I’m just an old soak who shouts at the TV. And who only writes film criticism when drunk. 

In 2008 Mike Leigh’s film Happy Go Lucky was released, to a decidedly mixed response. There was a lot of rapturous press about it but there were also murmurings of disquiet. Was the film really that good? There was a sense of critics having to get in line to support it: Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review read as if it had been written at gunpoint. Prompted by the gnashingly furious reaction of a friend who had endured it, I decided to see it for myself. However, I made the mistake of taking my girlfriend and my daughter along with me to the Curzon Soho, so I was forty quid out of pocket before we’d bought any popcorn or hard liquor. That was obviously a bad move, so I was not in the best of moods before the film had even started. The film is a love letter to Sally Hawkins, who plays a London teacher of such artless goodness – to the extent of suggesting actual cognitive impairment – that one dearly wishes to strangle her and everyone else in it (except Eddie Marsan, who essays a terrific turn as a bitter driving instructor). We emerged slightly stupefied, rational thought dispelled as if we had been subjected to a Stasi-sponsored hymn to the state. A few days later I tried to express my thoughts on Happy-Go-Lucky in an email to Sight and Sound. I had been reading that venerable organ of record whilst sitting on the toilet, and its lavish and obsequious coverage of Leigh and his film unleashed a wellspring of rage. Fired up by more than just a few drinks, I sat at my laptop and wrote my magisterial take-down of the country’s most successful auteur in a state of gin-soaked certainty. Dilys Powell I was not. Drunk in charge of the Internet – what could possibly go wrong? Well, they printed the damn thing, with my name attached (my real name, that is), as Letter Of The Week in the following issue, prompting quite a flurry of replies. One correspondent – who turned out to be the then-chair of BAFTA – said, in response to my letter, ‘Let me leap to the defence of Mike Leigh – he is our Almodovar, he is our Bunuel.’ (Yes, he really said that.) Drunk or not, I had obviously hit a nerve: Sight and Sound itself reported that box office for Happy-Go-Lucky, initially buoyant, tailed off as word-of-mouth on the film spread. I just wish I had used another name when signing that email: ‘Stephen Poliakoff’ perhaps. Anyway, it followed me around for quite a while; I was even cited in university theses on British cinema. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

With sober hindsight, both films seem weirdly ominous in their complacency. The films of both Curtis and Leigh have exported well, purveying a set of British stereotypes to an international public. This is hardly new – look at the beloved output of Ealing Studios in the forties and fifties – but, post-Brexit, both Notting Hill and Happy-Go-Lucky seem loaded with hubris, in much the same way as Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics now seems painfully ill-judged. In their differing ways, both films evince blithe faith in the idea of British level-headedness, a notion that has since been demonstrated to be utterly false. The Ealing films were made at a time of national reckoning – post-war impoverishment, loss of empire, the struggle to adapt to the modern world, etc. – so films like The Titfield Thunderbolt or Passport to Pimlico may be seen as attempts to put on a brave face against the onslaught of disorienting change (whereas Dead Of Night, The Ladykillers, or Kind Hearts And Coronets have their own, more insidious, purposes). If films inform a nation’s sense of identity – and, drunk or not, I would say that they do – then it is not too much of a stretch to wonder how a persistent (and persistently successful) glibness of tone contributes to national exceptionalism. Richard Curtis’s confections of entitlement and Mike Leigh’s caricatures of working class life feed the same beast. We muddle through. Upper or lower class, we know we’re the best, really. After all, we’re so funny.  

So what now for Richard Curtis and Mike Leigh? I read somewhere that Curtis wants to do a post-Brexit, post-Trump sequel to Love, Actually. Good luck with that. That film, which Curtis directed himself, was the moment the wheels started to come off his project. Mike Leigh seems to have gone quiet after his 2018 film about the Peterloo massacre. But, diminished or not, they remain looming, windswept monuments on the cinematic landscape. To pursue another dodgy metaphor, are they still the twin popes of British cinema? (With Michael Winterbottom as The Archbishop of Canterbury?) Discuss.

Distant Laughter

The Goons in 1956: L-R: Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe. From a cuttings scrapbook in the Secombe family archive.

Anyone who does a job of work and at the end of the day has nothing tangible to show for it, apart from his salary, has every reason to feel insecure. All the average comic is left with at the end of his career are some yellowing newspaper cuttings, perhaps an LP or two, and a couple of lines in The Stage obituary column.’ Harry Secombe; Preface to The Hancock Companion, Roger Wilmut, 1979.

David Secombe writes:

Comedy is a fragile thing. It is dependent on context. Watching flickering footage of ʻturnsʼ from the nineteen-thirties, forties or even fifties can be a baffling experience. It is usually like watching Arthur AtkinsonThe Fast Showʼs brilliant parody of period stand-up, wherein Paul Whitehouseʼs Askey- like comic performs a routine of senseless catchphrases and arbitrary physical tics to rapturous houses. Anything from the past that still retains the power to make modern audiences laugh is rare indeed.

My father was Harry Secombe, who is remembered for three things: The Goons, his Dickensian turn as Mr. Bumble in the film of Oliver!, and singing hymns on Sunday night TV. (The latter is not comedy, except inadvertently.) He left a considerable archive of personal and show-business memorabilia, a voluminous assemblage which I have been trying to manage for about forty years. The material comprises letters, notebooks, posters and promotional materials, press cuttings, cartoons, paintings, scripts, 16mm home movies and broadcast material, audio and video tapes, and an avalanche of photographs, of him and by him. There used to be a whole room devoted to this stuff at the top of my parentsʼ house. Looking at the material now is a slightly disorientating experience: leaving aside the weirdness of seeing a close relative treated as public property decades before you were born, it is like seeing history through the prism of one manʼs career. He was really big in the fifties and sixties; he seemed to be everywhere. How did he fit it all in? Very often the press photos (there are thousands) show anonymous faces, beaming crowds, my father grinning manically if not desperately, or doing totally incomprehensible things in indecipherable situations. He poses for ill-conceived LP covers. He stands next to armies of unidentifiable people in unidentifiable locations; or with unlikely celebrities in unexpected contexts. (For instance, a celebrity canvas of The Last Supper alongside the likes of Stanley Baker, Bernard Bresslaw, Alfred Marks, Lionel Bart, John Gregson, etc., with Richard Harris as Judas Iscariot and ʻrugby starʼ Clem Thomas as Jesus Christ. The artist was Andrew Vicari, and I invite readers to look him up because his is such a strange story.)

Study photo for Andrew Vicari’s 1960 version of The Last Supper. Richard Harris is well into character as Judas Iscariot, while Bernard Bresslaw’s Simon the Canaanite is ripe forCarry On Calvary‘.

The photos and cuttings and home movies are mute souvenirs of occasions my father turned into anecdote. I grew up in a large house in suburban Cheam, a landmark property (it was on a main road opposite a bus stop) decked out with the trappings youʼd associate with late 1950s showbiz success. Notable features included a white baby grand piano, a panelled, Danish-style study with a built-in hi-fi and screen for showing movies (a room I still aspire to recreate), and a bar for entertaining. The bar was equipped with an implausibly extensive array of booze (including undrinkable display-only beverages like Bols Gold Liqueur) arrayed on glass shelves behind a counter dressed with miniature Doric columns. My fatherʼs favourite drink was Pernod: a perfect match for the décor. He was a fabulous raconteur and the bar was a little theatre for him to trot out his party pieces: Mike Bentine farting in polite company was a favourite story, as were the ones about his chaotic stint as a junior clerk in a colliery office when he was fifteen (touchingly, he kept a post-war letter from the same office, offering him his pre-war job back), as well as countless soldierʼs tales. When I was young my father hosted an annual charity cricket match on the sports ground opposite the house, and the bar was the focus for the evening’s socialising, with all manner of personalities barnacled around its embossed leatherette finish. The sheer glamour and excitement of those times is so remote now; that was the mid-late seventies, but it was a throwback to early sixties style. Who has a bar in their house now?

My fatherʼs career was sparked by the fact that at the warʼs end he couldnʼt believe he was still alive; and the archive reflects the intoxicating excitement as his career gathers pace and begins to shape the post-war moment. The Goon Show catered to an audience that had survived the war only to find themselves stuck in the drab fifties. ʻYouʼve no idea how grey the fifties was‘ my father said, and the decade had been conspicuously good to him. The fifties seems impossibly remote now, an impoverished era when opportunities for fun seemed to be on ration along with just about everything else. The fact that the Goons made it onto the BBC at all is a kind of miracle, and itʼs no wonder that contemporary audiences were either deliriously thrilled or utterly baffled. But young people loved it. The Beatles were awestruck when George Martin told them, during Abbey Road sessions for their first LP, that heʼd produced records for The Goons. (Jane Milligan has a nice family photo, taken in the 1970s or 80s, of George Harrison kneeling in homage at Spikeʼs feet.)

But all things fade. The house in Cheam was pulled down in the early eighties, shortly after my father sold it, and somehow an era went with it. I am always happy to hear The Goons repeated on Radio 4 Extra, and today the BBC broadcast The Last Goon Show Of All, a 1972 reunion special which, perhaps, has a slightly rueful quality, given that the seventies werenʼt working out as well for the participants as the extravagant success of the fifties and sixties seemed to predict. Ten years later, Peter Sellers was dead and my father started doing those Sunday night religious TV shows which killed off any chance of a return to comedy. (He was teetotal by then too.) That the Goons remain funny is largely a testament to Milligan’s genius; but Spike knew he was supremely lucky to have Peter and Harry on hand to people his enchanted world. But there is something unnerving about hearing joyous studio laughter coming from beyond the veil: a kind of memento mori I suppose. Thereʼs my dad laughing on the radio: younger then than I am now. Anyway, to mark my fatherʼs centenary, the archive is being shipped to The National Library of Wales, and I am sure that they will take very good care of it. I leave you with a portfolio of unexplained images, snapshots from another era, another world, and if you have any idea what is going on in any of them, please let me know.

David Secombe is a writer and photographer.