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.

One More Before Doomsday

This post originally appeared in April last year. I am running it again to mark this summer’s extreme weather. Pour yourself an apocalyptic one …

It should, by now, be apparent to everyone that we are living in a dystopian sci-fi scenario, but who wrote it? John Wyndham? Too cosy, perhaps. Or there’s J.G. Ballard … he wrote extensively about various kinds of societal collapse, either in ‘hard’ sci-fi novels like The Drowned World, or in his later sly and speculative manner, e.g. High Rise. But Ballard didn’t do comedy and the black absurdity of Donald Trump requires a satirical touch. Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of savage, slapstick sci-fi fits the bill, but I have been unable to locate my copies of Cat’s Cradle or Galapagos to refresh ecstatic youthful impressions. (It has also been suggested to me that Channel 4’s 1982 comedy show Whoops Apocalypse is relevant, chiefly with respect to its portrayal of the President of the United States as a total cretin.) 

But one work of science fiction that has been haunting me over the past few weeks is the 1961 film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, directed by Val Guest from a script written by himself and Wolf Mankowitz (the same team behind the Soho musical Expresso Bongo). The idea behind this inventive British movie is that nuclear testing has thrown the orbit of the earth out of whack and sent our planet spinning toward the sun. London becomes hotter than Cairo and the city’s residents wilt and go mad in the heat. It is a great time capsule of London locations, and the heroes of the film – as unlikely as this sounds now – are journalists working on the Daily Express, then still operating out of its beautiful Art Deco building on Fleet Street, right opposite St. Bride’s church. The nominal stars are Edward Judd (the producers wanted Richard Burton but couldn’t afford him), Leo McKern, and the delightful Janet Munro. The newspaper scenes have a sense of authenticity amidst the dodgy science, and the verisimilitude extended to the casting of the editor of the Daily Express, a character played by a former editor of the paper. (Arthur Christiansen, editor from 1933 to 1957. A nice conceit, but Christiansen couldn’t really act.)

Fleet Street’s finest … Leo McKern, Edward Judd and Janet Munro feeling the heat outside The Express Building.

There’s a lot wrong with the film: the banter-ish, ‘Front Page’ type dialogue is cringeworthy, Edward Judd is a charm-free zone, and the special effects are often risible – but for all that it remains unsettling and eerily prescient. The clever use of genuine news footage, indicating drought and out of control weather, now looks like an anticipation of recent wildfires in Australia and California. The evocation of oppressive, unnatural heat is very effective: everything dries up or burns up and water becomes the most precious of all commodities. Black market water is spreading typhoid, alcohol is in short supply and even a warm Coke will cost you. As society buckles under the strain, decadent young people express their nihilism by wantonly chucking buckets of priceless water about, drenching themselves to the implausible sound of trad jazz. (‘Beatnik music by Monty Norman’ is the byline in the credits. The crazed, trumpet-touting kids were perhaps inspired by riots at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1960. Was Acker Bilk a baleful influence on British youth? Discuss. )

And, as you’d expect in a film that trades in Fleet Street clichés (‘They say you used to be a writer’), there are many episodes where the hacks go the pub. The pub in question is ‘Harry’s Bar’, a private members’ club just next to St. Bride’s (a fictional one, as far as I am aware). By the end, the trip to Harry’s Bar has acquired a devotional aspect: the film concludes with our heroes assembled in the club – one that by now looks more like a bar in the Australian Outback – and wait to hear whether an operation to save the planet has worked. (The great powers set off ‘corrective’ nukes in an attempt to blast the Earth back to its correct orbit.) Harry’s Bar has run dry, but the manageress gives the small band of regulars a drink on the house from a special, reserved bottle of scotch. This scene reminds me of the titular bar scene at the end of Ice Cold In Alex, where an ordinary glass of lager is a miraculous answer to a fervent but unspoken prayer. And this link between booze and prayer feels pertinent to where we are now. Many of us are offering prayers of one sort or another, even non-believers like me who are simply praying for the pubs to re-open. Of course drink is not always the answer; but whilst we might not be able to drink Covid19 away, we can at least toast its demise. As Leo McKern says as he raises his glass in Harry’s Bar: ‘To the luck of the human race’. 

In Harry’s Bar, listening to the countdown over the radio …

For the cineastes out there, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is also notable for Michael Caine’s film debut in a bit part as a policeman (‘Stay clear of Chelsea, they say it’s pretty rough down there’); and also a groundbreaking moment of nudity in British cinema, when Janet Munro’s nipple is briefly glimpsed in her bathroom mirror. Society would never be the same again …