This column (updated since it appeared in The Big Issue last week) explores whether old James Bond films can still be enjoyed in a more feminist, more racially equal society. And then Danny Boyle put him at the heart of his diverse and inclusive Olympic opening ceremony…
I am looking at a near naked woman lying lifeless on a rotating bed, painted gold. The rotating bed appears to offer her up as an art installation. She looks remarkably lifelike. I am disturbed by how disturbed I am.
A few minutes later I am standing looking at a voluptuously shaped and rather worn white bikini with a knife belt, on display in a special “bikini cabinet”. The man standing next to me is staring at it too. “I was only 7 when I first saw Doctor No,” he says, smiling at the memory of Ursula Andress emerging from the waves . “It kind of marks you for life.”
The man is Anthony Horowitz, who grew up to wrote the bestselling Alex Rider novels, inspired by the films to imagine Bond as a teenager. We are wondering around the Barbican Centre’s James Bond at 50 exhibition of film props and costumes and I am bothered at whether my childhood love of Bond films and their conventions has been tarnished by modern sensibilities. The Casino, where Bond often made his play, has long been a tacky Eurotrash den. And I doubt anyone can watch the exaggerated gay assassins in Diamonds are Forever, or the black Angel of Death in OHMSS being allergic to… bananas, without wincing.
But let’s go back to that body, of the murdered Jill Masterson on the bed. Goldfinger is Horowitz’s favourite Bond film. He defends it powerfully, saying my response is the right one: to a single very potent image of a very dirty game. Horowitz is far more disturbed by the Roger Moore films, which he hates: “They had something of the smirking schoolboy humour always directed against women,” he says. “Unzipping a woman’s zip with a watch, (Live and Let Die) or interrupting sex to take a phone call and make a joke about pulling out, or having sex which is viewed by M (The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker) – these are all much more offensive.”
What does still fascinate are the proud masculine aesthetics of 60s executive design, which a generation of future 50 something CEOs saw as little boys. It surely help explain the megalomania of the world’s banking elite that brought the global economy to its knees. Set designer Ken Adam says his favourite Bond set was the villain Mr Osato’s Tokyo office in You Only Live Twice – an appropriately macho fortress with its steel desk, security cameras, x-ray machine and drinks cabinet large enough to hide a body. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service features an entire “action” sequence based around Bond doing some photocopying.
And there is an unexpected residual power in those props that survive; not necessarily the gadgets. I am mesmerised by a perfect textured gold disc – the cover for the peephole in Goldfinger’s private jet, which Pussy Galore spies through. Rosa Klebb’s poison spiked shoe horrifies with its ultra-unfeminine ugliness, Jane Seymour’s velvet gown and beautifully embroidered voodoo flags from Live and Let Die are fragments of a rather disturbing dream world. Roger Moore’s safari shirt hangs forlorn in a glass case of its own, unmourned. But I find myself smiling as I find the mustard yellow Willy Bogner ski suit from my favourite Bond film — On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — worn by the athletic, sensitive and youthful George Lazenby. Elsewhere in the costumes, Bond villains’ penchant for vaguely eastern collarless suits, remind me how as a child, I regarded all my Indian parents’ friends instinctively as Spectre operatives, when they came for dinner in their Nehru jackets.
In his memoir of growing up in 70s London, Unimagined, A Muslim Boy Meets The West, Imran Ahmed writes with great charm about his teenage obsession with Bond – the fast cars and his search for a tempestuous Contessa Teresa of his own to marry, like in OHMSS –all part of his quest to become the perfect English gentleman. Though Bond proved an unreliable template for happiness, and his Contessa Teresa turned out to be, not a karate-kicking Diana Rigg but a rather mean suburban snob.
Horowitz, who recently wrote a new Sherlock Holmes novel, points out the timelessness of both heroes’ appeal to women and men. “They exist within their own worlds: the violin, the cocaine, the opium den, 221b Baker Street – as real as Bond’s world of ex-Nazis and lots of martinis and tailor-made clothes.” Far from tarnishing my childhood enjoyment of Bond, I find re-watching the early films a delight. The analogue stunts shine all the more and Bond swaggers, like John Barry’s soundtracks, with the confidence of the 60s.
Far from the old Etonian snob and the nastiness of some of the novels, the film’s imaginative casting transformed the character into a middle class British bloke we could love. He was a former milkman, bodybuilder and B-movie Hell Driver; a confectioner’s delight of an Australian male model who could ski and do his own stunts; a mild mannered TV Saint, a Shakespearean actor with piercing eyes; an Irish actor who made it big in 80s Hollywood, and a young star of 90s British TV.
Where Bond lost his way was when too much sadism was put into the mix (Licence to Kill) as the storyboard in the Bond at 50 exhibition of the shark torture scene illustrates.
Sherlock has worked on TV, transposed to a modern, Victorian-tinged London, and 007 has proved resilient, too. It is surely no coincidence that Danny Boyle, in his sure-footed celebration of modern, multi racial, differently-abled and feminist Britain, put James Bond at the heart of the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Who else would the Queen be willing to take a skydive with? All we need now is for him to take on the bankers.
MI6-HQ – The home of James Bond website