2013 marks the 50th anniversary of a British cultural icon – Doctor Who. It also makes the 60th anniversary of another icon. A man who can be conjured up with a few notes from the theme tune, who has spawned a slew of imitators and reactors the world over. He likes his cars fast, his women beautiful and his villains evil.
The name’s Bond, James Bond.
I’m going to take you on a year-by-year history of the world of 007 and the real-world politics, especially in terms of espionage, that inspired it, skipping the years where not much happened, looking at the movies, the books and the games. Having seen every official Bond movie and read most of the Fleming books at least, I’d like to think I know a thing or two about the subject. Of course, I may get things wrong.
So, let us start from the beginning.
Ian Fleming, the man with the golden typewriter
Ian Fleming (1908-1964) was the son of an MP who died on the Western Front in 1917 and had a privileged upbringing. He attended Eton College and excelled. After that, he failed to get a commission in the Army or into the Foreign Office, so joined Reuters as a news correspondent. He enjoyed it, but decided it wouldn’t make his fortune, so he went to work in the City of London. There he enjoyed the high life of a young bachelor, having a lot of girlfriends or going to gamble at Le Touqet at the weekends. He also liked playing bridge.
When the Second World War began in 1939, Fleming was head hunted for the job of PA to the Director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey (generally held to the inspiration for M) getting the rank of Lieutenant Commander as a result. His Naval Intelligence work included setting up two special operations units and coming up with the initial idea for Operation MINCEMEAT, having seen it in a detective novel.
In 1942, he attended a U-boat conference in Jamaica (then a British colony), fell in love with the island and later bought a house there. A house he would call Goldeneye.
Following the war, he became foreign manager for the Kemsley newspaper group that then owned the Sunday Times – a role he continued in until 1959, the company allowing him three months off every year to write his novels once he’d gotten started.
As the 1950s began, the Cold War was just getting started big-time. The USSR had tested its first atomic bomb the year earlier – much earlier than anyone had expected. In fact, they’d garnered much of the information to do it from spying on the Manhattan Project and the spies were being exposed due to the decryption of Soviet intelligence messages under Operation VENONA. With fears of “Reds under the bed”, a whole-scale blacklisting of those with suspected Communist links in Hollywood got under way.
Britain was still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War. Its cities were in need of rebuilding, hundreds of thousands were in temporary accommodation, the Olympic Games in London two years earlier had been done very much on the cheap and rationing was still in place, including that British staple of tea.
Two British diplomats, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, disappeared, eventually turning up in Moscow. They’d been spying for Moscow Centre since the 1930s. They avoided capture because of another Soviet mole in British intelligence…
King George VI, the man who’d never planned on becoming monarch of his country, dies after a long period of ill-health. On holiday in Kenya, Princess Elizabeth is informed that she is now Queen Elizabeth II.
While waiting for his marriage to his long-standing girlfriend Anne Rothermere (who he’d had an affair with during both of her previous marriages), Fleming finally decided to write the spy novel he’d been thinking about doing it for a while. He names the protagonist James Bond after an ornithologist and gets his code number, 007, from a signature used by Elizabethan spy John Dee.
Josef Stalin died after a stroke. In the subsequent power struggle, secret police chief Lavrenti Beria, who favoured closer relations with the West, had the rest of the party leadership turn on him, with the result being his subsequent arrest and execution.
Fleming completed his novel and with the help of his brother, got it published by Jonathan Cape. Three publication runs were required to keep up with demand.
Casino Royale (novel)
The man is only known as Le Chiffre. He’s the treasurer of a French trade union, one controlled by SMERSH. He’s taken a large sum of money from the union and blown it on the sex industry (which the government have clamped down on), so he has to get the money back through a high-stakes game of baccarat in a French casino – or die at the hands of SMERSH. James Bond’s mission; to make sure he loses.
Royale, which I re-read as the 2006 film approached, is a rather different kettle of fish to most of the rest of the canon; it’s a lot more small-scale than some of the films or even Fleming’s later work – only the second half of the film is really an adaptation of this novel. This isn’t to say it’s not highly enjoyable and the ending is pretty shocking – especially Bond’s reaction to it.
The Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll produced a much bigger than expected yield of 15 megatons. Radioactive contamination was widespread in the local area, most notably among the crew of a Japanese fishing vessel.
Fleming’s second novel had been written before Casino Royale was published. When it came out in April 1954, it too was a big success.
Live and Let Die (novel)
Bond is sent to New York City to investigate Mr Big, notorious Harlem criminal and SMERSH operative. As he does so, he is drawn into a dark world of voodoo and enters waters that are shark-infested: literally.
Any discussion of the Fleming novels must note that the attitudes expressed by many characters, including Bond himself, are not exactly politically correct. LaLD is the most stand-out example. The title of Chapter Five contains a certain word beginning with “N” and got changed for the US release, while the black characters here have their speech rendered phonetically in what was meant to an attempt at atmosphere but just comes across as patronising. To be honest, Fleming was probably about as prejudiced as most of British society at this point.
All this said, the book is a decent thriller (one notable review from The Observer – “Don’t blame me if you have a stroke!”) and a couple of key sequences were lifted for use in other Bond films.
The year would also see the first adaptation of a James Bond novel – for the small screen. Fleming sold the rights to Royale separately to the later books and this would have its own profound effect on the history of the series.
Casino Royale (TV) – the Climax! Episode
CBS paid Fleming $1,000 for him to adapt his first novel into a 48-minute drama (an hour with ad breaks included), which was broadcast live (yes, live) on the Climax! anthology series in . The adaptation, starring Barry Nelson as an American Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre, changes quite a few things, including the ending. It went largely unnoticed at the time, then got lost until 1981, when a copy missing the ending showed up. The final bit was later found, but most video releases, including as an extra on the DVD release of the 1967 version, don’t have it…
The Eastern bloc countries signed the Warsaw Treaty, creating the military alliance known as the Warsaw Pact.
Another year, another novel…
M asks Bond to join him for a game of bridge with industrialist Sir Hugo Drax, who he suspects is cheating at cards and wonders why. Drax is giving the UK a free nuclear missile system, but strange things are going at the base in Kent, with a security officer being killed and so Bond is sent undercover to investigate. Is Drax all he seems?
Another good one – better than the film, with a couple of nice twists at the end and a suitable (if highly destructive) demise for the villain.
John Payne and Rank both attempted to make this into a film at the time, nothing came of it.
An uprising against Communist rule in Hungary was brutally put down by Warsaw Pact forces, with Soviet leader Khrushchev also declaring to the West that “we will bury you” (meaning that communism would outlast capitalism, but the phrase was taken by many as a threat). Meanwhile, Britain and France made a secret agreement with Israel for the latter to invade Egypt, allowing them to stop in as a “peacekeeping force” and take control of the Suez Canal, recently nationalised by pro-Soviet leader Colonel Nasser. International outcry from both superpowers forced the withdrawal of forces and swiftly brought down British Prime Minister Anthony Eden.
Bob Holness, later host of quiz show Blockbusters, played Bond in a South African radio adaptation of Moonraker.
Diamonds Are Forever (novel)
Bond travels to the US to track down a diamond smuggling ring, a journey that takes him to Las Vegas.
Probably one of the weaker Bond novels – I read it quite late on – the book is largely set in the US and gets a bit clichéd at times.
The USSR launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, a move that took the Americans by complete surprise. The public feared that this launch, using a converted ICBM, meant the Soviets could now launch a nuclear weapon anywhere on the planet – in reality their missile force was still limited in numbers and capability.
Fleming published his first work of non-fiction, The Diamond Smugglers, based on research he did for Diamonds Are Forever. It got middling reviews, but his novel would not…
From Russia, with Love (novel)
SMERSH, smarting from their defeats by Bond, decide to kill him. Shooting him isn’t enough – they want to make sure he dies in a sex scandal that embarrasses the Secret Service… So, they use a pretty girl and a cipher machine as bait for 007.
I recently re-read this novel and it’s still a classic tale of espionage. Fleming’s research was extensive, most notably in the culinary department and the brilliantly paced story wonderfully evokes a lost period of time. Remember for most people in the UK, plane travel was a luxury beyond their means.
The US and Canada created NORAD.
CBS asked Fleming to look at writing a Bond TV series. The thing ultimately fell through, but Fleming got a couple of outlines down and used them for later short stories. Fleming also published his sixth Bond novel
Dr. No (novel)
Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of two Secret Service staff. As he does so, he discovers the activities of the metal-handed villain Dr. Julius No…
This one got a lot of negative reviews at the time, with accusations of Fleming being basically sadomasochistic, although it’s tame by modern standards. Personally, I found this one quite good.
Couple of key changes got made for the film – for one thing, in this Dr. No (who Fleming based on Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu) is buried alive in bird droppings.
Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, overthrowing the pro-US government. Nikita Khrushchev made the first visit of a Soviet leader to the US.
The Daily Express, a British newspaper, started doing a comic-book adaptation of Fleming’s novels. I’ve “read” some of these, which have been published in compilation form – they’re quite good.
James Bond, after catching the man cheating at cards with the aid of an attractive female assistant, is sent to investigate Auric Goldfinger, who is suspected of smuggling gold out of the UK and working for SMERSH. Little does Bond know how just much Goldfinger loves gold…
An instant bestseller with far better reviews than the previous novel, Goldfinger contains some wonderful scenes, some of which got into the film and others that didn’t. It also contains a rather preposterous grand plan that involves an idea to blow up the vault of Fort Knox with a tactical nuke.
This one also got Fleming into a bit of legal trouble. He named people in the books after real people he knew, in this case architect Ernő Goldfinger, whose architecture Fleming took particular exception too. Goldfinger found this out and sued, at which point Fleming threatened to change the name of his villain to something ruder. The matter was settled out of court.
As the Cold War turned hotter and 1960 began, Fleming was now a best-selling author, but a film adaptation had yet to get anywhere. That would soon change. For an Italian-American film producer by the name of Albert R. Broccoli was about to enter the Bond story.
An upper class resort in the Pas-de-Calais region of Northern France.
A scheme that successfully diverted German forces to Crete shortly before the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, MINCEMEAT basically involved procuring the body of a homeless man from a morgue and dressing him up as a Royal Marines Major, with false papers in his pocket and carrying dispatches relating to the fake invasion plan, then dropping him into the sea off the coast of neutral Spain, where the information would eventually find its way into the hands of German intelligence.
Soviet intelligence was split between the military GRU and the “civilian” organisation that went through a number of names before finally ending up as the KGB in 1954. From here on in, I’m going to refer to the latter organisation as Moscow Centre, the term used in John Le Carré’s novels and also in house.
A Russian acronym for “SMERt' SHpionam” or “death to spies”, SMERSH really existed, but was far smaller than Fleming suggested and only operated as an independent organisation during the war.
The UK’s nuclear deterrent at this point was bomber-based (such as with the Avro Vulcan), although 60 American Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles were deployed in the country at above ground sites under dual-key arrangements, with the RAF controlling the missiles and the USAF the warheads, from 1959 to 1963 as a temporary measure until the US ICBM force came fully on-line.
An attempt at a British land-based system called Blue Streak was ultimately cancelled due to cost and concerns about vulnerability to a Soviet first strike, as the missiles took five minutes to fuel, could not be held fuelled for long periods and putting them in silos was a political no-no due to lack of suitable places on the relatively crowded UK mainland.
The RAF then looked at buying Skybolt air-launched ballistic missiles, but multiple test failures and Robert McNamara’s opposition to bombers led to that programme being axed. In the end, the Royal Navy got Polaris missiles from the US, with UK warheads, mounted in British submarines – these have now been replaced by Trident. A tactical nuke capability remained until 1998.
The Secret Intelligence Service is called the Secret Service in Fleming’s novels. MI6 has never been its official name (although it was used as a "flag of convenience") and the organisation was not officially acknowledged as existing until 1994.
A contribution, it might be said, to his early death.
He was apparently into that sort of thing, but that’s beside the point.
The most famous/infamous of the (now pretty much defunct due to changing views) “Yellow Peril” villains.
The world currency system at this time worked on a gold standard, with most currencies fixed against the US dollar, which in turn could get you a set amount of gold ($35 for an ounce). Known as the “Bretton Woods” system, this system ran from 1946 to 1971, when balance of payments and deficit issues caused by the Vietnam War led to the USA going off the gold standard unilaterally, resulting in the system collapsing and currencies “floating”.