This month saw the release of a new entry into the long list of books analysing the phenomenon of James Bond. In The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond, author Simon Winder takes a unique approach, addressing the impact of James Bond on the collective conscience of a mid-century Britain reeling from involvement in two world wars. It is Mr. Winder’s contention that agent 007 played a hugely significant role in healing the wounds suffered in these hard times. Employing an enjoyably witty style, the author does not shy away from criticism of either the literary or cinematic incarnations of James Bond. And he pulls no punches when it comes to analysing the various political, military and social movements in postwar Britain. I will not be reviewing the book here, but I urge anyone who has any interest in James Bond or the developing history of Britain to pick up a copy and give it a read. One might not agree with all of Mr. Winder’s points of view, but one is very likely to be entertained, and perhaps even informed.
First off, welcome to CommanderBond.net, Mr. Winder.
Thanks very much. It’s a pleasure to be taking part.
Whom did you have in mind as an audience for this material?
Scarcely sane obsessives such as myself. I have spent so many hours watching the movies and reading the books that I thought it about time to put this to some use; and I recognised that at least I was not alone in my interests.
The book seems fraught with cynicism and pessimism, and yet is filled to the brim with humour. At one point you posit: ‘As the 1960s progressed, Bond’s ability to maim and kill foreigners became a great consolation to millions of embittered and confused people whose traditional world picture had changed with alarming speed. Bond in fact became in the 1960s pretty much the only British national capable of damaging anybody at all.’ How is that line supposed to make us feel?
I thought it would be fun to say various more or less terrible things in a breezy and cheerful style to see how people reacted. I am glad you picked on this quote as it sums it up. This is just popularized (and probably misunderstood by me) film theory, but I think everyone, if they think about it, should feel very odd about the way they can watch hundreds of simulated killings on a film screen and view it as entertaining. I also think it odd and appropriate that Britain, which has always had a cult of glamorous violence (a quick trip around St Paul’s Cathedral shows this very clearly, packed with superb white marble statues of homicidal maniacs, some might say), should generate a figure such as Bond who does indeed keep up the
What do you say to the criticism that the essential premise of the book—that James Bond helped ease Britain’s painful transition from the glory of Empire to the dark days of rationing and political blundering—is not novel?
It certainly is not new—several writers such as David Cannadine have pointed it out many years ago. I just thought it was a useful peg around which it might be fun to sound off about British history and about Bond—the excuse around which the book could be built. Most of the UK reviews have been extremely positive, but one (in the Evening Standard) was completely baffled by the suggestion that there was any link between Bond and imperial decline—so perhaps it is not an entirely cliched idea—at least to one reviewer.
Speaking of reviews, you must be pleased that The Man Who Saved Britain has received good notices overall. And whether a given reviewer liked the book or not, the commentary has been interesting, to say the least. A few examples:
A book of eccentric brilliance that covers everything from Jamaica as lieu de memoire to the sexual magnetism of General Nasser.
TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
Hugely amusing… a bizarre mix and yet a weirdly compelling one.
Poor Bond is little more than a prop to Winder’s obsession with the evils of Empire… and his desire to denigrate Britain’s intelligence services.
Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, TIMES
What do you make of the Rimington comments?
Isn’t that great? She was so furious—I think the bit I wrote about the security services just sitting around watching CNN or drunkenly photocopying their bottoms was the last straw. The book’s meant to be funny—but Dame Stella certainly didn’t think so.
At one point you detail what was perhaps the last gasp of British colonialism, a tragic-comic episode in which ‘the RAF proposed a base on Aldabra—an uninhabited island off East Africa, home only to some 15,000 giant tortoises. This idea was scrapped on both finance and common-sense grounds. I love the brief Aldabra debate as it now stands so beautifully as a summary of the last, flickering gleams of an imperial mindset that had seemed utterly solid only twenty years previously. It was a dream of an absolutely pointless airstrip on a tropical island with no human inhabitants and therefore—at last—no troublesome nationalists, but unfortunately only useable for bombing runs against some putative Madagascan or Antarctic enemy. Presumably a substantial ground crew would have been needed just to keep the airstrip tortoise-free.’ Throughout the book, you cast a critical lens on British political manoeuvering. Were you ever worried that in being so critical of Britain, you might deny yourself a wider audience?
Well, it has certainly angered a few people quite vigorously so far. I think the serious point behind the book (or semi-serious) is that Britain has had much more ferocious an impact on the world than British people like to think. I wanted to use the book to emphasise, and indeed rub people’s faces in, the limits of Britain as a ‘good guy’ in the way that Bond personifies. In the end Britain has liberal instincts and has behaved more morally than many other countries, but that’s only part of the story and often a late part. I was reading today about the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 where in Allahabad, for example, some 5,000 Indians were summarily executed just to show who was boss. Britain was the principal beneficiary of the slave trade for many years. British settlers around the world have destroyed whole societies. The more I read about the British Empire the more we appear normally horrible—and yet it is crucial to Britain’s self-esteem to be better and nobler. People will disagree with me but I don’t see their arguments—I’m never happier than wandering around North America, but I think it is just a bit odd not to admit that the whole society of Canada and the US is based on expropriation and violence—much of it British-sourced.
The Man Who Saved Britain is not just a rant on the fall of the British Empire. It’s, thankfully, also a lot about James Bond and his creator. You are at times critical of Ian Fleming, The Man, but you seem to have a genuine affection for a good deal of his literary output, citing From Russia With Love, Dr. No and Goldfinger as his best. In analysing Rosa Klebb, Dr. No and Goldfinger, you come to the conclusion that: ‘[T]here
is something authentically nightmarish about these new inventions—partly pantomime, partly myth. They are expressionist in the sense that they can only make grand gestures.’ On the other hand, you maintain that The Spy Who Loved Me is a transparent and poor attempt to write from a feminine point of view (this despite the ‘gratification’ that particular book brought you in your adolescence). Can you articulate a general feeling about the merits of the books?
In the end I just feel such affection and respect for the books that it is impossible to be mean. I was so hard on The Spy Who Loved Me in the spirit of all fans who have to attack something just to prove somehow that actually they are not fans. The books simply do not stand up as completely realized novels—they have too many poor patches and are too hastily written. But I do seriously think that real art can come out of such surroundings—that, as with films, particular scenes are enough to float the rest. Comparing to Shakespeare is silly, but it is fair to point that there are chunks of any of the plays which are kind of hopeless or not funny or involving or anything. It is perhaps true too of Fleming—that when he’s really on fire (the shoot-out in the aquarium in Live and Let Die, Oddjob smashing up Goldfinger’s mansion—does anyone on-line have any specific favourite moments?) he’s fantastically memorable and good.
You don’t have much time for Kingsley Amis or John Gardner, and you don’t even mention John Pearson, Christopher Wood, Raymond Benson or Charlie Higson. Is it safe to say you are a fan of Fleming, but not the continuation authors?
I read the Kingsley Amis and thought it so bad that it didn’t seem worthwhile to read anything further—but that could well have been a mistake. If anyone thinks that there is one really worth reading I’d be happy to give it a try.
If you were that unimpressed by Amis, I wouldn’t think you’d find much joy in the later continuation novels. But you might take a peek at John Pearson’s James Bond: The Authorised Biography Of 007, and Christopher Wood’s novelisation of The Spy Who Loved Me is surprisingly good. You might also give the Young Bond books a go. Many adult fans were sceptical when IFP first announced this series, but most of us have been won over by the first two books in the series.
I think Young Bond is wonderful and Higson a genius—these books really fell outside my own book’s remit, but they certainly show there is an amazing amount of life left in Bond, even if the official arteries now seem a bit clogged.
Do you consider yourself a fan of the James Bond films? At one point in the book, you clearly indicate that you feel the first four are really the only good ones. Specifically addressing your interests in the films, you state: ‘I admire Ken Adam and John Barry and the early films’ writers, editors and directors. But even on the central, indeed sacral, issue of Sean Connery himself it is hard to develop specifically devotional feelings.’ But you later state you make every premiere, and that you’ll be there for the opening night showing of Casino Royale. Explain.
In the end of course I love all the films—once. I think most of the later films just do not stand up to repeat viewings and once you know that Bond is going to get into, say, an invisible car or that he is going to say ‘Christmas comes but once a year’ it is pretty hard not to think there might be better DVDs in the shop. I’m really struck by the ability (or my ability at any rate) to watch the early films over and over again and find so much to enjoy—they are very complete worlds. The later films do not really, to me anyway, seem to have much of a leg up over many other action films.
You seem very critical of yourself for loving the Roger Moore films so much in your adolescence. But does it not seem that in Roger’s Bond, moreso than any other, British colonialism is glamourously alive and well?
This is a very good point and one made by a reviewer last weekend who pointed out that surely the real logic of my position is warmly to embrace Sir Roger as he in far purer form defines the general daftness of Britain. Connery is oddly good and plausible (and Scottish) whereas Moore’s Englishness and tongue-in-cheek pseudo-suavity makes a far better case in a more direct way for Britain’s ongoing sense of itself. I’ve definitely missed a trick by not admitting this to be the case.
All Bond fans have ‘pet’ films or books—those which, although the quality of the art may be relatively low, one just cannot help loving. Which are yours?
A very fine question. I would have to say that chunks of Diamonds are Forever do seem very appealing to me, although as a film it is clearly a real mess. The entire structure came from a bad moment of flailing about by the producers after Lazenby’s departure. Fleming’s book simply supplied some key details—the diamond ‘pipeline’ and the gay killers and Las Vegas—but was too poorly plotted and unambitious to work as a script. There was even a desperate plan to make Bond into an American and bring back Gert Frobe to play Goldfinger’s twin brother hiding in the Las Vegas hotel. Not a good idea. Even as finally done it’s a depressing ruin—that Moon Buggy, Blofeld in drag, Miss Moneypenny appearing for only 5 seconds dressed as a customs official. And Connery looks just too old (aside from suffering from early ’70s clothing issues). And yet, and yet: Wint & Kidd are terrific, it is one of Barry’s best scores, it has some wonderful Ken Adam sets, the fight in the glass elevator is exceptional, the opening credits a treat on a big screen. It’s enough—I’m happy.
George Lazenby comes in for some rough treatment in The Man Who Saved Britain. Any words for those who feel he’s quite good in the role?
Well, I have a real sympathy for them. We would all agree I think that OHMSS is the Bond film most argued about. It is the most slavishly loyal to Fleming’s original (even more so than Dr No), it is the most serious, the most carefully acted. The music is superb and everyone would agree that Peter Hunt’s directing is often exceptional. I just think that in the end Lazenby is distressingly uninvolving—that he is asked to act all kinds of scenes (tenderness, comedy) which are just way beyond him. If one could cut out all those and just have him in the action scenes then I agree he would be pretty good, but by the time you have got to those he has spent far too long camping it up (or failing to camp it up) as ‘Hilly’ in glasses and a kilt. What music though. And if we are to see Blofeld at all (which I prefer not to) then let’s have him played by Telly Savalas.
Who’s your favourite Bond Girl?
Well, it really has to be Luciana Paluzzi, the villainess in Thunderball—she’s a hopeless actress, but whatever. Having castigated Lazenby for his acting skills, I’m more than happy hypocritically to let Luciana off the hook.
You express reverence for most of John Barry’s Bond scoring, but you have some harsh words for the Moonraker score. I rather like that one, especially that quintessentially ’70s waah-waah bit when Bond first arrives in Rio. It may be slightly trashy, but it’s John Barry trashy!
Very true—I just hate the film too much to engage with the music very much—I can hardly hear the music I’m so angry about James Bond in Outer Space or that terrible fight with a plastic anaconda. I need to watch it again—perhaps with the screen covered and just listening to the soundtrack. The bit in the music where the space station is unveiled I think is just magnificent—classic Barry.
You express bafflement at Bond’s worldwide popularity, in light of the resentment you imagine the rest of the world must feel toward Britain (for its excesses in the days of Empire). Is it possible the rest of the world looks at Bond as just an extremely cool secret agent, without focusing much on the fact that he’s British?
Yes: definitely. I just thought it was funny (in a childish way) to think how offensive in all kinds of ways he could be viewed as being if you were a sensitive patriot. I left this out of the book (I left a lot of stuff out luckily) but apparently in Udaipur they have videos showing Octopussy everywhere and everyone is really pleased and proud that the film was made there—and of course there is a James Bond Island in Thailand in honour of The Man with the Golden Gun, which was damaged I think in the tsunami. So here are two on the face of it, just possibly not very good and rather offensive movies which have in fact just caused pleasure locally. Surely some people must be wound up though: I’d be surprised to find black Americans thrilled with Live and Let Die or white southerners come to that.
With respect to the popularity of the Bond films, you wrote: ‘Their success in America seems straightforward enough: they are viewed as comedies of self-delusion’, indicating that you feel American audiences view Britain as some kind of laughing stock. But, again, there is an argument to be made that Americans dig Bond because he is so damn cool, irrespective of his Britishness; and that Americans (at least that dwindling percentage who possess any significant knowledge of history) look upon Britain as having nobly survived the wars and loss of empire, whilst maintaining its collective dignity. Thoughts?
Well, I’m sorry you have raised that sentence. I lived in America for some years and my wife is American and I put that in as a private joke really. I saw Four Weddings and a Funeral in New York when it came out and found it unwatchable because all the laughter around me appeared to be at the expense of my country (‘ha! ha! what idiots’) and I eventually had to leave it was so embarrassing. But of course all those New Yorkers just thought it was funny. And it’s the same with the Bond films. Also, to be honest, I did put in several sentences like the above just because I thought that by making such a claim it would completely enrage some British readers. And judging from some comments I have had already, it’s worked.
Here’s an interesting passage from your book: ‘[W]hat is odd about the sixties in the shape of ‘the sixties’ was that virtually the entire population were in practice excluded—too old, too young, too poor, too busy. This is clearly the case with the James Bond films. These are the fantasies of older men—fantasies of the war, of British greatness, of military service, of class distinctions. What has ‘the sixties’ to do with exclusive golf clubs, knowing what wine to drink with fish, with Venetian hotel suites? The answer of course is a great deal for an older, wealthy generation who felt the whole country was going to the dogs.’ And yet so many of us became Bond fans in our adolescence. Care to play psychologist with that one?
This section is part of an attempt here by a number of historians (including, for example, Dominic Sandbrook) to convert ‘the sixties’ into a proper bit of history—not simply a place where everyone’s grooving around and taking soft drugs. I think it must be fine though for later generations to buy into what was in reality a pretty confused melange of different overlapping generations. Perhaps my favourite scene in any Bond film is the meal on the Orient Express where Grant gives himself away by asking for red wine with his fish.
In reference to that same ‘sixties’ passage, can you go into further depth in regards to your comment about virtually the entire population being ‘excluded’? I’d always understood the sixties to have been quite an inclusive time. What do you know that I don’t?
I just think that most people were not really involved. My dad was the same age as John Lennon but for him, like millions of others, the sixties had no specific meaning—he simply went to work and helped look after a young family. Dominic Sandbrook in his wonderful Never Had It So Good points outthat most of the kids who in the mid 1950s trashed cinemas during the ‘Rock Around The Clock’ riots were working in factories and having children by thetime the Beatles came along and were not part of Beatlemania, which was the next echelon’s business. By ‘excluded’ I mean really that they were looking in other directions and doing nothing very much with a ‘sixties’ flavour. Sandbrook’s theory, which I’m sure is right, is that the period is so dominated by a specific atmosphere because it has been constantly
mythologised by a bright bunch of people working in the media who came to the fore in the 1960s: and so records and clothing styles and television programmes which were in practice ignored by most of the population (or actively hated) have been endlessly revisited. It’s not that this is illegitimate—it’s just that there are lots of other things going on too.
I’ll contemplate the mythologisation of ‘The Sixties’ and segue right into your take on main title designer Maurice Binder: ‘He was one of those richly enjoyable figures from a different world whose very specialized skills in manipulating buttocks against coloured backgrounds earned him a unique niche in film history.’ I don’t really have a question here. I just wanted to repeat that lovely line.
I’m glad you like it!
Is that the final cover art for the American edition?
I’m not sure—as far as I know it is—swell painting don’t you think?
Indeed. Do you have any plans for any further Bond-related books in the future?
That’s probably it. I have lots of spare material and keep thinking of things I’m annoyed I missed out—and things I’m annoyed I left in come to think of it. I’m trying to work out what to write next—but I always plan to write about Bond issues. He’s my first love.
Just to be clear, although you are often critical of Fleming, the Bond books and films, you are a big fan, right?
Oh a massive fan. I was in the car yesterday and, as usual, stuck the
Goldfinger theme onto the CD player. It immediately brought it all back—those marvellous opening credits, with the gold tinted sneak previews of various scenes—fantastically stylish like almost everything in that film—and all thanks to Fleming. I’m disappointed by the later films, but I don’t think those really infect the earlier achievements—a batch of superb books (I reread Dr No last week as I’ve written a new introduction to the UK edition—Just Great) and at least 3 or 4 of the best of all ’60s films. definitely a fan.
Mr. Winder, thanks so much for your time. Do you have any last words for us?
Just that your website is seriously interesting and a fascinating resource. It’s great to know there are so many rather terrifyingly well-informed people out there who will no doubt be scouring my book and coming up with an ever bigger running total of gross errors.