We had a family trip to our local cinema the other week to see the new James Bond film. How nice to be back, however briefly it may be, in “live” cinema. The film, No Time to Die, had gripping action sequences and an engaging emotional plotline, ending with Bond saving not only HMG, but the entire planet. After the credits had rolled, I found myself musing about the role of 007 in postwar British culture.
Born in 1908, Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, was educated at Eton and served as an officer in Naval Intelligence during WW2. He had grown up on John Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels (which started with The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1915) and the mass market thrillers written by HC McNeile, or “Sapper”, whose hero, Bulldog Drummond, appeared on the first cover in 1920 as “detective, patriot, hero and gentleman!”
At a loose end following the war, Fleming’s brilliant idea was to update Drummond to the postwar world, a place of BOAC passenger jets, casinos and consumerism. Readers may recall the brand names, the hand-made cigarettes by Morlands of Grosvenor Street, the dry martinis (shaken, not stirred) and the sports cars. Fleming was an upper-class man of his time and in Bond he created the most popular action hero ever.
The first novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953 – a time of Cold War, austerity, rationing and the decline of empire, viewed by many, including Fleming, with regret. Voted back as prime minister, Winston Churchill was now in his late 70s, a voice from an already receding past. In Bond’s third outing, Moonraker (1955), when Gala Brand hears Churchill at the end of the phone, she reveres his as “the voice of all the great occasions of her life”.
In the early books, the enemy was Russia, with Britain on the frontline. In Fleming’s world, Britain was still a leader in ingenuity, courage and sangfroid. But by the time From Russia with Love was published in 1957, the Suez debacle had taken place and Britain’s decline was writ large. So Fleming invented a new enemy, a vast international criminal network with supervillains: from then on, Bond was fighting not Russia, but SPECTRE.
Critics were divided over the books. Many thought Fleming helped push the agenda of a permissive society that was arriving in the 1960s (although feminist critics would have their own say about Bond), and as one reviewer put it, Fleming’s work was a mix of “sex, snobbery and sadism”. That did not stop the Bond novels from becoming a literary phenomenon.
In 1965, the year after Fleming died, Churchill’s state funeral drew a line under Britain’s decline, but Bond went from strength to strength. The first movie, Dr No, starring Sean Connery, had been released in 1962 and launched one of the most lucrative franchises in cinema history. The Cold War roots were abandoned for fantasy adventure laced with glamorous locations and hi-tech gizmos. Bond’s role grew out of all proportion to Britain’s standing in the world, so much so that by 2012 the Queen acted a scene with Daniel Craig’s Bond at Buckingham Palace and (via a stunt double) parachuted into the Olympic Stadium. It was a brilliant and playful melding of myth and reality.
Listen: Henry Hemming on the real historical personalities who Ian Fleming drew on to create 007 and other characters in the Bond novels, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
For, like George and the Dragon, Bond has indeed become a myth. And myths don’t die easily, especially not when they flatter us with the idea that Britannia can still punch above her weight. It is interesting to chart the increasing divergence between fantasy and reality especially now, as Britain is being reinvented as a world-beating country where decline never happened at all.
Suspending disbelief is, of course, the name of the game with Bond films. But in the nearly 70 years since Fleming published Casino Royale, we have moved a long way from the Cold War spy thriller, as the 25th instalment ends with Bond cornering the villain on his island hideaway between Japan and Russia and calling in the Royal Navy to rain down missiles in a grand denouement.
The finale seems to encapsulate the message of the new film, reflected in its title, No Time to Die. For in the fantasy, despite everything, the old British spirit seen in characters like Richard Hannay and Bulldog Drummond still lives – and is unconquered.
This article first appeared in the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine