james bond

It’s James Bond who needs to be shaken and stirred, not the actor who will play him

Who should play British agent 007 on the screen? Is that the real question?

As someone who has recently taken to reading Ian Fleming’s books, I am drawn into the debate surrounding Joanna Lumley’s comments about actor Idris Elba not being the James Bond that Fleming created.

Film writer Caspar Salmon’s column in the Guardian made several valid points. The most persuasive being that we should abandon the “emotionless character that belongs to a grotesque tradition”. Bond is a “hero” who is heterosexist, misogynistic, and racist – so inherent in 1954’s Live and Let Die that getting beyond the first chapter proved too much for this reader – more needs to be done than just another change of actor.

Yet the “who-will-be-the-next-Bond” discussions never stop. According to the press, Elba is equally not interested, a contender, and a sure thing. We’ve even had a “Jane Bond” social media campaign which saw Gillian Anderson throwing her metaphorical hat in the ring.

Given that the creative minds behind the BBC’s Doctor Who – a series predicated on the doctor’s ability to regenerate, which gives completely free reign over the actor who is cast – have managed to reincarnate the good Doctor a mere 13 times as a white man, do the chances of real diversity seem beyond even science fiction, let alone upper-class Cold War imperialism?

The eternal playboy

Historian Tim Stanley argues that to give Bond “breasts” would be to “lose the magic behind the character” – so we can safely assume that Bond is merely a powerful metaphorical penis. In keeping what have become the stock symbols – the fast cars, expensive suits, the Martinis and the exotic locations with their equally exotic women – the films have arguably become more one-dimensional than the novels. Books which, for all their issues, can still be located within a different social and historical context. So what is our excuse now?

In the conclusion of 2015 film Spectre, there is an inevitability to which the final shot – of Bond and Madeline Swann walking across London Bridge – seems fated to result in the kind of brutality with which Teresa di Vincenzo met her abrupt end in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963). In the novel, if not as explicitly on screen, Bond’s joy at the planning of his future wedded bliss extends to the imagined home-making in his London flat, long and loving phone conversations between them as he works to bring down super-villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and the growing awareness that his life finally holds richer meaning.

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Spectre (2015).

Teresa, like Madeline, was Bond’s match: flighty, adventurous, fearless, daughter of a high-ranking criminal with an understanding of the necessity for “real men” to carry concealed weapons. Both women are victims of their own violent pasts – they are strong but need rescuing from themselves. Bond, however, has to be a playboy, he can save them, avenge them even, but he cannot be “tamed” by them.

Self-destruction

Spoof spy character Austin Powers ridiculed the constant disruption of the spy’s romantic bliss in the beginning of The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999). His new wife turned out to be a fem-bot, which must self-destruct or risk bringing down the spy himself. Even Judi Dench, after 20 years as M, met her end as a foolish female victim – how could the head of the secret intelligence service inexplicably use a torch on a dark Highland escape? Forget a female Bond when so few of the women in the films last beyond the end credits.

Perhaps the bigger question is not who should play the next Bond but why haven’t we moved on? Looking back at the original stories, and even ignoring the problematic 1950s cultural landscape, they are a mixed bag. Some are gripping, well-paced and thrilling, others loose and unwieldy, slow or confusing. Casino Royale (1953) is almost entirely focused on a card game that no one understands any more (when not playing cards, Bond is busy calling Vesper Lynd a “bitch”). Moonraker (1955) takes place in Dover not California, Venice or Rio. There are episodes in which even Bond is bored; chapters where he sits at his desk and complains about paperwork, moving it from in-box to out-tray.

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Moonraker (1979).

All of this is a far-cry from the jet-setting man of mystery in our cultural imagination – the whirlwind of cocktails and casual sex, heightened by theatrically high kicks and slow-motion punches, casual Western imperialism, and upper-class patriarchy. More important than who will play him, is the question of why we have unnaturally prolonged the life of Ian Fleming’s spy.

Guardian readers were quick to call Salmon’s assertion that Bond is effectively the same age as Prince Philip unfair, and they’ve got a point. We don’t hold Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple to their fictional birth dates. We do, however, recognise the need to update the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, taking the essence of their detection and applying it in modern ways. Bond, on the other hand, has all the latest gadgetry, new global enemies, and even an invisible car, but his “essence” has sadly stayed the same.

Nicola Bishop, Senior Lecturer in English/Film and Television, Manchester Metropolitan University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.