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50 years of 007

'Ve know your sekret, Mr Bond'

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Exactly 50 years ago, Dr No hit cinema screens around the world, featuring the unknown young Sean Connery, and the James Bond phenomenon began, quite literally, with a bang. Since then, James Bond films have grossed $5 billion -the second biggest grossing film series of all time after Harry Potter - and, as someone calculated, 25 per cent of the world's population has watched at last one James Bond movie. As a result, James Bond is no longer just a fictional spy, or even a cult figure, but a superbly managed global business;he's come a long, long way from that day in 1952 when author Ian Fleming sat down at a typewriter intending, simply, to write "the spy story to end all spy stories". Ian Fleming himself had worked for Naval Intelligence during World War II, and was responsible for thinking up some of the War's most imaginative intelligence operations, like "Operation Mincemeat" - an ingenious plot to parachute the dead body of a British naval officer, carrying a briefcase of fake plans, designed to deceive the German High Command about the planned Allied landings in Sicily. Apart from being known as an ideas specialist in British Intelligence, Fleming also, significantly, authored a paper on the formation of an intelligence agency, which was the blueprint on which the CIA would be set up. There's even an intriguing conspiracy theory that he led a team of crack commandos to snatch Hitler's aide, Martin Borman, from Berlin in 1945. It's important to remember this when reading the James Bond novels, because it reminds us that, however fantastical their story-lines, they were, in fact, never too far removed from possibility.

Fleming based James Bond on various intelligence agents he'd known personally during the War (most of all, a dashing Yugoslavian double agent, code named 'Tricycle' for his sexual preferences). Fleming then gave the character his own tastes and foibles, like his weakness for gambling and his passion for vodka martinis. But, ironically, he intended his spy to be a neutral figure, "an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a government department", to whom exciting things happened. Hence he gave him the deliberately dull name 'James Bond' (in reality, the name of a well-known American ornithologist), and the number 007 (which were the last three digits of his literary agent's phone number). Sitting in his Jamaica home, Fleming would turn out a new Bond novel every year, for the next twelve years.

The first few Bond novels were modestly successful, but when, in 1961, President Kennedy listed From Russia With Love as one of his ten favourite books, sales skyrocketed, and the Bond cult began to take shape. (When From Russia With Love was filmed, an advance print was sent to the White House in late 1963, and it may have been the last film Kennedy watched before being assassinated. )

With James Bond's leap from the printed novel to the cinema screen, he began to acquire important new dimensions to his persona - and also to the nascent 'brand personality' that was taking shape around him. Fleming may have written the action, sex and sophistication into the basic Bondian script, but other members of the team contributed other key elements: Terence Stamp, the first film director, gave Bond his own dry, double entendre-laden wit (missing from Fleming's original version); Saltzman and Broccoli, the producers, added the stateof-the-art gadgets and special effects;the young Sean Connery defined Bond's brooding, sensuous look. These elements were skillfully packaged with the help of distinctive touches like Monty Norman's dark, visceral theme music, and designer Maurice Binder's trademark opening graphic of Bond being tracked through an assassin's gun-barrel. These would coalesce over the years to shape one of the world's most recognisable brands, summed up by the famously monosyllabic theme line, "The name's Bond, James Bond. "

The early Bond films were hugely successful and they triggered a whole new genre of secret agent movies and TV serials (including the original Mission Impossible TV serial). But by 1970 the genre seemed to have exhausted itself through sheer surfeit and deja vu, and John Le Carre began a deliberate counter-movement against the glamorous Bondian spy model with his own faceless George Smiley. When Sean Connery announced, after You Only Live Twice, that he would no longer play the role, it seemed to be the end of the Bond phenomenon. And by then Ian Fleming himself was dead of a premature heart-attack so, in any case, there would be no more new Bond books to make movies from.

But, as Fleming memorably wrote, "You only live twice. Once when you're born, and once when you look death in the face. " Somewhere along the line, Bond had begun the crucial transference from fictional character to brand icon. The people who inherited the rights to Bond after Ian Fleming's death were smart enough to recognise that they were sitting on an enormous business opportunity : not just a matter of books or films but, rather, valuable intellectual property assets, that could be skillfully monetised.

Fleming, as an author, had walked in the footsteps of Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler and even Hemingway, so artistic integrity was important to him. His successors, however, were business-people who had no such finicky sensibilities, and they essentially handed over the creative role to marketing professionals. Thus, while Fleming had wanted Hitchcock to direct his films and Richard Burton to play James Bond, pretty soon we had the light-weight Lewis Gilbert directing and Roger Moore playing the role, to cater to the tastes of the mass-market audiences. In cinema industry parlance, therefore, the James Bond films are politely referred to as "producers' films" - as entirely distinct from "directors' films". In other words, they're not about art, but business management. One of the pleasures of reading Fleming's novels, for example, had always been the hedonism, and the exotic brands that Fleming worked into his narratives: the Rolex watches, Bentley sports cars, Leica cameras, Wolfschmidt vodka, Lentheric after-shave, and Morland's cigarettes with three gold rings around the tip. (In fact, it was Bond's taste for vodka that is said to have been a major factor behind the popularisation of the drink in Cold War 1960s USA. ) Fleming's obvious enjoyment of brands was a unique mark of his writing style, and he did it all, of course, for free.

But early on in the filmmaking business, the producers realised the commercial potential of this: in Goldfinger, they replaced Bond's trademark Bentley with the new Aston Martin DB5 - a product placement deal made long before the term itself was invented. It was the shape of the things to come. And it was at this juncture that the aficionados of Ian Fleming's James Bond books began to part ways with the rest of the fan following: it was the literary purists versus the mass-market audiences.

And yet, it was precisely this shift - from fictional hero to brand icon, from literature to "content" - that has been responsible for keeping James Bond fresh and contemporary for half a century. For it was the stimulus to view Bond pragmatically, and to evolve and reinvent him continually, with an eye to the consumers' changing tastes, lifestyles and fantasies, while yet carefully protecting the core Bondian brand values. In other words, the process is not very different from managing any aspirational brand like, say, Rolex watches or Bentley cars or Heineken beer. The kiss of the brand therefore proved, for Bond, to be the kiss of immortality. The Bond brand - that potent contemporary expression of machismo, sophistication, sex and high living - is the reason why James Bond still connects so powerfully with audiences of all ages, from London to Lingampalli, while his literary contemporaries from the 1950s, like Mickey Spillane's popular fictional detective, Mike Hammer, and Erle Stanley Gardener's legendary lawyer, Perry Mason, retired onto the back shelves of second-hand book shops long, long ago. In fact, the Bond brand has been so successful that the model has been studied for the development of other cinematic icons, like Indiana Jones and Jason Bourne.

However, the Bond business model has a unique advantage that Indiana Jones or Jason Bourne can't emulate: the sophisticated, highliving lifestyle that is such an integral part of its brand equity positions it ideally for tie-ups with aspirational brands, whether BMW, Calvin Klein, Rolex or Omega. And the revenues from that stream both subsidise the production of the films and make the brand more profitable. Brilliant!

Most serious Bondophiles agree that the definitive James Bond was Sean Connery's portrayal of him. This was followed by the wooden George Lazenby and Roger Moore, who gradually turned Bond into a parody of himself. Moore was ultimately replaced by Timothy Dalton, arguably the finest of all the Bond actors but, unfortunately, he wasn't given a chance to put his stamp on the character. Pierce Brosnan, who followed, was fairly good, though a bit too pretty-looking for the role. And Daniel Craig? He seems to have connected with today's audiences - so he has done his job. But purists sigh that he's not Bond at all: that he looks, and behaves, like a blonde version of Mike Tyson. And perhaps they do have a point.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of Dr No, the twenty-third James Bond film, Skyfall, is being released this year. It will, no doubt, like its predecessors, make a billion dollars, not merely through box-office sales, but through a variety of innovative business channels, from co-branding deals to digital promos. I'm not sure Ian Fleming would have particularly liked the film. But, given the fact that he had always been an avid consumer and proponent of brands himself, I'm sure he'd have been amused at his own, inadvertent, role in the creation of a meta-brand. Zo, velkom back, Mr Bond, ve vere expekting you!

Reader's opinion (1)

Pulavarthy DeenkumarAug 26th, 2012 at 15:41 PM

a wonderful essay; a must read for all Bondophiles!

 
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