So as you will all be VERY much aware there’s a new James Bond film out at the end of the month and the new theme tune is available now. Now let’s get one thing straight. I bloody love the James Bond franchise, even the crap bits. Why? Because it is weirdly one of the most consistent franchises in the history of popular culture. Allow me to elucidate…
James Bond is a fictional MI5 agent who first appeared in the novel Casino Royale and was the creation of Ian Fleming. He wrote 12 novels and 2 short story collections with this character and they proved extremely successful, as you are no doubt aware. The name James Bond has come to encapsulate a brand worth hundreds of millions of pounds that branches from the books, computer games, watches, cars, perfumes, clothes, music and, yes, the films. Plus much, much more. Bond’s indelible image is so ingrained he was even filmed with the real Queen herself for London’s 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. What has made this ‘Brand’ so popular as to last and in fact grow so well in the last 60 years? Bond is a luxury, he is the height of decadence and was an aspiration in a post war world of poverty and rebuilding. At any time of austerity we look at lavish expense and grandeur with enviable eyes. Bond is also a hard and fast example of ‘The Patriarchy’. A “sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the cold war.” For this reason blokes LOVE a bit of James Bond. Nothing like credence being given to the empty argument of when ‘Men were Men and could treat women like shit whilst they lolled all over him’. But whilst these are all the obvious reasons, I like think my love for the character/brand/franchise is not limited to this view. Bond has certainly developed since his inception, the various interpretations of him in novels, computer games, radio, TV and comic books have fleshed out the character to a stronger degree making him less of a “dinosaur” and infinitely more fallible and complex despite the ever more preposterous events that surround him. But again this not why I enjoy all of it, including the naff bits.
Bond adheres to a pretty strict set of rules. I don’t think this is intentional but it is definitely there. There are the obvious things: He always wears his black suit at some point, he must always remain ‘cool’ whatever the situation, the beautiful women, blah blah blah but the devil is in the detail and James Bond has refined this to an art. Let’s look at actual details; “Shaken not stirred” refers to Bond’s famed preferred drink, the dry martini, yet it is a very clever metaphor that encapsulates the series. Bond himself is frequently shaken but never stirred, or rather – deterred. His car is almost always a sports car specifically, an Aston Martin. His watch has been an Omega for the last 20 years or so. It could be argued (validly) this is largely due to product placement in films and the need to ‘sell’. This is true but only on the surface as there are other details that don’t adhere to sales and besides a lot of the early films which began these trends were unfamiliar with product placement. Bond only uses a Walther pistol, initially a PPK but now the more solid PP9, but still remaining the Walther. (Parenthetical aside: Bond’s first firearm was the Beretta 418 but after receiving a fan letter from a gun collector Geoffrey Boothroyd stating that the Beretta had no real stopping power and would “fall apart” if removed too quickly from Bond’s holster, Fleming changed it to the Walther). This list of specifics is quite long but to give a detailed example let’s look at the theme tunes to the films:
Every bond film from Dr.No to Skyfall, has what has come to be known as a Bond Theme. They range wildly from classic belters (“Goldfinger”, “Thunderball”) to the poppy (“A View To A Kill”, “Living Daylights”) to the Rockin’ (“You know my name”, “Another way to die”) to the instrumental (“Dr.No” – What has now become part of the public conscious as the secret agent theme and the frickin’ AWESOME “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”) but musically there is a very definite template for each. They all have a brass section of some sort with a fairly taught blast, normally in the chorus. They all have a minor section. They all have a chromatic ascent/descent (this is so ingrained we automatically think of Bond when we hear it, listen to “Here There and Everywhere” by the Beatles, that minor sequence sounds like Bond). Normally a very bombastic string section (Adele’s offering certainly has this). The title of the film will be somewhere in there. Always by a current and popular artist/singer/band. Almost every Bond Theme has one of if not ALL these factors. It is by and large ignored or simply accepted when you go and see your bond film, you want your big theme. Yet despite all of them being so utterly different if we hear any of these tropes in another song we automatically think ‘Bond’. As such I really do like (almost) all the Bond themes and, yes, that includes Adele’s offering.
These specifics are even more evident if we look at other spy thrillers that tried to ape or cash in on James Bond around his first release cinematically. The Ipcress File, The Quiller Memorandum, Hammerhead and many more, all used what they thought were Bond-like tropes (The late John Barry who sadly passed away last year composed the theme for both The Ipcress File and The Quiller Memorandum) yet they are nothing like Her Majesty’s favourite spy. No one is and his character and associated gubbins remains an idelible part of the cultural landscape. A touchstone for the idea of elegance and decadence and yes an advert for a long dead Empire (but let’s not get too hung up on that…).
I think this is why I like the Bond thing. No matter who plays Bond, no matter what medium he is in, no matter where he goes, what he does, what goes on around him or what age we are in, Bond is a collection of certainties that seem unwavering whatever the economic or political turmoil. The franchise survived bankruptcy and the death of Fleming and Cubby Broccoli to endure into pensioner age because in “this ever-changing world in which we live in” Bond remains Shaken and not Stirred.
P.S. Answers to obvious questions people bring up when Bond is mentioned: Favourite Bond: Connery, because I just bloody love the man and the period they were made in but I think Brosnan and Craig are the closest to the books (I honestly liked them all. Apart from Lazenby). Favourite film: Tough one… Either From Russia With Love, Goldeneye or Casino Royale. Favourite Book: Live and Let Die, definitely. Favourite Theme Tune: Gotta be Carly hasn’t it?