What an extraordinary franchise the James Bond films have become. Number 25 - No Time To Die - has just come out, and wherever you are, at least in the English- speaking world, it is difficult to avoid. This was a series that began in 1962 with Dr No, and (no plot spoilers here) number 25 might well have been called Dr Lockdown or at least Mad-Professor Lockdown; it is very relevant to these strange times, although finished before our recent troubles began. James Bond movies are always the most exciting films for the movie theatre business, and indeed for cinema managers; if there is a queue outside your local movie house, whether it be an Odeon or an arts cinema, the chances are it is for the latest Bond movie. Bond will not only fill every performance in a cinema for weeks but will reliably sell the kiosk out of popcorn, large bags of Maltesers and super-size cola.
Bond does not appeal to everyone. The more artistically high-minded will think the films over-rated and vulgar tat; the socially self-aware and woke will lambast them for outdated social attitudes and blatant non-wokeism of the worst possible kind. But the films have to a reasonable extent moved with the times (a female “M” from 1995 to 2012; a black Moneypenny and a black Felix Leiter from 2006 – though in the original books Ian Fleming had Felix as disabled out of the CIA into the bargain; and in the latest movie…ahha, but that would be telling). The producers, still of the same family, Broccoli with now Wilson, who were there in 1962, are also very aware of the historical heritage of the brand. Alright, cynics, they are very keen to continue the celluloid-spinning-into-gold nature of their family business. They know that their audience expects certain things – humour, self-deprecation, an old fashioned style, English standard accents – no impenetrable Geordie (Newcastle) or Scouser (Liverpool) here. Fast cars remain de rigueur, pretty girls are essential, as are central London headquarters and locations for MI6. The black tie and dinner jacket are still an essential item in any gentleman’s wardrobe – if a chap has not got one he is clearly signalled as not being a gentleman. There may come a time when the real MI6 moves to Skelmersdale (Liverpool again) but M will continue to have a tasteful panelled office in Whitehall where he will offer Bond tea, or perhaps a triple whisky, in the movie version of the secret service.
Broccoli and Wilson also know that modern mass audiences expect the movies to reflect modern times, to straddle the trad and the tech and the woke. Bond may still be single (or properly speaking, a widower), and pursue girls with as much vigour as in his earlier career, but the modern Bond girls are stronger, able to reject the ageing roué’s advances with style and éclat and without regret. And the backstory to the plot is right on the money. Many in the auditorium seats will groan at the recognition that the bureaucracy even in the licensed-to-kill business is getting ever more interventionist, that M if he wants to go off-piste might well be advised to keep his deviations quiet even at the risk of future trouble from his political masters (or do they know but are maximising distancing?), that staffing is increasingly diverse, that Britain is far from powerful and adventures in foreign lands risk sanction from China and Russia.
Bond is moving with the times, but he is doing it slowly, fast enough to make him not a dinosaur, slow enough to maintain the ancient traditions that are the whole point of the thing. But one thing did strike your correspondent as very unrealistic, a blip in the smooth progression of the world’s favourite spy from polished killer to modern sensitive man. Bond, this is giving nothing anyway, has retired; and it has to be said, Daniel Craig as Bond looks as though it were time to go. He has retired in a Bond-like way. He’s till the smooth seducer, now of girls young enough to be his daughter, still driving much too fast, still drinking rather heavily. We can deal with that; we all would like to let rip a bit in retirement. But retire to Jamaica? In his early 50’s? A civil servant, with a naval commander’s modest pension? Bond will be too young to claim his civil service pension yet, and even when he does (and we know the joys of final salary pensions from governmental service) that is not going to pay for many dry Martinis shaken, stirred or even from Tesco, or a large villa in Jamaica.
Come off it, Broccoli and Wilson. Commander Bond would at this point be living in the outer London suburbs and have taken a desk job in a charity. Or be in charge of a nature reserve in some deeply rural location. Or be working for an international consultancy offering advice on geo-political sensitivities to large corporates (probably indeed reporting to our editor in his life pre-Only Connect).
Your correspondent has a little insight into such matters. A nearby resident, let’s call him Mr Baker, a suitably English yet low key and forgettable name like Bond, was a junior army officer but then went to work in the Foreign Office, where he spent 28 years. He spent much time abroad and seemed to have a knack of working in the world’s trouble spots; at, it has to be said, odd times. Afghanistan during the Russian occupation. Czechoslovakia before and during the Velvet Revolution. Iran. Pakistan. He has various decorations awarded to Foreign Office staff who are somewhat not desk-bound in the call of duty. He was an attendee at meetings of the National Security Council, and of COBRA, and of the Joint Intelligence Committee. He was seconded to GCHQ for three years. Never mind what the titles and acronyms mean, any avid reader of Le Carre or Len Deighton will know what is going on here.
Mr Baker was a spy, a spook, and became a very senior one (Deputy Head of MI6 is the local gossip). Will your correspondent mysteriously vanish two days after publication of this tell-all article? Well, he’ll risk it. For one thing, Mr Baker no longer goes up to town and to Whitehall; he is retired. For another thing, the startling revelations published here were drawn from Mr Baker’s own website. You see, Mr Baker has not been able to retire to Jamaica, to a remote seaside villa in its own plantation with gorgeous girls investing the garden and endless drinks cabinets. He is still working, or would like to be, advertising on his website his availability for a bit of light advisory work on terrorism, cyber security, illegal financing, and with a speciality in the Middle East and Asia. Given these specialities we suspect Mr Baker is keeping quite busy and that he is topping up his civil service pension to levels which make it possible for him to live in reasonable levels of comfort, though in the outer Home Counties, not anywhere near the equator.
Which leaves one question? If even the former deputy head of MI6 has to seek part- time work, just where is James Bond getting all the dosh that supports his exotic Caribbean lifestyle? A clear case for Mr Baker to be called in to investigate, surely.