13th April 2023 was a day sadly overlooked, perhaps in the “excitement” of the lead-up to the coronation, set fair to be the dullest crowning of a British monarch ever. Just when Britain has a chance to strut the world stage, doing what she is especially good at (a cynic might say, the only thing she is any good at), she manages to miss another chance to show off that good old British style. It’s bad enough that Westminster Abbey should be pretty much devoid of Dukes and Earls in their great-great grandpas’ ancient robes and ermine, balancing battered coronets on balding heads, that there won’t be endless processions in ancient carriages, military process, and bizarre rituals, but even worse, we’ve missed the big one: that Whitehall office door will not be flung open and the homburg hat land perfectly on Miss Moneypenny’s coat-stand.
For yes, in the assemblages of fantasies that the Brits have convinced themselves show all that is core to the British character, we have somehow overlooked that seventy years ago James Bond made his way into M’s office and began his first mission for the secret service. Or at least, the first book of his adventures appeared. “Casino Royale” it was that introduced Bond to his public, and we met a Royal Naval Commander whose wit and intelligence had got him transferred to a job as a super-spy, with a licence to kill (licence number OO7, you will recall). Commander Bond’s biographer was, oddly enough, a retired Royal Naval Commander whose wit and intelligence had got him transferred to the secret service just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and become a powerful figure in war-time Whitehall. Ian Fleming’s life and career was almost as fascinating as his alter ego, a story that has yet to be told in full. But suffice to say that Fleming had a large private income, impeccable taste, especially in fast cars and very good champagne, and a strong interest in attractive ladies. He did not have to go far to seek inspiration for his fictional character.
One of Commander Fleming’s weaknesses (he had quite a lot) was that he was easily bored, and after the end of the war he struggled to find challenges. He worked for the Sunday Times newspaper running its extensive (those were the days) network of overseas correspondents (some of whom had secondary roles connected with Fleming’s previous employment). Fleming also filled his spare hours seducing the proprietor’s wife, and eventually marrying her, and thus found his career failing to prosper. He had always wanted to write a thriller and so he settled down and wrote Casino Royale. And being very well connected he asked his brother Peter, a well known travel-writer, to find him a publisher.
Needless to say, the book was an instant hit and ran straight into three reprints. From then on Fleming wrote a Bond novel every winter, mainly at his holiday home, Goldeneye in Jamaica, eventually turning out twelve novels, some short stories, and a list of titles for future books. All this made Fleming famous, which was not entirely what he wanted, and he later regretted not having published under a pseudonym. Fleming was, beneath the svelte assurance, an insecure man and never convinced of the merits of his own works. But what really seems to have irritated him was that his (now) wife was the centre of a rather smart and intellectual set (she was having an affair at the time with Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party), and he suffered endless teasing about his “little thrillers”, to such an extent that the couple more or less split up.
Casino Royale was sold to a TV company and appeared as a TV programme fairly rapidly. Fleming was no commercial slouch and also sold the film rights, which eventually ended up with Columbia Pictures, though the film did not get made until after Fleming’s death; and even the rights to make a newspaper cartoon comic strip. By the early 1960’s the success of subsequent books, beginning with Dr No and progressing through Thunderball and Goldfinger was well under way, and Fleming sold all the film rights of his other books, bar Casino Royale, to Harry Saltzman. The films were a huge success with the public, and Mr Bond and Sean Connery who played him, had become inseparable in the public mind (though not so inseparable that Mr Bond’s various reincarnations through Roger Moore, Daniel Craig, Piers Brosnan, et al, caused any difficulty of credibility to the ever-loyal fanbase).
Let us return though to Casino Royale, in many ways the most interesting of the books. Like many authors when writing their first book there was quite a lot that Fleming wanted to get across. He looked not entirely uncritically at the nature of the Secret Service and Britain’s changing role in the world; he explored male relationships (or buddy-buddy relationships as Americans of the time would call them), and delineated what a gentleman was – James Bond, driving not an Aston Martin but a Bentley, playing at the right golf courses, drinking the right champagne, patronising the right tailors, and bedding compliant girls without much thought as to the consequences. The book also delineated what a gentleman was not – his opponent Le Chiffre, a foreigner, a gambler, and of course a liar and a cheat. And too damned clever. At a deeper level the book is very dark; there are undertones of sexual deviation and cruelty, of ends justifying means, of a decaying country trying to play way beyond its new place in the world, as the Americans slowly become top dogs. (Bond and MI6 being dug out of holes by his CIA counterpart Felix Leiter becomes an important theme in later books.)
Fleming was a complex character. He was an increasingly unhappy man in much internal turmoil, in spite of that outward appearance of having everything an English gentleman could desire. He continued to work full-time for the Sunday Times in spite of his authorial success and his large private income; his marriage effectively broke up; he took to smoking and drinking on a remarkable scale, and in spite of several heart attacks, declined to moderate in any way his lifestyle. In 1964 and aged only 56, he died of another heart attack shortly after a long day’s golf at the Royal St George’s Golf Club (he must have at least been pleased that this was one of the smartest clubs in England).
Casino Royale was finally made into a film in 1965. As Saltzman did not own the rights the makers were free to do as they wished. And so they did, with David Niven as James Bond and a remarkable cast including Peter Sellers, Orson Welles (briefly as Le Chiffre), Woody Allen. No really, Woody Allen. It is a parody, though spoof might be a better way of putting it. Not, as it happens, an unamusing film, but as unlike the book that Fleming sweated over as could be.
Most fans of Bond, and indeed of Fleming, thought that Casino Royale was best forgotten as a movie. Until a remarkable thing happened in 2004; Barbara Broccoli, the heir to Saltzman, managed to acquire the film rights, the blessing of the Fleming estate, and best of all perhaps, the enthusiastic support of her new James Bond incarnation Daniel Craig, to make a new Casino Royale. All agreed this was to be as close in both detail and spirit to the original 1953 book as possible. So it turned out to be. It is in many ways the best of all the film treatments of Fleming’s books: dark, brooding, not pleasant, with flawed characters and an air of decline and degeneracy. Broccoli took the risk of almost restarting the Bond saga, as though this was the first film to be made, and bringing to our attention a new and not entirely likeable Bond, but one close to Fleming’s original concept.
Fleming would have been proud of this movie; he would have seen it as doing proper justice to his original book and the themes he pondered over. You could do much worse than celebrate seventy years of Britain’s top secret-agent by watching such a great film, and one that says under that jokey British skin, much about what the British character was becoming then, is now, and may yet become.