Spooksperson for a generation

I’ve just spent the morning discussing James Bond down an ISDN line with a rainbow coalition of a dozen local BBC radio stations, and from Glasgow to Kent, via Derby, Herefordshire, Northampton and Stoke, it proved an effortless talking point. Everybody has an opinion on, and an interest in, James Bond movies. For a franchise that’s half a century old, it never gets old. And Skyfall, the 23rd Bond movie, and the one that marks its 50th birthday, which opens today, at least justifies our continued loyalty to the ancient spy of the old school. It’s a great Bond movie. This opinion seems not to be a maverick one either; it’s getting four and five stars everywhere, presumably to compensate for the lukewarm reception we all gave The Quantum of Solace, whose villain was so unmemorable, nobody can remember him. (Well, I can, but it’s my job to.) Whether Skyfall is a four or a five star film seems to be the extent of the debate. I guess its now fabled “backstory” might not be to all tastes – after all, surely the Bond we have loved since 1962 abides because we don’t care about his past, and as such, he doesn’t have one – but for me, it lifted the film, and took it in a new direction.

I’m not about to spoil it for you, as other reviewers have. The trailer hints at various things – a line of coffins draped in Union flags, Bond telling M that he’s beeen “enjoying death”, a helicopter rising above what looks like a Scottish highland landscape, a bit with Chinese lanterns, a glimpse of Javier Bardem’s distinctly camp, bleach-blonde villain calling the British Empire “a ruin” – but the fun is in seeing how these things join together. If you’re not excited by the shot of Daniel Craig landing in a train carriage while the back of it appears to be ripped off, and suavely adjusting his cuffs, you mustn’t waste your money by going to see it.

It feels big. Although, with a sizeable budget of $150m, it’s not actually the most expensive. (That would be the last one, which came in at a reported $200m; the previous Brosnans came in well under $150m, with his first, GoldenEye, costing a paltry $58m; and they were knocking the Roger Moores out for around $30m.) It’s long. Although, again, no longer than Casino Royale, at 144 minutes. (If you check the numbers, most Bond movies clock in at two hours or thereabouts, with classics Dr No and Goldfinger around a lean 110 minutes apiece. I believe I’m right in saying that Thunderball, Bond 4, was the first to indulgently break the two-hour barrier.)

The burden of any successful franchise is comparison. We all have our favourite period, and favourite Bond, and it is ultimately fruitless to compare, say, You Only Live Twice, my all-time favourite, with Skyfall. They occupy the same basic milieu of international espionage, in the service of Queen and country, but the focus of global villainy moves around, and the methods by which world domination might be achieved shift according to developments in politics and other factors; diamonds become oil, the oceans become space, and so on.

Here’s an area in which I think Skyfall can safely claim the crown: ticket thickness. The invites to the first ever UK preview screening of Skyfall, which took place two Fridays ago, were the thickest I’ve ever taken receipt of. I mean, look at them.

If they had been bread, you could have made a decent sandwich with them. And in one sense, they were bread, as Bond is all about money. The Marvel franchises that typify the mainstream output of Hollywood are all about money, too. It’s not a headline. Nor is the fact that Bond is a hub of product placement. I sort of feel sorry for director Sam Mendes, an artistic soul with his roots in the theatre, as he’s had to bat back questions about product placement, particularly the bit where Bond drinks a bottle of Heineken. (I’ve never had him down as a beer man.) Mendes, ruffled, says, well, if he wasn’t drinking Heineken he’d be drinking another brand of beer. That may be true, but it’s not an answer to the charge that the tail of commercial synergy is wagging the dog of artistic vision.

I wrote about the frankly ludicrous and distracting extent of commercial tie-ins to Quantum Of Solace on this very blog. You can read it here. But it’s not new. According to one of the nice local radio interviewers I spoke to this morning, there’s a scene in Moonraker that’s clearly designed to foreground the 7-Up logo; I have no reason to disbelieve him. The Aston Martin DB5 is a product that’s been placed – it even had a Dinky toy. So was the Lotus Esprit. We owned that Dinky toy! So, in a way, was the Millennium Dome in the pre-credits sequence to The World Is Not Enough. Frankly, if a bottle of Heineken offends you, don’t drink international beer brands in pubs and bars.

I was offended, ideologically, by the constant branding by media partners at the Olympics, but at the end of the day, if the sporting achievement is good, it’s just about possible to ignore the sponsors. Same with James Bond. A franchise that has, over its 50 years, promoted a false colonial vision of British dominance and decency, and sidelined women into decorative and expendable garnish, has plenty to answer for. But it has also adapted to survive, presenting a Murdoch-like media baron in Tomorrow Never Dies as a global baddie 15 years before the Leveson Inquiry, for instance, and pulling back on the indiscriminate sex in the wake of Aids.

I love the old Bond movies, the 60s ones, with Sean Connery, who remains the best Bond – even when, in You Only Live Twice, he’s doing it under duress – but I had a lot of time for Brosnan, and even more for Craig. Skyfall is a bold attempt to update the palette, giving loads more for an old lady, Judi Dench to do, while regenerating Q as the young Ben Whishaw, who gets all the best gags. The “Bond girls” are his ass-kicking equals, especially Naomie Harris, who keeps her kit on; while the theme tune harks back to the glory days of Bassey and Sinatra. I feel it gets the balance right. And if ever a Bond was going to be sentimental, it was the 50th anniversary one, but aside from the “backstory” element, it’s not. It’s pretty hard, and unyielding. Bardem’s villain is a horrible, psychotic bastard, and – this is in the trailer – when he blows up the MI5 building, you really feel a sense of terrorism about him, rather than just the megalomania of a rich man with a big train set. The London setting chimes with the Olympics and the Jubilee in 2012, but there’s less to celebrate, and there are no cheering crowds.

With Spooks gone, and its Cameron’s-Britain replacement, Hunted, all mercenary and private-sector, we might need the fictional civil servant James Bond more than ever.

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15 thoughts on “Spooksperson for a generation

    • I had no idea what a nostalgia-storm my mention of ISDN lines would cause! (Radio Times is published by a thoroughly modern, go-getting media company, too.) I like the fact that the ISDN room is in the basement, where it probably belongs.

  1. I really enjoyed this one, first Bond film I’ve enjoyed for a while. I thought the entire casino/femme fatale scene was naff and added nothing whatsoever other than to drag out the plot and tick some classic Bond boxes. I also think Daniel craig is looking a bit too old for the part; even though I know they alluded to this, it didn’t make it any
    less of an issue. Wasn’t he wearing too much make-up?

    I think they’ve managed quite succesfully to transition Bond in a post-bourne world. But there are still
    bits that make it look naff and old fashioned, even when they attempt to present these elements in a knowing ironic way. Even the knowing ironic asides themselves are a bit predictable and seem expected.

    Those gripes aside, I really enjoyed it. Best one for a very long time in my view.

  2. Saw it yesterday because no cinema in Manchester was showing Frankenweenie in the evening. Looks like Casino Royale is going to remain the only Bond film for people like me who don’t like Bond films.

    It was seemingly well made but all Skyfall did was re-justify all those previous films that bored the arse off me. And judging by the knowing laughter at all the in jokes (how much longer can they get away with ‘having it both ways’ by poking fun at its own past?) and the ridiculous cooing when an old grey car (yes I am being wilfully ignorant) appeared, it has probably secured the franchise for another ten years.

    Daniel Craig is probably the best Bond but it’s not saying a great deal is it?

    Oh and the title song by Adele is truly awful. I was never a fan but when did she descend into pub singing? “Aye Schkyye-fowle”.

    • If you’re someone who doesn’t like Bond films by your own admission, Richard, I’m surprised you wasted good money on seeing Skyfall at all. It’s hardly designed to convert anybody. It is, objectively speaking, another Bond film.

      I’m quite fascinated though that all the previous films have “bored the arse off you.” I can understand you not buying into the franchise, but “bored”? Really? Do you like action movies in general? If so, which ones? On a purely visceral level, they are pretty exciting in terms of car chases and stunts and the like, even if you disagree with the colonial politics that I mention in my review.

      Still, each to their own. There is no right or wrong answer. I’ve just never heard anyone who actually has a serious aversion to the franchise.

  3. Like I said Andrew, we wanted to see Frankenweenie but it wasn’t on anywhere and we were on the town wanting to see a film and this was basically all that we (Mrs Smith and I) could agree on. Plus, as I alluded to above, Casino Royale (CA) had given me hope and the hype that this was somehow not only ‘the best Bond film ever’ but maybe one of the best action films ever drew us in. It wasn’t terrible by any means and had some very good moments but it was too self-referential for me.

    CA was a Bond film (the best Bond film if we have to go in for that kind of thing) where he seemed in genuine peril and emotionally involved. I didn’t bother with QOS because the reviews convinced me it wasn’t worth it. This time the reviews convinced me it was worth it. And having shed £18.40, along with my pre-disposed historically bored posterior before entering, I felt justified in passing on a genuine reflection of what I saw. Surely, as long as I’m not one of those people who gets a kick out of just saying the opposite to what everyone else thinks (I’m not Julie Burchill), a different perspective is welcome? It may even help lower someone else’s expectations before they go and see it and God knows that would have helped me.

    You don’t strike me as the sort of person who would lure me into listing some treasured films just so you could then rubbish them all but I doubt you really want me to provide a list of my favourite action films, do you? But here goes anyway… like I said the first Bourne film was brilliant and the next two were very good … can I count Sci-fi films? If so Bladrunner would be right up there… the first Terminator… Unstoppable was okay… Saving Private Ryan, does that count? Prometheus wasn’t anywhere near as bad as people said, neither was the latest The Thing. I really have strayed too far from what you were after haven’t I?

    Maybe you’re right… I should just leave well alone.

    • Hey, your perspective is more than welcome! I was genuinely and sincerely curious as I don’t think I’ve met anyone who is bored by the Bond movies. As someone who grew up with them, just as I grew up with Doctor Who, I may be too fondly attached to the franchise to judge it objectively. However, I didn’t get bored by them until the creaky end of Roger Moore’s run, and it took Brosnan to pull me back on board. I don’t like them all. I could sit through the weaker ones, but I can see why they’re weaker.

      But your position against them is interesting.

      I’m also keen on lowering expectations, as you’ll know from my recent reviews of Killing Them Softly and Holy Motors. I thought Casino Royale was great, too. I also admire Skyfall for trying something new, while remaining true to the project. But all opinions are welcome here. I asked about which action movies you like to help me put your Bond-aversion into perspective. I write about films for a living; I am inordinately interested in people’s film habits. I’m right with you with Bladerunner and Terminator. I thought the first half of Ryan was spectacularly good. (Although it’s “action” status is backed up by sentiment; we care more because it really happened.)

      There was never a need to feel defensive, Richard. I was only asking, not attacking!

  4. I probably sounded more defensive than I intended but I’m conscious you know nothing about me and wanted to demonstrate I wasn’t just being ‘arsey’ about Bond for the sake of it. Bizarrely in view of what I said above, BOTH Pam and I never remotely understood the appeal of Bond, but we did both genuinely think CR (why on earth did I abbreviate it to CA before??) was a great film.

    So you know there are two of us out there! And although The Artist probably is more up our collective street than Rambo, we aren’t your card-carrying “we’ll watch anything as long as it’s in b&w with sub-titles” brigade*. Only last night we watched Bridesmaids for the 4th time and found it (like Dumb & Dumber) better after every viewing.

    I think in general the Bond franchise has been to action films as the Star Wars films have been to Sci-fi (not good).

    If I really wanted demonstrate where I’m coming from the thing that is giving most viewing satisfaction these days (last 2 years) is AMC’s The Walking Dead. It really is utterly magnificent and I speak as (and I know you are too) a big fan of Breaking Bad. I’m not trying to compare them, just offering perspective.

    *p.s. do you know Antonia Quirke?

    • I have been sucked back into The Walking Dead, having drifted during season two. I’ll be reviewing it for the Guardian (Telly Addict, goes live Tuesday morning). The first episode of S3, the most watched cable entertainment show in US TV history!, was excellent, and I think I shall be sticking with this one.

      I used to work with Antonia Quirke on Back Row on Radio 4 in the early part of the century.

  5. Okay on that basis and with your journalistic background and apparently warm hearted nature, I can understand why you wouldn’t want to be dragged in to a discussion on how, amazingly really when you consider the evidence, Claudia Winkleman turned out NOT to be the most irritating thing on the re-vamped BBC1 film show.

    Incidentally though how can a flagship TV film review show not actually be broadcast for the majority of the year?

  6. I grew up with Film 79, Film 80, Film 81 … it never ran for the whole of the year. Most weekly shows have breaks, including Question Time, Top Gear etc. You might ask why a “flagship” is, and always has been, on in the middle of the night!

  7. And I go back as far as Film 72. It was never on all year round but the runs do now seem ridiculously short and, as you suggest, it should be in an earlier slot, although its ungodly hour doesn’t particularly bother me. After all QT does run for the majority of the year and its only extended holiday coincides with the closing of parliament which makes sense. And Top Gear has to take lengthy breaks so they can finely tune their ad-libs.

    Closing down your flagship film review program for two thirds of the year, but particularly during the summer block-buster season, is like MOTD not bothering to provide any highlights of the run-in to the PL season. Or TOTPs only covering the Christmas charts… oh… it does.

  8. I admit I’m one of the Daniel Craig generation, who was a little too young to appreciate the older Bonds when they were still frequently on the telly. Really interesting blog post- really looking forward to seeing Skyfall now and more than tempted to educate myself in “classic” Bonds and possibly the books to see how they compare…

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