To view this media, you will require Adobe Flash 9 or higher and must have Javascript enabled.

Duration 00:44:37

How James Bond won the Cold War for Britain

Charlie Higson, author of the best-selling Young Bond books, discusses the genesis of 007 – James Bond, Ian Fleming’s life in the secret service, and how the Bond books and films relate to real world events.

Transcription

[00:00:08] The National Archives podcast series. This talk is called ‘How James Bond won the Cold War for Britain’. It was presented by Charlie Higson and recorded on Thursday, the 3rd of October 2019, at The National Archives, Kew.

Shona Lowe [00:00:37] Here at Kew, we feel privileged to be able to share an opportunity to experience what an archive is. Our vast collection of original documents relating to the Cold War includes political memos, spy confessions, civil defence posters. And we even have a letter from Winston Churchill to the Queen.

[00:00:56] On now to the part of the evening that you really have come here for. And we are delighted to be joined here tonight by author, comedian and Bond fan Charlie Higson. As well as all his radio and TV work, Charlie has written the phenomenally successful Young Bond series. Tonight, Charlie will be talking about the genesis of 007, Ian Fleming’s life in the Secret Service, and how the Bond books and films relate to real world events. So without any further ado from me, please join me in welcoming Charlie Higson.

Charlie Higson [00:01:42] Thank you. Thank you very much. And thank you for telling me what I’m supposed to be talking about. I didn’t really know before I turned up who I was going to be talking to. I was very worried that there might be a lot of academics and serious historians here, because I am not an academic or a serious historian. I’m not even a humorous historian. I’m not an historian at all. I am simply a James Bond fan who has toiled in the world of James Bond for a few years. So can I just find out who is here because they wanted a deeply researched historical academic talk about the Cold War? I know you’re not. And who is here because like me, you like James Bond? Excellent, because you’re not going to get a seriously, deeply researched historical and academic talk about the Cold War.

[00:02:39] So, I mean, I guess it all started, James Bond and the origins of the Cold War, in the Second World War, where Ian Fleming was working for naval intelligence.

[00:02:54] Just to fill in Ian Fleming, where he came from, how he ended up there; he came from a Scottish family. His grandfather was a working class guy in Dundee who got a job in a clothing store, as a clerk, and he got to know the business very well. And he particularly got to know about the buying and selling of material and clothing and dealing with merchants. And he learnt very much about the investment side of the business and moved on to go into the world of investments. It being the sort of late 19th century, America was a kind of … it was really booming. There were a lot of opportunities there. And he got heavily involved in investing in America, particularly in the American railroads. He was instrumental in financing – that made vast amounts of money – and set up Britain’s first private investment bank, Fleming’s Bank, which still exists, and where the Fleming family get all their riches from, other than the riches they get from James Bond. They get a lot more from the bank.

[00:04:04] His son, Valentine, was a politician. And in the First World War he joined up and fought on the western front where he was killed and died a hero’s death. His obituary was written by his friend Winston Churchill. He was quite a difficult figure to live up to, this war hero politician, nationally famous man. And he had two sons, Peter Fleming and Ian Fleming. Peter Fleming was the eldest son, and he was the kind of golden boy of the family in tall, dark, handsome. Very talented. He was a very successful writer. He wrote travel books based on his adventures around the world, which are very funny and entertaining and still stand up very well today. And he was critically acclaimed and sold well, and he was considered to be the clever one in the family, the star, the writer.

[00:04:51] Ian was a bit of a dud. He didn’t do very well at school. All he managed to do was, well, I think he did okay in athletics. Two years he won the Victor Ludorum, which was the prize for athletics at the school. And at that time, I don’t think anyone else had ever won it twice. But he never finished at school. He was removed by his mother, who put him into Sandhurst, and she thought that would be good for him. But he never finished at Sandhurst either. He left in a certain amount of disgrace after contracting gonorrhoea. He went into, he followed in his grandfather’s family footsteps and tried to get it to do well in the city as a stockbroker. He was terrible. He described himself as England’s worst stockbroker. He gave up on that. He went into journalism. And actually he was quite good at journalism, and he learnt a lot as a journalist. And he particularly learnt how to write in a very direct, punchy style: get straight to the point, grab your reader quickly, do research quickly but in depth, and really be able to paint a picture and sell it to a reader. And to say it as quickly and gravelly as possible.

[00:06:06] But then the Second World War comes along and he gets a job in naval intelligence, where he is given the rank of commander. Which, of course, is the same rank that James Bond has. And he is the personal assistant to Admiral Godfrey. Those of you who know the books will know that M was an admiral before joining MI6. And Admiral Godfrey’s very much the model for M. And he was something of a father figure too Ian, in the same way that in the books, M is very much a father figure to Bond. And father figures are very important in the world of James Bond. Ian Fleming himself was trying to live up to the memory of his own father. But he’s also had a lot of problems with authority and father figures, such as teachers and head teachers and officers at Sandhurst. And he had a certain rebellious streak. It was an odd mix of sort of old school British values and a certain anti-authoritarian streak. And in the books, and certainly in the classic Bond films, you always have these two father figures of M, the kindly father, who’s a little bit irascible, but he’s always telling Bond off, but you can tell actually deeply loves him. And then the Bond villains who are all older than Bond, they’re all patronising towards Bond. They always say, oh, you know, you’re playing in an adult world now, Bond. You’re this way. You know, you’re going to come a cropper. So he loves turning the tables on these father figures. And that is a very important aspect to the books.

[00:07:51] So during the war, Fleming was the personal assistant to Admiral Godfrey. And he actually really enjoyed it. And what he enjoyed about the Secret Service was thinking up plots. And plots is an interesting word, because plots means your scheme to foil the enemy. But you can also talk about plots in terms of writing, and he liked that. If you like the creative side of being in the Secret Service, he loved thinking up outrageous ways to thwart the enemy. That was his whole thing, to get inside the enemy and overturn them in a clever and ingenious way. And there were various schemes that he cooked up. He was involved early on in coming up with an idea which was later used in Operation Mincemeat.

[00:08:42] Have you heard of Operation Mincemeat? Ben Macintyre, who spends his whole life here waiting for new records from the archives to be released so he can write a bestselling book about it, did write a very good book about Operation Mincemeat. The idea was to deceive the enemy, you would take a dead body of a young man, and put false papers on it. Dump it in the sea somewhere where you could guarantee that the enemy, the Germans, would pick it up, and they would take these papers and they would be misdirected. And this was used in the in the lead up to the D-Day landings where Operation Mincemeat was put into practise. A homeless guy of the right age died, and the Secret Service took him on. And they had created, they’d been working for it for years, creating an entire false identity for this person. And so they put him in the correct uniform. They put these papers in his pockets, and the idea was to mislead the Germans as to where the invasion was going to take place. Because it could have happened at various other points. so they wanted the Germans to be waiting in the wrong place. So they had these documents about the invasion. But they also had documents creating an entire character: with cinema tickets, there was a letter from his girlfriend, there were photographs of family. They created an entire character and story for this person and then dumped him near, I think it was near Portugal, somewhere where they knew that the Germans would pick him up. And it was a classic case of misdirection.

[00:10:21] And Fleming loved that idea of coming up with crazy schemes. And he did it for the rest of his life, either in his books, where, you know, you have things like ‘how do you smuggle large amounts of gold from one country to another?’. Ah ha, you melt it down and make it into a solid gold Rolls Royce and simply drive it across the border and then melt it down again, which of course was Goldfinger’s scheme. So he loved that kind of idea more really than he seriously was looking at the world of espionage and undercover work. Which is, let’s face it, real spying work is very, very different to what James Bond did. Real spying work is where you find someone … Normally you want someone who is actually a native of the country you want to spy on. They manage to infiltrate an organisation, whether it’s the government, the military, even the Secret Service. And for years, they may be there working undercover like that and feeding secrets back that they get hold of. That’s not what James Bond does. James Bond films would be quite boring if they took place over 20 years and he was just going into the office every day. Roger Moore hit the nail on the head when he first took on the job of James Bond for LIve and Let Die. When a journalist asked him, you know, how seriously you’re going to, is your portrayal of James Bond going to be? He said, are you crazy? This is James Bond. This man is supposed to be a secret agent, supposed to be a spy undercover. He could walk into any bar in the world. And the barman will say to him, ‘Ah, Mr. Bond, I’ll make you a martini, shaken, not stirred’.

[00:12:13] This is the best known character in the world, how can he possibly be an undercover spy? And really, in the books, James Bond isn’t a spy. He is a secret agent. He’s an assassin more than a spy. And that’s the side of it, really, that Fleming was interested in. Part of his job also was helping to work with and train various commando units and secret agents, for want of a better word, who were sent into Europe. To go behind enemy lines and cause disruption or whatever, and he was also quite involved in setting up too Commando Task Force, whose job was to go in the front line, in an invasion of Europe and occasionally, if possible, ahead of the front line to capture important documents. And later on to go in and actually capture people who may be useful and equipment, information, technology, rather than just letting all the soldiers go through and smash everything up. They would go in ahead of them and take back stuff that was useful. And actually that was an incredibly important part of the war work. And I did write it down what these was and that was 30 Commando, who were also called 30 Assault, and T-Force or Target Force.

[00:13:33] That’s the in-depth research that I’ve done and the deep knowledge that you can take home tonight. But said so he did have an intimate knowledge of what it was like to be. One of these commandos, the secret agent types, and they tended to come from an upper class background. They tended to be quite extreme individuals, extremely tough, quite eccentric, a lot of them quite happy to go in and kill someone with their bare hands. So we knew a lot of these guys and they also debriefed a lot of them when they came back during the war and after. And it was talking to these men and realising, hearing about the often horrific tortures that some of them had endured at the hands of the Nazis, but started to give in the germ of the idea for poor James Bond and also the nature of the books. Fleming said after the war, when he started writing, he said, you know, you can’t write. These books in the way they used to be, you can’t write a thriller or a modern day hero in the way that we used to. We can’t be Lord Peter Wimsey trolling up to a country house, solving an elegant murder where someone’s been poisoned by mushrooms or something.

[00:14:51] He said, we’re living in a brutal world now, we know what a brutal world it is, we know what men are capable of doing to each other. And he wanted to write a new hero for that kind of world. And he based a lot of it on those men that he had observed during the war. There was also quite a lot of his older brother, Peter, in there. And let’s face it, there was quite a lot of Ian Fleming himself in there. Any writer, in the end, all your characters are versions of yourself, because that’s in the end all you ever really know. The person you know best in the world is yourself. And you can use that aspect. And a lot of actually what James Bond did was Ian Fleming’s fantasy version of himself, if he’d been brave enough to do things because actually in war he didn’t have any active service. He did observe some of the missions from a boat off shore, but he himself never went in and got involved in an armed combat. One of the mission’s operations that he was quite closely involved with was an operation called Operation Goldeneye, which was to do with if Spain fell, and the Nazis took over Spain and Gibraltar was threatened, that the British spy network there would be safe, Gibraltar would be safe. And he very much liked the name Goldeneye during the war. He visited Jamaica. He liked it a lot. And he bought himself some land there and built a house, which, of course, he called Goldeneye.

[00:16:25] The other thing that Fleming was involved in the war was in trying desperately various ideas to try and steal one of the German code machines, the Enigma machines, which were carried on submarines. And he put a lot of thought and effort into trying to catch one. He never managed it, but he did store the idea of the the Enigma machine in his head to use later on.

[00:16:51] So that was Ian Fleming’s experience of espionage. And it was very much to do with spying on the Germans. But, of course, by the end of the war, we had decided perhaps we’d been fighting the wrong enemy in some ways. And that the Russians were the real threat now. I’m going to call them Russians. And that was, as you can call it, the USSR, the Soviet Union, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just call it Russia shorthand. Russia was the new threat and the new ideological threat to the west. By the end of the war, half of Europe was overrun by the communists. And all our espionage efforts went into working against the Russians now. Which is, of course, the birth of the Cold War, where you have these two superpowers: America and Russia, who cannot directly fight each other because they have both invented weapons that are so powerful, that are so destructive. To use them could mean the end of life on Earth. So instead, you have these proxy wars all around the world where instead of Russia and America fighting, they’re financing other people or helping other people to fight each other, occasionally sending in their own armies, but never directly confronting each other should lead to nuclear war. And this is the perfect breeding ground for spies and for espionage, because the war is now fought directly between America and Russia by the spies. So the spy agencies blossomed and bloomed during the war.

[00:18:27] Fleming had travelled to America and had worked with guys over there, and he’d helped set up the protocols and the ideas for the organisation that would eventually become the CIA. And he got to know a lot of the American intelligence people. And later on, that led to his friendship with President Kennedy, which was very important to him and to his success.

[00:18:50] But after the war, he eventually went back into journalism, particularly travel journalism, and he did travel a lot and he loved travelling and the things he put in his book as I was saying before, because Bond is very much Fleming. Bond shares all of Fleming’s passions – his passion for travel, his love of skiing, his love of women, cars, of gadgets, of fine food and drink. He loved to drink. And of course, it being post-war, rationing was still around in England, so that was one of the sexiest things in the books, when he started writing the books, was that James Bond was flying, which people didn’t really do then, ordinary people. And he was travelling all around the world and going to these amazing restaurants, having fantastic meals of food that you couldn’t dream of eating in England. And then that was part of the fantasy appeal of James Bond. And James Bond was and is very much a fantasy. And a lot of writers talk about James Bond and dismiss James Bond as being like, oh, it’s just a fantasy of England still being in power. But he always was very much a fantasy. There always was, particularly in the films, there was a tongue in cheek element to it that we were never supposed to really seriously believe.

[00:20:14] His power and his potency and his ability to take on the rest of the world and win. This myth of plucky little England, little England that had stood alone against the might of Europe. This tiny island. That idea is absolute nonsense. England then still was the centre of an extremely large empire. It had Canada. It had Australia. It had India. And it had all the resources of those countries and all the people of those countries. So it wasn’t standing alone against the might of Hitler. But that myth of England, Little England, and how one man, one little Englishman can defeat the enemy, where the great wealth and might of America fails. It sort of grows out of that. And it’s a sort of two-pronged fantasy, which I’ll talk a little bit more about later.

[00:21:06] So Ian Fleming had lots of affairs. And one of the women he’s been having affair with is a bit terrified to find that they’re going to get married. She’s managed to get pregnant, so they think they ought to. And in shock and terror, he takes himself off to his house in Jamaica that he’s built and he starts writing his book. That he’s wanted to get out of his system. This book, based on these tough guys that he worked with in the war and his knowledge of the world of espionage. Well, it must be said very much that Fleming’s knowledge of the world of espionage is very much that Second World War knowledge. Of knowledge of fighting the Germans. He didn’t really have any great personal experience of spying against the Russians. But he put what he could into the book. There is of course Casino Royale. And the idea of the book is that a Russian paymaster, Le Chifre in France, who is funneling money from Russia into French trade unions or whatever, they found out that he’s a bit of a gambler and he’s been using his Russian money to gamble in the casinos, and he’s got in a bit of a hole and he’s hoping that he can gamble his way out of it. And so the scheme that is cooked up by M, it is a fairly ridiculous scheme, is that our best secret agent, 007 James Bond, is going to go to Royale and he’s going to engage Le Chifre in gambling and he’s going to beat him and he’s going to bankrupt him. And Le Chifre will be ruined and very possibly killed by his own side for spending all their money. I think there are some origins, in fact, that this is something that had happened at some point, probably during the war, where somebody had managed to out gamble an important enemy agent in a casino. But the idea that the might of the Secret Service would finance someone to go and gamble against someone in a casino is pretty nonsensical. But Fleming was always careful in his books to dress them up in a very real world with a lot of technical detail. He said if you did get the ordinary details right and make them strong and vivid, it gives you the licence to be able to be completely over the top with some of the other more fantastical elements of the book.

[00:23:21] And that’s what’s so great about books, is there is this embedding in reality. And then there’s this sort of adolescent leap into fun and adventure.

[00:23:31] And, you know, he used the most up to date gadgets and gimmicks that he could think of in the book, including a secret listening device, which they hide in a rival agent’s bedroom in the hotel. And it’s about the size of a suitcase. So they have to stuff it up the chimney. But at the time, this felt, wow, this is really clever and modern. And there were elements from the real world of the Cold War. There were some Bulgarian agents there to try and blow, blow someone up, managed to blow themselves up instead, which was taken from real events. And the idea of this kind of covert secret. Secret war between agents. It is very much what was going on in the Cold War. And of course Bond falls in love with the beautiful Vesper Lynd. And he’s seriously thinking by the end of the book that he will give up the Secret Service and that he will marry this woman.

[00:24:29] There’s a lot of stuff in the books and there’s a lot of discussion about was James Bond a misogynist and was Ian Fleming, a misogynist. And certainly there are some pretty shocking things in some of the books. But the central idea of Bond was that he didn’t want to completely commit himself to a woman. Because it would put her in danger. And it would make him less able to function as a sort of fearless rogue agent if he was worrying about somebody else the whole time. So he preferred a quick, intense relationship that he could move on from. The love of his life had been a young woman who he had finally committed to during the war. She was killed in a German bombing raid. And he felt terribly guilty about that and a sense of loss. And I think he used that idea very much in his books for the relationship between Bond and the women. But in this book, he’s thinking, I’m going to marry this woman. I’ll have to leave the Secret Service. But this is the first time I’ve thought actually this woman is worth more to me than my job. And then she commits suicide and leaves him a note explaining that she has been a Russian double agent all along and she’s been working to undermine him. And it makes him rather cross.

[00:25:49] There’s a very famous last line to the book, which I won’t repeat now, there are children present, which on one level you could say, well, yes, that’s a classic misogynistic line. But this is a woman who’s been plotting to kill him, basically.

[00:26:04] And that’s a key moment, really, for Bond and for the books. It’s where Bond says. OK. If this is the sort of enemy that I’m up against, that would corrupt this poor young woman and would send er in to kill me as a double agent, who would have been so cold and heartless as to do that, then I will take them on and I will fight these Russians.

[00:26:25] And that is very much what Bond was. There’s not a lot of technical stuff about the Cold War, but there is quite a lot of stuff about the ideological battle, the idea that the communist state in Russia is this: everybody has to do the same thing, everybody has to do what they’re told. It’s all for the common good. Individuality is stamped out. It’s the herd mentality and the will of the people is the important thing. And pitched against that, we have the ultimate individualist. The man alone, James Bond, who can be as eccentric and odd or whatever as you like, but he’s English and that’s the English way of doing it. That we won’t be told what to do. We won’t join together as a faceless mob.

[00:27:20] And that is something that goes very much through the books. And it’s something that Fleming himself firmly believed in. You know, he was he was an outsider in many ways. And as I said before, he was this weird mix of old school, upper class Etonian Englishness and this modern thing of wanting to smash down the old ways of doing things. And there’s stuff in the books about saying, I don’t want to go to the old fashioned way of wooing a woman where you spend months taking her to dinner and meeting a family and eventually have to marry her. And then finally, you can go to bed with her.

[00:27:55] And you know that the first books were written in the age of the launch of Playboy magazine, which at the time was seen as being this sort of radical new development, a new way of being open about sexuality, for women to be able to express their sexuality. But at the same time, when also there was a lot in there about how to be a gentleman. Now what pipe to smoke and which type of smoking jacket to wear and that kind of thing, that sort of other side that Hugh Hefner liked to push.

[00:28:28] And obviously, with all these things, there is that pull between that and more modern and enlightened ideas about sexuality. But at the time, these things were very radical and James Bond was very radical. He very much upset the establishment in the country, there was a lot of snobbism about him and his writing.

[00:28:47] So the next few James Bond books, they’re not really spy books at all. They’re thrillers. They’re almost detective stories. In the second book he travels to America and confronts black criminals. There’s a black criminal mastermind. Fleming was desperate from the start to be a success in America. He wanted his books to be international successes so that he could make huge amounts of money, and that his character that he actually sort of had stumbled upon and thought, actually no, this is a really interesting character. He wanted him to be to be well. And he knew that the only way to do that was to sell lots of books in America and to have films made.

[00:29:25] Live and Let Die is not a great book. Ian Fleming has been accused of racism quite a lot, and it is a fairly racist book, and his dialogue for his American black gangsters is pretty embarrassing. He thought this was a way to woo America. But Americans turned their back on it because it wasn’t really very authentic. What they loved about James Bond is what we loved about James Bond, it was the international globe-trotting, it was the going to other exotic cultures.

[00:29:50] The third book is almost like a police story. Moonraker, where Bond, with the help of a female policeman, infiltrates the set up where, it’s interesting actually, the villain in that, Hugo Drax, because he is posing as the ultimate patriot in Britain and he’s making this rocket, that’s going to be the pride of Britain. But it turns out he’s a Nazi. And also a communist. And there is this thing in the early books that actually, what the characters that James Bond is fighting are Nazis, because that’s what Fleming knew and that’s what Fleming hated. And he had this fear that the Nazis would rise again. That they were sort of spreading around the world and their evil would come back.

[00:30:40] And so a lot of the early villains are slightly interchangeable between are they a Nazi or are they are communist. And they often have connections in both worlds. We find out at the end of the book that Drax hates Britain and he’s targeted his rocket to land in the centre of London, to destroy half of London, and Bond manages to turn the tables and obviously redirect the rocket, which ends up landing on Drax’s submarine as he tries to escape.

[00:31:06] There are some great bits in the book, but it’s not really classic Bond. Neither is the next one, Diamonds Are Forever. Communists don’t feature at all in that. It’s more of a kind of almost a Western adventure. But when he came to his fifth book, he decided it was the last roll of the dice. He put all his efforts into writing the ultimate James Bond book, and if that didn’t make him a big bestseller that he wanted to be. These books were selling well in England, but Bond hadn’t broken out the way that he wanted. He thought it would put everything into this book. And From Russia with Love is, I think, the best of the Bond books. The best written. The one that is closest to being I don’t want to demean it – but a proper novel rather than an entertainment. And he wrote an introduction to an early copy of the book saying the descriptions of the Russian intelligence service in this book are absolutely true to life. Even the description of the address of where the Secret Service is based is absolutely true to life. You could travel there today and you would be there.

[00:32:09] He had based a lot of the facts of the book on a Russian defector from the Russian Secret Service, who had come over and was spilling his secrets. And Fleming had had access to some of this. It turned out, well, as I say, that the first third of the book, I think almost is a description of the workings of the Russian intelligence service. SMERSH. And it was SMERSH was the organisation that Fleming had as his main opponent from Russia in the early books. It’s a squashing of two words, Smersh Spionam, which means death to spies. And Fleming loved an organisation called Death to Spies. The fact that it had this name SMERSH, which has been parodied ever since that type of idea. But he absolutely loved the idea. So he called his organisation SMERSH.

[00:33:01] But the idea that this was absolutely true to life of the workings of the intelligence service turned out to be nonsense. First of all SMERSH had been disbanded in 1946 and the organisation that was in place was what eventually became the KGB. But I think Fleming so loved the word and the idea of an organisation called Death to Spies that he kept it. But it also turned out that the Russian defector had been pulling everyone’s leg and most of the information he gave was absolute garbage. Someone did actually travel to this address where supposedly SMERSH or the NVD or the KGB, whatever they were, were based and they weren’t there. It was a shop or something. But Fleming loved the idea that he had written this book where it was really detailed out the intelligence service in Russia. And actually reading it now, it doesn’t matter how real it was because it works incredibly well on the page. And the Russian set up this elaborate trap for Bond, which was based on a couple of real events. Their idea is that they are going to disgrace and then kill Britain’s top spy, James Bond. So they train up two agents, Red Grant, a dissatisfied Irishman who is going to kill him and Natalia Romanova, who is going to be the honey trap. And the idea is they’re going to go to Istanbul and they’re going to lure Bond onto the train with this girl. He’s going to be disgraced by being seen to be sleeping with an enemy spy and Red Grant’s going to kill him. There was an agent who had been murdered on the Orient Express. His body had been found in a tunnel, which was inspiration for Fleming. But the idea of setting the climax of the story on the Orient Express was too good to be true for him. So it was the sort of thing that he absolutely loved. And there’s a lot of stuff in there about luring Bond to capture this Russian code machine, which Fleming called the Spectre, which is obviously entirely based on the German code machine from the Second World War.

[00:35:07] There was no such machine. But so, again, he was using elements of his knowledge from the Second World War, putting it together with stuff that he was finding out or knew about the Russian Soviet menace, whatever. And he put it all in this book. And it is it is a fabulous book. There is a couple of pages you probably want to skip past to do with treatment of women. But as a book, it stands up incredibly well. And it is a fantastic reboot. Particularly for me, the opening section before Bond even appeared. He’s talked about a lot but he doesn’t appear. But it is a fantastic book.

[00:35:42] At the end of it, Bond is killed. He is stabbed in the leg by the famous poisoned stiletto in the boots of the lesbian Russian spymaster Rosa Klebb. And he dies. Fleming was thinking, if this doesn’t work, I’ve had enough of Bond. I’m going to do something else.

[00:36:04] It did well enough for him to carry on. He brought Bond back at the beginning of the next book. He was taken to hospital where they had an antidote, which was handy. He got everything right in that book. He’d really worked out how to write a classic Bond book. And Bond’s success was cemented a couple of years later where President Kennedy put from Russia with Love in his top 10 favourite books of all time. This is the Oprah Winfrey effect or the President Obama effect. That was it. The Bond books became huge international bestsellers. And that led to the films being made. Fleming had a couple more books which are sort of vaguely involved with fighting the Russians. And then he said, I’m not going to keep using the Russians as the enemies. They can’t always be the heavy. Because by the end of the 50s, he seriously thought the Cold War was probably going to come to an end quite soon. And they were starting to talk about making films and he didn’t want to make a film in which it was a bit old fashioned because the Russians were no longer our enemies. He wanted his books to have long lasting shelf life.

[00:37:15] So he abandoned the idea of going up against SMERSH and came up with the idea of Spectre. The International Criminal Organisation run by the mastermind, Blofeld. And he sort of really I think he probably was the first person to properly come up with that idea of the International Criminal Network, and certainly those are the classic Bond villain that he put into that position. What’s interesting there is, and it’s particularly when they started making the films is, there’s a plot device that’s used in several of the films, which is basically Spectre or another criminal organisation or some criminal mastermind wanting to pit Russia and America against each other. Spark a nuclear war and be able to go in and clean up on the back of it. In From Russia with Love, the faceless head of Spectre – possibly Blofeld, who knows – has three Siamese fighting fish in his tank, the fish tank. And he says, you observed the third fish carefully. The first two will fight each other to the death. The third fish will come in easily, pick off the wounded victor and clean up. And he said, that’s what we do. That’s what Spectre does. If we can get the Russians and the Americans to keep fighting each other, we’ll go in and clean up.

[00:38:42] And so in that aspect, the idea of the Cold War hangs over a lot of the films. But it was interesting: the films that, really, the whole Soviet empire was never really the main enemy, even in From Russia with Love, it’s not SMERSH that Bond is up against. It is Spectre. It is Spectre Island where Red Grant is trained at the beginning. The Spy Who Loved Me, Stromberg, the villain in that. He with his underwater base, his plan is to capture these nuclear weapons. Fire one against New York, one against Moscow. Sparks a nuclear war. The earth becomes uninhabitable and he can start a new empire on the bottom of the sea. Moonraker is exactly the same plot, except it’s in space where Hugo Drax is going to start his new empire in space, having wiped out everyone on Earth by using exactly the same technique. Octopussy. Steven Berkoff plays a rogue Russian general whose trying to spark – I can’t remember exactly what happens in Octopussy – he’s probably trying to spark a war between them, isn’t he? And that becomes quite a big thing that actually through the films, the Russians are sort of our friends. And actually, it is a fantasy, the idea of Bond saving the world for Britain. Casino Royale – the key scene in that is Bond is up against Le Chifre. He’s lost all his money, but he knows if he can have one more go at Le Chifre, he can probably get him. What happened? He’s bailed out by the CIA. Felix Leiter turns up and says, I will loan you the money. To beat Le Chifre.

[00:40:22] And that’s quite a telling moment because we’re still paying the Americans for the First World War, the money they lent us to fight that. And America has all the expertise and the money and the resources. And that’s pretty much spelled out in Casino Royale. It takes the Americans to bail Bond out, but it takes Bond, the arch individual, the little Englander, to win the day. Americans aren’t going to do that. It’s too outlandish for them.

[00:40:53] But that is the sort of key thing is that we all know that the Americans, the Soviet, Chinese, whatever, are vastly more powerful and influential in the world. And even when we’re making the films, we knew that. And people sort of take it wrongly and thinking, well, are they being serious about England’s place in the world? What is the archetypal Bond image? It’s the start of Spy Who Loved Me. Roger Moore skiing backwards down a mountain, firing rockets out of his ski pole. Now, one, we know I don’t even know if Roger Moore can ski. He certainly can’t punch anyone. He’s no real threat. He’s this camp figure against a blue screen. And we all know that. But we don’t mind because it’s fun. We’re in on the joke. It’s camp and it’s a fantasy. And then he skis off the cliff. Parachute comes out of his backpack with a huge, great Union Jack on it. And everyone cheers in England. And we go into the opening titles. And that is the sort of v sign to the world. Yes, England can still do it, but it’s ridiculous and it’s camp and we know it’s fantasy and we know it’s a joke and we are all in on it.

[00:42:10] But in the end, you see, the Cold War did end. And the Berlin Wall came down. And I think that James Bond did play a big part in that. Not as a real spy or a real secret agent, but as a cultural weapon. That Bond was exporting around the world the power of the West. We were making these huge, big, glossy films that no one else was making. Bond was driving fantastic cars, occasionally some crap cars. There’s an awful moment in the Daniel Craig Casino Royale where he’s driving his little Ford from the airport. And you think, oh, yes, they must have given the film-makers a lot of money. It’s one shot, luckily, but no. You know, James Bond is the living embodiment of the western ideal of glamour and gadgets and nice clothes and nice cars. And he’s travelling the world and he has freedom and he has beautiful girls. He may have driven a Ford, but he never drove a Skoda. Where is the Russian equivalent? Where is their hero that they exported to the world that really demonstrated how marvellous Russia is and the Soviet Union was? There was nothing. We got nothing from them. The only stuff we got from anyone like was the likes of Solzhenitsyn. Who was ot very pro-Russian. Let’s face it, they didn’t win the culture war. Young people, they wanted James Bond. They didn’t want faceless hordes in boiler suits. And so I think in the end, James Bond did help to win the Cold War for us by embodying that Western ideal of individualism and probably, let’s face it, capitalism and conspicuous consumption. It made the West sexy in a way that the Russians never found out a way to make communism sexy.

[00:44:24] This podcast is copyright The National Archives. All rights reserved. It is available for reuse under the terms of the Open Government Licence.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We will not be able to respond to personal family history research questions on this platform.
See our moderation policy for more details.