Wednesday, 12 April 2017

License To Spy

Ssh! Keep it top secret. Today is Spy Wednesday. This is one of the many vanishing days of the religious calendar. It wasn’t named after the modern secret service but after the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter, specifically the day when Judas Iscariot chose to become a spy for the Pharisees. Very few Christian churches do anything special for Spy Wednesday any more, assuming they know it exists.

However, let’s celebrate Spy Wednesday in our own way and look at one of the most famous spies in fiction and the many queer angles that hide behind an outwardly very macho heterosexual man.

The name of that famous spy is Bond, James Bond. The character’s many female conquests, the masculinity of the actors who have played Bond, and the very heterosexual life of Bond’s creator Ian Fleming hide quite a few lgbt connections.

We’ll start where Bond started, in the novels.

James Bond may never have been created at all if it hadn’t been for a gay South African writer called William Plomer (1903-1973). Plomer’s 1926 novel “Turbott Wolfe” inspired the 18-year-old Ian Fleming to write a fan letter to him. They became friends, and in later years Plomer suggested that Fleming’s career in military intelligence would be a good source of material for thriller novels. In 1952 Fleming had finally written one and gave it to Plomer to read and get his opinion. That modest novel was called “Casino Royale”. Plomer himself was thrilled and fought hard to get his own publishers to publish it. They weren’t keen on thrillers, but Plomer’s insistence proved fruitful as this first Bond novel became an instant best seller.

One of the central characters has been M, the head of MI6. Just like Bond himself this character is said to have been based on several real people. The man often put forward as the prime influence is the very real head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield (1915-1981). Sir Maurice was anything but Establishment. He was a working-class farmer’s boy from Derbyshire who still went to the local pub even when he reached the top of the secret service ladder. He joined British Intelligence before World War II broke out, and by the age of 31 had received the MBE. His great-nephew, who recently wrote a biography of Sir Maurice, says he would never have come out publicly, it wasn’t his style. He was happy as he was.
The James Bond books became very popular very quickly and went through several editions in the first years of their publication. Most of the first editions had covers by a gay illustrator called Richard Chopping (1917-2008). Starting with “From Russia With Love” (above left) in 1957 Richard provided covers for the first editions of 9 Bond novels, as well as the 1981 first edition of the first post-Fleming novels “License Renewed” by John Gardner (above right). Richard corresponded regularly with Ian Fleming on aspects of his books covers.
 
Once the books became popular it was natural that they be turned into films. The first of these was “Dr. No” in 1962. I wonder if the film would have become such an international success if Ian Fleming’s own choice of actor to play the eponymous doctor had actually been cast. Fleming wanted his friend, the famous openly gay playwright, songwriter and actor Sir Noël Coward to play the role. Perhaps fortunately Noël replied to his friend’s suggestion with the words “No! No! No!” For me the film will now be remembered as “Dr. No! No! No!” Somehow I can’t picture Sir Noël as a Bond villain, and he may have upstaged the then unknown newcomer Sean Connery to such an extent that Connery would have been forgotten.

Following “Dr. No”s success it was just a short time before it was parodied. You may think that the 1967 film “Casino Royale” was the first James Bond parody, but it wasn’t. Less than a year after “Dr No”s release “Carry On Spying” went into production. With Dr. Crow substituted for Dr. No, and Charles Bind substituted for James Bond (the Bond film producers threatened legal action if the character was named James Bind) “Carry On Spying” was a homage to many film noir and spy films but was centred around a Bond theme, complete with exotic locations (all filmed at Pinewood Studios), a super villain and gadgets.

The campest of gay comedy actors were chosen to play the British spies, Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey. The role of Dr. Crow went to Judith Furse, another great character actor who built a career on playing “battleaxes”. Her lesbianism was known within the film industry but not publicly revealed by colleagues until after her death.

“Carry On Spying” was released just after the second Bond film “From Russia With Love”, and the film poster below shows its obvious inspiration.
A myriad of other lgbt actors have appeared in the Bond films. These include Charles Gray as Blofeld, but let’s jump right up to date with the Daniel Craig films and the tech genius Q, played by Ben Whishaw. Whishaw has his own link to espionage and British Intelligence. His grandfather Jean Stellmacher was enlisted to spy for the intelligence service in World War II.

Following “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love” was “Goldfinger” in 1964. The screenplay was co-written by gay writer Paul Dehn (1912-1976). Among his other screenplays was “Murder on the Orient Express”. The next lgbt writer for a Bond film was John Logan (b.1961). He wrote “Skyfall” and “Spectre” for Daniel Craig’s Bond and is currently working on the next. It was Logan who wrote the sexually ambiguous remarks between Bond and the villain in which Bond.

Perhaps the most recognisable running theme throughout all the Bond films has been the Bond theme and title songs. Lionel Bart (1930-1999) is the first lgbt songwriter to contribute to a Bond theme, “From Russia With Love” (again!). The first singer-songwriter to perform a Bond theme was k d lang (b.1961). k d lang? Yes, she was invited to write the theme for Pierce Brosnan’s Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies”. Films often have several themes written for them and, unfortunately, k d lang’s song “Surrender” lost out to Sheryl Crow. However, “Surrender” is the film’s closing theme.

Off all the Bond themes, all of them achieving high positions in music charts, none won an Oscar until 2012. The theme song for “Spectre”, “Writing’s On The Wall”, was co-written by the openly gay singer Sam Smith. His acceptance speech at the Oscar ceremony, where he claimed to be the first openly gay Oscar winner, goes down as one of the most embarrassing moments in his career.

There are many other lgbt connections in the James Bond universe, both on screen and behind it, which would keep us here all day. For now I hope I’ve shown that James Bond, despite being a macho heterosexual legend, has some very gay contributors behind him.

[Expanded 24 May 2017]

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