The latest spy film has all the familiar accoutrements. Well-cut suits, a dastardly villain, some intricate gadgets. But this is a film that harks back to the classics: Kingsman: The Secret Service is James Bond’s wise-cracking nephew, paying an openly acknowledged debt to Bond while cheerfully mocking him.
Does this herald the death of Bond and the rise of a new generation of spies? Far from it. Taking liberties with Bond is nothing new. If you look back a few decades, you’ll find Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise’s The Intelligence Men, 1967’s psychedelically incoherent Casino Royal with David Niven and Woody Allen, James Coburn’s oft-forgotten Flint series, the Austin Powers films and the excellent recreation of the original Gallic Bond by Jean Dujardin in the OSS 117 comedies.
None of these parodies, nor more serious contenders conjured into life by the Jason Bourne series have been able to terminate Bond’s reign as the world’s longest running, and possibly most watched film franchise. They all still pay homage to their patriarch.
All of which raises the intriguing question of how and why Bond has lasted so long. A clue can be found in the carefully curated countdown to the release of the next Bond instalment in November 2015. The launch of its global marketing campaign covers every conceivable aspect of Bond-related marginalia. The “Brand Bond” machine is up and running to do what it does best: make money.
This is in no way to denigrate a global icon, of which I remain an enthusiastic and largely uncritical fan. Rather it is to remind us that Bond’s 60-year existence has been inexorably tied to the realisation of profit. Bond is product – and one that is being constantly reinvented.
Brand Bond was willed into existence by the proclivities and marketing savvy of Fleming himself. It was nurtured to maturity via the Midas touch of producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R “Cubby” Broccoli. More recently Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson have taken the franchise to new levels of profitability. 2012’s Skyfall crossed the magical $1 billion mark in global ticket sales, joining a coterie of super-blockbusters.
The resulting multi-platform brand has generated billions of dollars in profit and more or less invented product placement. It has been so thoroughly integrated into British life that brand Bond has even been subsumed into brand GB. The Queen, with whom Bond shares an anniversary, conferred the royal seal of approval during the London Olympics. Support presumably granted due to the brand’s export prowess as opposed to its defence of the realm.
Back from the dead
But it’s worth remembering that Bond’s success was not inevitable; he has defied oblivion on numerous occasions, often by the narrowest of reboots. Daniel Craig’s successful tenure is only the most recent in a line that goes back to less successful runs by George Lazenby in the late 1960s and Sean Connery’s lacklustre return in 1971.
Nor were Fleming’s early novels an immediate success. James Bond was born in 1953, but it was only with the release of From Russia with Love in 1957 that the format achieved popularity, later assisted by John F Kennedy’s alleged enthusiasm for the book. Even so, Bernard Bergonzi’s withering critique of Fleming’s crass commercialisation and Paul Johnson’s caustic demolition of the juvenile sadism of Dr No should remind us that Bond could have so easily been left on the scrap heap of 1950s pulp fiction.
The golden-age of 1960s Bondmania gave way to the lacklustre, and often ridiculed later outings. The end of the Cold War and legal disputes again threatened Bond’s raison d'être. In more modern times, Jason Bourne is credited with mounting another withering assault at the turn of millennium. But neither geopolitical change nor upstart challengers seem capable of forcing Bond to hang up his Walther PPK.
The key to his longevity is adaptability. Fleming’s original Bond was a child of Edwardian empire, an Eton-educated, sexist, racist, chain-smoking, high-functioning alcoholic – and the living antithesis of an austere 1950s Britain in terminal decline (the Bond that Kingsman pokes so much fun at). Traits that have less appeal today, and so are quietly dissolving.
So too have Connery’s, Moore’s and Pierce Brosnan’s knowing bons mots and double entendres (the humour was similarly part of the marketing plan) fallen from favour and given way to the taciturn, post-Bourne athletic violence of Daniel Craig. The emerging Asian market required a new Bond for the 21st century and so he was spawned, in part by selectively returning to his literary roots.
Fleming offered his readers little insight into Bond’s background until M penned his obituary at the end of You Only Live Twice. But Bond’s persona has been continually developed and refined by many – John Pearson, John Gardner, Sebastian Faulks, William Boyd, Charlie Higson.
This is in addition to the cannon of work produced by legions of Bondologists including Kingsley Amis, Umberto Eco and Professor David Cannadine, who have analysed so many aspects of his birth, motivations and existence.
Bond is a chameleon, constantly reinventing himself, and being reinvented. Herein lies his appeal. Anyone who talks of “Bond” in the singular is missing the point. There isn’t one Bond, but rather multiple versions in print and on screen. This is something that, for all its faults, Die Another Day understood and joyfully revelled in. You cannot pin Bond down, character or brand. His sheer complexity and ongoing evolution across parallel timelines and realities make him supremely resilient.
At the end of the day all the various attempts at improbable world domination that Bond has thwarted belie a greater truth: it is Brand Bond that has succeeded in dominating the planet, and I suspect, protracted and ludicrous attempts to assassinate him notwithstanding, he’ll continue to do so for some time to come, Kingsman or no Kingsman.