It was claimed that he walked through his Bond films with only token interest in what was going on. His expressiveness extended mainly to raising an eyebrow. The 1980s satire show Spitting Image notoriously parodied this with a Roger Moore puppet who acted only with his windscreen wiper eyebrows.
There was, however, far more to Roger Moore than meets the eyebrow. He was one of the most enduring film stars that Britain has ever produced. We too easily forget the way he loomed over British and international culture from the 1960s to the mid-1980s.
Moore made some strong business decisions early in his career. After an indifferent start as a Hollywood leading man, he made the move into television in the late 1950s, one of the first to recognise the power of the medium at a time when it was disdained by many film people.
One of a kind
Moore was one of the last actors who could credibly embody a character who had long been a staple of popular fiction: the gentleman hero.
In much British fiction from the early 19th century onwards, the age of chivalry was not dead. Gentlemen, who were up for a fight but always kind to women, populated the thrillers of inter-war authors such as John Buchan, Sapper and Dornford Yates. On film, they were embodied by David Niven, Cary Grant or Errol Flynn. Equipped with a square-jawed handsomeness, they policed the world, saving damsels in distress along the way.
Moore’s 1958 breakthrough role was appropriately in the chivalrous romance Ivanhoe, a British television adaptation of Walter Scott’s novels. Moore’s swashbuckling exuberance equipped him to later play Simon Templar in the most popular of 1960s adventure series, The Saint.
The gentleman hero, however, no longer made sense after the cultural revolution of the 1960s. He appeared stale, reactionary and out of date. Post-feminism, his chivalry to women came over as patronising. The hero’s frequent brushes with foreign villains made him appear racist. He was too square and snobbish to be taken seriously.
James Bond was the exception – but by then his creator, Ian Fleming, had absorbed the darker style associated with American hard-boiled detective fiction. Bond looks like a gentleman but is prepared to behave in an ungentlemanly way when he has to.
Apart from Bond, fiction populated with gentleman heroes no longer seems to work. The exception is when these stories are set in the past – think Sherlock Holmes – or in the present but reference the past, like the BBC’s Sherlock.
Moore, however, managed to convincingly keep portraying gentleman heroes into the 1970s – his performance as Lord Brett Sinclair in The Persuaders was probably his best role – but at the cost of rendering them “camp”.
Moore, Roger Moore
When Moore came to play James Bond, the films quickly lost any pretension to seriousness, as anyone will know who has endured the epic silliness of Moonraker. Significantly, modern Bond epics (especially the Daniel Craig movies) are defined by their determination to exorcise any memory of the seven Roger Moore films, which many consider a betrayal of the original concept.
Today, camp humour and safari suits have been exchanged for tortured angst, which suits popular taste in the age of the Jason Bourne films. The English gentleman has, it is true, since been recreated for a younger generation but he has taken the comic and floppy-haired form of Hugh Grant. Unlike Roger Moore, Grant’s version of the gentleman has always looked out of place in thrillers.
Moore embodied the changes that were taking place within Britain. Up to the 1950s, the gentleman was meant to inspire deference. Thereafter, he became comic because he was out of place.
This is one reason why, outside of Bond, Moore struggled. He could not command audiences when he was not wearing the tuxedo. A few movies such as The Cannonball Run made money, but many went straight to video. In later life, Moore was more interested in his charitable work.
It is not true to say that Roger Moore could not act – take a look at his performance in The Man who Haunted Himself. It is more accurate to say that he was rarely called upon to act. He was a film star, rather than an actor (there is a difference), in some ways more suited to the chat show than to making art. Critic Anthony Lane once said that Moore even needed a stunt double for his acting scenes in the Bond films.
Few actors have combined real charm, self-deprecation and dash in the way Moore always did. He offered a form of Englishness that exported well. His arched eyebrow indicated that we should not take life too seriously, and audiences loved him for it.