Debuting on BBC America at 10PM tonight, Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, takes a cheeky look at the life of Ian Fleming (Dominic Cooper), the British spy-turned-novelist who created one of pop culture’s most enduring icons of masculinity. The four-part limited series, which follows Fleming from the disillusionments of work for a stockbroker to the inner sanctum of British intelligence is a stylish treat for those of us who have been missing the late, great The Hour, particularly because Fleming stars Anna Chancellor as Second Officer Monday, the British Intelligence secretary who was the liaison between Rear Admiral John Godfrey (Samuel West) and Fleming, and who became the inspiration for Moneypenny.
I spoke with Fleming executive producer Douglas Rae about why James Bond has stuck around for such a long time, and been taken so seriously, why we never meet James Bond’s mother, and the difficulties of reconstructing the life of a noted fabulist. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
I was wondering why you thought James Bond has endured as an icon for so long because gender norms and norms in society have changed so radically since then and yet we’re in love with his every incarnation, we just can’t get rid of him.
I think one of the great virtues of Fleming’s Bond and the Broccoli Bond is his sense of humor. And I think that saves it from being another tough guy and “I’m going to rule the world and I’m going to have every girl” and the idea of these quite clunky one liners that Sean Connery and Roger Moore, they all came up with. It kind of saves it from taking itself too seriously. And I think most men at some point in their life think “I’d like to be James Bond” and girls, you know, “I’d like to be a Bond girl” because it’s such a romanticized thing. You don’t take it that seriously. It’s fun.
I think I’d like to be Moneypenny as Naomi Harris was in Skyfall. She seemed like an awful lot of fun.
Where she gets to run down bridges and shoot people.
She gets to do a little bit more than just get rescued.
I know Anna Chancellor played it brilliantly. Because normally there’s a kind of flirtation going between Moneypenny and Bond, and we wanted to try and replicate that. But we wanted an actress who was older than Ian otherwise it might’ve looked a little bit unsavory.
She has more expertise and experience than Fleming does.
And you knew that despite him flattering her and chatting her up she kind of is a different generation, and she handled him very well in our show.
And seems to sort of see him for what he is.
He’s a lady’s man, that’s what she says: “You’re a lady’s man.”
Well, and she can enjoy the attention without necessarily falling for it.
Although, as the series grows, you see how touching that kind of maternal relationship develops and the final scene where they say goodbye is very moving.
One thing I thought was interesting about Fleming’s trajectory into British intelligence was what that part of the series seems to say about class. It seems like there is a right and a wrong way to be living out his class status and his mother thinks he is wasting her money on art he-
He hasn’t found a respectable job that works for him and I thought was a very interesting sequence about his failure to live up to her expectations about what makes one respectable.
Well, you know, his father died when he was five. His mother was all-powerful and kind of dominatrix figure. And when his father died he left a note in his will saying “You will have my fortune as long as you live, as long as you don’t remarry” which must’ve made her quite bitter, really. The idea that somebody’s died, your husband says “You can have my money, you can’t marry somebody else.” And she actually ended up having an affair with but not marrying Augustus John, the great painter. But her elder son, Peter, was goodie two shoes, he just did everything that the mother would want: Oxford, the Guards, wrote books, married a film star, Celia Johnson from Brief Encounter. And Ian was a rebel, always was, because he didn’t want to be his father, he didn’t want to be his brother, he wanted to be Ian. And his great gift was an incredible imagination.
He started off working for Reuters. And the idea was that he was going to become a writer, but what happened was they asked him to go to Shanghai and he said “They weren’t paying me enough to keep my opium going.” And also he wanted to be in London, so when he came back, his mother got him a job with a stock broker. But he was completely useless at being a stock broker, didn’t understand it. And when the war happened, his mother knew Winston Churchill and said “Look, can you help my son, he needs to get a job in the Army,” and didn’t want him to go to the front because Peter was away at the front. She didn’t want to risk losing two of them. And basically what happened was he got an interview with Admiral [John Henry] Godfrey, who was head of military intelligence. And he becomes M in the Bond films, the Judie Dench character. I think Godfrey recognized in him that he was someone who had a very vivid imagination and was prepared, as he says in the film, to play dirty, which was very useful if you were taking on the Nazis.
In intelligence, it seems like he found a respectable space in which to be somewhat disrespectable.
And he was the right class, because spies initially were all aristocrats, Cambridge, Oxford graduates.
But you have a number of people who do very well in the Twenty Committee who are sort of eccentric in some way, right? I mean, it seems like it was a real haven for people who were creative and non-conforming who could do something with a broadly respectable mission.
It also gave him access to lots of women because he got an honorary title, Commander, ie Commander Bond. And he got this wonderful uniform which made him look like, as Anne, says in the film, like a chocolate soldier.
I love that line. It was interesting what you said about his mother’s affair. Do you think his womanizing might be inspired by her example?
Well, she kept it very secret. In fact she had a child with him, and she went abroad for a bit to have the child, and came back with this girl, with this daughter, who she said to Ian she adopted. He spotted right away — you know, kids, what age was it, mid-teens — he’d realized that this had been going on. But I think a lot of his trouble with women comes out of having that terrifying mother, overbearing, somebody that seemed to love his elder brother much more than him. And that made him quite damaged and kind of misogynistic in a way.
I mean do you think that he saw that relationships with women who were disposable or where he would be in sort of a superior position because of it?
I think it was a response to his mother’s kind of controlling obsessive belief in him doing something right and doing something proper and grown up — and he was a man! And yet, she was treating him like a kid. There’s a wonderful scene where they’re sitting and she says “put your napkin straight!” and he goes [pantomimes corrective action] and he’s, what, twenty-seven.
There are very many ways to read Bond, but I do think there is a-
You never meet Bond’s mother…Bond is quite a damaged man, I think.
Well, it’s interesting because I think that in the United States at least there are fans who don’t see that damage and sort of idealize Bond’s womanizing and his emotional detachment.
Mostly men, I think.
Oh, absolutely. I don’t think many women read it that way. But it’s been very interesting to see the reaction to the recent films. I mean, I wonder if some of those rough edges have sort of been smoothed away as Bond has become kind of an archetype rather than a specific person.
I mean, it’s extraordinary that there is still a place in today’s society for a Bond figure.
I’d been reading a lot about the Mitford sister lately and so the moment in his his recruitment interview, when he’s living in Oswald Mosley’s old flat and has these German friends, I thought that was a very interesting undercurrent. And I think in at least the American memory of Britain in World War II, we erase some of the British sympathy or the sympathy in some quarters of British society towards fascism and towards the Nazis in particular.
Well, the Mosleys and the Blackshirts were a real irritation of the British government. And there was quite a support for that kind of attitude especially among working clas,s and there is today with the National Front who tend to be skinheads and really aggressive. I don’t think he necessarily knew Mosley. He was in that flat…And he comes from a very loyal traditional aristocratic family, hugely wealthy, the Flemings. Very big in banking. Still are. He enjoyed being a society figure. He had enormous charm. He had his nose broken laying rugby or something so he was quite rugged. Good looking but not in a pretty way.
And it sounds like he was good at charming intelligence sources as well I mean having that charm and that social reputation is very useful to have.
And he could mix easily with people and he was also quite a chameleon.
Do you think that chameleon nature reflects an insecurity about his underlying personality?
Well, I mean, I think he spent his life inventing who he was. You could argue that Bond was his alter-ego that he pursued all his life, this idea of this irascible romantic…He desperately wanted to be an action guy, and when the war came he thought “This is my chance to go behind enemy lines,” but of course he knew so much about intelligence, they couldn’t risk him being captured. But he started this unit called the Thirty Assault Unit who he called his Red Indians and they were the kind of — not the elite of the army, they were all vagabonds and people who’d been charged with military disciplinary problems. And he wanted a band of brothesr who were really tough and ruthless to go and do his bidding. He trained with them and one of the ultimate tasks to see if you could join this elite band was called the K Protocol. The K Protocol stands for Killing and what happens — and this is true — he went on the [mission]. You are told that you’ve got to go and actually kill somebody.Just someone random?
No, no, a German spy or something. So he was given an address to go to…He was trained in firearms ,and he had to go up, open the door, and [find] somebody standing there, and he had to kill him.
I’m curious how closely you’d stuck to his original biography.
Well, there are six biographies. We worked with John Pearson who was at The Sunday Times. And after Ian died John Pearson spent a few days with Anne and Godfrey doing long long interviews, and we have the type written notes from that interview….Because Ian was quite often economical with the truth and a great kind of fantasist, it’s hard to get to what actually was true and what wasn’t true, and what was invention. And later in the series, Moneypenny confronts him and says “Was all this true?,” and you’ll have to see the program but he acknowledges that a lot of it is embellished.