Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style – the Barbican, review

David Brown takes a look round the new exhibition that pays tribute to 50 years of spy movie magic

I’m of the belief that the first person you saw playing James Bond will always remain your favourite. So for me, the honours must go to the suave and self-mocking Roger Moore, a hero I originally saw in action during a 1983 trip to the Hollinwood Roxy to see Octopussy. In retrospect, I should have a stronger affection for his stuntman seeing as he did most of the legwork (if not the eyebrow work) but old Rodge remains the undeniable catalyst for my lifelong obsession with Bond.

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So imagine the Proustian rush I experienced upon visiting Designing 007 at the Barbican and coming face to face with such artifacts as the Faberge egg that 007 used as collateral in his game of backgammon against Kamal Khan (“double six, fancy that”) or the safari shirt he wore when admonishing a snake that was giving him evils (“hiss off”). It’s like seeing the fantasies of your childhood made real, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Or maybe you don’t. Perhaps you’re the type to get more excited by Rosa Klebb’s shoe, Daniel Craig’s crotch-hugging swim shorts or George Lazenby’s kilt. And if so, you’re equally well served by an exhaustive exhibition that pays tribute to Bonds of all seasons. Yet there’s no denying that the best props remain the ones made before 1995. Back in the pre-Brosnan era, Bond’s gadgets – here smartly presented in a mock-up of Q’s laboratory – have a ring of authenticity and usefulness that latter day items lack. 

Just compare the now battered but still deadly looking briefcase that featured in From Russia with Love with the plasticky arm scanner from Casino Royale. One looks like it could actually serve a purpose in the real world of espionage, the other feels as if it should be on sale in the Early Learning Centre. A shame really, but testament, I suppose, to the wonders that can be achieved these days in postproduction. 

Of course, if I were to view Octopussy with a clear and sober eye, I’d see that it’s riddled with credulity-stretching nonsense, the chief culprit being the crocodile submarine that Bond uses to gain entrance to Maud Adams’s floating palace. But it’s also the movie that boasts the homing receiver watch and the fountain pen that contains nitric acid – objects which, with their mixture of glamour and believability, sum up everything that makes Bond special. 

On the wall at the Barbican, there’s a quote from production designer Ken Adam in which he describes his movies as being “slightly ahead of contemporary”. And you can see that ethos made manifest in everything from sketches of futuristic Bond-villain lairs to the electric motor fitted to Oddjob’s bowler hat. It’s this combination of the fantastical and the plausible that makes the heyday of 007 – and this exhibition in general – so attractive. No replica safari shirts for sale in the gift shop though, which feels slightly like a missed opportunity.

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Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style runs until 5 September 2012