I have a personal interest in James Bond, not just because my father, Leslie Norman, had been on the short list to direct the first film Dr No, but because I once volunteered to play 007 myself.
It was soon after Sean Connery had made You Only Live Twice and declared that he would do no more. The franchise was firmly established and there was much speculation as to Connery’s replacement, so I went along to ask Harry Saltzman, who was then co-producing the movies with Cubby Broccoli.
“We haven’t decided yet,” he said. “Got any ideas?” “Well, I’m available,” I said. “Look no further.” I rather fancied the idea; apart from anything else, it surely paid better than journalism. But Saltzman just laughed, which I thought was very rude. And who did he end up with? George Lazenby. Serves him right. I still reckon I could have done better.
My involvement with the series dates back to my first meeting with Connery just before he made Dr No, when he seemed to regard it somewhat gloomily as simply another job rather than the career-making opportunity it turned out to be. The next time I saw him, he had leapt from little-known character actor to superstar.
Ask anybody: who is your favourite James Bond? I guarantee the answer will be the first one they ever saw – oh, Roger Moore or Timothy Dalton or Daniel Craig or even George Lazenby. For me it’s Connery because he created the character on screen and left an indelible stamp on it. But I also have high hopes for Craig, particularly after Casino Royale, and a personal fondness for Moore, partly because he and my father had planned to film my first novel, The Matter of Mandrake.
Sadly, that didn’t happen because Lord Lew Grade had an option on Roger’s services to make umpteen more episodes of The Saint and when that was over he went off to play Bond instead of the secret agent I’d created. Bad choice, if you ask me.
But when he was filming Moonraker in Rio de Janeiro, I interviewed Roger on Sugar Loaf Mountain. At the time he was at loggerheads with the producer Cubby Broccoli. Roger had said he wouldn’t make another Bond unless he was paid more money, and Broccoli didn’t want to pay him more money.
Just before the interview began, Broccoli said: “Ask him – ask him if he’s going to do the next movie.” So I did and, as I’d expected, Roger – ever the master of the evasive answer – came out with something smooth and fluent, which could be interpreted either way. The interview over Broccoli took me to one side. “What did that asshole of an actor have to say?” he asked.
I told him what the asshole of an actor had to say and Broccoli said (expletive deleted) and stumped away. It worked out OK, though, because Moore went on to play 007 three more times.
I’ve seen all the Bond films and liked many, though by no means all, of them. The 22nd and most recent, Quantum of Solace, was a great disappointment; with its frantic action and terse dialogue, it seemed to belong more to the Jason Bourne than the Bond series.
But for my generation the attachment to 007 goes back beyond the movies to Ian Fleming’s original novels. In the early 1950s, a time of great austerity, Fleming introduced us to a way of life we had never dreamt of.
In an age when most of us had never even heard of a martini, Bond insisted on his being shaken not stirred. He had his cigarettes (consumption: 70 a day) hand-made for him. He flew first-class all over the world, stayed at luxurious hotels, ate exotic things like oysters and caviar, quaffed vintage champagne like beer, took on and overcame desperate villains, and was pursued by so many beautiful women that he almost had to beat them off with a stick.
For a young man, what was not to like? We all wanted to be James Bond. And somehow, despite – or, who knows, possibly because of – his cavalier and occasionally cruel treatment of their sex, women seemed to like him, too.
So for all manner of reasons I look forward to the new movie, Skyfall. I just hope it s better than Quantum of Solace, that’s all.