Why do we continue to be fascinated by James Bond? The ultimate superspy (or ultimate misogynist dinosaur, depending on how you look at it) is currently reigning supreme at the box office thanks to Spectre, the 24th official 007 movie. But why has this character, created in 1953 by writer Ian Fleming, endured over six decades? Has he moved with the times or stayed static? Could we very soon be seeing a black James Bond on screen?
Hugh Quarshie, who starred as Bond in an audiobook of Dr No, will be on stage this weekend at the Southbank Centre in London discussing these issues and reading a selection of Ian Fleming’s letters. But first, he considers here why so many of us have remained enamoured with the man with the licence to kill…
So, what is the appeal of those original Ian Fleming books?
For me, it’s very pleasing to find that in the books, Bond is not a superhero. That’s appealing. The gadgetry was kept to an absolute minimum. The only gadget he really had was his gun – the rest was a McGyver-like ingenuity. In that sense, Bond was one man against almost insurmountable odds and, by virtue of his Dunkirk spirit, he usually prevailed. But it was not without cost. He gets badly injured in some of those novels. He needs time to recover.
In Dr No, he has to cling to a wire fence while this giant squid tries to prise him off it. He’s lacerated, he’s bruised, he’s goes through hot water and Honey Ryder has to nurse him back to health before they can have sex. He doesn’t come off lightly.
And what do you make of the current state of the Bond movie franchise?
Well, once the Bourne movies came along, there was no way you could carry on with all that tongue-in-cheek stuff – it had to get a bit grittier, and for a while it did. Certainly in Casino Royale, where he had his genitals flayed by Le Chiffre.
But, for my money, Sean Connery still stands out as both the first and the best. He had a toughness and a meanness. You knew that there was something quite hard beneath that velvety exterior. He delivered those lines with no self-conscious bravura or twitching smile around his lips as there tends to be with the other Bonds. And he exuded a pheromone trail that was stronger than any subsequent Bond – I hope Daniel Craig will forgive me for saying that.
Could there one day be a black James Bond on the big screen?
Yes, I think there probably could be because the Bond of the movies is very different to the Bond of the books. When you look at a novel like Dr No, it’s written with a kind of imperial paternalism in mind, with Bond following in the tradition of heroes like Allan Quatermain, Richard Hannay and Bulldog Drummond. But the James Bond movies began in a different era to the books, so there’s always been that discontinuity. So, yes, in that respect, it would be possible in principle to have a black Bond.
So is it something that you would like to see?
Well, I saw Spectre recently and you have that image of Daniel Craig in the white tuxedo and the black bow tie – could you imagine Idris Elba wearing that and ordering a vodka martini shaken not stirred? It would be a p**s take, wouldn’t it? Would he be drinking vodka martini or should he really be asking for a Jagerbomb or a rum and black? So, the black Bond idea has legs, but there would have to be some significant changes that would take it even further away from the Bond of the novel.
And there’s another aspect I’ve been mulling over lately – I’ve never quite understood why black Africans embraced Christianity so eagerly when that was the religion of the people who had enslaved them. Here we are believing in the same redeemer and the same God and you do start to think, ‘wait a minute, what is wrong with this picture?’ It’s adding insult to injury.
It’s like the Desert Island Discs set of cultural values – you’re given the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. Well, actually, there are a growing number of people who reject both. And I’m wondering whether Bond and the Fleming novels belong to that Desert Island Discs set of cultural values. What I’m saying is: should any self-respecting black actor be playing Bond anyway? Personally, I think we probably should because it’s a way of making a western cultural icon our own. It’s a way of saying we are now a part of that great tradition, but it’s still a bit double-edged for me.
Anthony Horowitz was criticised for saying that Idris Elba was “too street” to play Bond – but did you understand where he was coming from?
If I’d been Idris, I would have taken that as a compliment because, at times, there is something a little bit camp about Bond. All those white tuxedos, witty remarks and cocktails. If Idris Elba or, say, Ashley Walters were to play James Bond, then they would bring a street credibility to it. You don’t have to suspend disbelief too much when it comes to them – whatever those guys say, I generally believe. They have that quality in their acting.
Someone like Idris Elba does have street cred. He would bring his own kind of reality to the role, rather than play what’s been decreed by all those people who manipulate the Bond image and insist that he wear an Omega watch or whatever. There’s a sense that Bond is almost created by committee – but any self-respecting black actor would be rooted in something real and not manufactured.
Hugh Quarshie will be appearing in Dear James Bond: Letters to 007 on Sunday 29th November at 5pm as part of the Southbank Centre’s Being A Man Festival. For more information see www.southbankcentre.co.uk/bam