Simon Schama: Skyfall's Leaner, Meaner James Bond
Simon Schama is a professor of history and art history at Columbia University. He is a contributing editors of the Financial Times, and regular broadcaster and documentary film maker for the BBC.
Bond was also the answer to another area where Britain felt challenged in the late 1950s: the shrinking manhood department. Films rehearsing the wartime heroics of escaping POWs or against-the-odds naval battles were an exhausted genre. The greatest generation wore trusses and had retired to the pub with a perpetual half pint of bitter. Churchill was doddering; his successors among the ruling class were ponderously tweedy. As Noel Coward once put it, “Continentals have sex; the British have hot water bottles.” Not Fleming, though. A sexual omnivore with a “cruel mouth” and hawkish mien, he projected onto Bond and indulged a taste for the erotic whip that makes Christian Grey look like Mary Poppins. For years Fleming carried on a long affair with the decidedly upper-crust Anne Charteris, then married to the media magnate Viscount Rothermere. When with regret she returned to London from Goldeneye, she wrote wistfully, “I loved cooking for you, sleeping beside you, and being whipped by you.”
Fleming was not the only writer who used spy literature to explore the many shades of British impotence. In the early ’60s, when the Bond movies were launched, John le Carré, who knew whereof he wrote, created the dark, treacherous, authentically chronicled world of the Cold War MI6. But there was also the underappreciated and brilliant Len Deighton, whose “insubordinate” agent (called “Harry Palmer,” and played by Michael Caine, in the movies) perfected a street-smart insolence that couldn’t have been more different from Bond. Palmer seduced as much with his Gauloise-smoking cockney attitude as he did with his cooking. (Deighton wrote excellent cookbooks meant to persuade men their virility was not under threat from knowing how to dice an onion or make a cheese soufflé puff and rise.)...
But Saltzman had a hunch that the new Britain, breaking spectacularly free from its ancient crust of decorum—the England of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, of Mary Quant miniskirts and Carnaby Street bell-bottoms—was up for something more roguish than dramas of back-street abortions and the Friday-night puke. Wherever you looked, tongue-in-cheek self-mockery was at the pulse of what the raffish jazz singer George Melly called “revolt into style.” Satire invaded the stage with the hit review Beyond the Fringe and flooded the television airwaves with That Was the Week That Was, a show so simultaneously cheeky and biting that it was suspended during the election campaign of 1964. Private Eye, the take-no-prisoners satirical magazine is (along with the still hot but wrinkly Rolling Stones) the only venerable British treasure to last the full 50 years alongside 007....
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