Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Bond: The man with the golden puns

Say it ain’t so. Can it really be half a century since that ultimate male fantasy, Bond, James Bond, first slithered across the big screen? Dixon, Greg Dixon, crunches the numbers and talks to Sir Roger Moore ...

'I could not take the character seriously, so I had to play it light. But also with all the murder and mayhem, I didn't want to be vicious, even though I was doing vicious things.' Photo / Supplied
'I could not take the character seriously, so I had to play it light. But also with all the murder and mayhem, I didn't want to be vicious, even though I was doing vicious things.' Photo / Supplied

The year was 1952. Queen Elizabeth, on the death of her father George VI, ascended to an ancient throne. Winston Churchill, her ancient Prime Minister, announced that Britain had the Bomb. And the world's first jet airliner, the De Havilland Comet, made its maiden flight from London to Johannesburg. Britain, if only just, was still great.

Meanwhile in Jamaica, at his desk in his library at Goldeneye, the home he'd built just after the war on the very edge of a cliff overlooking the bone-white sands of his private beach, Ian Fleming sat at his battered Royal portable typewriter and began belting its keys.

"The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning," he typed. At this point, I fancy, he paused to read back his first sentence, drew on a cigarette fitted, as always, into a holder shaped like a stiletto, had a swig of vodka martini and continued. "Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling - a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension - becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.

James Bond suddenly knew he was tired ..."

With a new monarch in the palace, the Cold War hotting up and the flash new Comet ushering in the age of the jet-setter, there could not have been a more auspicious year than 1952 for Fleming to create the most famous fictional spy to serve in Her Majesty's secret service. It is highly unlikely that the author, a brusque ex-spook, had any inkling as he typed that, when it was published the following year, his novel, Casino Royale (which took just six weeks to write), would inaugurate a pop cultural phenomenon for the baby boom generation and beyond. Nor would he have known that a decade later Sean Connery's supercool 007 would, in Dr No, become the first swinger of the Swinging 60s.

Even now, in an era of record-breaking publishing and film phenomena such as the Harry Potter series and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Fleming's creation remains one of entertainment's greatest cashflow machines. The figures are really quite astonishing. The books - and the dozen Bond novels have never been out of print - have sold in excess of 100 million copies. It is said, though quite how it is known I'm not sure, that the 22 films have been seen by half the population of the planet; they've grossed more than US$5 billion ($6 billion) at the box office.

This year is the 60th since Fleming sat down at his Royal and began writing his most famous creation, and it is the 50th since Dr No made Bond a movie star. And, though Fleming is long dead, the Bond industry he created remains in rude health.

With anniversaries to celebrate, 007 is again, ahem, girding his loins for action. Daniel Craig returns for his third Bond film, Skyfall, which opens in cinemas in November. And Sir Roger Moore - the classiest Bond by far - next week publishes Bond On Bond, billed as "the ultimate book on 50 years of Bond movies".

On the phone from Monaco, where he lives with his Swedish wife Kristina when they're not in Switzerland, Sir Roger is all well-modulated vowels, relentless gags and sangfroid in the face of yet another interview about a role he stepped down from more than a quarter of a century ago. But then he does have a book to flog.

Ask him whether he still has affection for Bond after all these years, he deadpans (possibly for the 453rd time) that he "liked the salary - not from M, but from Eon Productions," the film company, owned by producers Albert (Cubby) Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, responsible for almost all the Bond films.

Later in our chat Sir Roger would jokingly lament his timing in handing in his licence to kill - in 1985, at the rather creaky age of 58 - because lead actors' salaries "jumped sky-high" soon after.

"They started getting $20 million, my God ..."

Which is, indeed, quite a lot of money. But you're comfortable aren't you Sir Roger? You're not uncomfortable?

"Well, I'm sitting in a nice chair - ahahaha."

In Monaco ...

"With a fan behind me - not my wife - ahahaha ..."

I suppose he might be cynical about Bond after answering the same questions all these years ... "Oh, oh, I'm cynical about everything - ahaha - I was having a jokey interview with [Little Britain's] David Walliams for GQ magazine and he said 'I've been sitting racking my brains, trying to think of a question you've never been asked'. And I said 'okay, what is it?' ... Now I'm trying to remember what his question was ... ahahaha ... it was, er ... oh dear ... my God, I can't remember the question I'd never been asked before - because I'd only been asked it once you see! Ahhaha! You have to repeat things 450 times for me!"

Roger George Moore, KBE, turns 85 next month, bless him. However, if his short-term memory is a bit iffy, his long-term recall is, he claims, excellent. "I'm quite often complimented on my long-term memory, mostly for the foul jokes that I remember forever."

These are certainly in evidence throughout Bond On Bond, which, as you'd expect, is well illustrated with busty Bond girls, villains, sharp suits and gadgets, but rather more surprisingly boasts a rollicking and at times laugh-out-loud text, written by Sir Roger and one Gareth Owen.

As the former tells me from Monaco: "I'm rather cheap, anything for a laugh."

There are some terrific behind-the-scenes stories in the book, like the one about the German actor Gert Frobe, who played Goldfinger. Frobe's agent had assured Bond director Guy Hamilton that Frobe spoke English. When the actor finally arrived for filming at Britain's famous Pinewood studio, he walked over to Hamilton and said, "How do you do? I am very pleased to be here." Hamilton then asked if his hotel was okay, to which Frobe replied, "How do you do? I am very pleased to be here."

Moore, who starred in the television series The Saint before becoming Bond, also recalls a TV interview that he claims went like this: "You're the Saint, Sean Connery is Bond, Patrick McGoohan is Danger Man and Patrick Macnee is in The Avengers ... do you ever meet up?" asked the interviewer.

Moore said they did.

Did they go out together?

"Yeah," Moore said.

"Pussy Galore?"

"Well, we don't go looking for it ..." Moore replied. He claims he doesn't know now how he got away with it.

For the casual fan, Bond On Bond does hold some interesting revelations - that the Queen was disappointed that Connery quit the franchise - and some tidbits that come as no surprise, such as the news that producer Broccoli, the man who chose the Bond girls, was a "boob man".

There are plenty of self-deprecating gags from Sir Roger too, because, as he tells me, "I mean, I'm not Lawrence Olivier." This tactic - to get in with an insult before someone else does - means you're never really likely to get to the bottom of questions like whether it was Sir Roger or the producers who decided that his Bond would be more "light ent" than most.

"I came to it with my own thoughts - they developed over a whole morning thinking about it, ahahaha. No, I read the script, I knew the lines, I knew where the marks were and I didn't bump into them. [Actor] Lee Marvin once said to me 'know the marks and hit the lines'. But you know, I could not take the character seriously, so I had to play it light. But also with all the murder and mayhem, I didn't want to be vicious, even though I was doing vicious things."

What Fleming, who died in 1964, would have made of Sir Roger's Bond will never be known, of course. Certainly Fleming's Bond, the one on the page who was based on his creator's own wartime experience as a spook and a commando, was tougher than he was on screen. As someone once said, he was all about "sex, snobbery and sadism". But we do know Fleming hated the film version of Dr No. "Dreadful, simply dreadful," was the grumpy author verdict quoted in Bond On Bond.

Not that it matters. Only six men have played James Bond on the big screen, making it a rarer thing for a human being to have done than walking on the moon. Only Sir Roger, Sir Sean, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Craig know what it's like to be the world's coolest spy, the man with the golden puns.

Bond On Bond by Sir Roger Moore (Hardie Grant $34.99), is out next Friday. The new James Bond film, Skyfall, opens at cinemas in November.

- NZ Herald

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