When the young JG Ballard moved to postwar Britain, what he found was "Bucharest with a hangover". An "exhausted ferret-like people" occupied a "wasteland" of "rubble" and "ration books". Apart from the ferret thing, his account tallies with others. Material progress would come but full restoration of the national spirit would wait until — I think we can pinpoint it — the opening credits of Dr No. Instead of porridge-grey: violent colour. Instead of boredom: the sexualised dancing of male and female silhouettes. Even the foreign-ness of the drumming was subversive in 1962.
Had the James Bond films traded on their technical merits, they might not have made it past the story board. The plots were and remain on-location set pieces welded artlessly together. What propelled the franchise was its offer of glamour in a world that was direly short on the stuff. Here was intercontinental travel when it was too pricey for most. Here was sexual licence when mores were only fitfully loosening.
As these things became normal, Bond lost his reason for being. What stands out about the Roger Moore years is the desperate groping for exotica (locations included outer space). The nadir of the franchise, just either side of the millennium, reflected the onset of globalisation, when there was nothing more banal than an itinerant yuppie with advanced communications technology.
Dazzling locations: Instagram is full of them. People who live over and above state sovereignty: an entire class, flitting between a dozen or so great cities (and Geneva), meet that description in real life. A man with no children but lots of transient lovers: this has not been remotely taboo for a couple of generations now. Bond is no longer radical. After the giant turkey that was 2015's Spectre, I thought that the franchise should obey the recurring verb in its titles, and "die".
I no longer do. Much is said about No Time to Die — whose title was announced this week — being the first Bond film since #MeToo. But it is also the first since the start of counter-globalisation. As such, it affords Bond another shot at relevance.
The implicit message of every Bond film is that the outside world is inherently exciting, and certainly better than home. The MI6 scenes are always reluctant gobbets of plot exposition between the real business elsewhere. For someone who murders for his nation, Bond rarely speaks in explicitly patriotic terms. You almost never see him enjoying hearth and home. He is strenuously pan-racial in his romantic life. His personal code blends hedonism and nihilism but none of the hoarier -isms. By dint of Scottish ancestry, there are nuances even to his British identity.
You get the sense that he joined the spy game for the same reason some join the navy or the FT: to see the world on someone else's nickel. He commits foreigner-condescension of the Basil Fawlty kind, true, but he also has it done to him. "For a European," says the Japanese agent in You Only Live Twice, when Bond, quite rightly, orders sake at body temperature, "you are exceptionally cultivated".
Britain's biggest ever film export, then, has been a prolonged advert for everywhere apart from Britain. This kind of internationalism was the blandest thing in the world from at least the 1980s all the way up to and including Spectre. It now feels faintly countercultural. Bond stands against the zeitgeist for the first time in my life. There is a rolling debate about whether the next iteration of the spy should be a woman or a visible minority or (which Skyfall momentarily toys with) gay. But the most radical thing about him turns out to be that which has always been there: his rootlessness.
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Through no particular doing of Eon Productions, its character suddenly has a real-world trend to define himself against, and all the outlaw glamour that implies. A film "about" Brexit or Donald Trump would confirm the dreary politicisation of everything, everywhere, all of the time. There is no art in anything so didactic. No Time to Die can make the point well enough just by eliciting the audience reaction of the earliest Bond films: a curiosity about Abroad that feels newly deviant.
Written by: Janan Ganesh
© Financial Times