James Bond was a neo-fascist gangster, says John Le Carré
To his millions of fans around the world, James Bond is the quintessential British spy.
Yet to John Le Carré, 007 is a "neo-fascist gangster" who would ply his trade for any country provided he could get a plentiful supply of beautiful women and dry Martinis.
In a 1966 interview with Malcolm Muggeridge, newly re-discovered in the BBC archive, the author and creator of the decidedly unglamorous spy George Smiley was scathing in his assessment of Ian Fleming's suave secret agent.
"I dislike Bond. I'm not sure that Bond is a spy. I think that it's a great mistake if one's talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all," Le Carré said.
"It seems to me he's more some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a licence to kill... he's a man entirely out of the political context. It's of no interest to Bond who, for instance, is president of the United States or of the Union of Soviet Republics."
Reflecting on the interview today, which is to be re-broadcast on BBC Four next week, Le Carré tells the Radio Times: "These days I would be much kinder. I suppose we've lost sight of the books in favour of the film versions, haven't we? I was a young man and I knew that I had written about the reality in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and that the Fleming stuff was a deliberate fantasisation of Fleming's own experiences when he was safely in New York.
"But at the root of Bond there was something neo-fascistic and totally materialist. You felt he would have gone through the same antics for any country really, if the girls had been so pretty and the Martinis so dry."
Le Carré drew on his own experiences to write his espionage thrillers, including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in which Smiley played the central role.
The author - real name David Cornwell - was a member of the British Foreign Service from 1959 to 1964, at the height of the Cold War, working for both MI5 and MI6. He revealed nothing of this in his interview with Muggeridge. "I was under a sort of oath of secrecy as regards my former service. I felt it was an undiscussable area of my life... I'd been a spook for years but would not reveal the fact."
Fleming also had first-hand experience in the world of espionage, working for naval intelligence during the Second World War, but his Bond adventures were far removed from real life. Such is their hold on the popular imagination, however, that in 2007 the head of MI6 recruitment felt compelled to tell the public that real-life spies do not behave like 007. "This is the biggest myth at the service. We do not have a licence to kill," he said.
Bond has become a Hollywood hero, but Smiley may have the last laugh. While financial woes at film studio MGM have put the 23rd Bond movie on indefinite hold, a new film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is planned for 2012 with Gary Oldman and Benedict Cumberbatch in starring roles.