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Monday 11 November 2019

As 007 returns in 'Skyfall', his 23rd adventure, the spy we loved is as enduring as ever

Fifty years ago next week, the first Bond film was unleashed on an initially bemused international public. Though Ian Fleming had already written a series of bestselling pulp novels about the suave British spy, many early 1960s cinemagoers had never heard of him, and they'd certainly never heard of Sean Connery, the beefy young Scottish actor who'd been controversially chosen to play 007.

Dr No earned only mixed reviews, and a stern lecture on morality from the Vatican, but against the odds the film took off in the US and ended up doing very respectable business at the box office.

Twenty-two films later (the 23rd, Skyfall, comes out at the end of next month), the Bond franchise is still going strong, and is the longest continually running film series in history.

Which makes you wonder why a not very likeable Cold War spy has remained popular for so very, very long.

Reading the original novels doesn't provide much in the way of explanation.

In stories like Casino Royale and Diamonds Are Forever, Ian Fleming's jet-setting Secret Service officer emerges as a priggish and callous former public schoolboy who uses good manners and savoir faire as a front for his sociopathic personality.

It was the unlikely casting of Sean Connery that helped establish Bond indelibly in the public imagination. In 1962, Connery was a 32-year-old aspiring leading man with a not especially impressive CV.

His credits included some TV dramas and a starring role in the Disney musical Darby O'Gill and the Little People: his performance in that film prompted a New York Times critic to describe him as "merely tall, dark and handsome".

Connery did seem a stiff and limited actor, and when he was called to meet producers Broccoli and Saltzman he turned up looking scruffy and speaking in a heavy Edinburgh accent.

But Connery later said he affected an arrogant, macho, devil-may-care attitude during the interview, and as Broccoli and Saltzman watched him move about and talk, they realised he was the right man to play Bond.

Without Connery, the Bond films might simply not have worked. Six foot two and a former bodybuilder, he was totally believable as the ruthless state-sponsored killer, and his heavy presence anchored stories that would otherwise have seemed silly.

The actor's humble Edinburgh roots also turned a privileged snob into something of an everyman, a square-jawed tough guy that all men could relate to.

Bond was a fantasy figure, a kind of rampant id who did as he pleased and killed whoever got in his way, and was untrammelled by the ties of family and society that make most of us behave ourselves.

When you thought about him for more than a few minutes, James Bond wasn't all that likeable really, but Sean Connery played him with a knowing twinkle that made him oddly palatable.

The mid-1960s Bond films are generally considered the best. From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) are still the yardsticks by which all the later Bond films have been judged.

These films created the Bond formula that has proved so very durable, and lucrative. Each film involved exotic locations, car chases, violence, sinister foreign villains and, of course, pretty girls.

Ursula Andress was the first Bond girl, and through the 1960s she was succeeded by the likes of Honor Blackman, Jill St John, Daniela Bianchi and Claudine Auger.

The Bond theme song also became a key ingredient, and soon singing stars such as Tom Jones, Matt Monro and Shirley Bassey were queueing up to do the honours.

The Bond films were essentially a clever formula, which should have meant the public would tire of them. Connery certainly did.

By the mid-1960s he was complaining that playing Bond didn't tax him as an actor: he grew weary of the role's physical demands, and of wearing toupees to hide his advancing baldness.

American actor George Lazenby took over from him for one film -- On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- in 1969. Connery returned in Diamonds are Forever in 1971 before withdrawing again, this time fairly definitively.

Most people thought the Bond franchise would die without Connery, as the series entered a decade when 007 was beginning to look like a Cold War anachronism. But with Roger Moore, Broccoli and Saltzman managed to adapt 007 for a whole new audience.

In the Moore Bond films, 007 was a softer, more ironic and likeable character, and the 1970s movies charmed audiences by gently lampooning themselves. They were camp, rather than gritty, and films like Live and Let Die (1973), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and Moonraker (1979) gave Ian Fleming's superspy a whole new lease of life.

Roger Moore's Bond seemed to have a positive disdain for violence, and Fleming would surely have been horrified, but moviegoers grew fond of him, and with seven films to his credit, Moore is still the longest-serving Bond.

Replacing him would prove difficult. Welsh actor Timothy Dalton stood in not very happily for two films in the late 1980s, after which the series disappeared for six years, and was widely presumed to be finished.

No so, of course. In 1995 Irishman Pierce Brosnan made his debut as a particularly stylish and debonair Bond in the hugely successful GoldenEye, and the four Brosnan films moved things on considerably in terms of action scenes and production values.

The Daniel Craig era, which began in 2006 with the reboot Casino Royale, has marked a return to the toughness and relative believability of the Connery films.

Craig has brought surprising depth and vulnerability to a character that has often seemed one-dimensional, and while his second Bond outing, Quantum of Solace (2008), was generally considered a disappointment, hopes are high for the new one, Skyfall.

A few weeks back, Daniel Craig announced he'll be playing 007 in at least two further films. Like it or not, James Bond is going nowhere.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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