Was Pierce Brosnan the best James Bond? Not according to a recent Radio Times poll which invited 14,000 Bond fans to vote for their favourite cinematic portrayal of Ian Fleming's legendary secret agent. The results were not without surprises. Of course, Sean Connery came out on top - we might have predicted that before a single vote had been cast. Connery wasn't just the first Bond; he is, for many, the quintessential 007, a brilliant performer whose knowing charm, searing screen presence and capable comic delivery made for some of the finest entries in the series.
But what about the rest of the poll? Well, Timothy Dalton somehow came second (no, really), Pierce Brosnan took the third spot, followed by Roger Moore in fourth (yes, really), Daniel Craig in fifth (we didn't see that coming) and George Lazenby in sixth (ignore the haters, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of the all-time classic Bond flicks).
It's a fascinating list. We might wonder what it has to say about what British audiences have come to expect from their favourite big-screen dinosaur. Could it be that those who voted did so with their hearts instead of their brains? Is it possible that the result reflects a longing for the kind of Bond who could do, say and act however he wanted?
Indeed, the poll - a knockout tournament of sorts, pitting one actor against the other until, finally, a winner was declared - does seem to suggest that viewers prefer the kind of Bond with a penchant for silly gadgets and off-colour jokes, and whose bonkers, save-the-world quests usually involve a sun-drenched beach and a scantily clad model. Compare that with a naked and tortured Daniel Craig being beaten within an inch of his life and enduring a lengthy hospital stay in Casino Royale, and it's a different ball game altogether.
Then again, with the great Roger Moore - a performer who side-stepped sincerity wherever possible, and who inhabited the role with a breezier sensibility than others - crash-landing in the bottom three, we're not sure what to think. Isn't Moore (all eyebrows, winks and innuendos) generally perceived as one of the greats? It might be the case that Connery was Bond at a time when Bond still mattered, and for thousands of viewers, he is the one they grew up with - the one they idolised. Well, I grew up with Pierce Brosnan's Bond, and I'll tell you this much, he deserves better than bronze.
In fact, Brosnan was almost the perfect 007. The trouble is, he was often let down by a studio trying way too hard to impress. Brosnan was still in his 20s when former Bond chief, Albert R Broccoli, caught sight of him on the set of For Your Eyes Only (his first wife, the late Cassandra Harris, had a starring role in the Roger Moore classic). At that stage, Broccoli was already on the lookout for Moore's replacement and he liked what he saw in Brosnan, declaring "if he can act… he's my guy".
Luckily for him, Brosnan could indeed act, and in 1986, the gig was his. The only problem was that Brosnan was already tied up in contracts, and his starring role in the US crime drama, Remington Steele, prohibited him from taking up the mantle. Broccoli didn't want a TV star playing 007 and turned his back on the lad, hiring Brosnan's mate, Timothy Dalton, instead. That had to hurt.
In 1991, negotiations for a third Bond feature with Dalton fell apart. Suddenly, Brosnan - still fresh enough for the role, still eager to secure it - was back in the ring. You know what happened next. Truth be told, Brosnan's tenure got off to a fabulous start with 1995's GoldenEye, a classy and coherent thriller that revitalised the series, resulting in some of the best reviews - and one of the biggest box-office hauls - in the franchise's history.
Brosnan was sublime in the lead. He had the chops, the charm and the charisma - he understood the character better than most, combining a suave, old-school demeanour with a hint of the comical and a touch of the theatrics. Clearly, he'd studied Connery, and he'd learned from the best. But he also made it his own, and his performance was never the problem. No, the issue was that the films that followed, ranged from passable (Tomorrow Never Dies) to downright horrid (Die Another Day).
It was as though MGM had learned nothing from GoldenEye. Watch closely, and you can see where things start to go wrong for Brosnan's Bond, with the folks in charge of The World is Not Enough abandoning a bold and hard-hitting set-up for a hazardous sequence of cartoon madness, with bad actors (Denise Richards), poor writing, and archaic one-liners.
For a while there, it was near-impossible to distinguish the series from Austin Powers, Mike Myers' boisterous spoof of the genre, and as the barmy '90s segued into the dodgy noughties, poor Bond was subjected to some of the biggest clangers of his career.
We're talking invisible cars, horrible CGI, non-sensical plots and a Madonna theme tune. It simply wouldn't do and, in 2004, it was all over. Brosnan had wanted to do another (he had dreams of calling it a day after six films), but producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson had other plans. To make matters worse, they broke up with Brosnan over the phone.
"[I was] sat in Richard Harris's house in the Bahamas", he recalled, "and Barbara and Michael were on the line - 'We're so sorry.' She was crying, Michael was stoic and he said, 'You were a great James Bond. Thank you very much,' and I said, 'Thank you very much. Goodbye.' That was it. I was utterly shocked and just kicked to the kerb with the way it went down."
Clearly, the third-best Bond of all time deserved more than a phonecall. Some sources suggested Brosnan wanted too much money for a fifth film. Others insisted a reboot was always on the cards after the fourth. One can only imagine how Brosnan reacted upon seeing Casino Royale, the first post-Brosnan entry, with Daniel Craig. Why? Because Brosnan would have soared in a grittier, more grounded take on the character, and he should have been given the chance to right the wrongs of Die Another Day. You know it, I know it and he sure as hell knows it.
Was Pierce Brosnan the best James Bond? Again, Connery was always going to come top of that league. But I'd have given the Brosnan fella the silver, at least.