Oh, James

London goes loony over the centenary of James Bond creator Ian Fleming

London goes loony over the centenary of James Bond creator Ian Fleming

A employee from the Fleming Collection examines a poster for the James Bond film Casino Royale at the Bond Bound exhibition in London, England. ((Matt Dunham/Associated Press))

Like Trekkies or Beatles fanatics, James Bond buffs are proud of the factoid retention that comes with their obsessive fandom. Thus, when the Fleming Collection – an art museum originally endowed by Robert Fleming, financier grandfather of Bond creator Ian Fleming – announced the launch of an exhibit celebrating the cover art of James Bond novels, the calls started pouring in.

"We’ve had to deal with the fans every step of the way," says Selina Skipwith, curator of Bond Bound. "The responses to the literature on our website were like" — and here she affects a drippy tone to mimic a Bond fan — "‘You say Fleming was 43 when he wrote Casino Royale, but in fact he turned 44 before he handed the manuscript to the publisher, Jonathan Cape.’"

Luckily, as keeper of the Fleming Collection, Skipwith is armed with more Bond minutiae than most aficionados. In preparation for the exhibit, which opened April 22, she returned to the Fleming oeuvre, rereading dozens of novels and comparing cover artwork from dozens of countries. Skipwith is the ultimate Bond girl – at least until late June, when the exhibit closes and, in all probability, London will be Bonded out.

British author Ian Fleming (1908-1964) created the James Bond character. ((Express Newspapers/Getty Images))
Ian Fleming was born on May 28, 1908, and if you’ll forgive the shameless pun, his centenary has London shaken and stirred. Like the U.S. primaries, the festivities began earlier than necessary. On Jan. 8, the Royal Mail issued a book of Bond postage stamps commemorating Fleming’s most famous novels, including Casino Royale, Dr. No and Diamonds Are Forever. Before that, anticipation began for the publication of Devil May Care, the latest novel in the Bond series – written not, of course, by Fleming, but by the prolific English author Sebastian Faulks. To keep the buzz at a respectable level, Penguin Books held an online competition for a theme tune that would accompany the audio book. Umpteen Shirley Bassey impersonations later, in March, Penguin announced the winner: the Welsh girl band SAL. With their ’80s rocker sound and teased hair, SAL are closer to Heart than they are to Shirley Bassey. Certainly, they drag the Bond theme tradition back to the days when the video for Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill was the hottest thing on MTV.

Devil May Care will hit stores on Fleming’s fete, May 28, with the sort of fanfare normally reserved for the latest Harry Potter. It should tide fans over until the release of Quantum of Solace, the 22nd instalment in the Bond film oeuvre. The film is due for release this autumn – though the true date remains, like all things Bond, a mystery.

Bond Bound opened this week in aristocratic Mayfair, a neighbourhood where you might still spot a bowler hat, if you hang around long enough. The Fleming Collection is more erudite than the more expansive, populist galleries in the West End. This is why Skipwith stuck to a scholastic study of Bond book jackets rather than a shinier array of Aston Martins and poison pens.

"Americans were much more comfortable having guns on their Bond book covers. The U.K. preferred glamorous girls."

She gave me a sneak preview of her catalogue of rare back issues – from the ’50s, when covers were unartful abstracts; through the ’60s, when shapely women began to appear in various stages of undress; to the ’70s, when the rise of feminism tempered the cover design and therefore the type of women depicted. Even so, "There are an awful lot of scantily clad ladies," says Skipwith. "They make a comeback in the ’80s – particularly in the Dutch covers, in true Dynasty style, sometimes with shoulder pads, always with big hair." The Dutch have no shame.

"Even if you don’t know anything about Bond," Skipwith says, "you can go around and name the period when the covers were created." And where they were sold. "Americans were much more comfortable having guns on their covers. The U.K. was more comfortable with the glamorous girls."

Daniel Craig's blood-stained shirt from Casino Royale is on display at the Imperial War Museum exhibition. ((Chris Jackson/Getty Images))
Skipwith led me to the black, blood-flecked cover of Faulks’s Devil May Care. "This cover can read in two ways: as a flower or as a silhouette of a female nude," she says. "Apparently, it took quite a long time to have that approved by America." It makes you thankful the Americans weren’t responsible for producing any of the Bond films. Would Honey Ryder have had to button up her shirt in Dr. No? Would Pussy Galore have been written out of Goldfinger entirely? And what of Halle Berry in Die Another Day, going about her business in that orange bikini as if none of the many bystanders were fully clothed?

Berry’s bikini is a big-ticket item at another timely Bond exhibit: For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, which opened April 17 at London’s Imperial War Museum. A lot of bikinis have adorned the Bond filmography, so for this particular two-piece to make the cut at the IWM, it must have resonated with the curators. There’s also a blood-spattered shirt preserved from Daniel Craig’s days shooting Casino Royale; the flick-knife shoes Lotte Lenya wore in From Russia with Love; and a Colt Python .357-calibre Magnum revolver that once belonged to Fleming himself. Then there's the gallery of Bond villains, from Hervé Villechaize’s Nick Nack to Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld, the model for Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil. Even the previews attracted their share of Bond buffs — huddled, as they were, over vitrines of letters and maps, debating old innuendo and trumping one another with memorized quotations. At least one member of the press arrived in a full tuxedo. At 10 a.m.

Vintage Bond movie posters are part of the Imperial War Museum show. ((Matt Dunham/Associated Press))
But lest the exhibit seem like a trip to Planet Hollywood, the folks at the IWM have taken pains to emphasize Fleming’s experiences in the Second World War and examine how he drew on those experiences to patch together his famous spy. Alas, the high-born writer wasn’t exactly on the front lines during his stint in the Naval Intelligence Division. (He saw no action and hatched some cockamamie plans that never came to fruition.) But he was well travelled, and the places he frequented in the line of duty (New York, Jamaica) informed his books. (His visit to Gibraltar to help stymie German and Italian attacks on the U.K.’s shipping base inspired his 1961 novel, Thunderball.) Avid readers will recognize Fleming’s superior at the NID, Admiral John Godfrey, as the template for the fictional boss "M." And the Bond vs. barracuda climax in Live and Let Die? That was inspired by a naval training exercise during which Fleming had to attach a mine to a tanker on the sea floor.

Of course, the Bond series was set not in the Second World War, but in the Cold War, during which, we learn here, British intelligence was dogged by scandal and was not, in fact, in the forefront of espionage. (That honour went to the U.S.) All of which suggests that Fleming’s greatest feat of imagination was painting a Brit as a spy without equal.

Ellen Himelfarb is a Canadian writer based in London, England.