His Word Was His Bond: The Man With the Golden Pen

A new TV mini-series captures the life and times of Ian Fleming, whose real-life adventures may even have rivaled those of his alter ego, 007.

The opening scene, before the credits, looks like a James Bond movie. To ominous music recalling a John Barry score, a female figure clad in a red bikini swims gracefully underwater, peering through her scuba-diving goggles at the flora and fauna of the deep. Then we see the tip of an arrow, and a male figure brandishing a harpoon-gun is seen stalking her. We see the harpoon being released, whooshing by her and hitting a squid. A cloud of black ink, not red blood, fills the screen.

But this is not a Bond film. It’s the opening of a four-episode TV mini-series about the man whose imagination spawned the invincible super-hero secret agent who carries “a licence to kill.” The name is Fleming, Ian Fleming, who liked his women glamorous and seductive, his sex on the rough side, and his Martini shaken, not stirred. The title of the series is “Fleming, The Man Who Would be Bond.”

The mini-series, produced by BBC America, was aired in the U.S. in January and in Great Britain in February. HOT purchased it straight for VOD, without putting it on its regular schedule, foreseeing the day when all TV viewing will take place “on demand,” with TV networks and cable channels concentrating on production and “supply.”

Luckily, it seems to me, the Bond character was born in Fleming’s fertile and restless psyche at a particular moment of time, a few years after the end of World War II, in the early years of the Cold War, and just before TV became our main supplier of heroes and super-heroes on the small screen. That is how the character of Bond sprang out of the pages of a successful first novel (“Casino Royale,” 1952) directly onto the big screen of the cinema, with “Dr. No” following in 1961. Sean Connery became the first 007 onscreen, initially much against Fleming’s inclination (he wanted David Niven to play the role), followed by six more actors, in a total of 25 movies to date, with Daniel Craig being the incumbent Bond.

But I’m sort of jumping the gun. Following the underwater sequence at the start of the series, we see the couple emerging from the water, boarding a speedboat and bickering happily. They are newlyweds honeymooning in Jamaica, in a country house called Goldeneye. The year is 1952, and Fleming (he is the man with the harpoon gun, played by Dominic Cooper) types the words “The End” on the final pages of a manuscript entitled “Casino Royale.” His wife, Ann Charteris, a widow and a divorcee, (played by Lara Pulver, who was Irene Adler in the second season of “Sherlock”) reads it. She thinks it is pornographic, and voices the notion that the macho, hard-drinking, sexy, lethal secret agent is an embodiment of what Fleming himself wanted to be, or perhaps even was. Or was he?

The motto of the series is a quote by Fleming, saying that all his fiction has a precedent in facts, and each episode ends with an announcement that the events portrayed and characters presented really existed, even if their adventures have been somewhat embellished. But in the series we encounter Fleming being told again and again that he tends to blend facts with fancy, benefitting hugely from the fact that others cannot tell where fantasy ends and real life begins, and possibly getting hopelessly tangled in his own plots. In other words, an ideal character for Secret Service duty.

Truth be told – if we ever get to know it – the facts of Fleming’s life as far as they can be corroborated by two (at least) independent witnesses make a fascinating story. A younger son of a dead World War I hero and a domineering socialite mother, and a younger brother of a successful travel writer and adventurer, Ian was educated in Germany. His mother forced him to try to become a London city broker, and when he failed at that, he got himself (through Mama Fleming’s call to Winston Churchill) a post as an assistant to the Naval Intelligence Chief, Rear Admiral John Godfrey (played in the series by Samuel West).

Fleming, who until then had led the somewhat dissolute life of a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking and lady-chasing (actually, he was chased by them, in droves) individual, had become a navy commander (as his imaginary alter-ego Bond would be in time). He yearned to see action, eventually went to occupied Europe, and displayed initiative and insubordination in more than equal measures, possibly embellishing his own escapades post-factum.

Godfrey, who became the prototype for M, and his secretary, Second Officer Monday (played by Anna Chancellor) the inspiration for Moneypenny, managed to talk some sense and discipline into him. They kept him on desk duties most of the time, benefitting from his fertile and unorthodox mind. Fleming may have invented his own adventures out of thin air, but he also wrote – based on his imagination only – what would become the blueprint for the CIA, and came up with an idea for a network of intelligence-gathering agents ready to scour (and kill, maim or seduce) far and near and high and low for intel in a world where all play dirty.

There are interesting parallels between Bond and the other British superhero, Sherlock Holmes, still going strong in an ever-changing world. Fleming envisaged Bond initially as “a blunt instrument to whom things happened,” whereas Conan Doyle thought of Holmes as a “thinking machine.” With time and different actors, Bond acquired some style, some sense of humour, a lot of panache and a modicum of vulnerability, and Holmes became human (in an Asperger-like way).

With both having commandeered the center of the frame, it is still intriguing to follow their creators. The mini-series about Fleming ends where the Bond saga begins.

Nowadays we can see Bond for what he is and was, a chauvinist pig who objectifies and bullies women. Possibly that was what Fleming really was, a product of his times. But who cares, if it makes for good TV? And Cooper may yet get a shot at being the next movie Bond, thus finally allowing Fleming to become The Spy We Love.