Ian Fleming: The man who would be Bond

Monday, 10 February 2014 - 6:09am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Was author Ian Fleming the fast-living prototype for his greatest creation, as a new biopic suggests? Mark Monahan investigates
Ian FlemingGetty Images

"I remember an old girlfriend of Ian's saying: 'The trouble is, Ian was like one of Ibsen's characters - he was always waiting for something wunderbar to happen,'?" says Ian Fleming's biographer John Pearson. "I think the Bond books are his dream autobiography."

Fleming published his first 007 novel, Casino Royale, in 1953. Although no one could have had the slightest idea at the time, the suave man of action at its centre would go on to become one of the most famous fictional characters of all time. The number of people estimated to have seen a Bond film runs well into the billions, and the 23-strong franchise has grossed more than $6 billion (second only to the filmic exploits of a fellow Scottish boarding school alumnus, Harry Potter).

Fleming himself was an athletic but fast-living fellow fond of cradling a cigarette or cocktail in one hand and a willing sylph in the other. He, like "Commander" Bond, was for a time in the employ of the Navy. So where exactly did Fleming stop and Bond begin?

There have already been several stabs at dramatising the writer's life, including two television films from 1989 and 1990, the first starring Charles Dance, the second Jason Connery. But Fleming - a co-production between Sky Atlantic and BBC America - is the most opulent yet.

Inspired by Pearson's biography, this new four-parter stars former History Boy Dominic Cooper as the novelist-to-be and Lara "Sherlock" Pulver as Ann O'Neill, whom Fleming pinched from husband Viscount Rothermere, and with whom he had a son. Among other British names on board are Samuel West as Rear-Admiral Godfrey (the inspiration for M), Anna Chancellor as his secretary (a prototypical Moneypenny) and Lesley Manville as Fleming's faintly terrifying mother, Evelyn.

Spanning 1938-52, the series begins at the end, with Fleming in his Jamaican retreat, Goldeneye, putting the final touches to his Casino Royale manuscript as Ann, now his wife, looks on. "He's not me," he reassures her, through artfully shot curls of cigarette smoke. "You as you'd like to be," she tartly counters.

To judge by the first episode, the series is nothing if not a polished piece of work. From the Caribbean in 1952, it whisks us briefly back to Nazi-infested Kitzbuhel in the late Thirties, then plunges us seductively into the devil-may-care buzz of high-society London in 1939. Dissolute playboy though Fleming is, his mother nevertheless manages to secure him a job in Naval Intelligence as war looms, and he is soon working his maverick charm on his colleagues and, after a chance encounter, on Ann. Although they apparently don't consummate their affair until the end of the second episode, the chemistry between the two is instant: the Viscount doesn't stand a chance.

After the screening, Cooper - who is decked out in formal naval attire for much of episode one - laments, "I looked like an easyJet pilot." Then, as if realising that this isn't entirely on-message, he makes an engagingly un-crafty retraction.

Similar indecision appears to surround the matter of how much of the series is based on fact and how much on fiction. Where director Mat Whitecross insists that he and writers John Brownlow and Don MacPherson "haven't invented anything from scratch" and have only "sexed it up a little", Cooper gamely admits the series has taken "huge liberties" with Pearson's biography.

The production notes, meanwhile, declare "… before [Fleming's] thrilling adventures hit page or screen, they were experienced first-hand by their author-to-be", but this is baloney. Fleming himself admitted that he considerably dolled up his wartime exploits for the books - he never defused an atom bomb, any more than he dodged killer bowler hats or bonked Nasa scientists in space. Nor, in all probability, did this ideas man even once dash along a moodily lit corridor clutching an automatic weapon, as episode two has him doing.

If the series does seem uncertain on occasion whether it's a Fleming biopic or a Bond movie - right down to the Caribbean underwater scene, complete with John Barry-esque music, that opens the entire thing - it is on safer ground in implying that Fleming invented Bond to do the things he either couldn't or wouldn't do himself. In Cooper's words, "He had a really boring office job and did absolutely nothing."

The definitive Ian Fleming chronicle is perhaps still waiting to be made, but this one nevertheless gives a potent feeling of the charismatically dysfunctional man and his times. "I thought the best way to approach this was to have an understanding of who Fleming saw himself as being, rather than who he was," says Cooper, whose combination of rakish authority and gnawing self-doubt in the role feels just right.

Besides, as Cooper suggests, Fleming - who died of a heart attack in 1964, aged just 56 - might well have welcomed the series' free-and-easy approach to the finer details of his life. After all, as the charming rogue himself once put it, "You should never let too much accuracy come between you and a good story."

Fleming starts on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on Wednesday February 12

 


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