The James Clayton column: “Bond, Ginger Bond…”

Change is a dirty word in the world of 007 - could we ever see a more radical look for Britain's most famous secret agent?

How do you like your 007? Suave and Scottish like Sean Connery? Lighter-haired and light-hearted like Roger Moore? Welsh and serious like Timothy Dalton? How about ginger?

There’s a thought that may leave you both shaken and stirred, which to be honest isn’t fair on redheads. Shame on you for your disgusting negative attitude towards the orange-tops! Sadly though, those with gingery bits atop their bonce are mostly either the subject of ridicule, scorn or suspicion by the mass populace. Even if a red-headed actor, acclaimed as the finest screen performer of his generation, rose to take the Walther PPK and reaped the plaudits as the perfect 007, people wouldn’t be able to refer to him as “the ginger James Bond”. It just sounds wrong. The entire cinemagoing audience would re-enact the Emperor’s New Clothes and just ignore the flaming tufty bits that lay above their screen idol’s forehead.

Bond villain of Die Another Day, Toby Stephens, is well aware of this. Perhaps slightly bitter but acceptant that he could never be the main man in lieu of his hair colour, the actor raises a particularly interesting point in an interview printed in this week’s Radio Times magazine. When questioned if he’d make a better 007 than Daniel Craig, Stephens not only praises the “brilliant” incumbent 00-agent, but remarks “they made a big enough fuss about Daniel being blond; can you imagine if he was a redhead? It would be major insurrection!

Trust the guy who, in Gustav Graves, played a baddie who was actually a North Korean general going through an extreme metamorphic DNA replacement process to bring appearance issues to the fore, but Stephens has a point. People have a fixed perception of what constitutes James Bond – and it’s usually tall, dark and British as set in stone from the get go of Dr. No by Sean Connery. George Lazenby sits uneasily as an Australian one-off and I’d say it’s likely that there are fans out there still having difficulty coming to terms with Craig’s fair-haired facade. The 007 persona is pretty much entrenched in the popular mindset, and change is a dirty, disconcerting word.

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Taking things a few steps further, I’d say that this stiff mindset is just one aspect of what is ultimately a very traditional entity. The franchise may have progressed since Judi Dench’s more maternal M took the MI6 hotseat and branded Bond “a misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War” but there’s no denying that the 007 series can be critiqued as highly conservative. You pretty much know what you’re going to get with a Bond flick. The formula runs as follows: there’s a megalomaniac villain with some kind of physical infirmity or ridiculous foreign accent; there’s a bevy of Bond girls, one of whom Bond will finish the film with; there’s an array of odd henchmen who will be duly dispatched by 007 with a droll quip. There will also of course be much in the way of globetrotting glamour, groovy gadgets, swish secret lairs, thrilling vehicle chases and flirting with Moneypenny; all presented with typically-British wit and washed down with a Martini Vodka.

I wouldn’t go as far as to label it “dumb” (because that’d be incorrect and abhorrent to my fanboy mind) but James Bond films aren’t exactly highfalutin, high-brow material. Analytically delve a little deeper into the franchise however and unsettling ideological aspects emerge. Bond is basically an unquestioning puppet for Her Majesty’s government who goes about inhumanely killing and committing acts of subterfuge to keep “The Man” and the powers of the Western world in place. Superspy and saviour of the world from warped individuals with evil schemes or an alcoholic, ethics-free sexist jobsworth who sucks up to the state and does its dirty work in exchange for an extravagant expenses account?

It’s probably futile to start applying politics to James Bond and instead we’re better off rolling with the punches, playing along in the high-octane exotic espionage adventures and accepting the escapist über-masculine cocktails of guns, girls and gadgets. There’s fun in the formula, just as long as it doesn’t strangle the series’ development and it will be interesting to see how it sticks in the future.

Daniel Craig’s casting and the carefully considered reboot contained in Casino Royale and the subsequent Quantum of Solace have given a flagging franchise a kick up the backside and saved it from stagnation. Things are fine for the moment, but what about in five or ten years’ time? Our man Stephens (we’re looking to him as a wise auburn-locked expert here. And why not? How else are redheads going to get respect?) theorises that “The Bourne Supremacy changed the dynamic… so Bond needed something more visceral”. What’s to say that after a while there’s a bold seachange and seismic innovation in action cinema that once again renders the 007 series a bit stodgy, stale and out-of-step?

Daniel Craig’s arrival as 007 was stylistically and tonally marked with a back-to-basics gritty vigour that dusted off some of the traditional elements and wore the 21st century, post-Bourne blockbuster attitude on its sleeve. There’s still that still that Bond-ness at the core though, and if it was challenged again, would the 007 brand adapt even further and cast off even more recognisable convention? Q branch has been ditched it seems, 007 will apparently decline to deliver his customary “Bond, James Bond” introductory catchphrase and he’s being played by a blonde. In light of this, it’s worth wondering just how radical reinventions and reforms of the 007 cycle could be should the need to change once again become critical. Is it inconceivable that a redhead could one day rise to claim the role? If the USA could feasibly have a black president, could the movies give us a black Bond? Is it possible that 007 could have a sensual experience with someone of the same sex and provide a bisexual Bond moment? Deep breath traditionalists: may we one day actually be watching Jane Bond, 007?

James Clayton’s previous column can be found here.

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