The James Clayton column: might Johnny English save the world?

Which spies and organisations would you really trust to save the world? And is Johnny English our best bet?

Johnny English Reborn

To quote the great wizard Gandalf and steal the profound question he once put to the Fellowship, “Who’s the bigger fool? The fool, or the fool who employs the fool and gives him access to firearms?”

(This was a different fellowship. You can find out more about the Secret Special Fellowship and witness Jason Statham slaying Orcs in The Expendables 2: Mission to Middle Earth).

The answer is ‘the authority’ because idiots only get anywhere in the world because someone in power foolishly opted to offer them a job. The world is a messed up place because the big chiefs make bad decisions and delegate responsibility to total imbeciles.

Gandalf is clearly not a fool because Frodo managed to complete his quest to Mordor and cast the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. If it were up to me, Tolkien’s wizard would be high commander of the UN or Leader of the Free World and, consequently, we wouldn’t have any financial meltdowns, needless conflicts, human rights abuses and suchlike.

Ad – content continues below

We also wouldn’t have any diplomatic disasters under the guidance of the bearded one. Look at the way Elf and Dwarf came together in spite of centuries of acrimony, and how the Kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan became unlikely allies, overlooking their differences and selfish needs when reconciled by Gandalf.

Seeing this sort of deft mediation in effective action, I can’t help but think that Ian McKellen should leave the set of The Hobbit, put on a blue helmet and journey to places like Darfur to deal with desperate crises. With a bash of his staff, blasting “You shall not pass!” and a few short, informal meetings with tea and pipeweed would result in a truce, mutual respect and authentic lasting friendship.

This is something that international leaders, politicians, globally-renowned ‘experts’ and ultra-rich philanthropists have all failed to achieve because ultimately, I guess, they are fools appointing fools to solve things.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” as the Tao of Spider-Man wisely states, and in my view the buck stops with the powers at the top of the hierarchy rather than the cogs in the machine. Blame the head for the actions of the body, because the head should always know what the fingers are doing. Unless you happen to be Thing from The Addams Family, in which case you’re just fingers without a brain to guide you.

This is why, with Johnny English back in big screen action for Johnny English Reborn, I’m not looking at Rowan Atkinson’s gurning face on trailers and posters and thinking “Idiot!” Instead, I’m looking at the entire British Secret Service that employs the poor buffoon as a spy and, altogether, laughing at the entire world of espionage, international defence and military ‘intelligence’.

It’s probably true that in a different occupation – like tea maid, Rollerball commentator or pipeweed product tester – Johnny English would be hailed as a genius and not an absolute muppet. To his credit, and to the credit of other spoof spies like Austin Powers, they do actually manage to single-handedly save the day in spite of all their farcical errors and nincompoopery.

Ad – content continues below

I definitely remember Johnny English preventing John Malkovich from becoming King of England and turning the British Isles into a floating prison in the first film. Likewise, Austin Powers has thwarted Dr Evil’s megalomaniac plots several times even though he’s mentally trapped in the ’60s and stuck in a perpetual sexually-charged state of horny mojo-psychosis.

In spite of their stupidity they accomplish their mission on their own, and the intelligence agencies they serve offer little or nothing in the way of real assistance. As movies repeatedly show that evil is more likely to be vanquished when extraordinary (or eccentric) individual heroes are liberated from bureaucratic bodies such as the CIA, MI6 and the Council of Elrond, I’d argue that these organisations are useless and not needed. What’s more, these structures are more archaic than Austin Powers in the modern information age, where nothing is secret anymore. Who needs professional espionage outfits when the masses have the power and means to be a proficient sleuth? On a planet where everyone’s on the grid and wired up to Facebook and Twitter and has probably appeared on a reality TV show, nothing is confidential. The WikiLeaks affair just emphasised this in the field of international relations.

If you want to investigate someone and get intel you can simply hit Google or hire any hacker with ambitions inspired by The Matrix to extract it for you. Bothering MI6 or the CIA and having to foot 007’s bar tab, hotel and dry cleaning bills is unnecessary.

This radically altered world we live in is no place for the archetypal spy of yore, and watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy reminds us of that. Back in the days of the Golden Age of Espionage, military intelligence revolved around taciturn, upper class, fusty men unravelling conspiracies through paperwork trails and long stretches of people-watching in drably decorated places.

Things move a lot faster now, and a 21st century Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would probably revolve around sequences where Gary Oldman’s Smiley scrutinised the Tweets of his suspect Control colleagues to work out if the mole was hiding messages in hashtags. It wouldn’t make for an interesting movie, wouldn’t allow the stellar ensemble cast to excel themselves in subtle, intense acting performances, and it would lack the kitschy period details and consequent nostalgic kick.Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a product of its time and needs to be set in that time. Likewise, people like Smiley belong in the past and the secret service organisations that they make up are also best left there. Entrusting a clown like Johnny English to protect national security is ridiculous but, in my view at least, it’s more of a sane decision than leaving it in the hands of the dehumanised ghost dinosaurs on display in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and films like The Conversation and The Lives of Others.

007 films suggest excitement, glamour and action, but in actual fact spies are sad, lonely, cold people, chained to lives of deception, mistrust and paranoia. They serve faceless institutions as personality-free pawns in political games and, in this post-Cold War, postmodern mass media era, are surplus to requirements.

Ad – content continues below

It therefore makes more sense to set future Bond movies in the ’60s, X-Men: First Class-style. By leaving silly, pointless, overly suspicious secret agent outfits in the past, we can progress and achieve harmonious world peace. Pass the pipeweed, Gandalf…

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.