This review contains spoilers.
Ian Fleming was good at sex. Writing it, that is. And not just in the way James Bond bedded women with the frequency of a man allergic to standing up. Fleming made sure everything in 007’s literary adventures was writ sexy: destinations, clothes, food, drink, cars, planes, even décor… everything in Bond’s life was veneered with the seductive, the alluring. It still is. Well, you only live twice, why not make it fun?
It was an especially potent cocktail when he first introduced Bond’s ‘shagnanigans’ to the grey British public in 1953. It was the post-war era of austerity, when rationing was still in place and most people hadn’t ventured further than Clacton-on-Sea, and even then that was only for some thoroughly workmanlike, ‘best undergarments, Ethel’, honeymoon thrusting on a creaky bed while the B&B landlady was out at bingo. No wonder tales of alluring women, fast cars, and villains conveniently situated in some of the world’s top holiday hotspots proved so popular.
Watching Sky Atlantic’s Fleming, it’s not hard to see where he got it all from. Actually, it is hard to see because it’s pushed that closely in your face you almost go cross-eyed. The priapic events of Fleming’s early life are portrayed in such a ‘sex-ay’ manner that you’d think the four-part drama was the first attempt at a televised antidote to erectile dysfunction. It’s got a sexy cast doing sexy things, like having sex, or innuendo-ing their way around one another’s undies, and even when they aren’t giving one another the ol’ slide-whistle and cymbals, they’re looking provocatively at one another in their uniforms and eveningwear. It’s all so glamorous in its recreation you almost feel you should be watching it from behind a velvet rope, you dirty commoner. Put down that sausage roll and look.
We open on that wonderful Bond cliché: a tropical island lounging in a crystal sea, and an elegant score playing footsie with the Bond theme. Beneath the waves the new Mrs Fleming (Lara Pulver) snorkels, Ursula Andress style, while Fleming (Dominic Cooper) hunts octopussy with his spear gun. All very Dr. No, Thunderball, Hildebrand Rarity. The Bond cocktail of sex and danger are entwined together under the Jamaica sun, like the best Thomas Cook ad ever. The British public and their landlady are about to meet Bond. James Bond. That is, once some mild Caribbean bondage has been indulged in. It’s a nod to the uncomfortable way both Fleming and his creation treat women like mannequins to be posed around their lives.
And then we flashback to the thrust of the story, and more thrilling Bond clichés cast in sumptuous period detail; the ski chase and the train. Except instead of SMERSH and Red Grant there’s Nazis. Europe is on the brink of war: Ian Fleming is on the brink of ending another career as part time stockbroker, full time playboy.
Swaggering through Fleming’s life, Dominic Cooper is essentially both simultaneously auditioning for and playing James Bond before the 007. But he’s old enough now to get away with it. At 35, age has replaced Cooper’s puppy-dog innocent features with the smug detatchment you’d expect of the Etonian who created the planet’s most adorable chauvanist. Every other line is either a triumph of wit at someone else’s expense or a quote from ‘Sir Roger Moore’s Big Book of Eyebrow Raisers’. He’s smooth but some distance from sympathetic; his self-confidence and charm undercut by a life of privilege and his own brand of brutish chauvinism. This is, despite the similarities the show is eager to highlight, a man of flesh and blood and not our paperback hero. In fact, he’s quite the bastard.
First to feel the lash of his tongue is Peaky Blinders‘ Annabelle Wallis as the terrifically ‘what-ho!’ Muriel Wright: his latest conquest and first to receive a patronising Bond girl nickname, ‘Honeytop’. If this was Bond she’d be the first act shag. Oh, wait, she is, and in some detail. But thankfully she has more longevity about her, although you soon realise it’s as an unfortunate ditsy juxtaposition to highlight just how ‘growed up’ and able to take her gimlets Fleming’s other interest, Ann O’Neill is.
As Ann O’Neill – professional cuckholder and Fleming’s chief mannequin – Pulver so naturally smoulders that you’d be forgiven for thinking she was 50% charcoal briquette. Once again she plays ‘The Woman’ to a fictional great; all lingering glances and lipstick, swanning around sexily like she thinks she’s Fiona Bruce. If anything she’s too much like Irene Adler. Yet her relationship with Fleming feels forced, frigid. Not even a bomb dropping during an uncomfortable kiss (yes, even the Blitz is made sexy here) is enough to light much of a spark of interest. That will change – it has to – or the central conceit of the drama is going to collapse and take everything else with it.
It’s actually when Fleming isn’t trying to be all ‘best undergarments, Ethel’, and the man isn’t treating women like second editions that it’s at its most impressive. Once vacuum-packed into a uniform and pressed into to the brisk world of Naval Intelligence Fleming shines like a bad penny briskly polished. The character is at his most interesting and the influences for Bond shine brightest: Anna Chancellor’s impervious Secretary Monday is the Moneypenny, Samuel West’s starched Admrial Godfrey is M by any other name, and Fleming is suddenly the man with a license to thrill. The kind of man who takes Nazis out to lunch so he can wash the secrest out of them with Reisling.
It’s telling that the relationship with the greatest substance is the one without sex, as Cooper and Chancellor riposte against one another with the chummy bon homie of Bond and Moneypenny. Chancellor is a wonderfully refreshing breath of cigarette smoke as the singular female cast member immune to the Fleming’s member. She’s the one lady who feels like a person rather than a mannequin plaything. A Bond woman instead of a Bond girl. Here’s to seeing lots more of her. …Oh, sorry, I was raising a Martini there but you couldn’t see that.
So yes, Fleming is good at bringing a sexy veneer to every aspect of the man’s past. But it has more substance to it than it first lets on. After an introductory episode clearly designed to be eye and trouser catching, here’s hoping we’ll see more substance. More grit and war. Just a little bit more spy than ‘spy who loved me’ (though judging from the trailers that may not be the case).
Still, like all the best Bond films it is enjoyable, so enjoy it while you can. You only live twice, as Nancy Sinatra would later croon. One life for yourself, and one for your dreams. Fleming manages to be both the life and the dream: a life relived as a reflection of the creator’s greatest fantasy. As Bond was the man Fleming wanted to be, so the drama Fleming feels like the biography Ian Fleming would have wanted the world to see. One with all the boring bits cut out. And lots and lots of sexiness thrust in. Insert your own innuendo here folks. Just be gentle. The landlady’s back soon.
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