This review contains spoilers.
I’ve avoided using the phrase ‘licence to thrill’ while reviewing Fleming. Partly because it’s a cliché so lazy that you can lick it and stick it to anything remotely to do with 007, but mostly because there’s never once been the temptation to use it while watching. Fleming‘s licence to thrill is purely provisional and entirely forgotten; kept wedged in its wallet behind an unused prophylactic and a well-thumbed Morland Cigarettes loyalty card (‘smoke nine packs, get your tenth free!’).
So what has been the purpose of Fleming if it’s not been thrilling? Has it been a love story? A biography? Or just one glamorous game of Bond tropes bingo to keep us occupied until the next movie, played in between Dominic Cooper and Lara Pulver engaging one another in staring contests?
If you’ve treated it as bingo then you’ll have most of them now – girls, cocktails, guns, schoolboy puns about intercourse – but there’s still a couple to tick off. Q-branch style gadgets, for instance, displayed in an opening scene in which Ian Fleming renders Monday and her terrific hairdo unconscious with his chloroform pen, snaps her secrets with a lighter/camera, and then hides the microfilm in a golf ball. Presumably there’ll be a collapsible 3-wood secreted in the lining of a toiletry bag, so spies can send the microfilm to their allies via a strong 300 yard drive across the enemy border, being careful not to shank it into the Rhineland.
The war is coming to an end; Hitler all but defeated, the audience on its last legs. But the shadow of the nuclear age, and the kind of threat that would lead Ian Fleming to later create Dr. No and Thunderball, looms large across peace. With the bloodthirsty gusto of shoppers in a Black Friday sale, the Russians are planning to nab some Nazi nuclear secrets for a real bargain as the Germans retreat like chickens. Koo-koo-ka-cha!
Fleming plans to beat them to it and make sure those documents are for British eyes only. But Mr F is armed only with Dean Lennox Kelly and none of the gadgets he displayed mere minutes before, perhaps because neither the Nazis nor the Russians play golf and there’s not a decent lob-wedge to be found from here to Leningrad. And ten points if you spotted the three ill-placed Arrested Development references just now by the way.
Ian Fleming behind enemy lines has about it the tiresome dramatic expediency of a boys’ own adventure – ‘Biggles Doesn’t Break a Sweat’ perhaps – as he saunters into enemy territory and nabs a Nazi officer, all without troubling his face for an expression. The gunfight against the ‘Werewolves’ – the Nazis who haven’t surrendered, either because they’re too proud, or their mums haven’t called them in for their tea yet – is a rattling bit of fun, but is over all too quickly. It’s followed by a clumsy escape leading to an encounter with the Russians, and a resulting scene where you’re apparently meant to empathise with Fleming over his decision to leave a Nazi officer to be executed. Maybe it’s all those re-runs of Where Eagles Dare talking, or maybe it’s just GCSE history, but it’s impossible to feel sorry for a Nazi. Even a fictional one.
Back on Blighty’s shores, the war in Fleming’s pants is also winding down. Ann (Pulver) plans to marry the failed PG Wodehouse first draft that is Esmond until, no doubt hopped up on champagne and the knowledge that an egg will soon no longer be a luxury item, she remembers she loves Fleming. And he loves her. Or they’d just like to knock seven bells out of each other. Or both.
For a series bookended by the passion of Fleming’s honeymoon with O’Neill, it really has been a shockingly sterile show. At every turn genuine emotion has been mistaken for rutting and slapping and that first cloud of cigarette smoke that drifts from a satisfied post-coital sigh. What is meant to be a romantic finale to the end of the beginning of an affair is a damp squib, made more lacklustre by the presence of literal fireworks, making up for the ones that never materialised in their relationship. Clearly (or should that be hopefully?) Fleming was never meant as a love story.
If it can’t happen between the sheets then the real passion should come from Fleming as a writer wanting to create his ultimate spy story. That’s surely the whole point of Fleming: how the man came to make the man. Yet rather than a summation of experience it comes across as a drunken notion at the last minute; a vodka-fuelled ‘oh yeah I should totally write a book, bro!’ idea that lacks conviction. Even after four episodes there’s still no sense of journey.
‘He can be who I want him to be,’ Fleming nonchalantly ruminates of his future creation, ‘a hero, a lover, a brute, irresistible to women; he always gets the girl.’ I assume he’s talking about James Bond and not Caractacus Potts.
Of course we all know what Bond can be. We’ve been watching him camouflage himself against prevailing trends for 50 years, and mostly without the aid of an invisible car. It’s his creator who we’re concerned with. Fleming was the chance to show what the man at the typewriter was like. It never did. Bond’s shadow loomed so large over everything that it smothered it. Neither quite biopic nor fantasy, Fleming never fully indulged in either the true darkness of the author’s life, nor the euphoric dicking about that comes with being James Bond. Maybe it’s best it never had its licence to thrill. It never seemed to know what target it was aiming for.
Read Rob’s review of the previous episode, here.
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