Before Bond, there was Fleming, Ian Fleming

Posted Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond

• 9 p.m. Wednesday

• BBC America

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It seems the author of the James Bond/007 novels led quite an adventurous life, too. His name was Fleming, Ian Fleming.

During World War II, before he tried his hand at writing books, he worked for British Naval Intelligence and used his fertile imagination to concoct misinformation schemes that would confound the Nazis. Many of his wartime adventures and many of the people he met during those years would become key ingredients of Fleming’s celebrated espionage novels, beginning with Casino Royale in 1953. At least that’s the way it happened according to Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, a stylish and engaging four-part miniseries that premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday on BBC America. Dominic Cooper stars as Fleming, a ne’er-do-well playboy who found his calling “telling lies for a living,” first as an intelligence man, then as a writer.

Each one-hour episode opens with the author’s quote “Everything I write has precedent in truth.” Some Fleming biographers, however, will argue that the man’s life wasn’t as colorful as the miniseries would have us believe. Mat Whitecross, who directed the miniseries, has an answer for that.

“The reality is that Fleming spent a lot of time behind a desk during the war,” he says. “That doesn’t make for great drama. But we’re making a miniseries, not a documentary.”

The TV version of Ian Fleming, therefore, goes on a handful of secret missions, albeit never as the larger-than-life action hero whom he wishes he could be. One noteworthy scene, for example, depicts a high-stakes baccarat game, Fleming versus a Nazi officer, in which our hero loses everything. Years later, James Bond would triumph in the literary and film versions of that showdown, history rewritten.

Fittingly, when Fleming tells his brother he is planning to write “the spy story to end all spy stories,” he describes James Bond as being “whoever I want him to be: a hero, a lover, a brute.” When it comes to the stories that Fleming told about himself, the stories that became the foundation of Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, he may have been guilty of spicing up the truth in the same way — and if so, so be it.

“When you have someone who tells lies for a living, you often wind up with contradictory stories,” Whitecross says. “You have to choose which story to believe and which story you want to tell.

“In those situations, we tended to side with John Pearson [author of The Life of Ian Fleming, published in 1966],” he adds. “Nine times out of 10, Pearson sided with what Fleming had said had happened in his life. Inevitably, that tended to be the more entertaining story. Some of the other biographers are more skeptical about Fleming’s account of his own life, but we didn’t have to share that skepticism.”

It’s fun to see where some of Fleming’s literary ideas came from. For example, the miniseries introduces viewers to Admiral Godfrey, director of naval intelligence, the inspiration for Fleming’s M, and to Lt. Monday, Godfrey’s secretary, the inspiration for Miss Moneypenny. One of the many ladies in Fleming’s life, meanwhile, is Muriel Wright, a leather-clad, motorcycle-riding dispatch courier who could be considered the very first Bond girl. Whitecross grew up during the Roger Moore-as-Bond years and was a Bond fan long before he was brought in to direct the miniseries.

“Growing up in Britain,” he says, “it was a huge coming-of-age thing. You needed to watch the Bond films. … Then I started reading the books. I remember not quite getting them at first, because the books and the films are different. I remember reading Casino Royale and being slightly shocked, because he’s much colder and very brutal, not the charming Sean Connery/Roger Moore person I knew. But I came to realize that the book version of Bond is more interesting in a lot of ways. Bond in the books is a very dark, troubled character, something I don’t think the films truly captured until Daniel Craig took over the role.”

Whitecross has a theory why James Bond has endured all these years.

“My feeling is he’s flexible enough as an archetype that he can embody lots of different things to different people,” he says. “The books are ambiguous enough that you can see different things in his character, and the movie franchise keeps evolving with the sensibilities of each new generation.”

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