Shaken but not deterred


James Bond lit a cigarette. They had long since forced him to cut down on his 60-a-day Balkan-Turkish Morland with extra nicotine, but he managed to squeeze in a sneaky puff now and again, when M wasn’t looking. He peered myopically into the mirror and practised his “Bond, James Bond” line, pretending he was back at the baccarat table. Seven years to go before he would be eligible for a government pension, and as long as he was squinting through a cloud of choking smoke, he didn’t look so old – but how many more cosmetic makeovers could a chap take? He was already on his sixth face (not as many as Doctor Who, but even so) and the current incarnation was looking a little ragged around the edges. Time for a reboot, obviously. But who? How? Was it finally time to abandon blue-eyed Caucasian machismo and embrace diversity?

The trouble with being the figurehead of the longest-ever film franchise (25 films and counting, stretching back to 1962 and grossing over seven billion US dollars) was, there were always upstarts snapping at your heels, eager to replace you as Number One. These days Indiana Jones and Die Hard’s John McClane already looked more arthritic than 007 ever had, even at his Roger Moore-iest, and there seemed to be no plans to give either of them a new phizog, but what about Jason Bourne? John Wick? Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow? Dominic Toretto, who had toplined all but one of the nine Fast & Furious films and showed no sign of slacking? Not forgetting Ethan Hunt, who for 25 years and eight Mission: Impossibles had not only remained faithful to his original face, but also did most of his own stunts, including shinning up the side of the world’s tallest building, jumping 25,000 feet out of a plane, and running very very fast. Bond suspected that if ever he tried to run as fast as Hunt the veins in his neck would explode.

He was mindful of what had happened to Mad Max Rockatansky, revived for a belated fourth outing and given a newer, fresher face, only to find himself comprehensively sidelined while a one-armed woman with a buzz cut stole his thunder. Was that the fate they had lined up for Bond? In No Time to Die he was scheduled to link up with a new licensed-to-kill agent called Nomi; everyone assured him she was just a sidekick, but might they not be lulling him into a false sense of security? Might she have orders to… whisper it… retire him permanently? After all, MI6 couldn’t afford to have superannuated secret agents wandering around, especially if they were suffering from loose-lipped dementia.

Dementia was something Bond worried about constantly; particularly since his last mission, Spectre, when he’d discovered that his perennial arch-enemy had been none other than his own foster brother. A foster brother Bond had totally forgotten about!

And dementia was something Bond worried about constantly; particularly since his last mission, Spectre, when he’d discovered that his perennial arch-enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, had been none other than his own foster brother. A foster brother Bond had totally forgotten about! What else might have slipped his mind? After that bitch Vesper Lynd had pulled the wool over his eyes in Casino Royale, Bond had vowed never to trust a woman again. And yet here he was in No Time to Die, discovering anew that the love of his life, the Proustily-monickered Madeleine Swann, was harbouring Dark Secrets that Would be The Death of Him. Bond frowned. He fervently hoped she would not turn out to be his sister. Or worse, his mother, though at least that meant they could call his next adventure Oedipussy.

Sometimes Bond wondered whether it might be more fun to switch to the dark side, even for just one film. Villains got all the best one-liners, such as Auric Goldfinger’s: “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!” Though Blofeld declaring: “It was I, James, the author of all your pain!” was moustache-twirlingly naff in Spectre. And in Thunderball Fiona Volpe’s snide “James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing,” was a bit near the knuckle, given the fleeting life expectancy of every woman he slept with. But villains also had the best pets. Perhaps it was time to woo the White Cat of Evil away from Blofeld with judicious deployment of kitty nibbles. That cat had seen things. It could be an asset.

In any case, the future looked promising. The new Minister of Culture (or was it the old one? Turnover was so rapid these days it was hard to keep up) had decreed that popular culture in the UK should be more “distinctively British”. And who could be more distinctively British than James Bond, a name so synonymous with world-beating Britishness that he’d been hired to parachute into the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony alongside that other symbol of the nation’s greatness, HM the Queen? Who else offered so many product placement opportunities for the nation’s post-Brexit industry? There was no getting around his favourite Omega Seamaster 300 was Swiss, and his favourite Vuarnet sunglasses were French, but Bond made up for it by driving an Aston Martin, and you couldn’t get more British than that. Perhaps he should have a word with Q, to see if they could squeeze in plugs for more British brands, like Marmite, Yorkshire Tea or Tiptree jam. Maybe they weren’t as sexy as Bollinger or Tom Ford, but he, Britain’s Number One Secret Agent, would make them sexy.

He stubbed out his Morland, straightened his Turnbull & Asser silk tie, and shot his cuffs with customary aplomb. Time to embark on his latest mission, the most vital he had ever undertaken. His taskmasters had postponed it, several times, but it was now or never. Social distancing and lockdowns had wrecked box office takings, and now he had to go out there and bring back the audiences. It was up to him, James Bond, to save British cinemas.

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

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