BY FRANK HAVILAND
‘The name’s Bond, James Bond’ are among the most iconic cinematic words ever uttered. The moment you hear them, you are instantly transported back to Sean Connery’s first outing as 007 in ‘Dr. No’. No matter how much rebranding he goes through, Bond is inseparable from that image. Even those such as myself who didn’t grow up with Sean, will tell you – Bond is Connery, no ifs no buts.
It is perhaps for this reason that those assuming the mantle of Bond post-Connery, have always found it to be something of a poisoned chalice: Roger Moore was considered too comedic for instance, Timothy Dalton too sulky, Pierce Brosnan too bland. In reality, all of Bond’s latter incarnations have brought something to the role – but for the hard-core fan, it was always something of a crude imitation.
Connery’s shoes have been notoriously difficult to fill, as witnessed by the extensive list of those who either didn’t get the part, or in rarer cases famously turned it down. David Niven, Rex Harrison and Cary Grant were dismissed on the grounds of age. The British accent was a bridge too far for many, including Christopher Lambert and Dick Van Dyke (yes, I know). Mel Gibson was too Australian, while Peter Snow (yes that one) at 6 foot 5 was too gangly. Oliver Reed meanwhile, was simply too Oliver Reed, and Lord Lucan kept disappearing.
The role is a demanding one: physical suitability and the requisite action-packed performances aside, the character appears to exert a unique pressure. Perhaps it is the extensive publicity, or perhaps the knowledge that you can only ever be considered second-best. Whatever it is, many former Bonds have become disillusioned with the role. Asked whether he would consider playing Bond again after his fourth instalment, Daniel Craig famously remarked: ‘I’d rather slash my wrists.’
One issue for any aspiring Bond, is that he is only partially fictional, with Fleming’s descriptions of Bond leave little to the imagination. Physically, Bond is 6 feet tall and 168 pounds, and according to Fleming (who worked in naval intelligence) is a ‘compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war.’
In terms of traits and tastes, Bond also shares a remarkable similarity with Fleming, bordering on the semi-autobiographical. Both hold the rank of commander, share the same love of scrambled eggs, custom-made cigarettes, gambling, and golf (even having the same handicap).
The minutiae of what constitutes a suitable Bond is something that shakes the vodka martini of the mildest Bond fan. Even Daniel Craig, perhaps the most accomplished actor to inhabit the role, was initially lambasted for the crime of being blond! Indeed, a whole campaign was launched to prevent this desecration of the role, calling for a boycott of Craig’s first outing in Casino Royale.
So it is little surprise that the rumoured casting of Idris Elba as the next 007 has raised a Roger Moore-esque eyebrow or two. A black Bond is newsworthy, and those who wish to dismiss the race issue as somehow irreverent are (perhaps understandably) being rather economical with the truth.
Invariably when asked for their opinion, anyone of note has felt the need to either enthuse a little too zealously about the prospect or have pooh-poohed it while making it quite clear that race is a non-issue – it is of course, little else.
When rumours first emerged of Elba playing the part of Bond in 2015, post-Fleming Bond author Anthony Horowitz expressed concerns about his suitability:
‘For me, Idris Elba is a bit too rough to play the part. It’s not a colour issue. I think he is probably a bit too ‘street’ for Bond. Is it a question of being suave? Yeah.’
Naturally in these politically correct times Horowitz was instantly forced to recant, and the issue went away seeing as Daniel Craig agreed to stay on for the latest instalment, Bond 25. With Craig finally bowing out in 2019 however, the issue of a non-white Bond is firmly back in the frame.
Another getting their knickers firmly in a twist over the miscasting of Elba was Joanna Lumley, who recently commented:
‘Idris Elba is stunning – and was incidentally in Absolutely Fabulous – but I don’t think he is right for Bond, who is quite clearly described in the book. I’m colour-blind when it comes to acting, but Idris Elba is just a zonking great star anyway.’
So there you have it – Elba doesn’t match the book description, but it’s not a race issue. While of course no one wishes to fall foul of the race card, James Bond’s bio leaves little to work with in terms of diversity. Born in 1920 or 1921 (depending on which source you trust), Bond is the Eton and Geneva-educated, multilingual son of a Swiss mother and a father from the Scottish Highlands. Trying to extract Sadiq Khan-approved vibrant diversity from that, would leave Harry Houdini asking questions.
The diversity market is a rich one however, and it is no surprise that its adherents would love to give Bond a progressive makeover. Jettisoning white privilege and the patriarchy instantly earns you some credit, but it is still no guarantee of box office success.
Consider the differing fortunes of the 2016 all-female ‘Ghostbusters’ remake, and the 2018 Marvel blockbuster ‘Black Panther’. Trading on its all-female cast, Ghostbusters failed to impress. It registered as the most-disliked trailer in YouTube history, received very average scores on benchmark sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB, and grossed $70 million short of its studio’s break-even point.
Black Panther however, fared slightly better. It smashed many box office records and at one stage was rated as Rotten Tomatoes’ ‘best movie of all time’, that is until someone had the bad taste to give it a negative review, thereby depriving it of its 100% rating.
The problem with Black Panther is that any legitimate criticism of the film has been slated as either outright racism, a result of the Trump presidency, or people not being sensitive enough to the wider political significance of the film. Over-sensitivity to such criticism ironically draws attention away from the film’s obvious commercial success – genuine blockbusters should not require immunity from criticism nor diversity labels to sell them.
Skipping the rather obvious point that all-female or all-black casts are the antithesis of diversity, the broader point is this: it is increasingly the case that anything white, particularly anything involving white males is considered to be negative, oppressive, and almost mandatory for replacement. Euphemisms such as ‘male, pale and stale’ are now so well-known, they hardly need to be uttered.
In terms of history, it is now routine to see white characters airbrushed out of existence. UK television for instance has been very quick to replace white historical figures with black actors, again naturally in the interests of inclusion. Joan of Arc, Roman soldiers, Margaret of Anjou, Friar Tuck, Guinevere, and Victorian soldiers to name but a few, have all been proudly presented as black. Can you imagine Ross Kemp playing Martin Luther King, or Laurence Olivier having a shot at Muhammad Ali? No you can’t.
At the same time however, the standards that white actors are held to are slightly more restrictive. The left, so keen for diversity when it suits their agenda, are remarkably close-minded when it’s a white actress trying to get in on the action. Consider the plight of lesbian actress Ruby Rose, recently cast as a lesbian ‘Batwoman’ with a penchant for social justice. Surely that would keep the diversity brigade happy? No. Rose was apparently not ‘openly gay’ enough and was subsequently bullied off Twitter for her sins.
The same line was taken against Scarlett Johansson when she was recently cast as a transgender man in the drama ‘Rub and Tug.’ Naturally, Johansson realised she was on a sticky wicket, and subsequently dropped out.
It’s not only actors for whom the issue of whiteness is the new leprosy. West End star Mazz Murray was recently banned from singing a song from ‘Dreamgirls’ at the Royal Albert Hall, because the song is part of an ‘African American Musical’, and she is reprehensibly white.
The contortions whites are increasingly facing to compete in the marketplace without being accused of some –ism or other, are becoming impossible even for those with the stomach to attempt them. Only last week, chef Jamie Oliver was accused of culturally appropriating ‘jerk’ chicken by MP Dawn Butler. Butler naturally failed to accuse herself of appropriating a sari and was mysteriously unfazed by chef Ainsley Harriot flogging a Chinese food range on the sly.
It does appear that those insistent about setting stringent rules for so much in society, seem to be the least able to apply them consistently. If you want to have a black Bond, why stop there? Why not a disabled, transgender Muslim for the role? Why not have Owen Jones fighting off Blofeld with nothing but a copy of the Guardian to defend his honour?
Elba himself is astute enough to recognise the identity politics of the Bond situation. In a previous interview for the New York Times he stated:
‘I think it’s more about, we just want to have a black guy play James Bond rather than Idris Elba, the actor, play James Bond. That’s the part that I’m like, ‘Ugh, come on’.’
Meanwhile, for Variety magazine he observed: ‘There’s no such thing as a ‘black Bond’.’
James Bond is not just a character. He is a uniquely British institution, and cinematographic icon, and one of the highest-grossing media franchises of all time. In 2015 the value of which was estimated at $19.9 billion. Thus far, he has rightly survived the cull of history without too much meddling.
Recast him as black, and he will cease to be Bond. Die-hard Bond fans will switch off, others will replace them – which is the point surely? If an audience exists for new projects, which it surely does, that audience is poorly served by imitations of old favourites. Write some new stories and reel the audience in honestly.
As of 2015, Bond has apparently survived 4,662 assassination attempts. Whether he will survive the latest Bond villain of political correctness remains to be seen.
Frank Haviland was born in London, and educated at Dulwich College. After a brief spell in the City, he obtained an MSc in Social and Applied Psychology. He has been many things including a professional juggler, businessman, and English lecturer. Haviland is concerned that Britain (and the West generally) have fallen to the lie of equality (the false notion that everything is, and must be seen to be of equal value). He has recently finished his first book (outlining his theory), which is due for publication later this year. Frank has lived in South Korea since 2011 where he runs a small English school, and writes occasional articles about the damage of political correctness. A selection of his work can be found here: www.frankhaviland.com. @Frank Haviland