Born in the 1960s, Ian Fleming’s James Bond came to the screen against the backdrop of a Britain reeling from post-war austerity, the decline of Empire and Commonwealth and the emergence of the new major world powers of the United States and the Soviet Union. At that time, Bond fought the new, amorphous, emerging global threat to Britain in the form of the fictionalised alliance of ‘SPECTRE’; a group of loosely affiliated criminals and megalomaniacs bent on world domination. Through what film historian James Chapman has described as ‘snobbery with violence’ Bond sought to reassert the idea of Britain’s greatness, and its importance in cold war politics and the emerging new world order.
Through the 1970s and into the 1980s Bond went soft. Almost a parody of himself, he amused us with his quips, humour and increasingly outlandish and implausible scenarios and stunts through lazy Christmas afternoons. Small boys wondered at his bizarre array of gadgets, as we bought into TVs with remote control, VCRs (so we wouldn’t miss the Queen’s speech), microwaved our leftover Christmas pudding, and perhaps considered an exotic holiday for the new year.
By the 1990s and through the new millennium we had, I feel, neglected Bond. We now had the Bond lifestyle ourselves: the gadgets, the fancy cars, the luxury den, the exotic trips – all paid for by easy credit we couldn’t afford, or otherwise furnished by a financial sector we would later blame as we set Bond on ‘evil’ financiers and corrupt businessmen and corporations. Thanklessly 007 fought on, trying vainly to fight everything from creeping globalisation, new Eastern superpowers and environmental disaster to terrorism; while on the ground vast armies of real men with technological resources Fleming’s Bond could only have dreamt of struggled to do just that in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile we all wanted to be public servants too; employed (or at least taken care of) by the state, with good salaries and great pension plans or otherwise benefits; as public sector employees, teachers, nurses, local government workers, civil servants or expensive ‘outsourced’ contractors – or perhaps as unfortunate, helpless casualties of a changing world – all sucking on central funding while everything from our public services and private sector companies to our natural resources were being sold off to the highest bidder. Always we wanted more for less. Never did we wonder once who was actually putting money into Her Majesty’s coffers in the long run. With the collapse of the banking sector and the new austerity, we moaned and groaned and it seemed indeed that Britain’s fall from greatness was complete. Furthermore, it was increasingly difficult to see exactly what sort of a society it was that Bond was seeking to defend, and from whom?
But in Skyfall, the cat is finally out of the bag. With Craig’s new, back to basics Bond, we find a man at the thin end of the wedge who is no longer prepared to pull any punches. And the threat, it seems, comes not from without, but within: the legacy of our own short-sightedness, greed, complicity or laziness. We have sold out; now we have to live with the consequences. We can blame politicians, bankers and businessmen; the media or foreign countries, nationals or ideologies; but in truth, our fate was in our own hands from the very beginning.
So does Britain still need Bond? Yes – I would argue – more than ever. In fact as the rats continue to desert the sinking ship, and we moan and groan about it but do nothing positive or constructive ourselves, we need Bond as that thorn in our side, reminding us that it’ll be a lean Christmas this year and perhaps elsewhere that people are dying thanklessly while we sit and complain about our lot. Bond can’t fix Britain’s problems with a gun and a radio. Britain’s problems are not the sort of problems that can be fixed with guns (I’m not sure that any problem can be fixed with a gun). But he can remind us, ‘last rat standing’, that if Britain is no longer great, then each and every one of us has played some part in its downfall. Think on your sins.
Skyfall is in cinemas now and is well worth seeing.