27 October 2017

Listening to James Bond at the BBC (Part I)

As of this writing, the BBC has produced seven radio plays based on the James Bond novels. Following a 1990 one-off starring Michael Jayston (Doctor Who's the Valeyard!), ones starring Toby Stephens (Mr. Rochester in the 2006 Jane Eyre) have come out every two years or so since 2008. They seem to be doing the Stephens ones in the same order as the film versions, though they did Thunderball out of sequence (rights reasons? the legal tangle is pretty infamous) and skipped You Only Live Twice (because that's the one they already did with Jayston?). That seems kind of a weird choice to me. The plays are still set in the same order as the books, though; the opening of From Russia, with Love references the end of Diamonds are Forever, even though From Russia was made first!

In any case, I decided I'd listen to each radio play following the relevant book and film, so thus far I've heard Diamonds are Forever, From Russia, with Love, Dr. No, and Goldfinger. What follows are some general thoughts on the overall format and performances of the Toby Stephens stories (I haven't heard the Jayston one yet, and won't for some time), and then some on the specific plays I've heard.

The Format

The stories are produced by Rosalind Ayres and directed Martin Jarvis, a wife-and-husband duo who are also actors. Jarvis has been in Doctor Who on TV a couple times, but I primarily know the duo from their appearance as a husband and wife in the excellent Doctor Who audio drama Jubilee by Rob Shearman. Jarvis also appears in the stories as Ian Fleming, which basically means he voices third-person narration when it's called for-- there's not a ton of it, but it's used to set up very visual moments and smooth over some transitions. Jarvis has an excellent voice, and I kinda wish his narration was used a little bit more. There's occasionally in-scene first-person narration from Stephens as Bond, which I like less. He sort of growls it, and at first I took it for very awkward talking-to-himself-to-explain-actions-on-radio, until about halfway through Diamonds are Forever, when he was talking in a situation where that made no sense. I could do less with of this.

All the stories I've heard are pretty straight adaptations of the original novels-- incidents are trimmed for time, but nothing is changed very dramatically.
  • Toby Stephens as James Bond. Stephens is a pretty grim-sounding James Bond. I like the performance, but it's not quite the Bond I imagine from the books: he's a little more upper-class than I picture, coming across as more snobby. Of course, the Bond of the books is kind of snobby, but I feel as though he's acting snob; he's a brute playing at civilization. Without that the access to his interiority afforded by prose (or a visual performance by Daniel Craig, who captures this aspect of the character best), he comes across more like an actual snob. Which, I should say, works-- it's just a different version of the character, a more cultured, less studied one. Stephens has a good tough-guy act, and does well at the banter and stuff; I think he's less successful at the love scenes and other parts showing emotional investment, where I think he is a little too sharp. I had a hard time buying he had any real interest in Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever, for example, and the same went for Tania in From Russia, with Love. He came across as more tender toward Honey in Dr. No, however-- not sure why.
  • John Standing as M. Standing appeared in one Doctor Who audio drama (Gods and Monsters), but I didn't think much of him there. Other than that, I know he's appeared in stuff I've watched, but nothing that's made much of an impression. Anyway, I really enjoyed him as M: suitably British, crusty, and unamused, which is exactly what the part (which really is a small one) calls for. He especially shines in his couple scenes in From Russia, with Love and the opening of Dr. No.
  • Julian Sands as Q. Didn't really leave much of an impression, to be honest. Just kind of there. On the other hand...
  • Peter Capaldi as Q. The twelfth Doctor Who played Q in just Dr. No (the first recorded, but the third chronologically), and he is great. Properly scathing and dismissive of Bond's ladylike firearms. Too bad he never appeared again.
  • Josh Stamberg as Felix Leiter. He actually is an American, and he sounds like he came out of a 1950s crime film. Which, given that in Diamonds are Forever, Felix is a private eye working for the Pinkertons, is exactly right. That said, he wasn't the original:
  • Lloyd Owen as Felix Leiter. Owen played Felix in just one production, Goldfinger, and he is not an American. Let's just say I'm very glad Felix was recast for later stories.
  • John Sessions as Rene Mathis. I really like John Sessions' audio work I've heard (mostly, of course, Doctor Who stuff), so it was a pleasure to hear him in these, though Mathis doesn't really do a whole lot in From Russia, with Love. Hopefully we get Casino Royale someday.
  • Janie Dee as Moneypenny. I don't think I know the actress from anything else, but like John Standing, she's great in a very small part. She sounds very young and very flirty, which is in line with how I imagine the character, though the writing here probably owes more to the films than the actual novels.

Diamonds are Forever by Archie Scottney (2015)

I didn't like the book a whole lot, as I said, but Scottney's adaptation thankfully cuts out some of the more unpleasant parts, like Bond's joke about "jiggers" and Wint and Kidd being homosexual. I actually think the whole thing comes to life a little bit more on audio-- Bond being up against American gangs in the 1950s means all the bad guys are doing 1950s American gangster voices, which 1) didn't occur to me when reading the book, and 2) is actually pretty fun, making the audio more lively than the often dull book. Still, there's not a whole lot to be done with the fact that it's way too easy for Bond to work his way up the diamond-smuggling pipeline, and I'm not sure about the choice to play the master villain, Seraffimo Spang, with a flamboyant "gay" voice.

From Russia, with Love by Archie Scottney (2012)

The adaptation here is almost too straightforward, cutting out most of the parts while Bond is in Istanbul reveals that a little bit too much of the novel is Bond waiting for something to happen! In this case, the film is surprisingly more faithful by including the Gypsy catfight, while the audio does not. The audio wisely makes the flight on the Orient Express the bulk of its story-- it's a setting and situation well-suited to audio. The real highlight of this one is the big-name casting: Nathaniel Parker (Inspector Lynley), Tim Pigott-Smith, Mark Gatiss(!), John Sessions in two roles, and Eileen Atkins as Klebb! Gatiss, Sessions, and Atkins all do excellent jobs as various villains, though I was disappointed by Parker as "Red" Grant, who wasn't quite as innately menacing as I imagined when reading the book. Olga Fedori was very good as Tatiana Romanova, as well. The strong performances really carried me through this, though it has its moments. I particularly liked the very ending, where it seems like Bond might be dying from Klebb's poison. I also enjoyed the music (there's a lot of guitar), which didn't really stand out to me in the other installments.

Dr. No by Hugh Whitemore (2008)

The only one of these to be written by Whitemore, Dr. No is probably the best of them thus far. Partially this is down to the source material, I think, as the novel has exactly the right amount of plot to sustain a ninety-minute story. As it's a pretty down-the-line adaptation, the real pleasure is in the performances, which are overall quality. In addition to the aforementioned Capaldi as Q, David Suchet (TV's Poirot) plays Dr. No himself-- I was a little skeptical of his strange voice at first, but once I adjusted, I really liked it. The dinner scene between Bond and No is the highlight of this story, as Doctor No relates his dismal backstory. Clarke Peters is also charmingly likeable as Quarrel (I hope they bring him back if they ever get around to doing Live and Let Die), and I enjoyed the small cameos of the husband-and-wife duo of Simon Williams (Counter Measures's Gilmore) and Lucy Fleming (Survivors's Jenny and, I just learned, niece of Ian Fleming).

The adaptation dials back some of the racial elements of the novel (there are no "Chigroes" here), but keeps others (Bond's instantaneous distrust of a character upon realizing they're Chinese), and adds new ones (some of the Chinese characters are played by white women). The only big downside of this adaptation is the decision to have Bond narrate the centipede sequence in the first person-- probably no one could save this, but Toby Stephens certainly doesn't. The music is spooky, but the whole sequence is just undercut by Bond's "fearful" gasps and shouts as the centipede marches across him.

Goldfinger by Archie Scottney (2010)

Goldfinger was a so-so novel, and it makes for a so-so radio play. In the book, Bond runs into Goldfinger playing cards at a resort, playing golf at a club, and at his own house for dinner; like the film, the radio version streamlines this by cutting out the visit to Goldfinger's home and going straight to when Bond pursues Goldfinger across Europe to Switzerland, and the golf is thankfully less boring on audio than in prose. But moving the story to the audio medium reveals how little it is that Bond does through the whole middle of the story: on film you can see him lurking, and in prose you get his thoughts on everything, but on audio he may as well not be there a lot of the time, and his intervention in the whole affair comes across as even smaller than on audio.

What I should have predicted would really let it down are the accents, since much of Goldfinger takes place in America. The group of gangsters Goldfinger assembles range from ridiculous to awful (especially since some are actors doubling up, so they are required to depict two different American accents apiece), and getting Rosamund Pike in to play Pussy Galore was surely a bit of a coup... but I didn't care for her Southern accent at all. (Plus there's so little interplay between her and Bond that her falling for him at the end comes across as nonsensical.) The BBC haven't done Live and Let Die yet, but maybe I should be thankful for that. That said, Ian McKellen plays Goldfinger, which is great casting even if it contradicts the story's statement that Goldfinger doesn't sound English!

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