12 July 2019

Listening to James Bond at the BBC (Part II)

My books Bondathon has been pretty comprehensive. Whenever I read a James Bond book, I then watch the corresponding film(s). And then, if it exists, I listen to the BBC Radio drama. (And then, if it exists, I read the comic book!) A couple years ago, I wrote up my thoughts on the first four BBC radio dramas in chronological order; since then I've listened to three more: the next two in chronological sequence, Thunderball and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, plus I circled back and listened to the Moonraker and Live and Let Die adaptations, which were both released a couple years after I read the relevant books.

Overall Thoughts

I continue to be baffled by the production order of these stories. Why do faithful adaptations, but go from On Her Majesty's Secret Service (book 11) to Diamonds are Forever (book 4) to Thunderball (book 9) to Moonraker (book 3) to Live and Let Die (book 2)? This interview with director Martin Jarvis suggests he sometimes imagines the audios as having their own order: he says Thunderball follows Diamonds because the health clinic visit that opens Thunderball is Bond recuperating after the beating he takes in Diamonds. This is consistent with the fact that at the end of OHMSS, M mentions he has a case for Bond coming up involving diamonds in Sierra Leone, which is the premise of Diamonds. The opening of Moonraker links up with the end of Thunderball, and Bond knows more about nuclear weapons in Moonraker than in Thunderball, so it clearly does not take place in book order.

But this can't always be the case. Dr. No, which was made first, opens with a reference to From Russia, with Love, which was produced third. Live and Let Die has Bond still using the Beretta, which Q replaced in Dr. No. In OHMSS, they are hunting down Blofeld and SPECTRE, who have never been mentioned before if you're in production order. The worst implication of the switch is that it totally undermines the ending of OHMSS if, after Tracy dies, Bond goes on a random adventure about diamond smugglers-- never mentioning his dead wife at all!

The weakest part of this series is that, alas, the more I listen to them, the less I like Toby Stephens as James Bond. He might be a good actor (I don't really remember him from any of the things I've seen him in), but he's not a good James Bond. His flirtations are just flat-- I felt he really botched it in the scenes with Domino in Thunderball, for example, no sexiness at all. It's not all his fault, because part of what I don't like is the first-person present-tense narration he has to perform during action sequences, which is usually ridiculous sounding. Although, I'm not convinced he has to deliver it as a grunt. On the other hand, as you'll see below, I felt the Moonraker and OHMSS adaptations really played to his strengths.

But the real highlight of this series is Martin Jarvis "as the voice of Ian Fleming"; the veteran actor and director provides the third-person narration, and he is excellent at providing atmosphere and character and suspense with his voice-. So much so that I often imagine his voice when reading long narrative passages in the actual books, just as I typically imagine Sean Connery for Bond's dialogue, and Judi Dench for M's. Yes, I know it doesn't all quite go together.

I am also coming around to Julian Sands as Q. He plays it very differently to how Peter Capaldi did in Dr. No, but I like the image of Q-- very different to the films-- as a breathless upper-class enthusiast of all things technological. I like it.

Thunderball by Archie Scottney (2016)

This book ends up not playing too well on audio, at least not as adapted by Archie Scottney. Thunderball is one of the more investigatory Bond audios, but Scottney's script cuts out most of the legwork that Bond goes through. Plus, underwater battle sequences don't really play to the strength of the medium, especially when Bond has to narrate all his action to himself. The romance with Domino is substantially cut down, too-- there's no sexy scene where Bond sucks venom out of her toe (or whatever it was precisely). Instead in one scene, she calls him and asks if he wants to go swimming; the next scene, they're post-coital. Meh. Dialogue is the strength of audio; let me hear him seducing her!

I liked Josh Stamberg as Felix Leiter in Diamonds are Forever, but found him much less effective here; the 1950s crime film accent worked for Diamonds, but sticks out as a sore thumb in this story. It might be authentic for Emilio Largo (Tom Conti) to have a thick Italian accent, but I found it distracting; he seemed more an accent than a character, and thus his confrontations with Bond (especially when they play cards together) lacked any sizzle. On the other hand, I thought Janet Montgomery did a great job as Domino. Charming, flirtatious, dangerous, but vulnerable-- she could be a screen Bond girl to look at her, too. Shame she has to flirt with Toby Stephens.

Moonraker by Archie Scottney (2018)

Moonraker didn't come out until 2018, which means that I couldn't have listened to it back when I read the novel in 2015, so I plugged it in after Thunderball... which ended up restoring my faith in this whole undertaking, as Moonraker is the most enjoyable of these yet. Partially that's down the book, which is much more focused than other Bond novels: it all takes place in England, and only in a couple locations, and there's much more of an espionage focus than an action one. First Bond helps M expose Sir Hugo Drax as a card cheat, then Bond goes undercover at Sir Hugo's Moonraker project, a missile defense system. The fact that this is the only Bond novel where Bond sleeps with no one makes a virtue of Stephens's lack of charm; he flirts with Gala Brand, but she's not interested in flirting back. But also there's very little (maybe no) first-person narration from Bond, and much more third-person narration from Jarvis.

That all sounds like damning with faint praise, but it really is very good. Stephens is on point. Samuel West makes a great obnoxiously smug Sir Hugo Drax (the bit where he explains his life story is excellent), and all the scenes the two share really work. Katherine Kingsley is fantastic as Gala Brand, competent enough to do some dangerous stuff herself, but still needing to be saved by Bond as things escalate. The action sequences are intense, especially, when Bond and Brand almost drown, and their escape from Drax at the climax. Sound design was really on point, too; there were some chilling bits, especially the launch of the Moonraker rocket. It was just full of nice touches: John Baddely plays Winston Churchill (prime minister at the time, playing up some of the period elements), some key sequences are done as BBC Radio broadcasts. The whole thing feels alternately tense and charming. If they ever do Casino Royale, I think it will also be a good one.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Archie Scottney (2014)

Like Moonraker, this story plays more to the strengths of the format and of the casting. Stephens has good rapport with Lisa Dillon as Tracy; it's perfectly plausible that they would fall for each other in this version. The infiltration of Blofeld's clinic is well done. Again, sneaking into a place by pretending to be someone else is good for audio in a way that action sequences are not. But even the action sequences are strong here. Bond skiing down the Alp just sounds great, and I liked the way the score by Mark Holden and Michael Lopez incorporates "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" because the sequence is set on Christmas Eve. One of the things I like about the book is how much Fleming makes you feel Bond's physical struggle, and that's conveyed well in this story.

I didn't even mind Toby Stephens. Joanna Lumley plays Irma Bunt-- given she was one of Bunt's victims in the film, this is a nice touch, and she does a great job. Overall, it's in my top three of the seven of these I've listened to so far.

My main quibble is with the wedding at the end. The film had Moneypenny, Q, and M all there, which doesn't happen in the book. Here, they don't turn up to the wedding itself, but they do all appear afterwards, as Bond, Tracy, and Tracy's father are celebrating before the newlyweds leave on their honeymoon. It's a bit too sentimental, and smacks more of the films rather than the novels on which these stories are supposedly based, where there is no Q, and Bond's relationships with M and Moneypenny are much cooler.

Live and Let Die by Archie Scottney (2019)

Really, I think these adaptations mostly live and die on the source material. Not entirely (Thunderball was a much better novel than radio play), but the weak novels always seem to become weak radio plays. My memories of Live and Let Die's novel aren't that it's terrible, but they aren't the most fond, either, and what works in prose-- the tense train ride to Florida, the methodical staking out of Harlem fried chicken joints, the desperate dragging through shark-filled waters-- is weak material on audio. Add to that a story replete with Americans, and thus BBC Radio American accents, and it alternates between boring and excruciating. (Weirdly, it was apparently recorded in America, and many of the actors actually are American. They still sound off; not sure what's up with that. Trying to hard to do period accents?)

I thought casting an African-American as Solitaire was an interesting move, though perhaps wasted on radio; I didn't realize the actress was black until I looked her up later. It makes Mr. Big a little less of a racialized villain (no longer is he a black man threatening "our" white women), and it adds a charge to when a hotel owner is skeptical of Bond's cover story that he and Solitaire are married. And Rutina Wesley did a good job with what is surely one of the more boring women Bond falls for.

Quarrel previously appeared (and died) in the adaptation of Dr. No, there played by Clarke Peters, but this time out he's played by Ron Cephas Jones.

To Be Continued...

That's it for the Ayres/Jarvis BBC Bond adaptations for now; they have recorded eight, and I have heard all eight. Live and Let Die actually makes Toby Stephens the most prolific actor to have played Bond, beating out Roger Moore's seven appearances in the role. Shame I don't like him more, but I think I am getting used to him.

But that's not the end of what the BBC has had to do with James Bond, as I shall explore in the months (or years) to come...

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