Tim Vickery : exiled fashionista and BBC South American football expert talks James Bond and the style of Intelligence
Sock it to ’em TV …
After the disastrous Suez military campaign of 1956, beleaguered Prime Minister Anthony Eden took refuge in some rest and recuperation at ‘Goldeneye,’ the Jamaican house of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.
It is superbly appropriate. For Suez was the moment when it became clear that Britain had lost its great power status. And the invention of James Bond was a reaction to this. Bond was a one man saviour of the national prestige. The public immediately made the connection. The first Bond book, ‘Casino Royale,’ had come out in 1953. But it was not until Suez that sales really took off. The audience was looking for some fictional comfort.
Bond, then, was a thoroughly reactionary character. True, based on his own wartime experience in the intelligence service, Fleming was anxious to do away with the idea of the spy as a gentleman amateur. 007 exists in a world of hard bitten, well trained professionals. But it was still the world of the gentleman. Journalist Paul Johnson raged about one of the early books, pointing out that Bond united “the sadism of the schoolboy bully, the two-dimensional sex longings of the frustrated adolescent and the crude, snob cravings of the suburban adult. All unhealthy,” said Johnson, and “all thoroughly English.”
And all belonging to the England of private education. When he sold the film rights, Fleming envisaged Bond as someone with a background at Eton. Instead, producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli went in a totally different direction. They chose Sean Connery, a working class Scotsman. Initially Fleming was aghast. But it proved to be one of the best casting decisions in the history of the cinema.
Connery as 007 radically alters the entire message of the films. Instead of the reactionary defender of a rotting regime, Bond becomes the harbinger of a democratic future. The clothes – classic, understated and razor sharp, the ‘shaken, not stirred’ lifestyle of consumer choice – this was now in the reach of a growing portion of the population, even if only on the level of aspiration. As the pioneers of popular modernism were also discovering, with a Welfare State, full employment and the odd lucky shake of the dice, style could become the people’s property.
The early Bond films positively revel in this atmosphere. The way the camera lingers on a Turkish bazaar, or even on the trappings of a nice hotel room – you had never seen these things, never experienced them for yourself. But maybe one day you would. And when that day came, you would wring every last drop of pleasure out of it – but not like some grateful peasant.
Instead, you would do it with a bit of swagger, the way that Connery laid out for you.
The Bentley was substituted for an Aston Martin – British Swagger
His introduction in the first film, 1962’s ‘Dr No,’ is a thing of cinematic beauty. He is in a casino, and the camera, with almost the dexterity of Martin Scorcese’s ‘Goodfellas,’ takes you on a trip around the scene. We see Bond from the back, and we see his hands laying the cards. But we see nothing else of him until his opponent and future love interest announces herself as “Trench, Sylvia Trench.” Bond states his own name in what has become the time honoured fashion, with a sense of ‘seen it all before, man of the world’ ennui – part of the training for the role that Connery had been given by the film’s director, old time Soho bohemian Terence Young. Throughout the scene, up the moment when Bond hands Trench his card to set up their first date, Connery is a messenger of a new working class self assurance.
‘Dr No’ is a fine film, especially for the first hour. The Austin Powers series has made it difficult to take too seriously the Bond villains with their extravagant hideouts and hundreds of anonymous henchmen. For this reason the best in the entire series remains the second, ‘From Russia with Love.’ It is tense, tight, exotic but rooted in reality – and it is even more stylish, not least because the waistband of the trousers has come down to a more contemporary level.
The next one, ‘Goldfinger‘, had an introduction that showed that the thing was already being played for laughs – Bond climbs out of the water in a wetsuit with a plastic bird stuck to its head, and when he takes it off he has a dinner jacket underneath. It was evidence of a decline that would go into overdrive with the disastrous early 70s casting of Roger Moore – a fine, lightweight gentleman spy, but entirely without the malice and the necessary edge of class conflict that Connery brought to the table.
Waist coat style before Gareth! Space Jim, but not as we know it!
The choice of Moore threw the character off kilter for decades. It was only with Daniel Craig that the makers appeared to realise what they had. It was not a case of attempting to bring Connery back – the misogyny of the early 60s would not be acceptable today, for example. But it was a recognition that Bond was not a joker or just another adventure hero, that the character had to be developed. So they went back to the egg, starting with ‘Casino Royale’ and constructing a more vulnerable, occasionally troubled Bond – and a Bond who, despite the odd suit which overdoes the tight fit, has a sense of style rooted in ‘From Russia with Love’ era Connery.
The context, of course, is different. Fifty five years ago Connery represented a new culture on the rise. Decades of neo-liberalism have sent the ball rolling in the other direction. But the future is unwritten. And perhaps the Daniel Craig Bond films are a message – shouted quietly, as the Pellicanos would say – that we can bring back the values that make style the people’s property.
And rightly so. Of all the services the navy has to be the most sartorially starred. Sure, the army have kitted out the men’s wardrobe with desert boots, fish-tail parkas and khaki chinos- all indispensable style classics for the modern day modernist. Those magnificent men in their flying machines have bombed us with combat jackets, aviator shades and er, pipes. However, neither holds a ship’s candle to the effortless elegance of the jolly Jack Tar.
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible…”
Oscar Wilde, like Miles Davis, knew a thing or two about substance and style and, as always, the pre-eminent stylist sticks an exquisitely crafted tie pin (with a mother of pearl head nonetheless) through the saggy heart of conventional morality. If we ignore economics for a moment- or maybe not ‘cos the working class have always made Boden attired toffs look like laughable salmon-trousered worshippers at the church of Michael Portillo- style is everything. Style is substance; substance is style. In short: what you see is what you get. So, what does Miles Ahead- Don Cheadle’s ambitious biopic of the splendidly sartorial jazz-man- teach us about style, substance and possibly, America.
Well, quite a lot as it goes.
To begin at the beginning, which ain’t Cheadle’s narrative bag as he riffs back and forth across the decades- we see a Davis in his prime. Cashmere sweaters adorned with a soft minor key of a silk scarf. Penny loafers shockingly juxtaposed with sockless ankles- less is more. Flat fronted trousers as effortless as the opening strains of Blue in green. Wing tipped suit jackets as sharp and tight as a snare drum. This is black America as confidently cutting as a cut-throat razor saying –we ain’t got no rights, you treat us like shit, but boy can we play, boy can we dress. This isn’t about getting even- who wants to do that- this about is about one-upmanship. Hence the eventual middle class appropriation of jazz; after all, how can something so cool, something so beautiful belong to you. Give it back! Stop looking and sounding so successful! But success breeds jealousy and jealousy breeds hate. No more shown than the wrongful arrest of Miles as he leaves a late night club for a smoke before being beaten and thrown in the slammer. How things have changed? His crime? Being too cool, too sharp and being the one who gets the girl. Style here is a weapon. Like the oft quoted line from the movie- if you’re gonna tell a story come with some attitude– style is an attitude of non-compliance, of refusal, of being cooler than you. Like Michael Caine’s mocking of the establishment- I’m the original bourgeois nightmare- a cockney with a million dollars- style is threat.
And so to the 70’s: bulbous, bloated, banal. Miles has seriously lost his mojo, living in splendid isolation in palatial decadence. Furthermore, his lack of musical output is reflected in his faded dress sense- though Cheadle still manages to pull off a certain hip nonchalance in PJ’s and silk peacock coat- Miles is clearly a has been- a comic coda to the musical style genius of old. Even though the Elmore Leonard inspired plot of Miles and Ewen McGregor’s Rolling Stone hack hunting for Miles’ stolen tape syncopates along steadily (ironically the missing tape is discordantly unlistenable) we can’t help feeling a sense of loss, a yearning for the gear and panache of the man who produced the soaring sublimity of Sketches of Spain; for that dress sense.
And that’s the point. This is a story of entropy. Even though the clumsy out-take aims to suggest that Miles, if he were still alive, would have produced further master pieces we don’t buy it. And why, because he’s wearing baggy jeans and a tartan waistcoat adorned with #SocialMusic , while the goonish audience sway around like drunken dads at a wedding reception. A loss of substance mirrored in a loss of a stylish wardrobe. Like America itself, a country considering electing the most style-less man in history (I think you know who I mean) to the highest office in the land.
Like I say, what you see is what you get.
Signing off: Flash Harry
For more celebration of the fashion, culture and style of the British working class and beyond find ‘Flash Harry’ at :