Exhibition Review – For Your Eyes Only – Ian Fleming and James Bond at the Imperial War Museum, London until March 1 2009.
Celebrating the centenary of Ian Fleming’s birth, the Imperial War Museum is delving into the life of the creator of James Bond with a major exhibition that examines both the famous author and the man he created.
For Your Eyes Only, Ian Fleming and James Bond features a wealth of fascinating material that places both of these fascinating characters in their historical context and examines the way the Bond novels were based on real people or events.
On display is rare material including Fleming’s desk and chair, where he wrote all of the Bond novels, the jacket he wore when he observed the Dieppe raid of 1942, annotated manuscripts, a working model of an Aston Martin made for HRH Prince Andrew in 1966 and a plethora of gadgets from the films Thunderball and Goldfinger.
The exhibition begins where the character of Bond was born – at least on paper – at Fleming’s tropical hideaway Goldeneye, a three-bedroom villa in the Caribbean built to his own design in 1947. A film loop shows Fleming at his writing desk, hammering away on his Remington, smoking a cigarette using his trademark holder and wearing a dark safari suit.
The original desk, with Fleming’s Remington Remmette typewriter and a photo of Noel Coward, sits next to family snaps, paintings by Coward and a copy of the book the Sea Fauna of Golden Eye by American ornithologist, James Bond. It’s the first in a series of connections that effectively map the emergence of one of the world’s most popular fictional and movie characters.
Fleming was born into a world of privilege, the second son of a Conservative MP who was later killed in the First World War when Fleming was eight.
His domineering mother and ‘effortlessly brilliant’ older brother became the guiding lights of his early years, and after their father’s death Eve Fleming controlled both her sons’ lives – even to the extent of cutting off their funds if they displeased her.
For her part Mrs Fleming found time to have a fling with Augustus John, which resulted in a fine portrait of her – and Amaryllis Fleming – a half sister for the Fleming brothers born 1925. Eve always claimed that Amaryllis was an adopted child.
Peter and Ian Fleming as children. © Private Collection
These trappings of privilege, wealth and demeanour are represented by his father’s dress uniforms, the wooden wartime cross from his father’s grave in France, family photographs, letters from Churchill, portraits, trophies and the books of his explorer and historian older brother Peter Fleming – whose tomes have titles like Brazilian Adventure and The Siege of Peking.
For his first step on the ladder of success the younger Fleming was packed off to Eton where he was unremarkable academically but excelled at sport. He then went to went to Sandhurst where, the exhibition tells us, he ‘left under a cloud’. Undaunted mummy sent him to Austria to learn languages at the Tennerhof School in the hope that he’d become a diplomat.
The 1930s were evidently years of enjoyment for the young Fleming and perhaps unsurprisingly the diplomatic career didn’t take off. He eventually joined the news agency Reuters as foreign correspondent. However while at Tennerhof he did begin to write.
Amidst the documents on display is a copy of an early short story about a beggar in Vienna who eventually poisons himself. Not much resemblance to Bond at this stage, although the character we are told is an outsider – like Bond – and the story has many detailed descriptions of meals.
Ian Fleming’s Jamaican home Goldeneye. © Reproduced by kind permission of Goldeneye
Like many young men of his generation World War Two gave Fleming the purpose in life he craved and 1939 he became assistant to Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence Division (NID) of the Admiralty.
Having made himself indispensible he soon had the freedom to evolve his own plans or ‘plots’ as he referred to them. Although he never saw any combat, the people he encountered in this cloak and dagger world and the places he visited would surface again in the Bond stories.
One of Fleming’s ‘plots’ at this time was operation Ruthless, an audacious plan to capture a German enigma code machine from an enemy vessel. The idea was to crash land a captured enemy bomber in the English Channel to lure a German rescue vessel. “Once aboard,” suggested Fleming, “shoot the German crew, dump them overboard, bring rescue boat to a British port.”
The leader for this daring escapade, which never came to fruition, should, suggested Fleming, be a “tough bachelor, able to swim.” Apart from developing a strong idea of the Bond ideal, other characters emerged at this time – most notably the very real Admiral Godfrey who became the acknowledged prototype for M.
Once the war was over, at the age of 38 Fleming had to re-adjust to civilian life. For a generous salary he secured the post of Foreign Manager for the Kemsley Newspaper Group, which gathered news stories or ‘intelligence’ as Fleming liked to call it, from around the world.
Having established the worldwide Mercury News Network of foreign correspondents, six years into his job he got down to writing his first spy story, Casino Royale.
A selection of James Bond titles, Ian Fleming, Published by Pan Books an imprint of Macmillan, London. © Ian Fleming 1961-1964
In 1952 the novel’s first print run was 4,750 copies. By the time of Fleming’s death 12 years later as a result of heavy drinking and smoking, 40 million of the Bond books had been sold worldwide.
Undoubtedly the appearance of Bond in Casino Royale was the summation of his experiences and aspirations thus far, although according to the author the appearance of 007 was rather more prosaic: “I was in the process of getting married so to take my mind off the whole business I sat down and wrote a novel,” he claimed.
Fleming married Anne Rothermere in 1952 after their fling resulted in the conception of their son Caspar. It curtailed Fleming’s bachelor lifestyle, although judging by the golf and gambling ephemera on show it was an enjoyable, if hedonistic, period for the fledgling novelist.
The fifties and sixties are represented with all kinds of effects – from cocktail shakers, an attaché cases, retro modern travel guides to a BOAC menu and a Rolex watch. A cleverly designed black jack table with an inlaid virtual roulette wheel serves as display case and virtual library of the people and things that influenced the development of James Bond.
The exhibition also reminds us that while Fleming had served his country from behind the lines in World War Two James Bond emerged in the front line of the Cold War that followed. The author put Bond and the British Secret Service right into the centre of the shadowy world of Cold War espionage. The reality was that the US had usurped Britain as a world power and our intelligence services had been rocked by scandal.
Helmet worn by Drax's men in Moonraker (1979). © 1979 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation. All rights reserved
It was something that Fleming resented and he was conscious of Bond as a British role model. In 'You Only Live Twice', Bond tells Tiger Tamaka: “We may have been bled thin by a couple of World Wars… but we still climb Everest and beat plenty of the world at plenty of sports… there’s nothing wrong with the British people.”
Whatever Britain’s position on the international stage, London during the Cold War was a hotbed of spy activity and Fleming undoubtedly drew upon it.
A clever interactive display that combines touch screens with real objects reveals some of the interesting items from this shadowy time: secret cameras concealed in cigarette packets, a shoe with a concealed blade, lipstick guns and dead drop containers.
The latter prompted a message left for British agents in London by a Soviet agent who had discovered one of these disguised message devices: “Thank you and good bye for now 007. Ivan.”
For most people, including Russian agents, it is the 007 films that have secured Bond as a truly global icon and the most popular part of the exhibition is likely to be the closing rooms, which deal with the film phenomenon of James Bond.
Prototype of Rosa Klebb's flick-knife shoes for From Russia With Love (1963). © 1963 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation. All rights reserved
A wall of cinematic Bond villains, complete with biographical notes and inlaid display cases shows amongst other things SMERSH agent Rosa Klebb’s shoes with their concealed blades, Goldfinger’s golf shoes, Scaramanga’s golden gun and a Moonraker space helmet – all set off by original stylish set design drawings by Ken Adams.
There are also an impressive range of costumes and props including the nuclear bomb from 'The World is not Enough', Halle Berry’s bikini from 'Die Another Day', numerous film scripts, a champagne bottle from 'Dr No', even the leather buttoned door to M’s office makes an appearance.
The famous Bond gadgets are also well presented – there’s the spyhole clock from Goldfinger, a knife from 'From Russia with Love', as well as ski pole guns, cigarette rocket devices and wing mirror guns that were the stock in trade of the cinematic Bond.
Larger scale exhibits include an underwater sled, mini helicopter and rocket jet pack from one of the most stylish of the 1960s Connery Bonds, Thunderball, all of which should delight Bond fans seeking to make a connection to one of the most successful film franchises ion the history of the cinema.
Daniel Craig's blood-stained shirt from Casino Royale (2006). © 2006 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation and Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved
The exhibition ends with the current incarnation of James Bond – Daniel Craig’s blood spattered shirt from Casino Royal. Next to it a screen scrolls through a myriad of Bond facts and figures.
It’s a reminder that by signing the film deal, Fleming delivered Bond into other hands and set off a train of events that delivered a sexier, tougher and more ironic Bond that would differ from the Bond he created in his books. Given his life, times, and his attitudes, I think Fleming would have been quite happy with the results.
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