So at last we know. The 23rd James Bond film (not counting those interlopers on the Broccoli turf, the first Casino Royale, with David Niven, or Never Say Never Again, cheekily starring Sean Connery) will be called Skyfall, and will be released next year, half a century after Dr No. We have also been told that for his latest mission Bond will have to defeat a colossal threat to global security, that his loyalties will be tested, and that there will be plenty of action. Oh, rats! It’s hardly worth seeing it now.
Actually I’m not snooty about the Bond franchise. True, not all its cards have been aces, and many of the earlier films seem terribly primitive and dated. The second one, Goldfinger, particularly suffers from a plot that is predictable and illogical by turns, but mostly from one of the most perfectly judged title scores in the history of cinema. Hear those great opening chords, followed by the ringing, subtle power of Shirley Bassey’s voice, and you’re still utterly gripped with excitement; the rest of the flick is now a terrible let-down. But I like action thrillers as long as they’re done well, and Bond has, for me and many, also had the added appeal of being a British hero in a world in which the United States had become Top Nation. At his best he works with a confident panache and wit that makes his transatlantic counterparts look like clunking functionaries with no taste (a stroke pioneered in 1930s Hollywood by George Sanders as the indistinguishable Gay Falcon and Saint), which goes down a treat with the home market. But the Americans seem to warm to him, too, for they know that their country really calls the shots, and so can afford to admire British cool in a fantasy that also allows them to laugh at their own, often domestically feared and loathed secret services.
This effect was particularly strong when it all kicked off, just 20-odd years after World War II, when the Empire was rocketing downwards into oblivion, but replaced with a new dominance in popular culture that entrenched the enduring American inferiority complex before the taste and manners of the Brits. Bond was not a Beatle, but his style was as unassailable as that of the Fab Four. All the Yanks could do was parody it.
And this is probably why Bond’s old friend in the CIA, Felix Leiter, was never played by Robert Vaughn, currently best known to British audiences as Albert Stroller in Hustle. I remember Leiter in Goldfinger as solid but crass, with a daft hat and a nasty suit just a tad too short in the leg. Robert Vaughn would have unbalanced the film by bringing as much dash to his role as Sean Connery had to his, for Vaughn (nominated for an Oscar as early as 1959) has always been loaded with smooth charm and effortless style (it helps that he’s a native New Yorker); he was a dandy even as a gunslinger in The Magnificent Seven. His Leiter would have been a joy to watch, but also undermined the whole Bond premise. It could never be.
Instead, the year Goldfinger was released Vaughn hit the small screen in the US as Napoleon Solo in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a beautifully silly send-up about global secret agents fighting the forces of darkness with futuristic hi-tec kit. The British actor David McCallum played his Russian junior partner, who was allowed to “get the girl” in only one of 105 episodes. I remember; I was about 10, blind to the irony, and as much in thrall to Vaughn as a role model as to Connery’s Bond, or Roger Moore’s Saint on ITV.
Next year, as Daniel Craig’s admirably sinister Bond saves western civilisation for the third time, Robert Vaughn will join the cast of Coronation Street as an American one of the female characters has met on a cruise, and I might watch the show for the first time since Sir Ian McKellan brought his lustre to our longest-running soap. For I cherish the hope that Vaughn will turn out to be Napoleon Solo still, under cover in his retirement, and settling in Weatherfield to snoop on the illegal arms trading and madrassa training and vote-rigging of the greaterMancunian conurbation Corrie has made so cosy in the British viewing mind. Because I’ve grown up a bit, you see, since I had my Corgi James Bond DB5, and lost the little man from the ejector seat to my mother’s vacuum-cleaner; I now know that real secret agents do not single-handedly outwit a master villain in his underground fortress, but embed themselves in unglamorous communities that harbour equally unglamorous psychopaths intent on destroying everything we hold dear. But I still like to think the agents have some style.