Bond Bibles - Tony Bennett
8th May 2022
Matthew Field meets British sociologist, Tony Bennett, co-author of 'Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero'
Ever since Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale many authors and journalists have explored and celebrated the James Bond phenomenon. While some books have been official, large format publications, others have delved deeper into specific areas of the subject. In this new series Matthew Field will meet both high-profile writers as well as some of the world’s most knowledgeable “007” experts, who have contributed to the James Bond bibliography.
Tony Bennett – 12 February 1947
- Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero (1987)
In 1987, British sociologist, Tony Bennett, collaborated with Janet Woollacott in publishing Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero, the first book to examine both the James Bond novels and films from an academic standpoint. Born in Royton, a suburb of Manchester, Bennett graduated from Oxford University in 1968 where he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He met Woollcott when they both enrolled in an MA programme in Sociology at the University of Sussex in 1968. They later worked together teaching at the Open University (OU) where Wollacott led the highly regarded OU-BBC series on the making of 'The Spy Who Loved Me'. An author and editor of 35 books, Bennett’s work has been important in literary and cultural studies, museum history and theory, cultural sociology and cultural policy studies. He is currently an Emeritus Professor in the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University and Honorary Professor in the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University.
Matthew Field's Bond Bibles
Matthew Field's Bond Bibles
Tony, how did you first discover the world of James Bond?
As a teenager when I saw 'Dr. No' on its first release in 1962. And around that time, like many people, I started reading the James Bond novels. I watched the Sean Connery films in the 1960s and enjoyed them but then my interest faded until my renewed academic interest in Bond which came much later.
Let’s fast forward to that point. How did you first meet your co-writer, Janet Woollacott?
We met in 1968. Janet had completed her degree at the University of Leicester and I had studied at Oxford and we both then enrolled in an MA programme in Sociology at the University of Sussex. This included a course in the Sociology of Art and Literature – the first course of its kind in Britain – and this is what stimulated our interest in broader questions concerning the relations between culture and society. We both went on to enrol in Ph D programmes in this field.
What inspired you to collaborate on a James Bond book?
Well, we didn’t see each other for many years after we both left the University of Sussex. We met again in the mid-1970s at the OU where we both worked in the Sociology discipline. Janet had been there a couple of years before me. When I arrived, the university was in the midst of producing a course called ‘Mass Communications and Society.’ And it was in that connection that the series on the making of ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ was produced.
For Bond scholars, the OU-BBC series on ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ is very important. It is the only time the making of a single Bond movie has been analysed in such detail using the audio-visual medium. Forty-five years later we are still re-visiting these programmes and referencing the content in our work.
I think you could push the point a bit further and say that prior to that series there had never been anything that had studied the making of any film quite like it. At the time, the OU was a very vibrant and exciting place because it was doing something completely new and, in particular, producing courses in collaboration with the BBC. A BBC producer had to agree that the programmes that were produced as a part of a course met the BBC’s technical and broadcast standards and the course chair, who led the team of academics working on a course, had to agree that the programmes met the appropriate academic standards. This provided the basis for a very productive collaboration. These programmes were broadcast on BBC2 – usually late at night or into the early hours of the next day. Even so, they picked up large audiences over and above the OU students enrolled in the course in question. This meant that the OU had a significant public impact in that period. ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ project was mainly Janet’s initiative and responsibility; work on the series was well underway before I joined the OU. Janet provided the academic leadership in making the series with Victor Lockwood, the BBC producer.
And you also wrote a handbook to accompany the series…
It’s a long time since I’ve seen that! (Laughs) Yes, I wrote some of the teaching notes. But it was Janet who was responsible for the overall content of the handbook.
What was the inspiration for Bond And Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero?
Over a period of five years, Janet and I engaged in work on different aspects of the Bond novels and films, and the broader currency of Bond as a popular hero. We weren’t aware of anyone who had tried to think through the implications of Bond’s status as a ‘popular hero’, so that helped to shape the focus of the book we planned. We were interested but not as Bond fans; our interest was rather as teachers and researchers concerned with the social implications of popular culture. In 1982, the OU’s ‘Mass Communication and Society’ course was followed by a course called, simply, ‘Popular Culture’ for which I was the course-team chair. I also wrote a teaching unit for the course called ‘James Bond as a Popular Hero.’ Janet was responsible for coordinating the television and radio programmes for the course. So, we found ourselves working closely together again on a course in which James Bond featured strongly. With Janet having led ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ TV series and then my work on Bond as a popular hero adding to this, we thought, ‘We’ve done a lot of work on Bond, why don’t we put it together as a book?’ So that was the impetus for it.
In the opening page of your book, you outline in your abstract that you intend to “go beyond the Bond novels and films to take account of the broader range of texts and coded objects through which the figure of Bond has been put into circulation as a popular hero.’ For those not necessarily familiar with academic language, can you please break down how your book approaches the world of James Bond?
I can perhaps best answer this by saying that our concern was with what we called the ‘texts of Bond’ – the novels, films, publicity material, reviews, in which Bond was the central character or the main focus of attention. Originally a character in a few novels authored by Ian Fleming, the figure of Bond had, by the mid-1960s, outgrown his creator in being fashioned as a mobile figure in both British and international popular culture. And in the process, this figure of Bond, no longer just the creation of a novelist but a figure fashioned, and refashioned, by script writers, film directors, publicity agents, and so on has been adapted so as to connect with changing cultural and ideological concerns over 60 years. There have, of course, been limits to the degrees and forms of Bond’s adaptability – and, relatedly, of the other Bond characters, the ‘Bond girl’, for example – but there are few original literary characters who have attained this degree of autonomy from their initial creators. Perhaps the only serious rival in the British context is Sherlock Holmes – known to millions who have never heard of Arthur Conan-Doyle just as Bond is known to millions who have never heard of Ian Fleming.
How did you plan the content of the book?
We started working on it in the early 1980s, shortly after the ‘Popular Culture’ course was completed. As it happened, the British Film Institute ran a season of the Bond films at that time, so we both went and watched as many of the films as we could to identify the issues we wanted to look at more closely and write about. In the book Janet took the lead on the analysis of the films and film production. I took the lead on the discussion of the novels and the broader aspects of Bond’s career as a popular hero. This involved reading all the novels again to work out a line of approach that would identify their formal properties and their political salience: things like their plot and character structures, and especially how their narratives worked through and played with key ideological tensions around nationhood and sexuality, for example.
We then decided we needed to go beyond the films and novels to look in detail at the publicity literature and the coverage of Bond in newspapers and magazines. We were as systematic as we could be in looking at this material and were very fortunate in being granted access to a rich hoard of ‘Bondiana’ that had been accumulated by Ian Campbell, a private collector. We also looked at the fan literature and how it engaged with the films: what gets selected and what gets highlighted. We were centrally concerned, in conducting this kind of work, to identify differences in the political terms in which the texts of Bond were engaged with. How, for example, did the ‘Daily Worker’ present Bond compared to the ‘Daily Express’? These were the kinds of questions that interested us.
As you began researching was is clear to you early on what the chapters and content of the book was going to be?
I doubt it! (Laughs). There was a process of development. The book was contracted on the basis of a proposal we submitted to the publisher, and this would have contained chapter outlines. However, the chapters we ended up with were not exactly the same as these or the ones we first drafted. So, the book went through a number of iterations before we decided on the final structure.
This was the first book to examine James Bond through the prism of academia. Why did it take so long?
Well in actual fact it didn’t take very long. If you consider the development of media and communications as an academic subject, it was a relatively new field. ‘Bond and Beyond’ was published around the time of some other interesting parallel studies, on subjects which had a significant influence in the UK and on British culture. For example, there were studies on ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Doctor Who’. So there were a lot of academics around the same generation who were working in the same field whose major studies came to fruition around the same time. And it has to be remembered that a key factor here – especially so far as production studies are concerned – is funding. Although some universities began teaching programmes in media and communication studies in the 1960s, these did not have the kinds of funds needed for large-scale media production studies. The TV series on the making of ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ was only possible because of the significant levels of funding that the OU was able to commit to the production of its broadcast course components and in view of its unique relations, at the time, with the BBC. And the research councils which now provide research funding for humanities and social science research were only just coming into being in the mid 1960s, and popular culture was not high on their priorities! Our work, then, was possible only in view of the unique set of circumstances afforded by the OU at that point time.
Were you aware of Umberto Eco’s work, The Bond Affair, which was the first book to take a scholarly look at the work of Ian Fleming?
We absolutely were and it’s a very important book. Umberto Eco is a major figure. His analysis of the Bond novels rested on a particular set of techniques derived from structuralist literary theory. These aim to look through or beneath surface level differences in particular groups of texts to identify an underlying structure that is common to them all. Eco was principally concerned, in applying these techniques to the Bond novels, to identify how the relationships between their plots their characters worked out in similar ways across the novels. So, he grouped all the novels together and showed they shared a similar plot structure, a similar character structure, and how the narrative was shaped by a set of more-or-less identical interactions between the plot structure and the character structure. But what we thought was missing from Eco’s analysis – and it’s not surprising given that he was an Italian social and cultural theorist – was a close sense of the connections between the Bond novels and the political, social, cultural context of post-war Britain. Although his discussion of the Bond novels was thus a little lacking in these respects, it was and still is extremely insightful and we draw upon it in our book. It was also a set reading for students of the ‘Popular Culture’ course. The fact that Sean Connery later played the lead role in the film adaptation of Eco’s novel ‘The Name of the Rose’ (1986) is a nice coincidence.
You use the word ‘career’ in the title and in your work you cite three moments, which define 007’s place in popular culture. Can you elaborate on that for me?
While there have been many ‘moments of Bond’ since, the ones we discuss in our book related to different periods in the expansion of Bond’s audience from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. The first ‘moment of Bond’ was, in fact, more a moment of Fleming than of Bond. The reception of Fleming’s early Bond novels focused less on the character of Bond than on the literary qualities of the novels, presenting these as a superior literary form of spy fiction which offered readers – mainly middle-class men – a culturally-knowing, somewhat flirtatious, parody of the earlier tradition of the British imperialist spy thriller. The second moment came when, in 1957, the first paperback issues of the Bond novels were published and when Bond was taken up by Britain’s main conservative newspapers, particularly ‘The Daily Express’ which serialised ‘From Russia with Love’ and published a daily strip-cartoon of Bond. This was then a period in which Bond was figured as a popular hero for an expanded middle-class readership, still mainly male, in which ironic or parodic readings fell by the wayside as greater stress was placed on Bond’s credentials as a Cold War hero and as an icon for an imaginary re-centring of Englishness at a time – 1957 was the year of the Suez crisis – when concerns about post-imperial decline were beginning to be registered.
And as I recall, the third moment was related to the influence of the first Bond films.
Yes, that’s right. We characterise the third moment – that of the early to mid-1960s when the first Bond films were produced – as one in which Bond figured as a ‘hero of modernisation’. This partly had to do with the ways in which the films played with the figure of Bond to send up traditional conceptions of Englishness in favour of a more modernised conception of Englishness. It also had to do with the ways in which the figures of Bond and ‘the Bond girl’ related to the feminist critiques of traditional gender roles that gathered considerable momentum in the 1960s; giving them some, but always a limited, leeway which never seriously troubled the prevailing orderings of gender and sexuality. And, of course, this was also the period in which Bond moved on from being a Cold War hero in being adjusted to the requirements of détente as both the novels and films pivoted away from the SMERSH to the SPECTRE versions of the villain’s conspiracy he was assigned to contest. There was also a fourth period we identified, one which, by the start of the 1970s, has clearly established ‘Bond as ritual’ in the sense not only that a clear rhythm of production had been established for the Bond films but also that, between films, there would be a routinised teasing of audience expectations. Would Bond be significantly different? Would ‘the Bond girl’ be more assertive? This production and pre-production machinery worked to ritualise the consumption of Bond films so that the pleasures they afforded derived partly from their repetition of established formulae, partly from playing with audience expectations as to whether these formulae might be stretched or broken, but then reaffirming audience expectation when – albeit they might be tinkered with at the edges – those formulae were confirmed.
Did you approach the Bond copyright holders for access to official photographs to illustrate the book?
The television series on the making of ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ and the course materials that accompanied this raised some critical questions about both the production codes for the film and the film itself. Some of these bore on how Barbara Bach was treated in both the process of the film’s making and her depiction as ‘the Bond girl’ in the film. It’s likely that they regarded this as negative publicity and this affected their response when we asked for their permission to use some stills from the Bond films and publicity as illustrative material in our book. Not only did they decline these requests, they did so in a way that registered their extreme ill will to our project in no uncertain terms. We felt it appropriate to make this public.
You received great support from Pan Books who had published the Ian Fleming paperbacks for many years. They supplied you with a detailed breakdown of the sales of each individual Fleming title and you publish these figures as a table in the book….
I simply wrote to Pan and described the project and how helpful it would be to have the sales figures so we could study how they have varied over time. They wrote back with the figures and said, ‘We hope you make good use of them.’ They are fascinating figures, particularly in testifying to the impact that the release of the 'Dr. No' film had on the Fleming paperback sales, more than doubling them to a little over 1.3 million copies in a single year. We were very pleased to get this information which helped our analysis a good deal.
How did you both write together in an era before emails and the Internet?
Writing books then without emails was just normal! It wasn’t that tricky. (Laughs). When we started work on the book, we were both living and working in Britain. Then we went our separate ways – Janet went to New York and I came to Australia. We had the plan for the book in our minds and on paper before we went to live in different places. We circulated hard copies of our work to each other via the post and then we would link up via telephone from time to time. And we had an agreement in advance as to who would have the main responsibility for writing and the final sign-off on each of the chapters.
How did you and Janet find a writing style that represented both of you. When Ajay Chowdhury and I co-wrote Some Kind of Hero: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films we knew the importance of finding a singular voice…
If it had been a creative work it would have been different. But our Bond book was a fairly typical form of academic writing. It is not personal, it is not biographical. And remember Janet and I had worked together and collaborated on course materials at the Open University prior to this. It was standard academic procedure, which produced a uniform voice.
How easy was it to find a publisher?
It was published by Macmillan in a series called ‘Communications and Culture’. We knew one of the co-editors of this series – Stuart Hall – who was, indeed, also a colleague at the Open University where he was the Professor of Sociology. So we wrote a proposal which we submitted to Stuart who shared it with his co-editor, Paul Walton. Happily, they both liked it and forwarded it to the publisher recommending that it be contracted for publication. This was a standard publishing route for academic materials.
Your book came out as the film series celebrated its 25th anniversary. Next year marks the 60thanniversary. If you were updating the book now, what would you pinpoint as further significant moments in James Bond’s political career?
At the end of the book we fantasised about the directions we thought James Bond might take in the future. Might he lead a campaign to unionise espionage workers? Or campaign for gay rights? Might he become a republican by attaching a limpet mine to the royal yacht? Or commit to a relationship in which he would share the housework and childcare responsibilities?
All of this was, of course, very much tongue-in-cheek, but a way of registering one of our main arguments: namely if, as we argued the figure of Bond was ‘a sign of the times’, he was a mobile sign, one whose meaning was able to be deflected in different directions as the times changed. But always within quite narrowly defined limits. I make these points by way of answering your question in that they suggest that the last 35 years of Bond’s career are ones in which we have seen the occasional tweaking of the values that he or other characters stand for – but no radical departures. We have had a female M, a black Felix Leiter, and seen Bond’s 007 number temporarily taken over by a black female agent. But while the threats and demands Bond has to overcome in order to frustrate the villain’s plans for world domination show some variation, Bond has never, so to speak, been set off down the road of the kind of semiotic adventure that would lead to a transformation in and of the values he stands for.
The jacket design was interesting. A still life photograph featuring a Walther PPK, a martini glass, Bond’s passport. Actually, similar to another Bond bible – The James Bond Bedside Companion by Raymond Benson. Did you have any input into the design?
That was entirely down to the publisher. They did a really good job didn’t they?
Absolutely! Did you take part in any publicity for the book?
I went on BBC’s ‘Pebble Mill’ show to talk about James Bond but that was earlier, before the book. When ‘Bond and Beyond’ was finally published Janet was no longer involved in Academia. I wrote some pieces for academic journals to publicise the book and some pieces for more popular magazines.
Why did you not update the book?
Janet and I did discuss it. We could both see there was scope for it and I have often since thought that there is room for an extension of the book, an update that would apply the perspectives we developed in the book to examine how the figure of Bond has been developed since the Roger Moore films. We did discuss the possibility of updating the book when I returned to the UK in 1998 to re-join the OU as Stuart Hall’s successor as Professor of Sociology. Janet had returned to London in the late 1980s. We were joined in this discussion by another media studies scholar, Toby Miller. Toby and I had been colleagues at Griffith University in Brisbane. Toby had written a book about ‘The Avengers,’ and was interested in the Bond phenomena. We explored the possibility of the three of us collaborating in an update. But we all had other commitments which simply didn’t leave us the time needed to do what was required. So the project just fell by the wayside.
Many academics have since explored the world of James Bond such as James Chapman, Christoph Linder, Dr Lisa Funnell and recently Llewella Chapman. Are you aware of these texts?
I was aware of James Chapman’s work because our paths crossed in the late 1990s when I went back to the OU for a while. I read his book and liked it. It’s a little different to ‘Bond and Beyond’, I think it’s a more conventional historical approach but very informative. James has continued to be more immersed in the world of Bond than I have. I did not know about the works of Linder and Funnell but I went online and they look to be good collections so I am tempted to take a peek.
You’ve written many other books but your Bond work is still being discovered and referenced...
We thought what we were doing was distinctive. It had a good immediate pick up and response within the academic field of Media and Communications. It’s a text some critics have said laid the foundations for the social text approach to film studies. It has, then, had a good reputation in that area. It’s great to know other Bond scholars still find the book a productive resource to draw upon.
Have you kept up with Bond? Have you seen the latest movies with Daniel Craig?
Yes I do go and see them. But I haven’t done a focused analysis of any of the Bond films since 'A View To A Kill', released in 1985. I saw ‘No Time to Die’ shortly after it was released in Australia, in December 2021. This was, indeed, my first visit to a cinema after a long period of COVID lockdowns. Did I enjoy it? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it is a very accomplished rendition of many of the stock items that are now part of the obligatory lexicon of a Bond film. But no in the sense that I didn’t think the film did anything new or distinctive in the ways it engaged with the kinds of cultural and ideological issues that are standard points of reference for Bond films. Indeed, so obscure and idiosyncratically maniacal is the threat posed by the villain that it lacks any clear sense of engagement with current geopolitical tensions. And the issues pertaining to gender and sexuality are dispersed across the relations between Bond and three or four female characters with a resulting lack of focus. This might, though, be a good thing in the sense that there is no clearly defined single ‘Bond girl’ destined to meet her match in our hero. However, these remarks are, I should stress, based on just one viewing of the film. I did leave the cinema, though, wondering whether ‘High Time to Die’ might have been a better title in that it seems to me that the control that EON Productions have over the Bond rights is squeezing the life out of him in the sense of placing too tight a formulaic restriction on the figure’s adaptability to changing times. The figure of Sherlock Holmes I mentioned earlier provides an instructive contrast in this regard. There has never been such a restrictive hold placed on the rights to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories with the result that these have been returned to by different script writers and production companies – in film and television – to introduce a greater degree of plasticity into the figure of Holmes than we now find in the figure of Bond. So I look forward to the day when it will be possible for an entirely new set of writers and producers to revisit 'Dr. No' or 'From Russia With Love' to see what new dimensions might be teased out of these.
Janet Woollacott declined to participate in this interview.