MI6 went behind the scenes of the radio documentary "James Bond, The Last Englishman" aired during the Ian Fleming centenary...

Behind "James Bond, The Last Englishman"
22nd February 2009

Aired on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 26th May 2008 - the week that celebrated the Ian Fleming centenary - "James Bond, The Last Englishman" explored the historical context of James Bond in the Britain of the 1950s and 1960s and afterwards. Professor David Cannadine argued that the novels are a 'consoling fantasy' at that moment when Britain had lost an Empire but not yet found a role in the world; that Bond appealed because he flew in the face of British decline. He was a patriotic, handsome, savvy action man, a winner, to whom even the Americans deferred. One Englishman could make a difference, even affect history, in a way his country no longer could. For Cannadine, Bond is the consolatory fantasy of Fleming, the nostalgic conservative appalled by Britain's collapse as a great power.

MI6 caught up with the programme's producer Susan Marling to delve behind the scenes of the radio production...

How did you end up working on the programme – The Last Englishman?
Essentially, that came about because I had worked on a number of different programmes with David Cannadine. In a book that David wrote called “In Churchill’s Shadow” there’s a very, very expansive and excellent essay about James Bond – or rather more particularly about Ian Fleming and the Ian Fleming novels. David told me actually he was ill in bed once when he read all the books whilst recovering, and the essay was the result of that reading.

So, we quite often make programmes together about something he’s interested in at the time or has written about. On this occasion, obviously, with the Fleming Centenary coming up it seemed like a good time to do this one.


Can you describe some of the aspects of Cannadine’s essay that are reflected in the radio production?
Very much the theme of his essay is the idea that runs right through the programme, which is that the Bond novels – the first of which published in the coronation year – were closely tied in lots of ways, to what was happening in Contemporary Britain. In lots of ways, Bond’s power and character, his success and the fact that he can literally be the saviour of the Free World was popular with readers, exactly at a moment when Britain is loosing its power in the world. In lots of ways, the books were rather consoling fantasies for people whom perhaps, wanted at the time to escape the realities of Britain’s decline.

Did you personally learn anything new about Ian Fleming, his world or his characters?
Yes! Absolutely I did. I had a very hazy idea about Ian Fleming, I knew about him mostly because of his wife, Anne Fleming – Anne Rothermere as she was – they were in the early ‘50s late ‘60s a sort of fashionable couple. Probably fairly dislikeable, in a way. They belonged to that old fashioned class, where snobbery came as part of the territory. I’d seen little bits of archive footage of Fleming, and he exactly fitted that image. The fact that he spent a lot of time in Jamaica, enjoying a late colonial lifestyle only he seemed to confirm that.

But, through making the programme, what I didn’t realised about him – and this is also confirmed by the very good exhibition at the Imperial War Museum – was just what an interesting man he was. In a sense, his wartime work and the fact that quite a lot of that work with Naval Intelligence played directly into the invention of Bond stories.

I was quite interested in some of the escapades which he obviously helped dream up, including one that was a scheme for retrieving from a German gun-boat a code book which might be useful at Bletchley. That is exactly the sort of daring-do, which would later find its way into the James Bond books.

So, I didn’t realise he had had such an interesting war as it were and the fact that he was also a very competent journalist helped my opinion of him. That is something that almost went side-by-side with his early writing days, before Bond took over. I think the books themselves perhaps show that kind of observation. I don’t think the books are great literature. I think they do show great journalistic ability for summing things up very well and using just enough observed detail to make a very convincing story and a sense of place.

How did you research and build the programme - and what did the research entail?
I had two staring points really. The first starting point was, well, because it’s a radio programme, the availability of good archive material. So I wanted good archive material of Fleming’s. I also wanted, without any sort use of any very expensive copyright, to use little clips from the films – and trailers from the films.


To a certain extent, radio programmes are not big budget enterprises. So secondly, I was slightly circumscribed by what was going to be available to me. That was fine, I was in a way able to make a virtue out of that.

Then there were certain people I wanted to interview: Andrew Lycett, his biographer. Also, a man I think that has written a book that is very interesting, in terms of David’s argument, about the place of James Bond in post-war Britain and that was Simon Winder, who wrote a book called “James Bond: The Man Who Saved Britain”.

So, that was a major interview for me. Together with that archive we wanted a little bit of on-location stuff, so we actually went to the exhibition from where David introduces the programme.

There are all sorts of other things I would have liked to included but couldn’t. It’s only a half-an-hour programme and in lots of ways we had to stick to David’s thesis. That became the narrative spine of the programme. So it has a sort of chronological process but it is all illustrating David Cannadine’s main point – that is to do with Bond’s place in a Britain.

What are your feelings about Simon Winder’s work and thesis?
That book is very personal, which is why I like it. It’s got great authority, but he also very much brings into the book, a personal account of James Bond – the films especially – and being a teenager and being so intrigued by it. It’s almost his own life story being told in parallel with the Bond films as they came out. Of course, bringing it right up to date with the intriguing portrayal of Bond by Daniel Craig.

How much support did you receive from Ian Fleming Publications?
We contacted the foundation and indeed at the opening of the For Your Eyes Only exhibition, we were very kindly offered an interview with Kate Grimond, who is Ian Fleming’s niece. It was just unfortunate that because of the stringencies of time, that I wasn’t able to use the interview in the programme. In a longer programme we would have liked to done that. They knew David Cannadine and were very supportive of the programme and what we were trying to do.

Were there any other materials that were not included, but you might have wished the programme had time for?
One of the things we tried to do, was to marry – something you can do more on radio than perhaps you can do on television – some of the written extracts, with little snippets from the films. There is a section for example where we talk about violence, or somebody falling into a pool of sharks, or at a gaming table. We had both the actuality from the film but also the readings. We tried to meld the novels and the films together a bit. We would have perhaps liked to do a bit more of this creatively but we had time for what we had, and as I say, David’s remained the central argument.

Can you tell us a little about working with and interviewing Andrew Lycett and his take on the programme?
Well, Andrew was very generous with his time, and once again we had a great deal of material from him that we weren’t able to include. He was very good on the wartime experiences in particular and of course knows the Fleming life in great detail. While that was tremendously useful, sometimes you use an interview as much for your own guidance as it is in the end for broadcast. So, while the bits of Andrew we used were vital to the programme, it was in a way a shame we couldn’t use more.

Want do you think fans took away from the program?
I hope that it links together for people, a fictional character but the reality of the post-war world in Britain. I don’t think many people realise or remembered that the first novels came out incredibly early – when rationing was still part of reality in Britain – which is why James Bond’s extravagant, gastronomic habits must have seemed so very luxurious to people. He was having things, eating things, enjoying woman, in a way that was almost totally closed to a lot of people in the 1950’s. So I think that because we know the films in a lot of ways, much better than we know the books, we don’t relate the world of James Bond with what was actually happening in Britain and I think that’s the major connection we wanted people to make.

Thanks to Susan Marling, Just Radio, and BBC Radio 4.