MI6 caught up with Ben Macintyre, author of the new book "For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming + James Bond" in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum...

Ben Macintyre Interview
9th June 2008

How did you become a writer/journalist?
I was doing a post graduate degree in America, and to make ends met I started freelancing for British newspapers. That is where it started, my first jobs were all abroad really, I was a New York correspondent and then Paris correspondent and Washington correspondent for The Times. While I was abroad I started writing books as well. I had written one before I went to New York and than did one every few years while I was out there. The Ian Fleming book is a departure for me really because, most of the books I’ve done, I’ve done six in all been narrative driven history books. They are taking real people and real events and telling there stories in a narrative way. So the James Bond book is a one off for me.

How did you come to work on the "For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming + James Bond" book for the Imperial War Museum exhibition?
Basically it was a partnership with the Imperial War Museum, they helped me by providing lots of the research and lots of expertise and we exchanged notes as we went along. A lot of their ideas appear in the text and I expect a fair bit of stuff appears in the exhibition.


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It was a partnership .I was approached about a year and a half ago now, I really think it was the Fleming family, who had read some of the things I had written about James Bond over the years and also they had read Agent ZigZag. I think as they through Agent ZigZag had done very well they thought that I would be a good name to attach to it. I was delighted, as it was a kind of side job for me, it was not one of my usually types of books, it was lovely to have a change of pace.

Above: Shots from the launch event of the Ian Fleming exhibition at the IWM.

How closely did you work with the museum to ensure what you wrote was relevant?
You’ve put your finger on one of the interesting things, the thing about working with a museum. What I was writing had to go to press considerably early than the museum who’s exhibition was not ready. So in a way it is a standalone book, it was invented before the exhibition had come into focus. Even though it accompanies the exhibition its by no means a catalogue of the exhibition. In a way I set myself my own brief for the book which was to try and work out where Ian Fleming ends and where James Bond begins. So it's the intersection between two lives: one real and one fictional. In a way that was the brief I came up with for myself. Obviously that is not the way the exhibition describes itself . In the end though both mesh together surprisingly well I think.

What did you think of the exhibition?
I loved the exhibition, and I think I would have to say that even if I didn’t think it, but I do think it. I think they’ve done a brilliant job, I think its got a wonderful range of material in it. It's intended to appeal to all ages and both sexes.

It's very cleverly done, and it’s a difficult thing to do in away... They’ve had to marry up to different things - the world on Ian Fleming inhabited, and what has become a very filmic world, while keeping the books front and centre. The things that I like best there, and this may be a historian talking here, are the war time notebooks that show how deeply Fleming was involved in navel intelligence, and how much he was aware of all those extraordinary plans and secrets that were going on at the time. That’s the bit I loved best, but of course its very hard to resist the gadgets too, Little Nellie is a fantastic looking thing as well.

Were you aware of the greater world of James Bond before writing the book?
Do you know what, I wasn’t really. I didn’t realise there was this enormous world out there of the James Bond enthusiast, and its been great, to discover that there are all these extraordinary outlets, and they’ve been brilliant, and they all know more about James Bond than I do. I’ve been impressed with them all, it’s been brilliant so far.

Which was the first Fleming book you read, and which is your favourite?
Funnily enough they are the same book, I first read Casino Royale, it’s the first Bond book and I still think it’s the best. It’s got a fantastic raw kind of power and characterisation. Fleming just managed to invent this figure out of nowhere. And for me Casino Royale pound for pound is still the best of them.

Above: Author Ben Macintyre

Which cover art from the Bound Bond expo did you find most interesting?
That’s a very good question... I think the Richard Chopping covers are very hard to beat - they have a classic clarity to them. They are iconic feel that works brilliantly well, I think it was one of Fleming's acts of genius was to get Chopping to do the covers. They have this incredible versatility, they look terribly simple, but they are visually very clever, they have great subtlety to them. But then again I really adore the Pan covers, the really early ones, I think they are brilliant. I think I’m going to have to say I’m agnostic on them, I think they are all brilliant.

Above: Bond girl Honor Blackman at the opening of the exhibition last month

Can you talk us through the process off writing the book? Of the chapters in the book with was the most complex to write?
It was a very fast the deadline and we had to get done very quickly. A lot of the research was brilliantly done by the Imperial War Museum, and they provided a lot of the leg work which was really helpful. The process really went as we wrote it chapter by chapter. I would write my take on it and I would send it to Terry Charman who is the historian at the Imperial War Museum and he would annotate it and add his thoughts to it and then it would come back to me.

Because we were running so fast I had to get the chapters to the publisher as I wrote them and we did the illustrations as we went along. Unlike most books which you write you get all the pictures and present it as a finished object. This was very much done on the run as it where. The most complicated chapter I found, because there were so many different bits to it, was trying to identify the real life individuals on which the main characters were based. So the real human beings who were James Bond and the real Moneypenny’s, and M, which was both fascinating but quite tricky to piece together, so definitely that chapter.

In your opinion, what or who was the biggest influence on Fleming, and his creation?
That depends on whether it's the biggest influence in terms of which character he based James Bond on, or which individual influenced him to write. If it’s the latter I would have to say Peter Fleming, his brother. I think having a brother who was such a successful novelist so early in life, Peter was his kind of model in a way as a writer, so I think a lot of credit goes to him. I think Ann in her own waspish way pushed him to write, I think it was a great effect, also Noel Coward was a great encourager of his writing so he clearly helped as well.

In terms of which character James Bond is based on, I would have to say it was Lieutenant Commander Patrick Dalzel-Job, he was the commander in 30 AU. He was an extraordinary dare devil figure capable of skiing backwards, setting off bombs underwater. He probably had the strongest claim.

What was the most insightful or interesting thing you learned about Fleming?
Generally speaking, I would have to say Fleming’s extraordinary reliance on reality to inform his fiction. All novelists do this - write from what they know and use of things they have seen and places they’ve been to inform there writing.

Fleming was so craftsmanly in taking real life and turning it into fiction, the fact that every gizmo and every gadget, plot, person, place and clothing, its all comes from reality, and that makes it for a historical a particularly rich source.


Event Info
Imperial War Museum London, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ. 10.00am - 6.00pm. Adults £8.00, Concessions and Groups £7.00, Children £4.00, Family £19.00 (Groups prebooking essential on 020 7416 5439 or [email protected]). Enquiries 020 7416 5320/5321. www.iwm.org.uk. Click here to visit the official event website.

Can you tell us a little about the cross over from page to screen? How did Fleming react?
I think Fleming took a very sensible position on this, although he all ways wanted his books to be filmed and expected them to be filmed. Once the filming process began he very much stood back from it and let it take its own course. He did go on set for the first film - he was really a visitor he was not there as an advisor. He was not there to tell them how to do it. I think he very swiftly and sensibly realised that the two media are so different, that the only way to do it was to hand over the book and say 'right off you go and do your thing now'. I think that worked very well, I think he was very pleased with the results, and so he should have been. He was always complimentary about them in a slightly distant way. I don’t think he felt they were his, so he didn’t have to take a strong responsibility for them. It took a surprisingly long time for the films to be made, in fact it was not until 1962 that Dr No got off the ground, that’s quite a long time, being the last ten years of his life.

The official book to accompany the Imperial War Museum exhibition For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond was published by Bloomsbury in April 2008. Written by the bestselling author of Costa shortlisted Agent Zigzag, Ben Macintyre, and full of lavish photography, this book is the perfect celebration of Ian Fleming and his remarkable creation, James Bond. The For You Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond exhibition is part of the Ian Fleming Centenary celebrations.

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Thanks to Ben Macintyre and Bloomsbury.