By Nick Rankin
As a production, Fleming is still looking great but sounding terrible, with a plonking script mired in Second World War clichés (“This is WAR, Fleming!”).
The second episode begins in 1940. Commander Ian Fleming (Dominic Cooper) is away in neutral Lisbon, where he squanders Naval Intelligence petty cash gambling at cards against uniformed Germans in the casino. Then he goes to the gents’ and rescues a pretty refugee. Her Nazi rapist lies dead on the bathroom floor, garrotted with cheese-wire by a man in evening dress who scuttles out. “Help me! I’m Jewish,” she says. What’s an Old Etonian chap to do? Fleming politely ushers her out, and locks the door on the dead man.
His next adventure is in France, collapsing under blitzkrieg, where he commandeers a Rolls-Royce and confronts the head of the French Navy, Admiral Darlan, warning him not to hand over his ships to the Germans, or else. Then he’s off to help even more refugees escape.
Yet still society ladies in London taunt our hero for being “a chocolate sailor,” stuck behind a desk. Among them is the dark temptress Ann, Lady O’Neill (Lara Pulver), openly conducting an affair with Esmond Rothermere (Pip Torrens), the proprietor of the Daily Mail (“He was wrong about Hitler!”). Fleming is already sleeping with the amiable blonde dispatch-rider Muriel Wright (Annabelle Wallis) but simply can’t commit. He confesses he once was to marry Swiss Monique but his bossy mother made him break it off: “I’ve never forgiven her and I never will,” he adds vehemently. Yes, this Ian Fleming hates his mother, “the wicked witch” Eve Fleming (Lesley Manville), who manages to moralize about others despite having an illegitimate daughter herself.
History always falls mangled under the Panzer-tank of plot. In Fleming, the London Blitz (which actually began in September 1940) comes before the Fall of France (June of the same year). This enables Ann, Lady O’Neill, terrified by an air-raid, to seek solace in Fleming’s bed while unfriendly bombs kill Muriel. Fleming weeps a manly tear over her lovely corpse and seeks comfort from Ann O’Neill. When she mocks his sentimentality, he slaps her face and violates her. But she likes it! They have discovered she is a masochist who enjoys pain and humiliation. Their on-off, game-playing affair runs through the whole series. Lara Pulver — who portrayed a bold Irene Adler in Sherlock — makes a good Ann O’Neill, avid and ardent, perennially unfaithful. You believe she’s the kind of Tory who’d end up as the mistress of the leader of the Labour party, as Ann did in real life later, when married to Fleming.
Episode 3 of Fleming, set in 1942, starts with more fake heroics dreamed up by the scriptwriters. This series embodies the kind of ‘action’ which Joseph Conrad described as “the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions.” Our proto-Bond hero excels on a secret agents’ course at Camp X in Canada and writes a blueprint for a US Central Intelligence Agency (“This is a real page-turner!”). He recruits and trains a private army, 30 Assault Unit, “more vicious and more cutthroat than anyone else.”
Having documented the true story of the brave and often unorthodox men in 30AU, I can state that Fleming’s cartoonish portrayal of them as “rejects, the worst of the worst,” violent and undisciplined candidates for either death or redemption, is a complete travesty. Yes, the real Ian Fleming did have the idea for a commando force run from the Admiralty, but it is a far better and more complex story than the banal version of The Dirty Dozen shown here.
One of the unit’s last survivors died last year, aged 89, a former Royal Marine called Allen ‘Bon’ Royle who had the letters BSc, PhD, CEng after his name. An amusing and eloquent man, he became a mining engineer in Africa after the war, a university lecturer, and a world expert on geostatistics and sampling. He was selected to be an ‘intelligence commando’, not a mindless thug to “wreak havoc and spread fear,” as Fleming suggests. ‘Bon’ could blow safes, but he could also read the documents inside them.
Fleming betrays as little understanding of what intelligence is or does, as it has respect for history. In this dream-world, pompous “Bomber” Harris of the RAF is running the war, trying to sack Admiral Godfrey (Samuel West), Fleming’s boss in Naval Intelligence. Perhaps they have confused him with Winston Churchill, who did run the war and sacked Godfrey for disagreeing with him about claims of U-boat sinkings. But Churchill is too untouchable an icon, so “Bomber” Harris must play the bad daddy, continually running down Ian Fleming’s commandos: “They’re a rogue outfit. They think they have a license to kill!” This is history scripted as a Bond fantasy.
Nicholas Rankin is the author of Ian Fleming’s Commandos: The Story of the Legendary 30 Assault Unit which is publishing in paperback in March. Follow him on Twitter @RankinNick.