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“Before he lived it, he wrote it”? Fleming Episode 1

By Nicholas Rankin

The first thing you see on the screen in the new TV mini-series Fleming is Ian Fleming’s own claim that his James Bond novels were based on reality: “Everything I write has a precedent in truth.” Just before the credits we get the drama’s own slightly different claim: “Based on a true story. Some names, places and incidents are fictitious and have been changed for dramatic effect.” Between the two statements is a fast-paced 45-minute farrago that is about 45% fantasy to 55% fact, and very entertaining if you’re not too picky.

The Fleming script-team, creator John Brownlow and co-writer Don McPherson, have pillaged the biographies of the real Ian Fleming by John Pearson, Andrew Lycett, Ben Macintyre, and myself for bones of truth, then made up the rest as they attempt to blend the fictional James Bond with the real life Ian Fleming. So Fleming is dream-stuff; it looks naturalistic, but it is not realistic. Characters are caricatures, actions are metaphors for inner states. It’s a redemptive story of becoming: “How the war turned a wastrel into a world-famous writer.”

Fleming, BBC America
Ian Fleming (Dominic Cooper) writing the latest Bond novel with Ann (Lara Pulver) at his side in Fleming. (c) BBC America

We start in 1952, in a kind of watery subconscious, under the warm Caribbean, where a honeymooning Ann Fleming (Lara Pulver) is snorkeling in a red bikini. Her fit new husband Ian Fleming (Dominic Cooper) threatens her with his phallic spear-gun, but skewers an octopus — referencing his last story, ‘Octopussy’ — instead. We next see Fleming with a typewriter on the verandah pounding out the final bitter words of Casino Royale: “The bitch is dead now.” In the bedroom, Ann pronounces his first book “Pornography, pure and simple.” “He’s not me!” protests the tyro author. “He’s you as you’d like to be, your fantasy,” she says. “Not in the way you’re thinking,” he replies, slowly tying her hands behind her back on the bed. His manuscript pages riffle on the floor. Ah, Bond and bondage… Fleming evidently has its eye on all those women who bought Fifty Shades of Grey.

We flashback 13 years to 1939. Dominic Cooper looks exactly the same age in 1939 as he is supposed to be in 1952, but that’s the point of casting someone who made his name in The History Boys; instead of looking like a melancholy Roman, as the real Ian Fleming did, Cooper portrays a pugnacious boy arrested in adolescence. He’s not really impersonating Fleming, remember, in this dream-world, but embodying the Ur-Bond. He’s a physical risk-taker, a disrespecter of age and authority, “the worst stockbroker in London,” a serial shagger and flirt, a night-clubbing lounge-lizard, a connoisseur of dirty pictures, a boozer with a gold medal for continual cigarette-smoking. In short, he’s a hero for every lad with poor impulse control, and catnip to ladies who like bad boys.

In real life, Ian Fleming had no father to restrain or guide him. (Major Valentine Fleming MP was killed in the Great War a week before Ian’s ninth birthday.) In Fleming he is still under the thumb of M for Mother, the bossy widow Eve Fleming (Lesley Manville, excellent as always). A key transformation scene begins with Eve bursting into Ian’s amorous boudoir, carrying a painting by her lover Augustus John. She’s accompanied by her first-born son, Ian’s older brother Peter Fleming (Rupert Evans), who, in this dream-world, is reduced from a witty warrior to a wet worrier. Mother galls her second son by calling him “a disappointment.” “I’m not my father, I’m not my brother,” he yells back. “What are you?” she demands. “—-ed if I know,” he replies. Eve bustles off to tell Winston Churchill that the son of his late friend needs a proper job.

The real story is more interesting. Ian Fleming’s recruitment into British Naval Intelligence had nothing to do with Churchill, who was still in the political wilderness in the summer of 1939. The move began with Admiral “Blinker” Hall, the spymaster whose skilful exploitation of the Zimmerman Telegram helped bring the United States into the First World War. Hall had come out of retirement on the eve of another world war to coach the new Director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey, and advised him to look for a smooth “fixer” from the City of London to help him. Montagu Norman, the Governor of the Bank of England, hand-picked Ian Fleming a stockbroker who had worked for Reuters in Moscow, for the job.

In Chapter 2 of Ian Fleming’s Commandos I describe how Admiral Godfrey first met Fleming over lunch at the Carlton Grill on 24 May 1939, and liked the cut of his jib. They were also “drawn to each other as surrogate family. Godfrey had three daughters but no son; Fleming had three brothers but no father… Now, four days before his thirty-first birthday, Ian Fleming had found his patron.”

This is very far from the dream-world of Fleming. There Dominic Cooper is seen skulking in a London library, surreptitiously buying a first edition of Mein Kampf from a Nazi, when detectives surround him and take him to a gothic cellar where he is interrogated about his interests in fascism. “My name is Admiral John Godfrey” intones the actor Samuel West, stepping from the shadows in naval uniform. “Your name came down from Churchill.” Credulity crumbles further. The real Admiral Godfrey — the basis of M in the Bond books — was twenty years older than Fleming, and always clean-shaven. Sam West’s Godfrey wears a magician’s sinister beard and doesn’t look much older than 35-year-old Cooper, certainly far too youthful to be called “the old man.” Fleming’s Godfrey is not a dad, but a mate.

All the other men in Fleming are similarly weak; Ian has to be sole cock of the walk, surrounded by clucking hens. He sleeps with Muriel Wright (Annabelle Wallis) in her tight motorcyclist’s leathers, and he snogs Lara Pulver in her gorgeous yellow dress as the first bombs of the Blitz blow the windows in. It’s the women who are strong and a female audience that the mini-series wants to draw. “Hell of a story” says the attractively butch Wren, 2nd Officer Monday (Anna Chancellor), “but was it true?”

“I may have enhanced one or two of the details,” says the roguish playboy. More thrilling lies are promised for the next episodes.

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.

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