James Bond creator Ian Fleming operated from behind the scenes for the British Naval Intelligence during World War II. He was behind a number of British intelligence innovations, including Operation Goldeneye, a name he later used for his home in Jamaica from where he wrote the Bond books. Fleming was a good strategist, had a cavalier disregard for authority, and, when he wasn’t saving the Queen from behind his desk, was a womaniser.
However, Fleming always wanted to be in the middle of the action. The conclusion of the war ended his dreams of getting a shot at being a hero. So he made up a daredevil spy – agent 007 James Bond – who could do all the things that he couldn’t during his time as an intelligence officer. The four-part BBC miniseries Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond is the third and by far the most exhaustive fictional depiction of Ian Fleming during his years up to the creation of James Bond. The series was shown on BBC in 2014 and is being broadcast in India on Zee Cafe.
Charles Dance and Jason Connery (son of Sean) have previously played Fleming in the television films Goldeneye: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming (1989) and Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming (1990) respectively. Where Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond differs essentially, apart from being lengthier, is the detail with which Fleming’s love life is explored. This does not really improve the final product in any way. The miniseries is, for the most part, a humdrum affair.
Blame it on lead actor Dominic Cooper. The Fleming character here is portrayed exactly like James Bond. He is a smooth talker and a selfish lover. Women can’t resist him but are also wary of him. He doesn’t think twice before doing something silly that could endanger himself and those around him. If he hadn’t been named Ian Fleming, he could have been mistaken for James Bond.
Add to this ambivalence the wartime intrigue, lavish production design and a couple of tense spy-on-a-mission sequences and the show looks like a Bond movie me-too.
While the show mythologises Fleming and requires a super-human central performance, Cooper is as bland as an arrowroot biscuit. He does exude the broken masculinity of a writer, but a swashbuckler he is not. The only moments where he appears to be in full control are the sex scenes, in which he spanks his woman to get a rise. These sadomasochistic moments with actor Lara Pulver (Irene Adler in BBC’s Sherlock) playing Ann, Fleming’s future wife, are more campy than they are steamy.
It is Pulver, though, who lifts the show whenever she is on screen. She is the right amount of seductive and sincere. Much of the running time is devoted to building up the chemistry between Ann and Ian Fleming. They circle each other like alley cats, but once their relationship is consummated, the playfulness disappears, both from their romance and the series.
At the expense of attempting to mount a low-budget spy romance drama, the makers of Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond fail to invest genuine depth in its characters. We don’t get any insights into what makes Fleming so foolhardy, distant and contemptuous of women. His mother’s domineering nature and the presence of an over-achieving elder brother (Peter Fleming, one of the inspirations for Bond) do suggest some answers, but at the end of the day, the show does not really explore the protagonist’s inner mind. It is too pleased with being a wannabe Bond, unlike the real Ian Fleming, whose discontent eventually goaded him to write, as Cooper says in the show, “the spy novel to end all spy novels”.