Sean Connery turns 90 tomorrow. Seems hard to believe. The Herald Magazine on Saturday ran a piece on him, and BBC2 repeated a 2015 tribute, followed by a screening of Entrapment (1999). The Herald has a picture of James Bond leaning on his Aston Martin DB5 (strictly speaking it should be a DB3), against an Alpine backdrop, in Goldfinger (1964). Surely the picture shows that Connery was – is – the definitive Bond.
And yet, initially, Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, thought otherwise. Possible contenders for the Bond role included David Niven, James Mason, and Cary Grant. But Dr No was a low budget movie and it is said that these actors would have been too expensive. With hindsight, we may say it is just as well. The Bond phenomenon was something quite new and really needed a fresh face. Saying that, it seems to me that Cary Grant could have played Bond. He shared with Connery (if it is possible that such a phenomenon can be shared) a quality of isolated uniqueness. It is difficult to think of Grant, or Connery, or Bond, as belonging to any particular social milieu. Archie Leach from Bristol joined the circus, disappeared, and reappeared in Hollywood as somebody who had buried his past and reinvented himself. Grant was tremendous at light comedy, but Alfred Hitchcock recognised in him a quality of underlying menace, which would have played well to the Bond role. On the other hand, when Dr No came around in 1962, Grant was 58 years old. Connery was 31.
It is hard to conceive of two persons more removed from one another in terms of social class, than Ian Fleming and Sean Connery. Fleming went to Eton and Connery was a milkman in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh. Yet it seems they both eventually recognised the qualities they each possessed. Fleming once remarked that when he was writing his novels, he didn’t have an image of somebody like Connery in his mind, but that now, with hindsight, he would. And on BBC2’s tribute, Connery remarked that he had got on very well with Ian. He said he was a very interesting man, somebody of immense knowledge; a snob of course, but then – he offered it as an apologia – he went to Eton.
It is easy to imagine that without Connery, the Bond films might have fizzled out. But there were other important contributions too. The soundtracks contributed to the exotic and intensely colourful atmosphere. The original Monty Norman theme with its garish brass outbursts sits well with the atmosphere of threat; Shirley Bassey’s rendition of Goldfinger is extraordinary. And the supporting cast was always well chosen; I think especially of From Russia with Love’s Red Grant (Robert Shaw) and Rosa Klebb (the remarkable Lotte Lenya).
But despite all that, despite the fact that we await the unveiling of Bond 26, I don’t think a satisfactory film of an Ian Fleming novel has ever been made. The combination of extreme menace with high farce – it’s all there on the page; why would you wish to tinker with the script? Maybe the movie moguls are afraid our attention span isn’t long enough. Perhaps Sean Connery recognised that the Salzman and Broccoli creation was limiting him, and he moved on, only looking back over his shoulder once. But you might argue that he carried on playing Bond, as Bond might have been in his later years. He ended up an elder statesman of machismo, intimidating younger male leads like Kevin Costner (“He puts one of your men in the hospital, you put one of his men in the morgue. That’s how you get Capone!”) …and Nicolas Cage (“Do your best? Losers do their best! Winners **** the Prom Queen!”)
To the current zeitgeist, certain aspects of the Bondian world view have become untenable. Didn’t Judy Dench’s M call Bond a dinosaur? As a child, I was rather obsessed with Bond novels. I have a vivid recollection of summer 1964, walking from the garden into the kitchen of a house in Midhurst, to hear on the radio that Ian Fleming had died. He was 56. Bond had, essentially, killed him, or at least the 100 pack-year habit of the Morlands specials, with the characteristic three gold bands of the RN. Looking back, I don’t think Bond was a very good choice of role model. It’s not so much the cigarettes and whisky and wild wild women that I regret; it’s the fact that Bond was a loner. Early on in life, I came to believe I was living in an inimical carnivorous world, and I would need to survive through my own wits. It would never have occurred to me to seek out a mentor and say, “I’m struggling with such-and-such. I can’t see a way through. Can you help me?” It never occurred to me that I really didn’t need to do it all on my own.
But that is what makes Connery so remarkable. He never belonged to any old boy network. Big Tam the milkman never went to Eton. My father caught sight of him on one of the Scottish links courses and remarked that, while his fellow golfers seemed each to have their entourage, he was alone, carrying his own clubs.
So tomorrow I will raise a glass to Sir Sean. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet.
Shaken, not stirred.