Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond

Sky/BBC America

I must confess, as someone who has grown up with the James Bond films, I was quite excited for BBC America’s four-part miniseries, Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond. While I knew Fleming had used some of his experiences in Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division to inform his spy stories, I wasn’t entirely sure how much was true. Though the show does go a long way in illustrating how fact informed fiction, I also found myself trying to separate the two.

Take the name of Fleming’s fictional 007, for instance. According to the show, Fleming came up with it by combining the first and last names of two boys he went to school with, James Akin and Harry Bond. While he was originally going to go with Harry Akin, it was his brother Peter – a successful author – who thought Bond was better. It seems like a perfectly plausible story, especially since the show purportedly tells the tale of Ian Fleming, but that’s not how it really happened.

According to Fleming himself, he took the name from American ornithologist James Bond, who wrote the Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies. And while the name “Bond” has become synonymous the world over for intrigue, masculinity, and sex appeal, Fleming chose it because it he thought it was fairly dull. True, the show does give a slight nod to this history, by having a copy of Bond’s book on the table where its Fleming is writing Casino Royale, but it’s something only dedicated Fleming observers would really pick up on. I know I sure didn’t get it at first.

Though altering the origin story of the world’s most famous spy seems odd to me, the show does end with the usual “Based on a true story. Some names, places and incidents are fictitious and have been changed for dramatic effect” disclaimer. I get it, but having presented itself up to that point as the story of the man behind Bond, it suddenly made me wonder what was really true and what wasn’t.

What do seem to be indisputable facts, however, are Fleming’s complicated relationships with the women in his life. To say that he had a tense relationship with his mother is quite an understatement. And then there is his tumultuous love affair with one Lady Ann O’Neill (based on the real-life Ann Charteris), who he would go on to marry.

The show’s homepage describes their relationship as “unconventional,” but frankly, it seems like masochistic is a better word for it. All I know is that there was a lot of hitting, with hands and with belts, and they both seemed to like it. But while I certainly wasn’t prepared for that (I thought everything was all prim and proper in the 1940s!), it was instructive in its own way.

For many people, Sean Connery’s portrayal of 007 reigns supreme, but he was always too rough around the edges for me. He was a bit of a brute, and there were many a scene where he smacked a woman around. I had simply thought that was tied to the timing of the films, being set in the early 1960s, but I guess it came more from Fleming’s personality instead.

Ultimately, that’s where the miniseries really excels. For in humanizing Fleming, it also humanizes Bond. Though I’m still not entirely sure how much of its Fleming tale is true, you could certainly see where the inspirations for M, Q, Moneypenny, and even the Bond girl came from. While Fleming’s tale may be a little more dark and angsty than that of his brooding secret agent, both are spies who loved, and lost, and died another day.

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