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Michele Brittany – James Bond and Popular Culture review

Fictional British spy James Bond has been influencing popular culture since his creation in the 1950s, and not just in Britain but around the world. The new book, James Bond and Popular Culture, examines why over a series of thought-provoking essays casting a critical eye over the franchise from multifarious angles.

If anything, the title is a little misleading, since the bulk of the text discusses cultural phenomena that have been inspired by James Bond, rather than James Bond itself. There are, of course, two James Bond worlds: Ian Fleming’s novels and the movies upon which they are (often rather loosely) based. This book discusses both. Using fourteen chapters over five main sections (film, television, literature, lifestyle and reinterpretations) each individual essay, written by different scholars and Bond enthusiasts, seeks to shine a light on how James Bond has influenced the wider culture.

There is a diversity of subjects but editor Michele Brittany ensures a unity of style: the essays are written in scholarly fashion, with appropriate references and footnotes, and whilst this is a great resource for students, it’s accessible for lay readers. The downside is that most will find themselves lay readers of some description, and the book as a whole unit lacks universality. For example, the first section on film starts by examining the 1960s Japanese spy boom, followed by how the advent of the Bond movies created a whole new genre, or more accurately, filone, as spy films emerged in Italy in the 1960s. Film historians and film studies students will lap up these chapters, but later theses on the heroes of literature that followed in Bond’s wake may well leave them cold. Each section will drawn its own specialist audience, and it culminates in a section for gamers: examining the critical and commercial failure of the video game 007 Legends, which promised much yet pleased nobody.

We enjoyed the second section the most, which takes a look at the impact James Bond had in shaping television. Two chapters discuss the cult favourite American series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which paired the American Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) with, controversially given the Cold War and Soviet Communism, Russian Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). Cynthia W Walker contrasts the personability of Robert Vaughn, both as himself and on screen, against the cold remoteness of Sean Connery; whilst Thomas M Barrett’s piece looks at the enigmatic Russian U.N.C.L.E. agent, and examines the shaping of androgynous Illya Kuryakin.

Another vibrant chapter compares the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who (1970-74) to the James Bond film franchise, accurately noting that this was something the lead actor wished to bring to the part, having worked in espionage during WWII. As well as his pedigree on the service of Her Majesty, Pertwee was also obsessed by gadgets and vehicles, and he transformed the character of the Doctor into one that closely aligns with James Bond, even if his TV persona doesn’t share Bond’s immorality and vices. The author also accurately draws parallels to common story themes, such as nuclear power, making the interesting observation that the worlds of Bond and Doctor Who only used it as a backdrop, rather than as a threat. A recurring theme throughout the essays is that James Bond gives the impression that the UK is still a global superpower, instead of one whose influence is steadily but irreversibly diminishing, and the Doctor, a very British alien, fulfils that function too.

The second section is a major selling point of the book, as it draws parallels between the hugely popular James Bond world and the equally adored world of TV heroes. The third part on literature depends for its appeal on whether or not the reader is familiar with the book series under discussion. There’s a chapter on Matt Kindt’s Mind MGMT graphic novels, as well as a look at K A Laity’s female secret agent Chastity Flame.

James Bond and Popular Culture features an afterword by Bond-influenced musician Trevor Sewell and a foreword by James Bond in popular culture expert Robert G Weiner, who describes James Batman, a film readers may not be aware of but will almost certainly be intrigued to track down.

If the world of James Bond fascinates you, then James Bond and Popular Culture will certainly have sections to broaden your knowledge base and cultural awareness of the world’s most famous secret agent. We certainly recommend the book as useful research for anyone keen to take their understanding of the influence of Fleming’s creation to the next level.

Greg Jameson
Greg Jameson
Book editor, with an interest in cult TV.

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