Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed (Excerpts)
Film director Terence Young called it ‘The Right Year’.
The director of Dr. No was referring to the timing of the first Bond film, which introduced Sean Connery as arguably the best cinematic 007. Shooting had begun in January 1962 but, five years on, Terence Young was still talking about the release of the film, which premiered on 5 October. It was, he said, ‘the most perfectly timed film ever made . . . I think we arrived [in] not only the right year, but the right week of the right month of the right year.’
It was certainly an eventful year. It had seen regular, almost monthly, nuclear tests carried out by both the USA and the USSR; an iconic Cold War ‘spy swap’ as Gary Powers was exchanged for Rudolf Abel; American astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter orbiting the Earth; the first – but not the last – American military mission entered Viet Nam and there were also shooting wars on the Chinese/Indian border, in Indonesia and in Algeria; the first nuclear-warhead missiles were fired from a Polaris submarine; the Telstar communications satellite was launched (and became the inspiration for a hit record); and Nelson Mandela was arrested by the South African police.
For Britain, the year began with the Beatles failing an audition for a major record label, but ended with their first hit single Love Me Do; had seen the launch of a new family car, the Ford Cortina which retailed at £573; the debuts on television of both a gritty new police series called Z-Cars and Roger Moore as The Saint; an irreverent and controversial programme, That Was the Week That Was, becoming the standard bearer for the growing trend of satire and the debunking of ‘the Establishment’ following on from the launch of Private Eye in late 1961; independence had been granted to Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uganda; the Sunday Times had launched the first newspaper colour magazine (containing the James Bond story The Living Daylights); Embassy cigarettes and cheese-and-onion flavour crisps appeared in the shops; and the year closed with the announcement that Britain and France were to co-operate on the building of a supersonic aircraft called a Concorde, and the release, in time for the next Oscars, of David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia.
A busy year all round, but it was, as Terence Young identified, October which was the crucial month – in so many ways. It was the month when the Cold War seemed likely to turn white hot, once American President John F. Kennedy, on 16 October, was informed that Russian ballistic missiles were being deployed on Cuba, some 90 miles from the Florida coastline. Kennedy imposed a US naval blockade of Cuba and the world watched the first televised diplomatic eyeball-to-eyeball stand-off between two superpowers with bated breath, waiting to see who would blink first.
World peace at stake, spies and secret agents (one assumed) working overtime, malevolent foreigners with their fingers on space-age weapons, mysterious tropical islands in the Caribbean . . . who could believe such an outlandish scenario? Well, anyone who had seen Dr. No, actually.
Ian Fleming’s sixth Bond novel, published in 1958, was the first to make it into the cinema, following the protracted legal disputes which surrounded Thunderball, the originally proposed vehicle for Bond’s big screen debut. Dr. No the novel had caused quite a stir on publication, attracting mixed reviews– Anthony Price in the Oxford Mail feeling that as a villain Dr No belonged to the era of Bulldog Drummond, although Fu Manchu might have been more accurate – and a vitriolic attack by Paul Johnson in the New Statesman under the title ‘Sex, Snobbery and Sadism’ which is still quoted to this day.
The film, with its modest-budget production (an estimated $1.1 million) compared to the epic Lawrence of Arabia ($15 million), was more favourably received by the critics. In the Sunday Times Dilys Powell wrote that ‘it has the air of knowing exactly what it is up to . . . all good and, I am glad to say, not quite clean fun’ and Variety thought it ‘an entertaining piece of tongue-in-cheek action hokum. Sean Connery excellently puts over a cool, fearless, on-the-ball, fictional Secret Service guy.’ When it was released in America the following May, the New York Times said that ‘this playful British film’ was not designed ‘to be taken seriously as realistic fiction or even art, any more than the works of Mr Fleming are to be taken as long-haired literature. It is strictly a tinseled action-thriller, spiked with a mystery of a sort. And, if you are clever, you will see it as a spoof of science-fiction and sex.’
It was certainly enough of a hit with the cinema-going public for studio United Artists to give the go-ahead, with double the budget, to producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman for a second Bond film, From Russia with Love. After several false starts, not to mention litigation, it seemed that Ian Fleming’s dream of a long-running series of Bond films was finally coming to pass, and it was a dream shared by producer Saltzman.
If Bond on the screen was off to a flying start, Bond on the page was taking something of a rare stumble. After the success of Thunderball (which was still to appear in paperback with its iconic ‘bullet holes’ cover), the new Bond novel for 1962 was The Spy Who Loved Me. Even the author, in a letter to a close friend, said ‘the new Bond is very odd’, written as it was in the first person from the point of view of a young woman who has to be rescued from brutal gangsters (‘straight from central casting’ as one critic said) in the Canadian back- woods by the late-entry into the story of James Bond. Vivienne Michel – the ‘Me’ of the title – is, of course, suitably grateful. Perhaps, through Fleming’s eyes, far too ‘grateful’ for when Miss Michel finally succumbs to Bond’s charms, ‘she’ writes:
‘All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful.’
That passage alone caused a stir among publishers, readers, and critics at the time – it still does. The book was not accepted as the noble experiment Fleming had envisaged, with one British magazine editor calling it ‘one of the worst, most boring, badly constructed novels we have read . . . the nastiest and most sadistic writing of our day’ and Fleming’s American publisher Viking complained, rather delicately, that it was ‘not quite top- grade Fleming’. Advance orders for the hardback were disappointing by Bond standards – 28,000 as opposed to 33,000 for the previous year’s Thunderball, despite Fleming having taken considerable trouble and expense over the design of the dust- jacket, painted by Richard Chopping. Readers too were not slow in showing their disappointment, writing to Fleming personally and their disapproval struck home. Fleming is said to have told his British publishers to abandon the schedule for the customary, if not by now automatic reprinting, and to cancel any plans for a paperback edition, hoping, presumably, that this radical departure from the Bond formula would soon be forgotten. (Although the publication of cheaper, hard-cover book club editions did go ahead.)
This was a quite remarkable request for any author to make, then or indeed now and even more remarkably, his publisher seemed to go along with it, at least for a while, as the paperback edition of The Spy Who Loved Me did not appear until two years after Fleming’s death. Bond was, however, to bounce back with increased vigour in the following year with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and remarkable paperback sales generated by the blossoming film franchise.
In April 1962, Fleming wrote to his publishers, Michael Joseph, noting ruefully: ‘I had become increasingly surprised to find that my thrillers, which were designed for an adult audience, were being read in the schools.’
He was certainly right about that. Paperback editions of Bond books were in common, if covert, circulation in schools in the early Sixties, especially among teenage boys. So too were copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Fanny Hill and, also published in 1962, The Passion Flower Hotel, the naughty rather than erotic novel by ‘Rosalind Erskine’ which was said to be equally popular among teenage girls.
Ian Fleming’s 1962 addition to the Bond canon may have fallen short of expectations – even his – but thriller fans were certainly not short of reading material that year. In fact, 1962 was certainly the ‘right’ year for a number of debutant thriller writers waiting (and writing) in the wings, and it was an outstanding year for several of the old masters. Hammond Innes, Francis Clifford, Desmond Cory and Victor Canning all had new novels out. Eric Ambler published possibly his most popular book (quickly made into a very popular film) and Alistair MacLean went one better than all of them to produce two outstanding thrillers, though only one was by Alistair MacLean. . .
Most authors, even highly successful ones, perhaps especially highly successful ones, have a love–hate relationship with their publisher. Becoming a published author can turn the most respectable, sane, mild-mannered human being into a paranoid egomaniac convinced that their books are not being printed in sufficient quantities, are inadequately promoted, and are marketed with dust-jackets or covers which a five-year- old with a set of crayons could have bettered. The publisher has to put up with the tantrums and unreasonable demands of this beast in author form, always conscious of the need to balance the books (for publishing is, after all, a business) whilst tip-toeing through the minefield of not offending the goose that lays the golden egg by having to suggest corrections to the goose’s plotting, characterisation and use of grammar.
By 1961, Alistair MacLean was the author of six international bestsellers, one of which, The Guns of Navarone, had earned him the title ‘successor to John Buchan’ and the enormously successful film version of it was to be released that year (as was the spy thriller The Secret Ways, based on his novel The Last Frontier). As a writer, MacLean had switched from a third- person to first-person narratives with his most recent thrillers, Night Without End and Fear Is the Key, and moved away from the World War II settings which had made his name.
Readers appear to have accepted, even approved of this seemingly smooth transition. In less than six years, Alistair MacLean had become a household name. Apart from huge sales in hardback and book club editions, his novels were now regularly appearing, and being rapidly reprinted, as Fontana paperbacks and he was establishing a reputation as a hot property in the movie business (the film rights to both HMS Ulysses and South by Java Head having been snapped up, though neither made the big screen). The ‘unknown Glasgow school- teacher’ as he had been described in 1955, was now living in tax exile in Switzerland and the 1939 Hillman he had once driven had been replaced by the latest Mercedes.
But MacLean the writer was not a happy man. Whatever the root cause of his discomfort – and there have been many theories, from a dour Calvinist morality to his inability to take editorial criticism – relations with his London publisher, Collins, were fraught. He became convinced that ‘Alistair MacLean’ had become a brand name and that Collins felt it was his name which was selling the books, rather than the power of his stories or (a sensitive matter for all authors) the quality of his writing. The solution, to him, seemed obvious: change his name and prove to the doubters at Collins that he could write successful books without the weight of the ‘Alistair MacLean’ brand around his shoulders.
It was a response which must have seemed insane to any budding thriller writer who would have cheerfully swapped their precious Adler portable typewriters for ten percent of MacLean’s sales, and it certainly shocked Collins when they learned that one of their biggest assets had ‘gone rogue’, hired an agent, and was writing thrillers under the name ‘Ian Stuart’.
The dismay at Collins must have deepened when the editorial department received an early draft of the first ‘Stuart’ novel The Dark Crusader, and MacLean’s friend and mentor at the firm, Ian Chapman, had to pass on the publisher’s concerns about, as they saw it, the book’s complicated plot, flimsy characterisation, improbable action scenes and erratic pacing. According to his biographer, Jack Webster, MacLean’s rather churlish reaction to this criticism was: ‘Why then, in heaven’s name, do Collins want to publish this rubbish?’ And there then followed the thinly-veiled threat that perhaps another publisher could be found who would treat his manuscript ‘with a less biased and jaundiced eye’. . .
However it was done, feathers were unruffled and egos were soothed and Collins did publish The Dark Crusader by Ian Stuart in late 1961, its jacket blurb declaring that the author was ‘A new name among adventure novelists’ and that the book was ‘a thriller of unusual speed and excitement’.
There was even a rather cheeky piece of advertising copy drawn up by Collins which announced: ‘There’s a new name in thriller writing – with that genuine Alistair MacLean magic’. One suspects, given his sensitivity at the editorial concerns over the first draft, that MacLean allowed himself a wry smile at the publisher’s attempts at promotion. The back of the jacket, usually reserved for glowing reviews of the author’s previous work, however, was given over to advertising another Collins title, Shipmaster by Gwyn Griffin, a sea-faring novel set aboard a troubled passenger liner with a mutinous crew. MacLean’s reaction to such promotion for a rival author is not recorded.
If sales of the first ‘Ian Stuart’ did not match those of an ‘Alistair MacLean’ thriller, well, that was surely to be expected. MacLean was an established brand – whether the author himself liked it or not – with two films of his books, both with established Hollywood stars, in the pipeline. And whatever the reservations of the editors at Collins, the newspaper reviewers, especially those who knew a thing or two about the genre, welcomed that first outing for ‘Ian Stuart’, though curiously, none seemed tempted to compare the new thriller writer – as many later reviewers would do almost automatically with any promising debutant – to Alistair MacLean.
Julian Symons, writing in the Sunday Times, thought it a ‘high-spirited adventure in which cleverly-prepared surprises follow one another like explosions in a high-grade firework’. Maurice Richardson in The Observer called it an ‘exciting secret service thriller [with] lots of unconventional twists’ and in the Oxford Mail, Anthony Price rated it ‘A fierce whodunit in the Ian Fleming tradition set on a rocket-proving island in the Pacific. Moves at jet pace . . . Watch Mr Stuart.’
In 1962, no-one was watching Mr Stuart’s progress more closely than his publisher as he had already delivered a new book for publication – as had his alter ego Alistair MacLean! Collins need not have worried unduly as Ian Stuart’s The Satan Bug and MacLean’s The Golden Rendezvous were both excellent thrillers. MacLean seemed to have proved whatever point he was trying to make and his ghost identity was laid to rest. There were no further Stuart books, although Collins did continue to publish hardback editions of The Satan Bug – and The Dark Crusader – as by Ian Stuart certainly up to 1969. From now on he would write only under the MacLean name and – though he would probably only have owned up to it through gritted teeth – the MacLean ‘brand’.