007 at the Barbican: a triumph of substance over style

SEAN CONNERY RELAXES ON THE BUMPER OF HIS ASTON MARTIN DB5 DURING THE FILMING OF LOCATION SCENES FOR ‘GOLDFINGER’ IN THE SWISS ALPS. COPYRIGHT NOTICE – © 1964 DANJAQ, LLC AND UNITED ARTISTS CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

A long time ago, David Ogilvy, the world’s most famous advertising man until Don Draper came along, said that a good ad campaign should last at least 20 years, past the point when people who commissioned it find it tiresome. Well, James Bond as a film character is 50 this year, and his ongoing run, more than double Ogilvy’s threshold, is the most enduring franchise in cinema history – a successful campaign if ever there was one.

To celebrate this half-century milestone, the Barbican in London put on Designing 007: 50 years of Bond style. I love Bond, but didn’t much like this exhibition, and gave it a negative review in The Wall Street Journal. There were some good reasons for my dislike; one of the not-quite-as-good reasons, a more personal one, was that the exhibition hardly mentioned Bond’s travel, whereas I feel that these settings are part of the design of the films. I opined:

Fleming painstakingly chose evocative locales where things could happen to James Bond that wouldn’t happen in real life. In his nonfiction travel book “Thrilling Cities” (1963), billed on the dust jacket as “a Baedeker as exotic as any of his adventure novels,” Fleming goes deeper: “All my life,” he writes, “I have enjoyed the frisson of leaving the wide, well-lit streets and venturing up back alleys in search of the hidden, authentic pulse of towns, and looking at people and places and things through a thriller-writer’s eyes.” There is scant evidence that the planners of this exhibition shared any of the writer’s curiosity.

Ultimately, one wonders what Fleming would have made of his character’s silver-screen success. The author died in 1964, so 48 of the 50 years this exhibition covers would come as news to him. For one, I imagine he’d be perplexed by what big and serious business Bond has become. After all, as the exhibition notes in a footnote adjacent to a wall containing the original books, Mr. Fleming spent only eight weeks writing each Bond novel. Doubtless nowadays it takes twice that just to negotiate which wristwatch Daniel Craig will wear in Scene 38.

A new Bond film, opening in the U.S. on November 9th (and earlier in Britain),  will be number 23 – or number 24, if you count 1983’s Never Say Never Again, which you should since it starred Sean Connery and Kim Basinger and followed Thunderball’s plotline. It is only because it was not produced by Eon Productions, who’ve done the rest of the lot, that it’s omitted from the canon.

Read my review here.

Two Vimeo-hosted videos about the exhibition, which the press packet directed me to and which I enjoyed rather more than the exhibition:

 

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