James Bond at 60: Why Noël Coward said ‘No! No! No!’ to playing Dr. No

Bond. James Bond.

Sixty years ago today the public heard that immortal line for the very first time.

I could argue that the sixties began in the UK on Friday 5 October 1962. The first Beatles single (Love Me Do) and the first James Bond film (Dr. No) were both released to an unsuspecting world.

Today, the Bond machine is the one of the biggest film franchises in the world, but the first time super spy 007 appeared on the big screen, his creator Ian Fleming was paid just $1,000 for the screenplay. Since then, of course, Bond has become the most enduring movie character in cinema history, transcending and dumfounding movie critics who said he was “too British” for the movies to work. 

Being a Brit boy myself, I’ve been watching Bond films since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Apart from being an anachronistic upholding of the UK’s sclerotic class system, (“Keeping the British end up,“ one might say), as an adult it’s easy to have complicated feelings about the historical imperialism, colonialism, sexism, racism, and perpetual recycling of ideas, they remain a riotous form of entertainment that are still capable of immense box office receipts that often outperform more ‘contemporary’ titles.

If memory serves, I didn’t see Dr. No until some point in the 1980s, very probably on ITV, very likely on a damp and drizzly bank holiday of some sort. By then Roger Moore had been the owner of the Walther PPK for some time, having taken over the role from Sean Connery with 1973’s Live And Let Die.

Moore lived 40 miles from us at the other end of Buckinghamshire. Slightly closer to home, on the rural extremities of the town-turned-city we called MK, our village neighbours were the Reids — Milton and Bertha. 

Milton Reid of Milton Keynes was a British-Indian actor and wrestler, who played Sandor in arguably Moore’s best Bond, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. He was the squat bald-headed thug — diminutive henchman of main villain Karl Stromberg — who, after directing the spy to his next destination with one solitary word — “Pyramids!” — found himself on the receiving end of a memorably cold kill on Bond’s part (“What a helpful chap.”) 

This wasn’t Reid’s first time in a Bond film though. As well as being second choice to play Oddjob in Goldfinger, he had a minor uncredited role in Dr. No itself, as the meat-headed guard during the dinner table scene in the titular villain’s underwater lair.

On the subject of what ifs in Bond films, Ian Fleming wanted his cousin Christopher Lee to play the role of Dr. No. (Lee later appeared as Francisco Scaramanga in Moore’s sophomore story, 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun, and also played Dr. Fu Manchu — the character that inspired Fleming to create Dr. No — in several movies). 

Famously, Fleming also asked the playwright Noël Coward, to play the title role, though he didn’t receive the reception he’d hoped. Wildly different personalities and classes, the two were friends and neighbours in Jamaica — Fleming at his beloved Goldeneye and Coward at Firefly, his mountaintop idyll three miles down the road. Coward and his longtime companion, Graham Payn, had also been a witness at Fleming’s wedding to Ann Charteris a decade earlier, and he later became godfather to their son Caspar.

Coward had already read the novel upon its publication in 1958, and, adept at affecting a mock prudishness, sent a letter to its author:

“This is just to inform you that I have read Dr. No from cover to cover and thoroughly enjoyed every moment. But as the gentleman in Oklahoma! sings about Kansas City: “You’ve gone about as fur as you ken go.” I am willing to accept the centipede, the tarantulas, the land crabs, the giant squid. I am even willing to forgive your reckless use of invented verbs—“I inch, Thou inch, He snakes, I snake, We palp, They palp, etc. But what I will neither accept nor forgive is the highly inaccurate statement that when it is 11am in Jamaica, it is 6am in dear old England.

This, dear boy, not to put too fine a point on it, is a fucking lie. When it is 11am in Jamaica, it is 4pm in dear old England and it is carelessness of this kind that makes my eyes steel slits of blue. I was also slightly shocked by the lascivious announcement that Honeychile’s bottom was like a boy’s! 

I know that we are all becoming progressively more broadminded nowadays, but really old chap, what could you have been thinking of?”

Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli were adamant that the movie be directed by an Englishman, someone cultivated enough to understand the world of 007, and it’s easy to see why they might have been all for the exceptionally cultivated and classy Coward to assume the role of the first villain up against the hairy hetero-macho superspy.

Coward turned down the part on the eponymous film by responding with a telegram typical of this exceptionally witty man: “Dr. No? No! No! No!” Nevertheless, the louche, gay polymath still enjoyed being around the production, naturally taking a shine to the ruggedly muscular brute that was Sean Connery.

One of Coward’s objections was having to wear metal hands, and so the role went to Joseph Wiseman, a Canadian and — you’d never get away with it now — a caucasian to boot — plus, the only early Bond villain not to have his voice dubbed by another actor.

There is a remarkable stillness of poise about Wiseman’s indelible and impeccable performance as No that fascinates me even now, even if the film itself is solid yet lacking the excitement and signature tropes of the films that followed. 

Moreover I’ve yet to find anyone casual observer who thinks having Noël Coward play Dr. No would have been even a vaguely good idea. You’d get a similarly negative response if you ask many James Bond fans today to imagine Noël Coward in the role. Over to David Lowbridge-Ellis at the marvellous licencetoqueer.com

It’s also because most of us — and I include myself here, until very recently- have a very fixed idea of what kind of person Noël Coward was. But the bon vivant with an acid tongue was, in large part, a carefully-constructed public persona. Coward was, in actuality: a workaholic who earned his social position; a master of the arts; a philanthropist who helped to raise generations of orphaned children; an unflaggingly loyal friend and lover. And he was also a World War II spy who exaggerated his public persona as an effete (overtly coded but officially closeted) homosexual to avert the enemy’s suspicion.

In 1964, the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan reflected: “Even the youngest of us will know, in fifty years’ time, exactly what we mean by ‘a very Noël Coward sort of person’.” Now that more than fifty years has elapsed, it’s even harder to divorce the mental image that’s immediately conjured upon hearing a mention of Coward’s name from the actual truth of the man himself.

When Fleming asked Coward to play Dr. No, he had decades of experience cultivating this image of loucheness: to outward appearances, Coward spent most of his time sitting around swilling Martinis while attired in garishly-patterned dressing gowns. In reality, he rarely stopped working, turning his hand to almost all of the creative arts and triumphing at all of them. Queers often have to work harder to succeed in their industries, but Coward was extraordinarily driven. One of his most famous epigrams was “work is much more fun than fun”.

Coward more than earned his life of luxury. His lower-middle class upbringing was quite different to that of the upper class Fleming and yet the two became firm friends in Jamaica. Coward even nursed Fleming when he was ill towards the end of his life, although Ann — who was not a great an of Coward’s — snidely suggested it was just so he got to see her husband naked.

Despite Coward’s considerable body of work in almost every conceivable artistic medium, he’s best remembered for his verbal wit. Specifically: a gay man’s wit. It’s of course a stereotype that gay men are always ready with a perfectly timed put down. But Coward did more than most to embody the stereotype in popular consciousness. His only serious rival for the crown (or, if you’re feeling frivolous, tiara) is Oscar Wilde – and Wilde’s wit is far less serious.

Beneath the apparent inconsequentiality of many of Coward’s most famous sayings there’s a sense that he’s imparting something profound. In other words, perfect for a Bond villain whose verbal dexterity coats their deadly intent in a civilised veneer. I make no apologies for my own preference for Bond villains with a propensity for pontificating Bond to death: Elliot Carver, Hugo Drax and Charles Gray’s interpretation of Blofeld are three of my favourites. Some believe the latter character to be at least partly inspired by Coward, or even Fleming. And incidentally, Michael Lonsdale’s Hugo Drax is not averse to quoting from gay wits: 

“How would have Oscar Wilde have put it? ‘To lose one aircraft would be an accident. To lose two would seem like carelessness.’”

If Coward had been cast as No, would he have brought his off-screen image to the role or put it to one side? Earlier in his career, he had shown himself to be a credible actor, capable of turning up or down the ‘Noël Coward’ public persona audiences were familiar with. 

A few years before Dr. No, he appeared in Carol Reed’s film of the Graham Greene semi-comic spy thriller Our Man In Havana. His character, Hawthorne, is closer to what we associate with Coward’s offscreen life, although there are dark undercurrents to his character, coercing Alec Guinness’s vacuum cleaner salesman character into becoming an agent for Britain. There’s a fascinating scene early in the film where Coward recruits Guinness in a gentlemen’s lavatory, playing up the idea that they are cruising each other. This might have cut a little close to home for the bisexual Guinness whose career almost came to a premature end after he was arrested and charged for having sex with a man in a toilet in 1946.

The scene may have resonated with Coward as well, albeit for different reasons. Coward was a spy for the British government during the Second World War. When travelling abroad, he was encouraged to exaggerate his flamboyant image so no one would suspect his true intelligence-gathering intentions. While his homosexuality was well known to his close friends — which included the British Royal Family— he was more circumspect with his public. Even so, it was probably tacitly understood by most and the perceived-to-be-unmasculine harmlessness of homosexuals was exploited by British Intelligence. 

After the war, Coward himself said “Celebrity was wonderful cover… my disguise would be my own reputation…”. It’s not clear why it took so long for Sir Noël to be knighted. It finally happened in 1970, after Winston Churchill’s death. Some have suggested it was because the wartime Prime Minister personally disliked him, others that it was homophobia, or perhaps a combination of the two.

Coward’s final film appearance brings together many of his apparently contradictory qualities. As The Italian Job’s Mr Bridger, Coward is both urbane and intimidating. A perfect fit for the role, he even gets to act alongside his real-life partner Graham Payn, and was directed by Peter Collinson, one of the children who had been raised in the orphanage of which Coward was the devoted president.

Both sides of Coward – his public image and the reality – would have made him an interesting Dr. No. According to some sources, Coward was vehemently opposed to the role because he didn’t want to wear metal hands (although Joseph Wiseman didn’t do this either, just pretending to have metal hands). It’s likely he also felt a degree of nervousness about portraying a character who is partly Chinese, something which did not prevent Wiseman from taking the role. Licence to Queer reader Crarb says: “As an Asian I have really mixed opinions about the character and casting… It’s obvious he’s based on Fu Manchu and the archetypes created by said character… but unlike them he does not prey on the main character’s love interest… see Ming from Flash Gordon as an example.”

It’s hard to imagine someone less Fu Manchu-like than Noël Coward, who epitomises mid-20th Century stiff-upper-lipped Britishness in both appearance and manner. Although Coward had an active sex life, he kept it very much behind closed doors. He found his time in Jamaica particularly sexually liberating: his sketch books are full of depictions of the naked male form. Although homosexual acts had been illegal in Jamaica since the British colonial government made it so in 1864 (and still are to this day), the activities of wealthy expatriates were (and probably still are) overlooked.

Whether in Jamaica or at home, Coward never felt compelled to ‘come out’, even after England’s partial decriminalisation in 1967 and 1969’s Stonewall Riots igniting the gay civil rights movement. He reportedly told friends he had no plans to come out because “There are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don’t know.“ 

Perhaps it was Coward’s relatively private queerness which Fleming thought made him a good fit for Dr. No. If the Dr. No character has any sexual or romantic interest in anyone, he keeps it to himself. His peeking at Bond while he’s asleep allows us to extrapolate that he may be more into his own sex. But there are no witnesses. 

Or maybe Fleming was merely attempting to include him in his work, returning the ‘favour’ Coward had done him. In Coward’s only novel, 1960’s Pomp and Circumstance, he included a caricature of Fleming as an “unscrupulous, egocentric, perennial bachelor” who convinces the protagonist (a female stand-in for Coward himself) to have his new girlfriend — a married woman— to stay with her, to deflect suspicion of an affair. Fleming apparently didn’t mind being affectionately lampooned in Coward’s works. A few years before, Coward had depicted Fleming’s love life even more explicitly in his 1956 play Volcano. Unproduced in his lifetime (but staged more recently), the play might have made the real life counterparts of the lightly fictionalised protagonists squirm had it seen the light of day when they were alive.

So why didn’t he say Yes to playing Dr. No? Was it just a reluctance to act as if he had metal hands? Did he think that his acting range would not extend to playing an out-and-out villain, especially one who was a different race? By the time Dr. No was in production, Coward’s image was lodged in the public consciousness and he stood little chance of shifting it. Maybe he thought his typecasting would damage the film. Or maybe he was being charitable, realising that he was just too famous and his star persona would have stolen the limelight from the film’s emerging star, Sean Connery. This is certainly the view of TV and theatre writer Martin Sterling.

If you can get past picturing the imposing Joseph Wiseman in the role, I believe it is possible to see the quite wonderful Coward in his place, ensconced in his comfortable mink-lined surroundings one moment and diligently orchestrating geopolitical chaos in his control room the next. Some of the character’s best lines even sound just like the withering put downs Coward was famous for. When Dr. No chastises Bond for his choice of improvised weapon — “That’s a Dom Perignon ‘55. It would be a pity to break it.” — it’s not that much of stretch to imagine what would have happened if Coward had said ‘Yes’. 

Great villains don’t just appear from nowhere, and it takes a great deal of trial and error to bring them to life. Let’s just hope that future adversaries continue the tradition of explaining their dastardly plot to our hero, before leaving him in an overly-elaborate and easily-escapable death trap, right?

‘Yes’ in a ‘No’ kind of way then.

Steve Pafford

Liked it? Take a second to support Steve Pafford on Patreon!
Author avatar
Steve Pafford
We use cookies to give you the best experience.