Roger Moore: ‘the other fellow’ but always my James Bond

James Bond is dead. Long live James Bond.

Sir Roger Moore passed away in Switzerland yesterday, after a battle with cancer. He was 89.

He had a powerful weapon, did Roger Moore. Even his name seems to suggest that. But his weapon was old school gentlemanly charm, the kind that seems to have been jetisoned long ago, belonging to a bygone age that barely seems imaginable now.

Best known as the longest running James Bond in the longest running movie franchise of all time, Roger was the oldest actor to assume the role and, thus, the first of the clan to die. He considered himself to be only the fourth best actor to have played Ian Fleming’s secret service agent on screen: in his estimation, he came in behind Daniel Craig (whom he called “the Bond”), Sean Connery and, somewhat shockingly, the one-timer with no previous acting experience George Lazenby.

Though he was rarely regarded as the best or most definitive 007 by aficionados, his inimitable humour and panache made him many viewers’ favourite. And if anyone typified the quintessential English gentleman, a role he played with effortless ease both on and off screen, it was Roger Moore.

Grey, drab, post-war Bletchley. Just down the road from the home of the WW2 Codebreakers who tried to outwit enemy agents just like 007

I don’t have many recollections of going to ‘the pictures’ in Britain in the 1970s. This was the era of living on the breadline and endless trouble and strikes, after all. But I know my earliest movie memory is my mother taking me to The Studio in Bletchley to Disney’s original The Jungle Book in 1974, followed by Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther Strikes Again a couple of years later.

On the small screen, I can also vividly recall a television news report on the London royal premiere of The Spy Who Loved Me in the summer of 1977 being a big deal. Being English born and bred, James Bond was a national hero that always loomed large. Slotted in among depressing national woes such as crap car maker British Leyland and embarrassing bailouts from the IMF.

The commentator assured viewers there was still “plenty of tongue-in-cheek humour” as the footage cut to the impossibly glamorous Roger Moore and Barbara Bach driving out of the sea in that salty and sleek Lotus Esprit, and Moore winding down the window (not by hand of course, not in the car of ‘the future’) to drop an erroneous fish on the beach. Roger that:

“We did have a little discussion about that. ‘How the hell,’ Cubby [Broccoli, legendary Bond producer] said, ‘can you be dropping a fish when the car is waterproof?’ I said, ‘Cubby, it’s a movie’.”

For me it’s a defining moment for Roger’s reign because it combines action and humour. Audiences were so thrilled by what they had seen: the car drives off the end of a pier and turns into a submarine, and he tops it off with the most fantastic joke, delivering it with perfect timing.

It’s the kind of scene that would leave an indelible impression on any eight year-old boy, and I have a vague memory of asking – nay, haranguing – my parents into taking me to see it. I consider myself blessed by the timing. The Spy Who Loved Me was not only the best Bond movie Moore ever made (an opinion he shared, by the way), it was also — thanks to the beautiful Bach and the steel-toothed giant Jaws — one of the best films in the entire series.

Like anyone who grew up in the ’70s, Moore was the first Bond I knew, a vital, rare English international movie star. And as with the also long-running multi-morphing Doctor Who, you always have a sentimental attachment to your first. He was always my Bond.

I’d later catch up with the older titles on TV, even though back then films were only allowed to be screened on UK television a full five years after their cinematic release. So I would’ve certainly been too young to have seen his first two outings as 007 – the voodoo blaxploitation romp of Live And Let Die (1973) and the Chew-Mee senseless one about The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) and his third nipple – a superfluous papilla – until the late Seventies.

And I certainly wouldn’t have been aware of that Sean Connery fellow until much, much later. For years I felt the Scotsman’s films just didn’t compare. They just seemed like smudgy Xeroxes of the Bond I’d first seen in the theatre. And where was the fun? Sure, Connery was more dangerous, rougher around the edges, deadlier with a Walther PPK. But Moore was lethal from 10 paces, armed with nothing more than a cocked eyebrow and a saucy bon mot. And if there was some sort of sexual double entendre in that bon mot, well, all the better for a boy just turned eight.

Even better, while Connery was a golf loving tax exile in Marbella, during the filming of his first three outings as 007 Moore lived in the same county as us, 40 miles away at the southern end of Buckinghamshire near to Denham and, conveniently, Bond and Moore’s working home, Pinewood Studios. Bucks boys stick together. It had to be.

The last person to know how good Roger Moore was, was often Roger Moore himself. A serial mocker of his own talents, the only child from Stockwell was a rare British breed – the big screen loved him, and he instinctively knew how to tease and work the camera and the audiences behind it.

My earliest memory of him isn’t playing 007, though, but the debonair Aston Martin-driving nobleman Lord Brett Sinclair to Tony Curtis’ New York City bad boy in ITV’s action/adventure/comedy series The Persuaders! It was essentially Lew Grade’s contrived attempt to remake The Saint with an American foil for the US market, but it worked. Except in America, ironically.

The Saint had been the long-running TV spy thriller series that made Moore a household name in the 1960s, of course. The character of Simon Templar was essentially a Robin Hood type who stole from criminals… but kept the loot, often in hilarious circumstances.

Moore was reportedly offered the role of 007 twice during the run of the series, but had to turn it down both times due to his television commitments. In one early episode of the The Saint (titled Luella), another character even mistakes Templar for the MI6 operative.

Furthermore, in 1964, Moore had even made a guest appearance as Bond in the comedy series, Mainly Millicent. It’s an interesting curio, let’s put it that way.

After the Australian model George Lazenby was cast in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Sean Connery grudgingly played 007 again in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Moore did not consider the possibility that the role was up for grabs until it was certain that Connery had hung up his Walther PPK for good. Though in his 2008 book My Word Is My Bond, Moore also tells a story that probably got the legions of Connery purists shaken and stirred too. Namely, that he was considered for the role of 007 in 1962’s Dr. No before Connery was tapped. “That’s what they told me, at least,” he says. “They also said I was Ian Fleming’s first choice. But Ian Fleming didn’t know me from shit. He wanted Cary Grant or David Niven.”

Whatever the chronology, in a dazzling and dashing (Tiffany) case of third time lucky, in August 1972 Eon offered the actor an initial three-picture deal to play the celebrated secret agent, despite being Sean’s senior by three years, something which would later bite him on the bum when playing the character well into his late fifties.

Moore knew it wouldn’t be easy to make fans forget about Connery, so he felt he had to put his own stamp on the character. “I tried to find out what Bond was all about,” he told Entertainment Weekly, “but you can’t tell much from the books. There’s the line that says ‘He didn’t take pleasure in killing, but took pride in doing it well.’ So that’s what I did. But the other side of me was saying, This is a famous spy — everyone knows his name, and every bartender in the world knows he likes martinis shaken, not stirred. Come on, it’s all a big joke! So most of the time I played it tongue-in-cheek.”

This is how Moore’s 007 was introduced on the big screen. Hmmm, that street looks kinda familiar 

From the beginning, wilfully misunderstanding blaxploitation cliches, to the end, unfeasibly in bed with Grace Jones, no moment passes when Moore’s delight in his sheer, ridiculous good fortune doesn’t shine through. In contrast, Connery, Craig and Dalton explore the seriousness of Bond, the casual brutality and sexual sadism of Fleming. And that’s absolutely fine. But taking 007 seriously? Ultimately? Why?

Moore’s Bond knows Bond is silly, and every wince-making pun and excruciating slap of a female bottom underlines his practically existential message. With a nod to Woody Allen, it is the tao of Roger Moore: life is full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. It’s ridiculous – so enjoy it while you can.

Sir Rog, it turns out, is wise.

It’s often been said that Roger was playing The Saint in the Bond films, and there is a modicum of truth in that. His 007 was very different from the version created by Ian Fleming, the manic depressive creator who had cautioned the character partly based on a more exotic version of himself should not appear particularly likeable or endear himself too much to film audiences.

That template was jettisoned under Moore’s reign, and screenwriters provided scenarios in which he was cast as a seasoned, sophisticated playboy who would always have a trick or gadget up his sleeve when he needed it. Or a witty one liner, of which the actor himself said

“My personality is different from previous Bonds. I’m not that cold-blooded killer type. Which is why I play it mostly for laughs. I always say Sean was a killer, I was a lover.”

Sandor was played in The Spy Who Loved Me by Milton Reid, whose widow Bertha was our neighbour in the 1980s… in the similarly monikered Milton Keynes (don’t laugh)

Moore had the good luck to play Bond during the last gasp of the Cold War. Often the plots were needlessly byzantine and downright absurd (the outer-space love story involving Jaws in Moonraker comes to mind), but most of Moore’s Bond flicks were catnip to boys who had yet to discover wanking.

In Live And Let Die, he got entangled in Caribbean voodoo. In The Man With The Golden Gun, the villain (Christopher Lee, probably the best thing about the entire film) had a superfluous nipple. And in the under-appreciated For Your Eyes Only, he was chased down the Italian Alps by Aryans on motorcycles — Aryans on motorcycles! Cheese, yes. But served up with just the right amount of ham, thanks to dear old Rog.

Lest we forget, this was designed to serve the contemporary taste of the time, though the time when Bond became camp and silly had actually started with Connery’s parodic portrayal of 007 in Diamonds Are Forever two years earlier.

Remember the hands?

Sixties: suspense, Seventies: flamboyance, eighties: superannuation.

This is why, humorous quips or not, Roger Moore is the most English James Bond we ever had: he isn’t some shiny hall-of-mirrors distortion of the truth, crafted purely to exist in an aesthetic limbo between straight-faced stunts and high-gloss magazine covers. He’s a strange and creaky figure, fully characterised as a rampant rabbit with some sex appeal (though not as much as he thinks he has) but with a discrepant level of foolish camp – he is closer in self-deceiving persona to Britcom telly legends from Captain Mainwaring to Hyacinth Bucket. He is, in short, the most genuine Bond in terms of simple Britishness.

Daniel Craig’s 007 is not a lovable character but a big iron figurehead that’s occasionally there for us, frowning down (lip forever curled) from Odeon facades like an incongruously sensible personification of the new HD City of London, telling us that hulking metro-masculinity is just a shined shoe away. He isn’t Bond anymore; he’s the machine.

Moore, in contrast, is a slightly smarmy uncle, a faintly ridiculous figure of fun we’re invited to laugh with and at simultaneously. When his films do “cool”, it still seems surreal. He’s a fine spy, to be sure, but as his series wears on it becomes clear that his skills were never in being an action man but in his disarming knack for stilted smalltalk, like an over-confident office manager flirting across the M&S till.

As the actor ages into the ’80s (the chronological 1980s that is, not his 80s), his famous libido becomes leerier and leerier – the archetypal English creep. Yet the sardonic charm remains. He is confident. He really has something, largely because he thinks he has something. Actually, he’s probably had too many vodka martinis.

In short, Roger Moore’s quinquagenarian Bond may as well have been played by Peter Stringfellow.

Interestingly, Roger Moore hated explosions and was also terrified of guns, which explains why he looks far happier as a kind of Casanova lothario than the ruthless blunt instrument beloved of Bond aficionados.

Ever since a rifle exploded in his hands during his British National Service, causing him temporary deafness, Moore suffered involuntary blinking when handling weapons. Though he later learned to beat his phobia: “I used an old Gary Cooper trick,” he later admitted, “which was to clench my eyes.”

Even so, it must have been a slight pain in the backside for the series producers, Eon Productions.

Courtesy of Eon Productions

Talking of delicate derrières, a painful incident while filming of The Spy Who Loved Me hardly helped matters. In the scene the villain Carl Stromberg, played by Curt Jurgens, has a gun aimed at 007’s crotch under the longest table you’ve ever seen.

Jurgens fires a blank and at a certain time the special-effects man was to make the explosion. But he mistimed it and it finished up with Moore running around the set with his trousers alight. “I was seriously on fire and it was terrible pain, recounted Rog. “I had to go to the sister every day and have Vaseline dressings applied on my rear end.”

Great for bottoms: a tub of Vaseline like the one Roger Moore wouId have used.

Like it or loathe it, but one of the essential reasons we have still have 007 is because of Roger Moore. His Live and Let Die debut successfully weathered the third change of Bond in as many films. He soon steered the spy’s box-office fortunes from the blunt era of Mean Streets and Easy Rider through the impact of Star Wars and into the Reaganite likes of Raiders, ET and Ghostbusters. That wasn’t just a mark of the Bond brand’s durability. That was a bit of Moore himself. His Bond was one of a kind diplomacy tinged with cruel vengeance and a concern at the world around him that echoed his real-life charity roles.

Not that he starred in wall-to-wall classics, of course. The silly The Man With The Golden Gun and Moonraker put paid paid to that. Moore’s natural starchiness was augmented beautifully by a series of escalating cartoon romps that hovered dangerously close to resembling Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. By the time the actor’s double-0-swansong climaxed with a battle on a blimp – a blimp! – it was perfectly clear that no subsequent Bond would ever be so relateable, so eager to please.

Roger’s track record didn’t have the fleeting completeness of a Lazenby or Dalton, and his batting average will always remain far below that of Connery and Brosnan as well as, currently, Craig. But with seven movies in the barrel of his Bond pistol, Moore was the longest serving 007 in terms of number of films for Eon. Of course, the diehard detractors took aim at him for not being Sean Connery. Yet us ’70s-raised kids didn’t know any different. Connery was merely our Step-Bond.

Talking of the Scotsman, without a doubt 1983 was the strangest year in the long history of the 007 franchise. Released during the peak summer blockbuster season, the suggestively portmanteau’d eight legged feline known as Octopussy was also the thirteenth entry in the long running series.

But eyebrows were raised (not Moore’s, for a change) when a second Bond film hit cinemas later that same year – Never Say Never Again, an independent unofficial production which featured Sean Connery making a long-awaited, albeit spiteful return to his most famous role.

Most fans probably didn’t even stop to ask how this strange set of circumstances came about; they simply rejoiced at being able to see their fearless hero on the big screen twice in the same year. As it turned out, this Battle of the Bonds was the end result of a bizarre series of court battles and behind-the-scenes drama that had lasted for nearly a quarter century, until 2015’s Spectre, in fact.

Connery’s relationship with Eon’s founders, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, had been decidedly rocky throughout his years as Bond, so one had to wonder if his agreeing to take part in a competing production was his not entirely subtle way of thumbing his nose at his old bosses. Having been too young to appreciate the original Connery films I said No to this strange alternate-universe version of 007, but I do remember going to stay with my aunt Julia in that bastion of English middle-class suburbia, Tunbridge Wells, in the summer holidays, and catching Octopussy at the local Classic Cinema.

I didn’t know it at the time but it turns out that this was the former Ritz picture house where David Bowie’s parents had met just after the war, and freakily, at the time we were perusing Octopussy, the Broccolis were trying their damnedest to lure Dame David into playing the villain in their next instalment of the franchise.

Nefarious freak Max Zorin was written with David Bowie in mind, though Walken seemed not to mind

Julia’s German husband (the 6 foot 7 ‘Uncle Jürgen’ from Bremen) was a huge Bond fan* and they’d seen the movie once already, but as she told me “You probably need to watch it a couple of times to take it all in anyway.” It’s actually Julia’s birthday today, and for the past few months she’s has been battling cancer, so this is an exceptionally bittersweet experience writing this.

Octopussy was Bond-by-numbers campy fun, but in retrospect Moore was looking jaded and where he was a little thinner of thatch, he more than made up for being rather thicker round the waist. There was little resemblance to the lithe and handsome 007 of Live And Let Die a decade earlier.

Talking of which…

Perhaps Roger should have bowed out with 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, a far superior film than its successor and its predecessor; Moonraker, a preposterous 007-in-space Star Wars/Spielberg cash-in that cleaned up at the box office in 1979 (it’s Moore’s highest grossing movie) but is often referred to as Close Encounters Of The Turd Kind, at least round these parts. It might have been released on my tenth birthday but Moonraker ranks as probably the worst Bond film of all time. Well, until A View To A Kill.

Moore played Bond more times than any other actor. He took over a hugely popular franchise after its leading man walked and kept it humming for 12 more years. By rights of possession, he owns the part. Sean appeared in only six, if you exclude Never Say Never Again, though I doubt even he wants to include that one.

And despite being 53 in the same unofficial ‘bastard’ film, the Scotsman weighed in himself on Moore’s age, commenting rather uncharitably in 1985 that, “James Bond should be played by an actor 33-35 years old. I’m too old myself, but Roger is certainly too old.”

Needless to say these slightly disparaging comments did nothing to help the film’s press. Roger, of course, was rather more gracious:

“I don’t think there was any competition between Sean and I. We are friends. We’d meet occasionally and discuss how they had tried to kill us. We’d always believed that the producers tried to kill you, to get the insurance, and they’d get somebody that looked like you to finish off the scene.”

And as any apprentice-level 007 aficionado knows, there were also the blink-and-miss George Lazenby (one film), the placeholding charisma vacuum Timothy Dalton (two), and the so-suave-he-was-almost-bland Pierce Brosnan (four). Now, of course, we have Daniel Craig on his coat tails, who’s updated Bond into a sort of sadistic, knuckle-scraping Jason Bourne in a tux.

He’s serious, flawed, and, if you ask me, lacks class. Something you could never accuse Roger Moore of.

But Rog’s characterisation of the spy who we loved is damn near unassailable, and for years has remained the gold standard for Bond’s most inherent qualities. Other actors, including the role’s iconic Scotch originator, have all been products of retools that attempted to tinker with the iconographies.

Moore’s world was instead a sort of middle-ground where out-and-out reboots simply didn’t exist (these became more pronounced with the three subsequent versions) yet Bond-as-character, seven-plus films in, was worn out enough that some playfulness was necessary.

The knock on Rog has always been that he played the character too lightly. He was too arch. Too jokey. But that seems a bit rigid. Moore‘s Bond films grossed $1.2 billion worldwide. As far as I’m concerned, Moore is, was, and will always be Bond. It’s not a critical argument, just one from the heart.

Thus, it’s impossible not to feel a groundswell of affection for the man that was my Bond. Knighted by The Queen in 2003, but, tellingly, not for his acting but his charitable efforts, of which there were plenty.

Dramatic and sartorial achievements aside, it was his legacy as a humanitarian that Moore was proudest of. Only sporadically appearing on stage and screen after his Bond swansong, Moore was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 1991, having been drawn to the cause through his friendship with another charitably active actor. “My curiosity got the better of me after Audrey Hepburn introduced me to UNICEF,” he explained. “I wanted to find out more than just the facts and figures.”

The three knights: Sir Michael Caine, Sir Roger Moore, Sir Sean Connery (Dave Bennett/Getty)

And now those sands of time have taken our James Bond from us. To paraphrase Moore’s Bond nemesis Drax, this time has come “with the horrible inevitability of an unloved season”. I cannot help but hope Roger Moore has already strolled into a gargantuan hotel bar by the pearly gates – one designed by Ken Adam, orchestrated by John Barry, directed by Guy Hamilton and with all drinks on Cubby Broccoli.

Though considered by some (highly unfairly) to have been the worst 007, Sir Roger Moore was inarguably the best sort of human being. Forever a gent. Forever Bond. Forever Moore. His wit, style, savoir-faire and compassion will be sorely missed. A prince among men, then, even if, as Shirley Bassey would claim, he doesn’t have the range.

Roger Moore will not return. Sorry about that.

Steve Pafford

A View To A Thrill? Roger Moore, David Bowie, Grace Jones and the James Bond film that never was is here

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BONUS: *In the penultimate Brosnan Bond, 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, 007 is seen in the pre-credits sequence passing the last London home Julia and Jurgen shared, a riverside townhouse in Wapping, though they’d emigrated to the US a couple of years earlier.

BONUS 2: In 2010, I found myself at Pinewood Studios working on the Hollywood film X-Men: First Class. The James Bond 007 Stage is literally just a shell when it’s not being used (we had a peek), so here are a few of us having a game of rugby just outside it instead.

As you were…

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