Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming

SpymakerSynopsis: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming follows the exciting life of a dashing young Ian Fleming, the mastermind behind the highly successful James Bond books and movies. As a womanizer and a hopeless romantic Fleming got himself expelled from Eton and other prestigious public schools before his mother, fed up, sent to work for Reuters,the news bureau. Whilst covering a show-trial of British engineers in Soviet Moscow, Fleming pulled his first Bond-like escapade, almost losing his life in the process. This caught the interest of Britain’s dormant yet watchful military intelligence, later to become the highly acclaimed S.O.E. After Fleming’s recruitment into His Majesty’s Service, his exploits become increasingly fantastic. It is difficult to believe that this is not fiction! The Secret Life of Ian Fleming goes to prove, once again, the truth certainly is stranger than fiction. One Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred!  

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Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming 6.75

eyelights: Jason Connery. the various nods to the Bond series.
eyesores: the weak female cast. the lacklustre production.

“Fleming. Ian Fleming.”

Based on the last year and a half of Bond movie blurbs, readers of TCE may have come to the conclusion that I’m quite the James Bond movie fan. This would be a mistake. There was certainly a time when that was more true, however, the Brosnan years shook my faith quite a bit, and by its end I had given up on the series. The Craig years have thus far not fully restored it, although ‘Casino Royale‘ brought me back from the edge of despair.

Still, there was a time when I was intrigued by anything Bond-related. I bought as many of the books as I could find, picked up all the motion picture scores and have a number of posters in my possessions. The music remains the unshakeable highlight of the series for me. As for the novels, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them back in the day, but it has been a couple of decades now and I don’t know if they would hold up now.

In any case, the video store I worked in for a few years had a discount section where films that didn’t rent anymore ended up. At a measly 1$ per night, you could find some old classics and hidden gems there. My friends and I rented almost exclusively from that section when we were customers, in the years before I got hired. Inevitably, those same films would make their way to the liquidation section, sold off for 5$ a piece.

And so it was that I found a worn copy of ‘Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming’ on the store’s shelves one day. I don’t remember if I had heard of it before, but I recall being wide-eyed and grabbing it the moment that I saw it. It looked cheesy, the box art unashamedly borrowed from the James Bond series, and it featured Sean Connery’s son, Jason Connery, in the lead. It reeked of total exploitation, but my curiosity had been piqued.

There was no escaping ‘Spymaker’.

‘The Secret Life of Ian Fleming’, as it was titled in some markets, is a biographical telefilm based on the life of Ian Fleming prior to becoming a celebrated author. It covers his college years all the way through his wartime efforts, and delves into his personal relationships as well as his career trajectory. Interestingly, another TV movie was released half a year earlier, titled ‘Goldeneye’ – based on Ian Fleming’s beach house, not the 007 film.

While I haven’t seen this other film, my understanding is that it’s a more traditional type of biographical film. This version of Ian Fleming’s story, however is a gas for fans of the James Bond series: aside from starring Jason Connery (quite a coup, I must say), it consistently harks back to the movie series that made his father famous, inserting a variety of tongue-in-cheek nods to it – most of which are not especially obscure.

For example:

  • Many of the dialogues are reflections or rip-offs of one-liners used throughout the series.
  • His best friend, Quincy, is the obvious inspiration for Q: he’s a tinkerer, creating all sorts of gadgets.
  • While working at Reuters, Fleming develops a relationship with Miss Delaney, the secretary, that is very akin to the one between Bond and Moneypenny.
  • Miss Delaney takes Fleming’s hat and tosses it on the hat stand – something that Sean Connery’s Bond used to do.
  • Upon returning from covering a show trial in Moscow, Fleming is introduced to Admiral Godfrey, the obvious inspiration for M.
  • Admiral Godfrey orders a martini, shaken not stirred.
  • Godfrey enlists Fleming when World War II is declared. He gets Army training which is reminiscent of the training sessions by SPECTRE and Q-Branch.
  • Godfrey reads a file that is emblazoned with “For Your Eyes Only” on it. This is not unusual in the field, but the director made a real point of showing it.
  • In short sequence, there is a car chase, Fleming visits a casino, and wears a tuxedo.
  • Fleming challenges a Nazi General at Baccarat, a game that Bond would play frequently.
  • Fleming gets a rematch against the Nazi, trouncing him completely in a scene reminiscent of ‘Casino Royale‘.
  • Fleming give his paramour the book ‘Birds of the West Indies’, by author James Bond – from whom he lifted the name of his hero.

Having not read any biographies on Ian Fleming (although I do have a sizeable tome at home) nor seen any documentaries on the author, I can’t attest to the accuracy of ‘Spymaker’. But it’s clear that the filmmakers have taken some liberties: for instance, no doubt to add a “grand finale”, the film ends with Fleming leading an attack on a Nazi fortress. Although Fleming planned some operations, he wasn’t a field agent; he was an intelligence officer.

Fine, fine… these movies always play around with the truth for entertainment’s sake. That’s to be expected. But is it a good film?

Well, let’s face it: it’s a TV production. This means that it had a limited budget, which means low-end casting, director, set design, …etc. On paper, it’s pretty decent, but it does feel cheap and poorly-conceived. The cast is also not particularly good – especially the female cast, for some reason, who over-act everything; they reeked of C-list. Only Patricia Hodge, as Fleming’s mother, and Marsha Fitzalan, as Miss Delaney, were watchable.

But is Jason Connery even remotely as magnetic as his father? Not really. Given the calibre of the cast, he is probably the most watchable of the lot, but it’s not saying much. He’s easy on the eyes, affects a confident and pleasant demeanour, but he doesn’t have the charisma that made his father a star; he certainly doesn’t leap off the screen. And he was clearly new to the game, having neither the acting chops nor the physicality for the part.

But, all in all, ‘Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming’, is an enjoyable picture and it passes the time as ably as any television movie of its ilk would. And, aside from a clumsy ending, it’s decent enough given its pedigree. However, for fans of the James Bond movies, this is almost essential viewing: it’s too rooted in the series not to see it at least once; it’ll elicit a few knowing chuckles along the way. Is it worth repeat viewings? That’s another question altogether.

Date of viewing: August 25, 2014

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