‘The name’s Bond, James Bond’ are among the most iconic cinematic words ever uttered. The moment you hear them, you are instantly transported back to Sean Connery’s first outing as 007 in Dr. No. No matter how much rebranding he goes through, Bond is inseparable from that image. Even those such as myself who didn’t grow up with Sean, will tell you – Bond is Connery, no ifs no buts.
It is perhaps for this reason that those assuming the mantle of Bond post-Connery, have always found it to be something of a poisoned chalice: Roger Moore was considered too comedic for instance, Timothy Dalton too sulky, and Pierce Brosnan too bland. In reality, all of Bond’s latter incarnations have brought something to the role – but for the hard-core fan, it was always a somewhat crude imitation.
Connery’s shoes have been notoriously difficult to fill, as witnessed by the extensive list of those who either didn’t get the part, or in rarer cases famously turned it down. David Niven, Rex Harrison and Cary Grant were dismissed on the grounds of age. The British accent was a bridge too far for many, including Christopher Lambert and Dick Van Dyke (yes I know). Mel Gibson was too Australian, while Peter Snow (yes that one) at 6 foot 5 was too gangly. Oliver Reed meanwhile, was simply too Oliver Reed, and Lord Lucan kept disappearing.
The role is a demanding one: physical suitability and the requisite action-packed performances aside, the character appears to exert a unique pressure. Perhaps it is the extensive publicity, or possibly the knowledge that you can only ever be considered second-best. Whatever it is, many former Bonds have become disillusioned with the role. Asked whether he would consider playing Bond again after his fourth instalment, Daniel Craig famously remarked: ‘I’d rather slash my wrists.’
One issue for any aspiring Bond is that he is only partially fictional; Fleming’s description of Bond leaves little room for manoeuvre. Physically, Bond is 6 feet tall and 168 pounds, and according to Fleming (who worked in naval intelligence) is a ‘compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war.’
In terms of traits and tastes, Bond also shares a remarkable similarity with Fleming, bordering on the semi-autobiographical. Both hold the rank of commander, share the same love of scrambled eggs, custom-made cigarettes, gambling, and golf (even having the same handicap).
The minutiae of what constitutes a suitable Bond is something that shakes the vodka martini of the mildest Bond fan. Even Daniel Craig, perhaps the most accomplished actor to inhabit the role, was initially lambasted for the crime of being blond. In the run up to his first outing in Casino Royale, a campaign was launched to prevent his desecration of the role by calling for a boycott.
So it is little surprise that the rumours Idris Elba is ‘part of the conversation’ to play the next 007 have raised a Roger Moore-esque eyebrow or two. A black Bond is newsworthy, and those who wish to dismiss the race issue as somehow irreverent are being downright cowardly (however understandable in the cancel culture climate).
When rumours first emerged of Elba playing the part of Bond way back in 2015, post-Fleming Bond author Anthony Horowitz expressed concerns about his suitability:
‘For me, Idris Elba is a bit too rough to play the part. It’s not a colour issue. I think he is probably a bit too ‘street’ for Bond. Is it a question of being suave? Yeah.’
Another getting their knickers firmly in a twist over the miscasting was Joanna Lumley, who commented:
‘Idris Elba is stunning – and was incidentally in Absolutely Fabulous – but I don’t think he is right for Bond, who is quite clearly described in the book. I’m colour-blind when it comes to acting, but Idris Elba is just a zonking great star anyway.’
So there you have it – Elba doesn’t match the book description of Bond, but it’s absolutely nothing to do with him being black. While of course no one wishes to fall foul of the race card, James Bond’s bio would be unlikely to get him hired at the BBC: born in 1920 or 1921 (depending on which source you trust), Bond is the Eton and Geneva-educated, multilingual son of a Swiss mother and a father from the Scottish Highlands. Trying to extract Sadiq Khan-approved diversity from that, would leave Harry Houdini asking questions.
The question of a black Bond perfectly illustrates the contradiction of our time: namely, that for all its advertising, white privilege isn’t paying much of a dividend to its shareholders. The woke, in their cultural hegemony are simultaneously demanding we celebrate the ‘diversity’ of all-female remakes and Black Panther, while airbrushing the dreaded straight, white male out of existence.
Even historically, it is now routine to see white characters who have overdone it on the sunbeds. Joan of Arc, Roman soldiers, Margaret of Anjou, Friar Tuck, Guinevere, and Victorian soldiers to name but a few, have all been proudly presented as black. While the same standard is never applied elsewhere: can you imagine Ross Kemp playing Martin Luther King, or Ray Winstone as Nelson Mandela? I doubt it.
It’s not as if the Bond franchise hasn’t been accommodating, either. Moneypenny is currently black. So too is Felix Leiter, while Bond’s replacement 007 in No Time to Die was black (and female to boot). The rumours are Justin Trudeau even offered to black-up for the role of ‘M’ as well, but was advised against it so soon after the election.
The issue of where to draw the line between the woke, and the Bond purists is an interesting one. If the woke had their way (as they increasingly do), white characters would only ever be played by minorities, with white actors restricted to self-cameos – but isn’t that why it’s called acting? It would also lead to even more farcical complaints than we currently tolerate. Shouldn’t Daniel Day Lewis have made the effort to acquire cerebral palsy before starring in My Left Foot? And was Steve Coogan culturally appropriating paedophilia when he portrayed Jimmy Savile?
On the flip side, the purists might need to reflect that it is indeed acting, and that a credible performance ought to suffice. If Elba were planning to ‘white-up’ for the role, that might cut it. Failing that, I’d say that the attempt to install a black Bond well and truly crosses the line, and I’d go further – that the desire to do so is a political move.
And if you’re being political, surely black doesn’t go far enough? It’s too bad George Floyd died before he could be offered the role. Why not a disabled, transgender Muslim instead? Or perhaps go gay? How about Owen Jones, fighting off Blofeld with nothing but Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book to defend his honour?
Elba himself is astute enough to recognise the politics of the Bond situation, as he admitted when first considered for the role:
I think it’s more about, we just want to have a black guy play James Bond rather than Idris Elba, the actor, play James Bond. That’s the part that I’m like, ‘Ugh, come on’
And he’s right. No matter how many diversity boxes a black Bond ticks; no matter how many Guardian column inches it fills, and how many orgasms Lenny Henry has over it, a black Bond is still no guarantee of box office success – which I suspect is why Elba is still merely ‘part of the conversation’, rather than a done deal.
James Bond is not just a character. He is a uniquely British institution, cinematographic icon, and one of the highest-grossing media franchises of all time. In 2015 the value of which was estimated at $19.9 billion. Recast him as black, and he will cease to be Bond. Die-hard Bond fans will switch off (41% oppose a non-white Bond), and others will replace them – which is the point surely? If an audience exists for new projects, that audience is poorly served by imitations of old favourites. Write some new stories, and reel the audience in honestly.
As of 2015 (yes I can’t be bothered to check further), Bond has survived 4,662 assassination attempts. Whether he will survive the latest Bond villain of wokery, remains to be seen. If Elba lands the role, one thing’s for sure: the name will no longer be Bond, James Bond; I know it, and Elba himself knows it, which is why I’m going to give him the last word: ‘There’s no such thing as a ‘black Bond’.