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. Best known as the longest running James Bond in the longest running movie franchise of all time, he is the first of the clan to die. If anyone typified the quintessential English gentleman, a role he played with effortless ease both on and off screen, it was Roger Moore.

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.

Grey, drab, post-war Bletchley. Just down the road from the home of the Codebreakers

I can also vividly recall a television news report on the London royal premiere of The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 being a big deal. Being English born and bred, Bond was a national hero that always loomed large. Slotted in among depressing national woes such as 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 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 a fish on the sand.

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. Back then, films were only allowed to be screened on UK TV a full five years after their cinematic release, so I wouldn’t have seen Moore’s 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 – until the late Seventies.

He had a powerful weapon, did Roger Moore. Even his name seems to suggest that. My earliest memory of him is playing the debonair Aston Martin-driving nobleman Lord Brett Sinclair to Tony Curtis’s 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 money.

He can see his halo

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. In 1964, Moore had even made a guest appearance as Bond in the comedy series, Mainly Millicent.

After George Lazenby was cast in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Sean Connery 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.

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

In a dazzling and dashing (Tiffany) case of third time lucky, Moore was finally able to accept producer Albert Broccoli‘s offer to play the celebrated secret agent in August 1972, despite being Sean Connery’s senior by three years, something which would later bite him on the bum when playing the character well into his late 50s.

It’s often been said that Roger was playing The Saint in the Bond films, and there is a modicum of truth in that. Moore’s 007 was very different from the version created by Ian Fleming. 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. This was designed to serve the contemporary taste of the time.

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’s Bond was also known for his humorous quips and witty one liners, 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.”

Moore was also terrified of guns, which must have been a slight pain in the backside for the series producers, Eon Productions. Ever since a rifle exploded in his hands during his British National Service, causing him temporary deafness, the actor 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.”

Guns of steel

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.

 

Without a doubt, 1983 was the strangest year in the long history of the 007 franchise. The thirteenth entry in the long running series – Octopussy – was released during the peak summer blockbuster season, but then 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 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.

Bond films. Rival Bond films

Connery’s relationship with Eon’s founders, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, had been 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.

Julia’s German husband (the 6 foot 7 ‘Uncle Jürgen’ from Bremen) was a huge Bond fan and they’d seen the movie already, but as she told me “You probably need to see 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.

Yes, OK, I’ve been to New Orleans as well. So shoot me

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.

Perhaps Roger should have bowed out with 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, a far superior film than its successor and its predecessor; 1979’s Moonraker, a preposterous 007-in-space Star Wars/Spielberg cash-in that cleaned up at the box office (it’s Moore’s highest grossing movie) but is often referred to as Close Encounters Of The Turd Kind. 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.

Roger Moore will not return.

Steve Pafford