From the moment he languidly lit up at the baccarat table in Dr No, James Bond was big. Try imagining cinema – or the world – without him. So many of his antics, traits, tastes and quips have become so ingrained in popular culture they’ve long since fossilised into clichés. That they were mostly clichés to begin with doesn’t matter – Bond claimed them for himself regardless. Fleming’s creation was, in many ways, desperately unoriginal, a mish-mash of all the gung-ho adventure heroes that had gone before. It was the way the corny ingredients were cooked together that was the key – a secret service recipe that was familiar enough not to put people off, but sported an exciting new sheen quite unlike anything seen before. Inevitably, countless others wanted a piece of the action, and all employed the same mad melting pot approach, even if they didn’t always choose their ingredients with the good taste Fleming and the early films exhibited.
Dr No‘s unprecedented success sent Europe’s filmmakers spy mad. Spaghetti espionage rolled off Italy’s Cinecitta production line, often sailing cheekily close to the daddy franchise with heroes such as ‘James Tont’ battling the phonetically familiar likes of `Goldsinger’. Judging by the films, the Italian secret service was chronically . overstaffed. Agent S03 blew up a Chinese uranium mine, 3S3 battled the generically-named Black Scorpion, 077 thwarted a standard-issue laser gun project, and OSS 117 nobbled terrorists everywhere from the Middle East to Rio.
But an English accent was still the key to espionage stardom, and slumming Brit stars donned intelligence numerology for cheap laughs. Dirk Bogarde’s Agent 0083/4 was a hapless drone sent behind the Iron Curtain in Hot Enough for June (1964), Stewart Granger went behind the Bamboo Curtain as model train enthusiast Agent 009 for Code Name Alpha (1965), while Anthony Perkins’s similarly bumbling Bond-lite in The Ravishing Idiot (1964) called up girlfriend Brigitte Bardot, aka Agent 0038-24-36, for top secret speeded-up slapstick.
Ironically, United Artists, home of Bond proper, lent its distribution might to the cheekiest Bond knock-off of all, OK Connery, (1967). The film’s alternate title, Operation Kid Brother (“Too much for one mother!”) gave the game away. Neil Connery, Sean’s plasterer brother, made his acting debut as one Dr Neil Connery: bearded, karate chopping, lip-reading plastic surgeon brother of Bond proper. Other cast members seemed weirdly familiar. MI6 was run by Bernard “M” Lee, assisted by Lois “Moneypenny” Maxwell – under different character names of course, but constant references to “the other fella” never let the audience forget who they wished they were watching. By the time Adolfo “Thunderball” Celi threatens the world with his electronics- paralysing “freeze bomb” (a version of which would later turn up in Golden Eye) the film catches a look at itself in the mirror and switches to all-out goofy parody, with underwater harpoon battles, an army convoy sabotaged by a squadron of showgirls from “The Wild Pussy Club”, a belt that turns into a spear and the most ludicrously action-packed two minutes in the history of overstretched bomb countdowns.
THE PLAYBOY DOSSIER
If you can’t pinch the personnel, the next best thing is to out-Bond Bond himself. Top of the pile has to be James Coburn’s brilliant, aloof, ultra-suave freelance spy Derek Flint, star of Our Man Flint (1966). Flint annoys even his employers with his ludicrous precocity. He blithely rejects the standard issue Walther PPK for his own, superior arsenal. He can stop his heart at will. Best of all, after an attempted assassination with a poison dart (fired from a concert harp, of course) he analyses the characteristic traces of garlic and herbs on the tip and tracks his assassin down to a specific Marseilles club via a whirlwind gastronomic tour of southern France, just in time for a fist fight with old pal 0008. Flint appeals to anyone who finds Bond’s unlikely mixture of gritty espionage and pompous high living ridiculous, a secret agent who’d rather relax in erudite splendour than drop-kick a jump-suited henchman off a gantry.
Filmmakers ransacked other spy novels, but something always got lost in translation. Ralph Thomas, mastermind of the Doctor… comedies, dragged HC McNiele’s hardboiled 1920s creation Bulldog Drummond into the swinging era. In Deadlier Than the Male (1966) one-time potential Bond Richard Johnson played the dapper hero, pitched against deadly but naturally ravishing female baddies Elke Sommer and Daliah Levi. The perfunctory plot was padded Out with pop art set pieces like the climactic shoot-out on a giant automated chessboard, but the sequel Some Girls Do (1969) reached new heights of preposterousness, with a tale of a supersonic airliner hijacked by a squadron of scantily clad robot lovelies.
American producers dusted off their library cards too. In the novels, Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm was a grizzled war vet turned tough, if slightly past-it, government counter-agent. In the four films wrung from the books beginning with The Silencers (1966), he’s Dean Martin. Gunplay and fistfights inevitably take a back seat while the superspy “lifestyle” is ramped up. Even the title sequence dispenses with Bond’: silhouette coyness and goes for a full-or strip number. By day a photographer for Slaygirl magazine with a fully automated bachelor pad, Dino takes a break between sexual fantasy musical numbers to fight terrorist organisation The Big 0, whose main crime seems to be sporting grey suits, facial hair and being generally un-swinging. They are, of course, no match for Helm, who dispatches them with ease — slightly too much ease, perhaps. Helm always felt his age, but Martin’s version takes the inaction movie to whole new extremes. Never was a spy so visibly in need of a nice sit down.
The king of the British playboy spy clone was director Lindsay Shonteff, a string-and-sealing wax auteur whose trademarks included busty women, comedy fistfights, long scenes shot in motel rooms with motorway traffic drowning out the dialogue and the cheapest explosives available to man. Shonteff shot The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World (1965) in a marathon four weeks. Tom Adams, who gained a whiff of cult fame in the ’90s as the grey-haired stiff fronting awkward adverts for DFS furniture stores, was Charles Vine, a rough secret agent in the Connery mould whose favourite method of dispatching foes was via an ancient Broomhandle Mauser hidden under his coat. A token set-up involving Russian criminal mastermind Peter Bull on the trail of an anti-gravity device allowed for plenty of car chases, double entendres, a Sammy Davis Jr theme song and cross-dressing oriental assassins, making Columbia Pictures enough to offer Shonteff a five-picture Vine deal, which he characteristically turned down. Undaunted, Adams cracked on with two Shonteff-free sequels: Where The Bullets Fly (1966, featuring Sid James and Wilfrid Brambell) in which the McGuffin was the wonderfully named Spurium Apparatus, and the ultra-threadbare OK Yevtushenko (1968, featuring nobody).
In 1976 Shonteff revived his MI5 muse. No 1 of the Secret Service (1977) was the result, with dashing Nicky Henson. as Charles Bind, protecting the world’s top bankers from assassination with an orgy of showy gun twirling and blokey bum pinching. The violence levels were upped, a rather nifty cod-blaxploitation theme tune “Givin’ it Plenty” was slapped on, Jon Pertwee picked up a day’s work linking scenes on the telephone as the Reverend Walter Braithwaite, and Shonteff made enough on his meagre outlay to justify a sequel, The Man from SEX (1979) featuring Gareth Hunt and Space 1999‘s Nick Tate in a plot involving cloned world leaders.
With their plethora of gadgets and Golden Gate levels of disbelief suspension, Bond films often nudged pure science fiction territory, but only the rip-off brigade went the whole fantastic hog. British low-rent sci-fi spying was represented by the terrible Zeta One (1970). Moustachioed shagabout spy James Word (tagline: “Our Word is as good as their Bond!”) is assigned by “Department 5″ to find out why a gang of alien dominatrixes in saucy underwear are kidnapping strippers by bundling them into a sack and hauling them off in an intergalactic removals lorry. The answer involves Brit comedy greats James Robertson Justice and Charles Hawtrey torturing topless girls, looking tired and thinking of the money, and it isn’t pretty.
As if the ailing genre needed it, Bill Cosby mortally wounded the Bond knock-off with Leonard Part 6 (1987), casting himself as a retired spy running a steakhouse, called back to the cause after a crazed megalomaniac vegetarian (Gloria Foster, “The Oracle” in The Matrix) launches a global reign of terror on all carnivores via a platoon of mind-controlled fauna. The scene is set for an hour of animal slapstick: frogs throw a car off a pier, a trout peruses a porn mag, a rabbit bites Joe Don Baker in the nuts, and Cosby rides to the world’s rescue on a Claymation ostrich. So appalling was this $2.7m turkey that Cosby, the film’s star, co-writer and producer, used chat show appearances to sincerely urge the public not to go and sec the thing. They obeyed, and spy spoofs laid low for a decade, until Mike Myers brought those frilled shirts and circular beds out of cold storage. Since so many Austin Powers gags — Drummond’s fembots, the ringtone from Flint’s presidential hotline, etc — come more from the Bond knock-offs than the Bonds themselves, Myers’s creation is really a parody of a parody of a parody. And, as with most things in the world of the Bond spoof, it’s best not to ponder the implications of that for too long.
This article originally appeared in SFX magazine #176.