We continue with our dispatches from the Spies on British Screens conference at Plymouth University from one of our top agents in the field – Edward Biddulph.
Day 2 at the ‘Spies on British Screens’ conference at Plymouth University promised to be every bit as exciting as day 1. I was there to give a paper on the evolution and use of James Bond-inspired words and phrases, but would have gladly attended the conference in any case to hear the many interesting takes on Bond and other fictional spies, and to discover how fictional spies have been shaped by geopolitical realities.
The day began with a session on gender in spy culture. Cat Mahoney from Northumbria University spoke about Agent Carter, a character from the Marvel universe I confess I knew little about. Cat’s paper asked whether Agent Carter, a former Bletchley Park operative and companion of Captain America, is a feminist hero. Her answer was that she wasn’t sure. On the one hand, Agent Carter is depicted in tough and resourceful roles normally given to male characters. On the other hand, she is defined by her relationships with men and still must conform to male expectations of female beauty and behaviour.
In the current conversation about the next James Bond, and the possibility of a female Bond, Laura Crossley of Liverpool University made a pitch for an existing female Bond – Modesty Blaise. Laura reminded us of the history and adventures in print and on the screen and radio of this largely forgotten heroine. Execrable 1966 film aside, Laura suggested that Modesty Blaise was a more interesting character than Bond. I was surprised to learn that Kingsley Amis was a fan. He even wrote a fan letter to Modesty’s creator, Peter O’Donnell.
We returned to the World Wars for the next session. Chris Smith from the University of Kent explored notions of the People’s War and the threat of the Fifth Column as depicted in the Sherlock Holmes films of the 1940s, in which Basil Rathbone’s Holmes was co-opted to help in the war effort. Claudia Sternberg of Leeds University then spoke about the portrayal of female characters in the spy films of the First World War and inter-war years.
The Cold War and the re-imagining of the Cold War was discussed in the session that followed. Nick Barnett of Plymouth University explored the rise of ‘Cold War’ nostalgia, as seen in The Game (2014) and Deutschland 83 (2015). Justin Harrison, of the University of Victoria, Canada, talked introduced the idea of The Avengers (the British 1960s’ version) as a Cold War narcotic. Joseph Oldham from Warwick University talked about the early, and positive, depiction of surveillance culture in Bugs, the barely-remembered BBC TV series broadcast between 1995 and 1999, and discussed the idea that the show was the 1990s’ equivalent of The Avengers.
Catherine Edwards explored the structure of narrative in adaptations of John le Carré novels, and then it was me, with my talk on the origin and use of words and phrases such as ‘Bond, James Bond’, ‘Bond girls’ and ‘Bond(o)mania’. I also explored some of the factors to explain why some terms have been more successful that others (anyone still use the word ‘Bondmanship’?). The session was rounded off with Barbara Korte‘s (University of Freiburg) discussion of the agency of the agent in Spectre. Is Bond autonomous – a lone wolf, as traditional he is – or does technology and the modern apparatus of intelligence take the agent out of agency?
Day 3: We were back in the lecture theatre bright and early on Sunday morning for the third and final day of the conference. Filipa Moreira (Lisbon University Institute) kicked proceedings off with an account of her research on the development and success of the Bond brand, and highlighted how the Bond films maintain their currency with the use of product placement.
Delegates were then treated to a showing of the episode of Whicker’s World in which Alan Whicker visited the set of You Only Live Twice. (I was glad to hear the use of some of the Bondian words and phrases I had discussed in my paper, including ‘Bond girls’ and ‘Bondomania’.)
In the next session, Toby Manning, from the Open University, highlighted remarkable similarities between the adaptations of John le Carré’s George Smiley novels and the spy drama Homeland. Similarities became more acute as the series progress, to the extent that dialogue first delivered in the Smiley adaptations was repeated verbatim in Homeland. Plots and characters are also paralleled. This ‘borrowing’ gives Homeland legitimacy as a high-quality espionage drama and highlights the continued relevance of le Carré’s books. This was followed by a paper by Tom May exploring the geopolitical background and adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul.
The final session of the conference returned to James Bond. Edward Lamberti of King’s College London offered a stout defence of the film Quantum of Solace. Invoking performative theory, Edward argued that the film is good because it is especially committed to Bond. Even the frenetic camera work has a function: like a shark, Bond has to keep moving to stay alive. As a (rare) fan of the film, I needed no convincing. Edward’s colleague at King’s, Christopher Holiday, placed the recent Bond films, particularly Skyfall and Spectre, within a ‘London has fallen’ narrative seen in other films, among them Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) and Thor: The Dark World (2013). Alexander Sergeant, also from King’s, presented the final paper of the conference, in which he discussed the notion of the Bond girl as a Jungian archetype. Ian Fleming, who was something of a student of Carl Jung, would have been proud.
As is often the case with conferences, some of the best discussions were had between the sessions at coffee and lunch breaks. It was wonderful to talk screen spy culture with highly knowledgeable people, and I certainly discovered more about screen spies other than Bond. This was a fantastic conference, and congratulations are owed to its organisers, Laura Crossley and Nick Barnett.
There’s talk of a publication based on the papers, so keep a look out for that. It’ll definitely be worth reading.
Learn more about Plymouth University’s Spies on British Screens