It’s 50 years since the death of Ian Fleming and The Spectator has always taken James Bond seriously. The writer of the Spectator’s Notebook in 1962 went along eagerly to see Bond’s first screen appearance. It hasn’t seemed to matter but it seemed odd that the director hadn’t explained some key parts of the plot.

Apart from the fact that Bond is played with an Irish-American accent—not particularly noticeable, of course, when he is throwing chaps around or conversing into his mistress’s left ear—what struck me most was the assumption on the part of the film-makers that everyone would know the plot of Dr. No. I imagine that much of Bond’s final obstacle race was cut because the script-writers feared it would be all too familiar, and some episodes became quite incomprehensible: the bit where Dr. No explains his life, achievements and motives for example. However, the scriptwriters’ point was proved for them by those critics who brought in the novel to supply the deficiencies of the film. In the book we are told that Honey, the child of nature who disposes of sexual aggressors (appropriately enough) by means of a black-widow spider, is staked out to be eaten by land-crabs, and this episode was mentioned in one or two notices of the film. Only in the version I saw it was never stated at all. True, she was chained in a dungeon with the water rising through a sluice, but we were not told she was going to be eaten. This was either deleted by the censor or furnished by the critics. I should like to know which.

Author and radio comedy writer Colin Bostock-Smith had Bond to thank, along with Ronald Reagan, for his career. For a show about Bond’s first 21 years, an American production company collected a series of clips and then persuaded celebrities to appear on camera talking about Bond as if he were a real person. Somehow they managed to persuade Ronald Reagan to take part.

I can clearly remember, back across the decades, the moment when, at a routine production meeting, this astounding decision was relayed to us. When the gasps of astonishment faded, someone asked, “Yes, but what’s Reagan going to say about James Bond?”

All eyes turned to me. “Ha!” I ejaculated, with all the confidence of youth (I was still just under 40). “No problem.” And indeed, after a night or two of mental agony, I duly came up with a joke about James Bond for Ronald Reagan.

And the joke?

Well, picture the scene. We’re in the White House rose garden. Ronnie, looking his craggy if slightly orange best, twinkles at the camera and then says, with a hint of that delightful, homely chuckle in his voice, the following line: “Some people say that James Bond is just an actor in the movies. But I say, everyone’s got to start somewhere.”

In 1983, Leanda Dormer explained how to become a real James Bond, usually starting with a recommendation from a tutor at Oxford or Cambridge:

Master Bond is likely to have read an Arts subject, particularly History, Classics or Modern Languages. He is conservative, politically inactive, bright, and strong willed. All this goes down on the application form, together with anything he might know about his aunt in Canada. The form dwells at length on relatives living abroad. As James is in his final year, and in a panic about jobs, the prospect of any interview comes as a relief, and he prepares himself for this one by burying himself in periodicals.

The interview itself takes place in a small and nasty office.

The room is painted white, there are two wooden chairs, one on either side of the wooden desk, with a plastic top. Mr D is rather jolly, and his more pertinent questions are less demanding than those asked by the board of interviewers at the Foreign Office. The aunt in Canada is given the once over, and James is asked to give an opinion on recent events abroad. James likes the theatre? Yes, in fact he has seen Julian Mitchell’s play, Another Country the previous night. Ho, ho all round. James can now afford to relax, as Mr D proceeds to describe M16.<

“It is not like John le Carre.”

“Of course not.” Mr D explains that after an initial induction course MI6 agents are sent on diplomatic missions, posing as normal working diplomats, but their true aim is to recruit agents, and gather information…

James cannot quite shrug off the feeling that the whole set up seems at once very silly, and like something he has read somewhere before. In books people get killed, and James asks if there is any prospect of sudden death. Mr D is vehement in his denial, but James is not altogether convinced…

The loneliness of the profession does not appeal to James. What happens if he gets married? “Your wife will be given a special course.” On this homely note the spy encourages James with happy tales of life with “All spies together.” Parties are given for spooks only, and rooms are filled with spies having a jolly time. MI6 is one big happy family. James is then shuffled out, with his mind boggling. The recruit will then receive telephone calls until he has given his decision…Many of the recruits themselves simply regard it all as an interesting deviation from the mundane task of working for a good degree, and facing the cold, outside world.

Ian Fleming was well known at The Spectator offices — he used to come to the Spectator’s annual party, always the first to arrive and the first to leave — because his brother Peter wrote for the magazine for 40 years, often under the pseudonym Strix (Latin for screech owl, which was odd as he ended up adopting one for a few months). He wrote as a landowner in the fictional county of South Loamshire and, though a talented writer, critic and editor, he liked nothing more than describing himself getting into a scrape, like this surprising development during an evening’s duck shooting.

I was content with the grey, dank, expectant moment of English time in which I was stationed, and hoped that our host would not call us in too soon. It was only when I became aware of a sort of haze or miasma emanating from the hide that I relaxed my vigilance and ceased to stare vertically upwards into the slate-coloured void. My first thought was my dog’s wet coat was steaming. I was still trying to square this idiotic notion with my knowledge that he must be as cold as I was when I realised that, whether cold or not, I was on fire.

Haze or miasma my foot! What had tardily caught my attention (and had, I learnt later, for some minutes past been gravely offending the nostrils of the next gun, two hundred yards away downwind) was dense smoke arising from a conflagration in the left-hand pocket of my jacket. The fire had been started by dottle from my pipe; a box of safety matches had provided it with fuel; and the fact that I always have the pockets of shooting-jackets lined with rubber, to keep the cartridges dry, explains why the next gun was feeling the need for a respirator. The obvious thing to do was to take the coat off and extinguish the cheery little glow in my pocket; but in order to do this I needed to put my gun down. This was not feasible inside the hide, where there was only about as much roost as there is in a telephone kiosk and where the dog might easily have jolted the gun off the little platform into the water. So I stepped on to the rickety plank and made for the shore.

As soon as I left the shelter of the hide I met the full force of the wind; and although this was only a stiff breeze it naturally caused the fire to burn more briskly than before, When I reached the bank and got the coat off I found that my tweed knickerbockers had also begun to smoulder. I beat out this fresh outbreak with my left hand while with my right hand I lowered the jacket, hissing, into the dark waters of the lake. Though I lost a fountain-pen in the process, the situation was soon restored and I made my way up to the house, shaking with uncontrollable laughter like a character in a novel by Mr. Dornford Yates.

Afterwards, thinking it over during a long drive home, it slowly dawned on me that the episode — which, though ridiculous, I saw as a perfectly natural occurrence with more than a touch of inevitability about it — might appear to other people in a different light. The other guns had indeed laughed politely when I showed them my charred and sodden jacket; but what were they saying now? “…And it was a rubber pocket. Rubber, mark you! George was a good two hundred yards away, and he swears he was damn near feeling queasy from the stink. Strix says he hasn’t got a sense of smell. But, well, I mean to say, a chap simply can’t be on fire and not notice it for all that length of time. He’d burnt a socking great hole in his trousers, too. If you ask me, the poor old boy’s pretty well round the bend.”

I had, sadly, to admit to myself that this would be the world’s verdict, that I emerged from the business as a crazy old buffer, like the Absent-Minded Professor in back numbers of Punch but without a scholar’s excuse for being in the clouds, However, it was too late now to do anything about it; and I comforted myself with the reflection that, although to be the laughing-stock of Loamshire is not quite on a par with contributing to the gaiety of nations, my life had been enriched by an experience which, however you look at it, is not the sort of thing that happens to people every day.

Tags: Countryside, From the archive, Humour, James Bond, obituary, The Spectator