Storylines In Review

2018 Blog Posts
Royal Air Force Centenary – The RAF On Film
The 100th anniversary of the founding of the RAF this year has prompted me to put together a blog item in similar format to earlier ones this year, with a list of 10 film-tv titles to mark the occasion by. (The RAF was formed on April 1, 1918; there are various commemorative events scheduled between mid-April and July 10, when there will be a Westminster Abbey service and televised parade followed by a flypast over Buckingham Palace of up to 100 aircraft representing RAF history.) To tie in with the centenary, a number of film titles like The Dam Busters and Angels One Five have been issued on DVD or Blu-ray in digitally restored form, as part of StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics collection. Included below is our own short-list of 10 films. Initially I thought to trace the RAF’s development through the decades, with one film per decade, but this proved unrealistic.

Nearly all the major films made are set in WW2. If you stretch the coverage to include films about the RAF’s main predecessor the Royal Flying Corps, you can add a couple of films set late in WWI, but there are almost no notable titles set after that. While the US made aviation films set in the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc, Britain made only one of note. Thus the list may seem nostalgic for the days when ‘the Few’ saved the country from invasion, but there is a sad background to the lack of films set post-WW2.
…Britain had invented the jet engine prewar, but bankrupted by the war, simply gave the technology away to the US. Civil aviation took a knock when the first jetliner, the Comet, had to be withdrawn after 3 of its 9 aircraft in service came apart in midair due to a then undocumented problem, metal fatigue. (Though aircraft designer Neville Shute had written of its danger in his novel No Highway In The Sky, filmed in England in 1950.) That ended British aviation’s hopes of dominating the transatlantic passenger jet market. The testing of the first supersonic aircraft also ran into unknown problems. The chief test pilot for leading firm DeHavilland, who was actually the owner’s son, was killed when his plane came apart over the Thames Estuary in 1946. The incident is covered in the 1952 David Lean film [Breaking] The Sound Barrier. (It would be a US test pilot, Chuck Yeager, who would make the first successful documented supersonic flight in 1947.) Going ‘supersonic’ also led to a disaster at the 1952 Royal Farnborough Air Show when a DeHavilland Sea Vixen prototype jet fighter broke the sound barrier and then broke up in midair above the crowd, killing 31.
The RAF’s motto is Per Ardua Ad Astra (‘Through adversity to the stars’), and Britain had been looking postwar towards aerospace (cf the final shot of the film The Sound Barrier). In the 1950s, there were British boys-adventure comics like Dan Dare - Pilot Of The Future (set in the late 1990s), and radio dramas like Journey Into Space (set 1965-), but even these great popular successes did not get made into films. (David Lean proposed doing a Journey Into Space film, but this went nowhere.) To save money, the government in the late 50s abandoned Britain’s rocket programme in favour of building only unmanned guided missiles for defence. And increasingly they bought US-made technology.
After 1960, films were increasingly made with US finance and so had US actors or characters in the lead roles, as with 633 Squadron and The Great Escape, set at a camp for RAF POWs. (Despite the latter film’s opening claim of accuracy, no Americans participated in the actual escape.) British film producer Sir David Puttnam long tried to produce a film of Len Deighton’s classic 1970 realist novel depicting a 1943 RAF bombing raid, Bomber, but he was never able to get the financing. He instead ended up in 1990 making a routine drama, supposedly fact-based but heavily fictionalised, about an otherwise unremarkable US bomber mission on the final raid of the crew’s rota ‘tour’, Memphis Belle, from which plane and crew emerged unscathed – as had already been shown by a wartime documentary of the same name. (This routine raid ironically occurred the same date as the Dam Busters raid, a feature remake of which by Peter Jackson was announced a few years ago, then quietly put aside.) For those who want more historical context on these and other RAF-related dramas, I’m putting together a feature page on the history of the RAF on screen, from The Dawn Patrol to The Sound Barrier. In the meantime, here’s our A-Z shortlist of 10 films for those who want a ready list (all available for viewing on DVD and/or BluRay). It includes two titles depicting the Royal Flying Corps, the RAF's predecessor, and one set in the early days of the postwar jet age:

1. Aces High (1976), scripted by Howard Barker, from RC Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, and memoir 'Sagittarius Rising' by Sqdn Ldr Cecil Arthur Lewis
2. Angels One Five (1952), scripted by Derek Twist, from book What Are Your Angels Now? by W/Cdr Pelham Groom
3. Appointment In London (1952), scripted by John Wooldridge and Robert Westerby from Wooldridge’s story
4. Battle Of Britain (1969), scripted by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex from book 'The Narrow Margin' by Derek Dempster & Derek Wood
5. The Dam Busters (1954), scripted by RC Sheriff from Paul Brickhill’s 1951 book and W/Cdr Guy Gibson’s 1944 memoir Enemy Coast Ahead
6. The Dawn Patrol (1938), co-scripted by John Monk Saunders from his story "The Flight Commander”
7. Malta Story (1953), scripted by William Fairchild and Nigel Balchin, based on an idea by Thorold Dickinson and Peter de Sarigny
8. The Purple Plain (1954), scripted by Eric Ambler from H.E. Bates’s novel
9. The Sound Barrier (1952), scripted by Terence Rattigan
10. The Way To The Stars (1945), scripted by F/Lt Terence Rattigan, Anatole de Grunwald, director Anthony Asquith, Capt Richard Sherman; poem by John Pudney

... As to storylines, most of these RAF dramas naturally fall within the 'royal champion' story type, but the 'war-torn romance' story runs this a close second. There are also at least 2 'war is hell' stories. As usual, I'll let viewers decide which is which.
Canadian Film Day Picks
National Canadian Film Day has been held every April for the past 5 years. This year it’s on the 18th, when there are showings of selected films all across Canada. The NCFD website has a list of 150 Canadian films to choose from, also available as a downloadable PDF. Their website refers to the ‘sesquicentennial edition of National Canadian Film Day’, meaning 150th anniversary. This would likely refer to a special 150th anniversary, in 2017, of Canadian Confederation in 1867. Obviously there were no films back then; Canadian cinema itself only emerged post-WW2. Before that, films set in Canada were US or British productions. (For anyone interested in the backstory here, so to speak, there is a retrospective documentary about this online – the 1978 Has Anybody Here Seen Canada?, plus a book, Hollywood’s Canada by Pierre Berton.) Evidently the ‘sesquicentennial’ idea is to have films dramatising the entire period since Confederation in 1867. Even if such a range of films can be found, that’s a tall order which would require a whole feature page to itself, and I think in the meantime we’ll just stick to an introductory-style list of 10 films.

I’ve selected films that are made by Canadians rather than by visiting US filmmakers. This approach is akin to the difference between being a tourist and a resident, and there are no films in the list below with fur trappers, moose, Mounties, bush pilots, canoeing, bears etc. (The ‘bear’ in the source story for the 10th entry is a metaphor for dementia.) The closest to an exception is The Grey Fox, which is a fact-based realist work set in the 1900s, about a figure holding out against the modern age that came with the railroad. Otherwise, the films are all set in town or city surroundings. I had to cross off a few initial choices, such as Outrageous! (1977) and Why Rock The Boat? (1974) - both considered at the time as somewhat subversive - since home video copies seem impossible to obtain internationally. This unfortunately includes a few francophone entries (Canada is officially bilingual) such as Les Ordres (1974) and Le Déclin De L'empire Américain (1986), the closest to a bilingual film on the list being The Pyx, set in Montreal.

Contrary to popular image, Canadian films are not all wholesome family films like Anne Of Green Gables, or adventure stories involving outdoor pursuits. Right is a still from Paperback Hero [listed below], with Keir Dullea and Elizabeth Ashley indulging in some indoor water sports.

To keep it manageable, the list doesn’t include shorts, for which the National Film Board of Canada has probably won more awards than any other outfit, or tv series, only features. Films are listed in chronological rather than alphabetical order to give a better idea of the development of Canadian cinema. You may notice that neither women nor black etc filmmakers appear on the list until the 2nd-last entry, and even this is for some a controversial [as very sexually explicit] work. As Canadian films tend to be unknown abroad (one reason for doing this list), I’ve included a Wiki link for each title. As to what popular storylines the 10 represent, the list is designed as usual to cover a range of these, from the ‘coming of age’ and ‘dangerous liaison’ storylines, through the ‘midwinter crisis’ and ‘faustian pact’, to ‘apocalypse-survival’ and ‘life-ending reconciliation’ stories.


Winter Kept Us Warm (1965), written by director David Secter

Goin' Down The Road (1970), written by William Fruet and director Don Shebib

Paperback Hero (1973), written by Barry Pearson and Les Rose

The Pyx (1973), written by Robert Schlitt based on John Buell's 1959 novel

[Note that because the original title - referring to a a small round container used in Catholic ritual - was regarded as too obscure, US distributors released the film under the exploitation-style title The Hooker Cult Murders. In French, the film is known as La Lunule, meaning a crescent-shaped amulet etc.]

The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz (1974), written by Lionel Chetwynd
from the 1959 novel by Mordechai Richler

The Grey Fox (1982), written by John Hunter based on biographical sources


Strange Brew (1983), written by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas with Steve De Jarnatt, based on their SCTV series characters

Last Night (1998), written by director Don McKellar

Lie With Me (2005), written by Tamara Faith Berger, director Clément Virgo and Carrie Paupst Shaughnessy based on Berger’s 2001 novel

Away From Her (2006), written by director Sarah Polley from Alice Munro's 2001 short story The Bear Who Came Over The Mountain
The Evolving 'Brexit' Storyline 
-An evolving real-world political ‘storyline’ is being dramatised in various ways.
The Easter weekend papers have been full of speculation about ‘Brexit’ as the UK will be ending EU membership in a year, at the end of March 2019. Normally, we wouldn’t cover a political topic per se, but attempts to transform a real-world political ‘storyline’ into drama put it into our purview here. So: What’s the story? As they say in films, “It’s complicated.” [read on] (For overseas readers, there is a backgrounder section alongside the main text on our feature page.)
St Patrick’s Day Film Picks

As it’s St Patrick’s Day today [Mr 17th], I thought I’d do a similar viewing list of 10 suggested films for those observing the occasion at home. Note that this is just a personal choice of titles, films about Irish society that have meant something to me. As to their storylines, as with our Scots Burns Night and Australia Day lists [see earlier posts], there’s a range of them. The only recurring storyline seems again to be the ‘country retreat challenge’, where the protagonists’ lifestyle, livelihood or life is under threat. This could apply to at least 3 of the 10 below, though I leave it up to the viewer to determine which ones.

1. Man Of Aran (1934) staged documentary, written by director Robert Flaherty
2. Odd Man Out (1947) scripted by R. C. Sherriff from 1945 F. L. Green novel
3. The Quiet Man (1952) scripted by Frank S. Nugent from 1933 Maurice Walsh short story
4. Young Cassidy (1965) scripted by John Whiting, from 1956 autobiography Mirror In My House by Seán O'Casey
5. Ryan's Daughter (1970) written by Robert Bolt
6. The Dead (1987) scripted by Tony Huston from c1911 James Joyce story
7. The Commitments (1991) scripted by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Roddy Doyle from Doyle's 1987 novel
8. The Guard (2011) written by director John Michael McDonagh
9. Calvary (2014) written by director John Michael McDonagh
10. Brooklyn (2015) scripted by Nick Hornby, from Colm Tóibín's novel

 
... Ireland did not have its own film industry till well into the postwar era. Early productions on the list were made with the involvement of US filmmakers who claimed Irish ancestry, as here with Flaherty and Ford.
British filmmakers also played a role, as here with Carol Reed, Jack Cardiff, Alan Parker. In recent years, finance has become more international. The most recent film illustrated here, Brooklyn (2015) [mouse over image at right] is listed as a coproduction between the UK, Canada, Ireland, Belgium and the USA.

Finally, Irish filmmakers have been able to get their own stories onto the screen, as with the last few titles on our list - which is as good a reason to celebrate as any.

Australia Day Film Picks
Further to the previous blog post, I've been reminded that the same weekend as Burns Suppers are held worldwide is also Australia Day. So I thought I'd do a list of film candidates to match the Scots one. I haven't tried to include vintage films like The Overlanders, made by Ealing Studios in 1946 before the Australian film industry emerged in its own right. (The last two titles below were made by British or Canadian directors, but were said to have directly inspired the first films of the 'Australian film renaissance' which began in the mid-70s.) While the Scots films on the preceding list mainly follow the one storyline (the 'country retreat challenge'), the Aussie titles below do not. There are a couple of 'country retreat challenge' stories, but overall the list is more diverse, from 'war is hell' and 'war-torn romance' to 'away-break crisis', the 'monstrous awakening' and 'modern misfit' through 'castaway', 'outpost command crisis', 'apocalypse-survival' and 'future dystopia' storylines. But I'll let you work out which is which. Hopefully, there's something here for everyone.
Babe (1995) written by director Chris Noonan and producer George Miller, from Dick King-Smith's 1983 novel The Sheep-Pig
Breaker Morant (1980) written by Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens and director Bruce Beresford, from the play by Kenneth G. Ross and Kit Denton's book "The Breaker"
Crocodile Dundee (1986) written by Paul Hogan, Ken Shadie and John Cornell from Paul Hogan's story
The Dish (2000) written by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy and director Rob Sitch
Mad Max series [Mad Max (1979); Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981); Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985); Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)] written by director George Miller at al
Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) scripted by Cliff Green based on the novel by Joan Lindsay
They're A Weird Mob (1966) scripted by director Michael Powell and 'Richard Imrie' [=Emeric Pressburger] based on the novel by 'Nino Culotta' [=John O'Grady]
A Town Like Alice (1981) scripted by Tom Hegarty and Rosemary Anne Sisson from the novel by Nevil Shute
Wake In Fright aka Outback (1971) scripted by Evan Jones from the novel by Kenneth Cook
Walkabout (1971) scripted by Edward Bond loosely based on James Vance Marshall's children's novel
The Burns Night Film

Every January 25th, I commemorate Burns Night (the birthday of Scotland’s national poet) by having a meal of [veggie] haggis etc and watching a suitable film set in Scotland. It’s well-known that there are more people of Scots background living abroad than in Scotland itself, and Burns Night is hence commemorated across the world. Often, Burns Suppers are celebrated by an expensive haggis-and-whisky supper mounted by local Burns societies and accompanied by readings from Burns’s verse, attended by local dignitaries. Unfortunately, women are still often excluded from joining Burns societies, and unless you have an invite to one of these expensive, exclusive Burns Supper evenings, the occasion must be celebrated privately. For anyone in this situation, celebrating it at home – alone or with a companion – the supper menu is standard (haggis, neeps, tatties, whisky), but there is no standard choice of after-dinner film. There are no films about Robert Burns himself (a planned biopic with Gerard Butler was never made), but there are other films which commemorate ‘Scottishness’ in different ways.
This year, my personal choice was the Bill Douglas Trilogy. This was a sequence of 3 autobiographical featurettes made by Bill Douglas (1934-1991) in the 1970s, dramatising his childhood and adolescence in the Scottish mining village where it was mostly filmed, in 16mm b&w. Set in the 1940s, it's the grimmest of grim reminders of the bad old days (and Scottish cinema has a number of these). Douglas's stand-in Jamie (played by an actor who himelf died age 38) lives in conditions of destitution with various unsuitable relatives, as his mother is mentally ill and his father absent. His only escape from misery is the cinema …
I realise this may not reflect others’ ideas about a suitable Burns Night film, so for future reference I’ve compiled a shortlist of 10 suitable candidate film choices below. A couple are actually TV serials too long for a single evening, so you'll have to select an episode or two. I've also included a sequel for the final choice in the A-Z list below, making a double-feature showing.
10 Burns Night Film Candidates
Note that 3 of the 10 are sometimes referred to as the Bill Forsyth Trilogy but are listed separately as they are unrelated stories.
Braveheart (1995) written by Randall Wallace
Comfort And Joy (1984) written by director Bill Forsyth
Gregory’s Girl (1981) written by director Bill Forsyth
Hamish Macbeth (1995-97) written by Daniel Boyle et al, loosely based on the novels by M. C. Beaton [Marion Chesney]
I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) written by Emeric Pressburger and director Michael Powell
Local Hero (1983) written by director Bill Forsyth
Rab C Nesbitt (1988-2011) written by Ian Pattison
Stone Of Destiny (2008) written by director Charles Martin Smith
Sunshine On Leith (2013) written by Stephen Greenhorn from his stage musical
Whisky Galore! (1949) and Rockets Galore! (1957) written by [1] Angus MacPhail and Compton MacKenzie from C.M's novel, and [2] Monja Danischewsky and Compton MacKenzie from C.M's novel

[Below: Stills from [1] I Know Where I'm Going! and [2] Whisky Galore!, and from [1] Gregory’s Girl and [2] Hamish Macbeth]


‘Tis The Season To Be Binge Watching
-Boxset Binge 2017: 007 And The 'Secret Agent Champion' Storyline

The Xmas break has become the time for binge watching. On-demand ‘catchup’ viewing spikes in December, and BBCiPlayer for the first time is offering entire series of shows for this purpose. Sales of boxsets also spike. This has had an impact on the writing and production of tv series as well – recently Mark Lawson did a 3-part R4 docu series on this phenomenon, and how it is altering perception of story arcs.
The start of all this was the ability to record off-air for ‘time-shift’ viewing that came with VCRs in the early 80s. Initially, studios like Disney tried to block the sale of these machines entirely, on the grounds that it might harm their tv viewing figures, but soon they were issuing their own videos, with boxsets for longer-running tv series. When the slimmer DVD format came in, they were able to cram more into a boxset – a dozen or more discs in keepcases. Now, the boxset is expected to be the ultimate edition – digitally restored and the most complete. This is of course not always the case where there is an additional cost for ancillary rights, such as music reuse. For example, my boxset of BBC’s Hamish Macbeth is missing an episode where the locals are rehearsing an amdram production of West Side Story. This is not announced, and those who discover the omission may feel they have the right to complain if it is an ‘official’ boxset representing the series. This situation hit the headlines recently where someone in the US bought The James Bond Collection 50th anniversary [?] boxset “Celebrating Five Decades of Bond” and sued because it was missing the 1967 Casino Royale and the 1983 Never Say Never Again. A judge ruled the lawsuit could go ahead because of the phrasing and expectation of completeness, though both were rival, non-canonical productions. (One fansite calls them ‘rogue productions.’)
I inherited a larger James Bond box set myself this past year. A neighbour moving out had left a cardboard box full of videos in the hall, labelled Help Yourself. Inside were all the Bond films issued on videocassette, i.e. not the Daniel Craig ones. But all the others were there, including the two ‘non-canonical’ ones, the 1967 Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again. I have a ‘combi’ machine that will play videocassettes and DVDs and thought this would be an ideal opportunity to watch these films in sequence, to get an overview of how the series evolved artistically over the decades. In the event, I didn’t manage to go the distance. The first 4 titles demonstrated the appeal of the original films, but with You Only Live Twice I felt the series began to lose its way. The underlying problem is that all Fleming’s plots have a megalomaniac psycho billionaire with a plan to take over the world via a project or agency he is funding with his untold wealth, and only 007 can stop him, by going alone into his fantastic hidden lair, being taken captive, escaping and blowing up the key installation just before the villain’s master plan goes into effect. The inherent unlikeliness of all this, even in genre fiction terms, creates difficulties for the scriptwriters as it is all to be played out as live action in real locations. Taking a jokey approach does not really solve the problem and creates glitches in tone at every turn.

Left: stills from [1] Thunderball: the 00 agents are told about SPECTRE's nuclear blackmail plot; and [2] Goldfinger: the millionaire supervillain outlines his plan to raid America's bullion supply at Fort Knox.

The series' repeated story setup belongs to the older, romantic school of the ‘secret agent champion’ storyline. (There’s also a realist school, as in the works of LeCarre.) It predates Fleming, with Clubland heroes and evil-genius villains like Fu Manchu going back to pre-WWI. The Bond films are simply the most expensive instances, productions able to mount elaborate chase scenes and other action setpieces in exotic locations, with spectacular interior sets for the villain’s lair etc.


The original series was made by Cubby Broccoli's and Harry Saltzman's Eon productions. Pictured: Albert R. 'Cubby' Broccoli, Connery, Fleming, Harry Saltzman [1962 publicity photo]. In fact, Fleming was snobbishly disdainful of Connery and the first Eon film, Dr No.

Right: From Russia With Love: [1] the chess tournament which sets up the idea the enemy conspiracy is planned as a series of chess gambits, and [2] the moment Bond has the plan revealed to him.

Since ‘Bondmania’ hit circa 1963-4, there have been many rival instances, often presented as spoofs.


Dr No: the moment 007 first reveals how ruthless he is. ("That's a Smith & Wesson, Professor, and you've had your six.")

This was the case with the first non-Eon production. The 1967 Casino Royale was a zany, cheerful farce, which seemed to intercut several different films, where the Bond identity was spread across different agents as a cover name. (It's recently come to light that this idea derived from the work of veteran Hollywood scriptwriter Ben Hecht. He was originally hired to do a straight CR adaptation, but the filmmakers just stitched together ideas from his various drafts, and the whole thing was then played for laughs as another 'Sixties spy spoof'.)
Connery quit the role after You Only Live Twice, declining to make On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Ironically, this was a more serious film, closer to the novel, but proved another one-off in the sense the replacement actor, George Lazenby, promptly burnt out and walked away. Connery agreed to return in 1972 for another lame, jokey walk-through in Diamonds Are Forever, in exchange for a 7-figure payment to his favourite charity. The Roger Moore run starting in 1973 tried to have its cake and eat it by having Bond save the world while acting the playboy and making offhand jokes – which trivialised the threat and left the fight scenes unconvincing. (He barely gets his suit wrinkled or hair mussed, never mind a bloody nose.)



Above: Roger Moore's iconic appearance in the ski-jump scene prologue of The Spy Who Loved Me [2] Moore's final appearance, A View To A Kill.


 Above: [1] the villain's lair in Moonraker (1979), and [2] the older Bond getting a health check in Never Say Never Again (1983)

The films were still using the novel titles but had different plots which emphasised chase scenes involving every type of vehicle. (Each is written by a regular stable of writers.) After the first few Roger Moore entries, I couldn’t face any more as they began to blur together. I jumped ahead to the 1983 Never Say Never Again, made after Connery’s producer partner finally cleared the rights after a lengthy lawsuit. (The novel Thunderball had been in fact a novelisation of a story created by Fleming with 2 other uncredited writers.) Connery had played a number of ageing-but-still-game heroes after his 007 stint, in films like The Wind And The Lion, and this was an opportunity for a mordant, reflective re-visiting of the Bond persona in middle age. Or rather it would have been such an opportunity if the makers hadn’t opted to go for a conventional remake, aside from a few jokey remarks. Without any character development, it was little different in approach from Connery’s previous return as Bond in 1972, a mix of the usual chase/action sequences and lame jokes. (Rowan Atkinson plays Bond’s blithering-idiot local contact, Nigel Small-Fawcett.)
The NSNA title, supplanting the working title Warhead, was suggested by Connery’s wife, based on her husband’s saying ‘never again’ to Bond in the 70s, but there isn’t even the usual belted-out dynamic title song to go with it and drive the idea along, just some warbley Michel Legrand pop music. There's no prologue action scene either (it was reportedly filmed then cut, and not restored with other deleted scenes for the DVD - which suggests it was really dire). It ends with Connery winking at the camera - perhaps the whole film was meant as a joke?
The two Timothy Daltons that followed were more serious, the first, The Living Daylights, being quite promising. But the second (the first not to use a Fleming title or story premise), produced as Licence Revoked, had its title changed when US audiences saw this as a reference to driving licenses. Licence To Kill however was exactly what Bond officially lacks in the story, and in the confusion it turns into a revenge quest as pointlessly nasty as it was unconvincing. (It coincided with a WGA strike, so the usual last-minute fixup of the rough spots - violent changes in tone - did not happen). Dalton left, and the series came to a stop for 7 years. (Licence To Kill was the worst-performing film in the entire series, eclipsing the ageing Roger Moore’s final outing, A View To A Kill.)  

 

The Pierce Brosnans which relaunched the series in 1995 with Goldeneye were a mixed bag. Again, the desire to play action scenes as jokey (cf John Cleese as Q) indicates an inability on the part of the writers to take their own plots seriously. The last, Die Another Day in 2002, was regarded as least credible for its invisible car – though I’d personally nominate as the nadir of credibility the computer-generated scene of Bond surfing off an icewall using a piece of fuselage.)

In From Russia With Love, when Bond has the SPECTRE plot (to create a sex scandal for the Sunday papers) explained to him, he comments “Must be a pretty sick collection of minds to think up a plot like that.” It’s a line that brought down the house when I saw it at a uni film society, as it seems to apply to the overall story rather than just SPECTRE’s conspiracy.
The first films already have Bond deliver those lame scene-capper quips concluding an action scene for the audience to have a chuckle at some gory death. Was this an anti-censorship gambit? The Bond of the novels is almost humourless, and often bored, even when having affairs (his main passion seems to be scrambled eggs for breakfast). However, the jokey approach would not disappear until the 2005 reboot with Daniel Craig, where the quips are just asides, minor throwaway lines.


Below: The last Brosnan Bond, Die Another Day (2002)

After the breakout success of The Bourne Identity, the producers had decided to reboot the franchise with a dark psychological approach, so 007 has to battle some psychological bugbear from his past as well as the villains. Craig is a serious actor as well as having the muscular physicality to carry off the action side (he’s really the British Steve McQueen), and Casino Royale was promising, suggesting a more adult, realist approach.
Unfortunately the followup was prepared during a Writers’ Guild strike and instead of Quantum Of Solace focusing on the human side of a lonely profession (the Fleming short story is a Somerset Maugham homage), the word Quantum gets turned into a secret organisation which is ‘everywhere’ but nobody official has ever heard of it. (I suppose this is because the scriptwriters just invented it to turn the title into a pun – a nonsensical one.) It’s nonstop action from the ‘cold open’ car chase (where you can’t even tell who’s chasing whom) and Bond’s human side is relegated to one token ‘solace’ scene.
Otherwise it’s a straight revenge quest, with Bond after those who led Vesper astray, and a token conspiracy-plot about the Quantum organisation out to control the world’s water. (I had my hopes up from the title that this would be a more adult approach and saw it in our local arts-centre cinema, but after 2 hrs of deafening action scenes and non-sequitur plotting, wound up referring to it as Quantum Of Bollocks.)
The 3rd instalment, Skyfall, has Bond disappear off the radar a la Bourne, officially dead. It then has a bizarre last act with a betrayed ex-agent villain infiltrating MI6 and causing mayhem, such as causing an underground train to crash through a wall to kill Bond (all modern supervillains can hack into and control even the most secure govt networks). Dressed as police, he and his men even invade a Parliamentary hearing in order to kill M as she is being told she’s obsolete while she reads a Tennyson poem to the scrutiny committee! M and Bond flee up to northern Scotland to his isolated childhood home, Skyfall, in the Aston Martin from the 1960s films, to await the villain and his private army and fight them off with just the help of his old gamekeeper, played by Albert Finney. (You’d think they could have asked the police to help as the villain would be wanted for killing a dozen policemen, if nothing else.)



Above: In Skyfall, [1] 007 is officially declared dead before recovering from his wound (Moneypenny shot him accidentally) and returning to HQ. [2] In an image evidently inspired by Batman, he stands symbolically watching out over the city rooftops. It's the film's keynote image, used on the DVD.





The 4th instalment, Spectre, is nonsensical from the start: the late M leaves a posthumous video message in Bond’s email to kill some gangster, with no explanation. Bond goes ‘rogue’ to do so, and won’t even tell his new boss, and so is grounded. We never find out what she knew about the man’s organisation, which proves to be SPECTRE, which at that stage nobody seems to know officially anything about.
During production, studio memos re the script’s deficiencies were leaked online, evidently by hackers working for Kim Jong-un (you couldn’t make this up). A Sony producer described the script as ‘rough, rough, rough … Bond is simply fighting henchmen in many overblown and familiar sequences – helicopter, elevator shaft, netting.’ Another studio executive wrote: ‘Also, there needs to be some kind of a twist rather than a series of watery chases with guns. This is Blofeld after all. What does he have up his sleeve?’ The email leaks drew attention to the classic problem with the studio system – filming begins before the script is ready.
To squeeze in the new past-coming-back-to-haunt-you angle, the script postulated that the organisation’s longtime head, Blofeld, was really Bond’s foster brother all along. What a coincidence! (The scriptwriters also do not explain Bond’s killing Blofeld in earlier films, never mind his not recognising Blofeld as his foster brother.) Blofeld has been seeking revenge for being displaced by this childhood ‘cuckoo in the nest', and forming SPECTRE allowed him to kill off Bond's girlfriends. He is now in league with the new combined secret services head ‘C’ who is taking over the whole intelligence apparatus.
In almost every script, Bond is either having his license revoked over some indiscreet killing, or MI6 / the 00 Section is being closed down – you know, because computers, they've made special-forces type ops and agents obsolete. (Try telling that to the Americans.)
Here, the finale features the unlikely idea that instead of just selling it off, MI6’s Thames-side HQ is set for midnight demolition. This is despite the fact it’s a prominent landmark (which is very much still there on public view despite the finale) - so that MI5/MI6 can move into a fancy glass tower opposite which has been built in almost no time as it is privately financed - by SPECTRE. Bond and the new M, the geeky new Q, and the new Moneypenny all now go ‘rogue’ as they are all being sacked. Luckily, the villainous new ‘C’ loses his balance and falls out a window. With minutes to spare before demolition, Bond saves the girl, who has been abducted by Blofeld and trussed up atop MI6 HQ, and from a speedboat pursues and with his pistol shoots down the villain’s helicopter so it crashes on Westminster Bridge. (I saw it at the cinema, but watched it again over Xmas on tv as I couldn't be sure I'd followed the story - I'm still not clear on certain points, like where 007 gets that plane in the Alps.)
At that stage, Daniel Craig publicly announced he'd rather slit his wrists than do another Bond film. “Who do you think should be the next 007 then?” a friend asked me. “Nobody,” I said, “they should just stop making them unless they can come up with a coherent script.”
Update: Since then, Craig has been persuaded to return for Bond#25. Details are unclear at this stage. The trailer on YouTube titled Risico is a fan-made fake. ('Risico' is a Fleming short story whose plot was used in the 1983 For Your Eyes Only, the least jokey of the Roger Moore entries.) Another rumoured title is Shatterhand, a Blofeld cover alias in You Only Live Twice, which fits the current run of titles beginning with S, though it’s been used elsewhere, so there may be legal problems. The leaked news item that the plot will be taken from a 2001 ‘continuation’ novel, Never Dream Of Dying by Raymond Benson, seems unlikely. The other rumoured plot is that 007 retires and gets married, but then his bride is killed by Spectre, and he goes rogue in retaliation. (Sound familiar at all?)
   
… In conclusion, I think seeing a series in this way isn’t necessarily just a new form of addiction, as the press characterise it. (Binge-watching /-viewing derives from binge eating or binge drinking.) It can make you more critical – you can see more clearly the sameness of the plots and the improbabilities when the writers desperately try to vary the formula.
It's not just the Bond series, which I used here as an example. A friend lent me a DVD set of the cult US series The Walking Dead so I could 'catch up' on it: I managed to get through several episodes before I felt my intelligence had been insulted enough, and gave up on it. Ditto with the BBC's new apocalyptic police thriller series Hard Sun which just began this week on BBC1. The entire first season of is already available on iPlayer pre-broadcast, so 'catchup' is not the right term here. I'm afraid I lost confidence in it after the first hour, and wonder if the BBC are also hedging their bets, reckoning that audiences will quickly lose interest in its baffling obscurities. It's open to run for 5 years, if enough viewers want to stick with it until world's end in some sort of unexplained solar radiation surge 5 years away. The plot mcguffin is a flash drive with a video presentation showing the doomsday facts and figures; MI5 is willing to kill police officers and kidnap their families to keep this secret; if the producers want to cut the series short, they can just have a character upload the video to YouTube and it won't be a secret anymore, hey presto.
On the other hand, binge viewing can lead to appreciation of a series that evolves intelligently. For my boxset this year, I asked Santa for the 6th and final series of the Elmore Leonard series Justified (2010-16), and having watched all 5 preceding seasons without its ever becoming predictable, am looking forward to watching all 13 hours of this during the January viewing drought.
 
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Storylines In Review 2018