Friday, April 15, 2011

The April 2011 A - Z Blogging Challenge - M is for M!

With this post we reach the halfway point in The April 2011 A - Z Blogging Challenge! Huzzah! And this far in, we're going to have to simplify just a bit - no long title tonight - in fact, let's make it as short as possible and say that...

M is for M!

When Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel, Casino Royale was published in April 1953, the author gave the world one of the great heroic characters of the Western world, in this blogger's not-so-humble opinion. But in addition to James Bond, Fleming created some other very cool characters, including 007's boss - the head of the British Secret Service, M.
    There has been much speculation over just who Fleming based the character of M on, with theories ranging from previous heads of MI6 (who often signed documents with their last initial only) to Admiral John Godfrey, Fleming's superior in British Naval Intelligence during World War II. My own favorite theory is that M is based on someone else from Fleming's life - a very important person who used to sign letters to Ian with "M" - his mother!

Across the course of Fleming's novels it is eventually revealed that M is a former Naval admiral named Miles Messervy who lives in a home called Quarterdeck with a couple of loyal servants and that he has "damnably clear gray eyes." He assigns Bond cases that take the agent all over the world in the Bond novels and stories that Fleming wrote, even having 007 help him with personal issues a couple of times which could only be solved with assassinations...must be nice...

There could have been an M on screen in the one hour Casino Royale adaptation performed on the Climax! TV show October 21st, 1954. But as I said, the show was only an hour long, so M was out and we started the show with Bond already on the mission.

The first time there was a physical representation of M was in the James Bond comic strip, which started appearing in the Daily Express on July 7th, 1958; an adaptation of Casino Royale by Anthony Hern with art by John McLusky, who continued drawing the strip until early 1966. Here is the first time M is seen...or not seen, as it turns out:

That's the first four days of the strip, and M is kept to the shadows, as I guess befits the head of the British Secret Service!

Four years later, EON Productions cast Bernard Lee as M in their first James Bond movie, Dr. No.

     Bernard Lee had been acting on stage since the age of six (!) and had been in films since 1934 when he was cast as M. He played the part perfectly, making the character just the right combination of grumpy bureaucrat, and one step ahead boss, predicting that Bond will be carrying his prohibited .25 automatic again, and has the waiting Q bring in the new gun, a Walther PPK. M then prevents another such occurence when Bond tries to slip out with the .25 by telling 007 to just leave it on M's desk. The underrated Lee continued playing M through ten more Bond films, racking up the largest number of Bond actors, going from Connery to Lazenby to Moore (with a side trip back to Connery in between Lazenby and Moore).
    During his time in the role, Lee managed to be immortalized as an action toy figure - as seen here:

He also slipped out to play thinly disguised M types in two Bond knockoffs - 1967's Operation Kid Brother, starring Sean Connery's brother Neil as a plastic surgeon (which he really was) turned spy (!); and the 1975 French spy spoof Bons Baisers de Hong Kong (From Hong Kong with Love). Both of those movies also coincidentally featured Lois Maxwell as a lovesick secret agency secretary.

Operation Kid Brother

Bons Baisers de Hong Kong

Funny thing - the bottom pictures look like they could be from a regular Bond film, except for the picture of Queen Elizabeth behind Lois Maxwell. The Queen figures into the plot of the French flick, so they have her portraits all over the place. For whatever reason, the only time we see the Queen in the EON Bond films is a portrait in 007's office in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. She might be in portraits in Moneypenny's or M's office, but attention is never drawn to them like the one above. In any case, not sure how the Bond producers felt about all that moonlighting, but Lee kept being brought back to play M, so I guess it doesn't matter. Lee's M mostly hung around the MI6 offices early on, but as the 007 films increased in budget and scope, even the office staff got to go out on location, with Lee playing his final scenes as M against Roger Moore's Bond in Venice for Moonraker in 1979. Sadly, in 1981, just before filming his scenes for the film For Your Eyes Only, Bernard Lee passed away at the age of 73. Out of respect for this fine actor, the Bond producers did not recast for FYEO, but had M "on leave" and gave the assignment duties to M's Chief of Staff, played in the film by James Villiers. In November 2005, more than 25 years after last playing M, Bernard Lee's image was used for the character in the video game version of From Russia with Love, which featured Sean Connery's likeness and voice in a new track recorded by the actor. Bernard Lee's voice was provided by voice actor Peter Renaday. I wanted to throw a screen shot in here - but couldn't find one. *sigh*

Bernard Lee as M

Dr. No (1962)

From Russia with Love (1963)

Goldfinger (1964)

Thunderball (1965)

You Only Live Twice (1967)

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

Live and Let Die (1973)

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Moonraker (1979)

and the video game:
From Russia with Love (2005)

After taking one film off, the character of M returned in 1983's Octopussy. Here he was played by Robert Brown.

Robert Brown was a solid choice to take over, and he actually brought several connections to Bond with him. His first film role was in The Third Man in 1949 - a film that coincidentally co-starred Bernard Lee! -  he had worked with Roger Moore in the 1950's British TV series Ivanhoe; and he'd been in a Bond film already, playing Admiral Hargreaves in The Spy Who Loved Me. In fact, his Spy appearance led to an interesting question. Was Brown playing the same guy, Sir Miles Messervy, that Bernard Lee had been playing, or was he Admiral Hargreaves, taking over for a deceased or retired Messervy using the same code name (letter)? Well, I lean towards the latter, personally, as it gives an interesting through-line of continuity to the series. In any case, Brown played M four times, handling two Bonds, finishing out Roger Moore's run and playing M for both of Timothy Dalton's outings. After Licence to Kill in 1989, the Bond series got into a bunch of legal wranglings which kept 007 off movie screens for six years. Brown retired from acting in 1994, but as it turned out he probably wouldn't have been brought back for the role anyway, as the Bond producers had a new idea for the chief of the British Secret Service when they got back into production in the mid-90's. Robert Brown's M has gotten no love from the video game community as his likeness and/or voice have never been used in any Bond game released.

Robert Brown as M

Octopussy (1983)

A View to a Kill (1985)

The Living Daylights (1987)

Licence to Kill (1989)

When the 007 series got back on track and back on movie screens in late 1995, the role of M was played by Judi Dench in GoldenEye.

In 1992, Stella Rimington became head of Great Britain's internal intelligence agency MI5 (as MI6 is to our CIA, MI5 is to our FBI). With this in mind and wanting to both shake things up a bit and acknowledge that times had changed since the Bond film series started, when production on GoldenEye commenced the producers decided that for the first time 007 would be receiving his orders from a woman. You know, I just realized too - GoldenEye was the first movie where Albert R. Broccoli's children took over as producers - meaning that for the first time 007 really was receiving his orders from a woman - Barbara Broccoli, in addition to her stepbrother Michael G. Wilson, who'd been working on and around the 007 movies back to Goldfinger. They hired Judi Dench for the role - a well known stage and television actress in Great Britain who'd also appeared in some fine films - lots of period pieces for the most part. She turned out to be an amazing choice - stern, sarcastic, funny, and with just the right mix of crabby disdain for 007's lifestyle and grudging admiration for her best agent's effectiveness on the job. She handled Pierce Brosnan through his four movies, and was brought forth into the new century's "reboot" of the series with Daniel Craig as one of the few holdovers from the old days. She is stupendous in the role, and I'm glad she's on board to play M again in Bond 23 when it shoots next year. She also hands down wins the video game challenge, as she has played M in likeness and voice in seven James Bond games!

Judi Dench as M

GoldenEye (1995)

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

Die Another Day (2002)

Casino Royale (2006)

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Bond 23  (2012)

and the video games:

James Bond 007: Agent Under Fire (2001)

James Bond 007: Nightfire (2002)

James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing (2004)

GoldenEye: Rogue Agent (2005)

Quantum of Solace (2008)

GoldenEye 007 (2010)

Blood Stone (2010)

Those are the main M's we're concerned with...but there have been two others, and we wouldn't want to leave them out, would we?

In the 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale, John Huston briefly stops by to play M to David Niven's Sir James Bond.

He appears early in the movie in a terrible red toupee, which figures in later as both a prop and a silly joke as it turns out to be a "family hairloom..." Huston plays the role broadly, with a thick Scottish accent (his M's name is McTarry for some reason) and he's not at all the M we expect to see in a Bond film. He and several other secret service dignitaries visit the retired Sir James Bond at his estate to beg him to come out of retirement - when Bond refuses, M orders the estate bombed!

For reasons that rate a whole blog post (actually, whole books have been written about it) film producer Kevin McClory retained the rights to the James Bond story Thunderball, which he'd made together with EON Productions in 1965. Luring Sean Connery back to the role of Bond in 1983, Never Say Never Again featured actor James Fox as M.

This version of M is more officious than grumpy, and a relative newcomer to the office in the story, an apparently rather unneeded and strange acknowedgment of the EON series. Fox does well in the role as written, but this M is written as a bit of a jerk. Fox is a solid performer though, so I'm sure he would have been able to handle an M cast more in the classic style just as easily.

There have been scads of Bond knockoffs and imitators made - and nearly all of them feature an M type of character  - with actors like Lee J. Cobb in the Flint movies, James Gregory in the Matt Helm flicks, and Leo G. Carroll on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series. But none of them can compare to the real deal - all three of them!

So, to finish with some alliteration: M: magnificent mission monologist!

Til next post, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!


  1. Smashing post! This is the most solid piece of reporting I've read since A to Z started!

    I'd never seen the comic strip you posted. Bond bears a resemblance to Gregory Peck, I think.

    I'm fond of each of the actors who portrayed M for different reasons, but I've taken particular joy in Judi Dench's portrayal. As you pointed out, she's pitch perfect, walking the line between irritation and admiration. In short, she plays M as someone with compassion, who must send people off to kill or be killed.

    Adding to her screen appeal: she has amazing eyes. I think she's lovely.

    m: Maine Event

  2. Great choice. Love the Bond films and M is fantastic! In honor of your immense film knowledge and experience, I'm awarding you the "Versatile Blogger Award." Come pick it up @ my blog!