Mark Steyn

Ave atque vale

Keeping the British End Up

We're a few days away from the new Bond film, and for the first time in decades one man who won't be seeing it - and then sending his customary critique to longtime producer Michael G Wilson - is Christopher Wood. The writer of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, Wood died a few months ago - apparently in May, at his home in France, after the death of his son from cancer, according to his daughter, the literary agent Caroline Wood. It's a sad end for a man who brought so much pleasure and delight to millions who never knew his name, but it seems he didn't want obits or any other public observance of his passing, so the news only emerged a week ago in a Tweet from Roger Moore:

Sir Roger Moore @sirrogermoore
How sad to hear Bond screenwriter Christopher Wood has died. He wrote two of my best.

Indeed. The Moore-era Bond reached its apogee under Christopher Wood's twinkling pen. In 1977 The Spy Who Loved Me gave us one of the all-time great pre-credits sequences, beginning with the hijacking of a Royal Navy nuclear submarine. It's an urgent matter:

M: Moneypenny, where's 007?

MISS MONEYPENNY: He's on a mission, sir. In Austria.

M: Tell him to pull out. Immediately.

Cut to Bond in a romantic Alpine ski chalet and, er, in no great hurry to pull out immediately. But, in those pre-iPhone days, his watch starts emitting an urgent tickertape informing him to return to headquarters. And so he rises from his labors and starts donning his ski-suit, much to the distress of his panting dolly bird: "But, James, I need you."

"So does England," he says sternly, and starts skiing down whichever Alp it is to the accompaniment of Marvin Hamlisch's disco version of the Bond theme. He is pursued by Soviet agents, but fortunately his ski-poles fire some sort of high-tech bullet that cause the Russkies' chests to burst into flames. Still, there are a lot of them, and they're closing on him, and there's a huge cliff up ahead, with nothing beyond.

And then Bond just skis off the edge and as he drops down through the sky he kicks loose his skis and pulls the cord and his parachute opens - a massive Union Jack parachute, which is a bit of a giveaway for a secret agent in deep cover but, as Christopher Wood noted with pride, elicited huge cheers from audiences in the decrepit strike-ridden hellhole of pre-Thatcher Britain. It was always his favorite moment from the Bond films. And as the Union Jack filled the screen Maurice Binder's silhouetted guns and girls begin twirling and Carly Simon sings "Nobody Does It Better".

I'm not sure anybody did. Christopher Wood's script represented Roger Moore's Bond at his best. It became the fashion to end the films with the Minister of Defence or Prime Minister or even the Queen on hand to congratulate 007 via satellite on the success of his mission - only for the camera to alight on Bond in flagrante with whatever bit of Cold War totty had managed to survive to the finale. As Sir Roger and his dancing eyebrows explain at the conclusion of The Spy Who Loved Me, he was "Just keeping the British end up, sir." After which, a larky sailors' chorus does some end-of-the-pier gang-show version of "Nobody Does It Better" and the credits roll.

For Moonraker's close two years later, Bond was returning from outer space. Christopher Wood had never been entirely comfortable with the space business - his view was that 007 is meant to look suave and move smoothly, and you can do neither in an astronaut's suit. Nor can you easily engage, from behind the visor, in sparkling banter. But Star Wars had been a monster hit and Cubby Broccoli felt his franchise would benefit from a slice of the space-opera action, so Wood gave it his best. Everyone's gathered back at NASA for the return of Bond and his American counterpart from another planet-saving mission, and inevitably, "as this is the first joint venture between our two countries, I'm having it patched directly to the White House and Buckingham Palace."

"Well, I'm sure Her Majesty will be fascinated," beams the British Defence Minister.

Time to run through the final checks:

Houston calling. Confirm your position.

But Bond's and Dr Holly Goodhead's position doesn't really need confirming, does it? And, when two weightless intertwined bodies come floating across the giant monitor, the Minister is aghast: "My God! What's Bond doing?"

Cut to Q, engrossed at his own computing screen:

I think he's attempting re-entry, sir.

It was the highest-grossest Bond film to date.

Christopher Wood enjoyed 007's post-Moore incarnations, but wearied of the CGI stuff. He liked to point out that what made the Union Jack parachute stunt work was that audiences still understood that a real guy - if not Sir Roger, then at least his body double - had jumped off a cliff, and, if he'd kicked his skies loose a little less adroitly, they'd have torn the chute and he'd have plunged to his death. He liked the danger scenes to be real: You're fighting in a kitchen, the bad guy picks up a saucepan of boiling water, Bond doesn't want to be scalded... You're in a glass factory, the bad guy's got a white-hot poker, Bond doesn't want his face to melt... Too much dodging computer-generated fireballs while buildings and bit-players explode bored him.

What did Christopher Wood do when he wasn't writing Bond movies? Well, he wrote everything - screenplays, a couple of early novels about his National Service experience with the army in Ceylon and Cameroon, other literary fiction, well reviewed and admired by all the right people. But he hit the goldmine with, um, somewhat less literary fiction. He was a Cambridge economics and law graduate from a posh-ish background, but, while trying to establish himself as a writer, he did stints as a postman, mason's mate and the like. And he noticed that, over a beer, even the most unprepossessing of his co-workers all claimed to have enjoyed remarkably similar perks of the job involving "carnal capers after a glass of lemonade one hot summer afternoon near Guildford", usually with a mature seductress a couple of notches up the socio-economic ladder but in the mood for a bit of rough.

So in 1971, adopting the pen-name "Timothy Lea", he wrote Confessions of a Window Cleaner, the "confessions" supposedly being the real-life autobiographical experience of Mr Lea. They are not to everyone's taste: the English literary critic Henry Hitchings told The Independent that "Confessions of a Window Cleaner suggests that we are not just bad at anything to do with the erotic life, but also window cleaning."

Readers begged to differ. "Timothy Lea" followed the first book with Confessions of a Driving Instructor, Confessions of a Traveling Salesman, Confessions of a Milkman, Confessions of a Private Dick... Mr Lea had a remarkably varied CV. Then, under the name "Rosie Dixon", Christopher Wood did the same for the distaff side: Confessions of a Night Nurse, Confessions of a Gym Mistress, Confessions of a Personal Secretary... Then he wrote another five as "stewardess Penny Sutton", and three as a sexually frustrated teenager, "Oliver Grape".

In 1974 they filmed the first book with larky lad Robin Askwith as "Timothy Lea" and Tony Booth, Tony Blair's father-in-law, as Timothy Lea's brother-in-law. "Robin [Askwith] has the ability to be rude and drop his strides and not offend anybody," the producer Greg Smith pointed out. "That is an incredible talent!" Evidently so. Confessions of a Window Cleaner was the biggest box-office hit of the year in Britain, and remains Columbia Pictures' highest-grossing non-US movie. A zillion others followed, all written by Wood and most directed by my dad's lifelong pal from their Dublin schooldays, Norman Cohen. Staying with us for the weekend, he explained the series' success to my teenage self after I'd made some patronizing snotty-adolescent-type remark about their low ambitions. British audiences, he said, liked comedy with their sex. But the mistake the trouser-dropping Carry On films had made was in not taking it to the next stage and having any nudity: Jokes plus tits was the winning combination. And on Monday morning he went back to work on the next in the series, and was proved right: in the course of the Seventies, Confessions basically supplanted the floundering Carry On brand - at least until the market dissolved in a sea of imitations: Adventures of a Taxi Driver, The Ups and Downs of a Handyman, etc.

Roger Moore's 007 makes a lot more sense once you know he was in the hands of the guy who wrote Confessions of a Window Cleaner. Under Woods' pen, the Cockney chancer of a sex maniac halfway up the ladder down a suburban cul-de-sac and the sophisticated Old Etonian MI6 agent bedding a Soviet honey trap have virtually interchangeable dialogue. Like many writers of traditional British sex comedy, Woods took the view that almost anything could be lascivious innuendo. Thus, to return to that Spy Who Loved Me opening scene:

LOVESTRUCK ALPINE BIRD: Oh, James. I cannot find the words.

BOND (his lips hovering over her mouth): Let me try and enlarge your vocabulary.

What does that even mean? No matter. It's Roger Moore, and few men roger more, so it must be something to do with sex.

007's fortunes have waxed and waned in the almost four decades since, but Christopher Wood was a very astute judge of the franchise as a whole. Like most Bond fans, he loved the formula: As he liked to tell interviewers, "I believe that the key to a successful Bond movie is always doing the same thing - only doing it differently."

As for sex, it's a far more earnest business these days. "Fifty Shades of Grey?" said Wood a couple of years back. "Risible. It made Confessions seem like Aristotle."

from Ave atque vale, October 24, 2015


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