Stephen McGinty: Look out 007, Blofeld’s back

Charles Gray as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the film Diamonds are Forever  Pictures: Getty
Charles Gray as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the film Diamonds are Forever Pictures: Getty
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WHEN Sam Mendes unveiled the title of the new James Bond movie at Pinewood Studios on Thursday morning, he laid to rest an ugly dispute that had been rumbling away in 007’s background for more than 50 years.

The word Spectre was displayed on a teaser poster of a pane of glass shattered by a single bullet hole into splinters that resemble the tentacles of an octopus. For devoted fans of the James Bond canon, the letters spelled out the return of the Special Executive for Counter Intelligence for Terrorism, Revolution and Espionage and the imminent reappearance of 007’s arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Over the course of five films, Spectre and Blofeld, with his penchant for collarless suits and stroking a malevolent- looking white cat with piercing blue eyes, have been collectively responsible for the deaths of countless innocent people, but few appreciate that their first victim was Ian Fleming.

The reappearance of Spectre and Blofeld, who have not featured in a James Bond film since Diamonds Are Forever in 1971, is because a long-running legal dispute finally came to a close last autumn when Eon Productions, the makers of the official James Bond movies (we’ll draw a veil over David Niven’s Casino Royale and come to Never Say Never Again in due course), agreed a financial settlement with the family of Kevin McClory, an Irish film-maker who died in 2007 and was sent off to Valhalla with a Viking funeral.

The story is complicated but gives an insight into the convoluted world of movie production and what happens when an author’s creative powers begin to wane. Hard to imagine today, but Ian Fleming struggled to get “James Bond” up on to the silver screen. In 1958, Fleming, the foreign editor of the Sunday Times, who spent each January and February at Goldeneye, his holiday home in Jamaica, cooking up a new mission for Britain’s top secret agent, met Kevin McClory, an Irish film-maker who had recently directed The Boy And The Bridge and was impressed that he had succeeded where Fleming had failed, namely getting a film into production. Fleming suggested adapting one of his books, but McClory was astute in that he thought, as Fleming’s biographer Andrew Lycett explained, “that the long-term cinematic potential lay in the James Bond character rather than the existing books, and recommended developing a different story-line”.

Following discussions between the pair, another writer put together a film treatment that featured fishing vessels based in the Bahamas with trapdoors in the hulls capable of taking atomic bombs on board. Fleming thought the treatment “first class” but also thought it unwise to use Russians as villains as he believed, quite incredibly, that the Cold War would have ended by the time the film came into production. Instead, Fleming proposed that Bond confront Spectre – a nefarious and bloody organisation.

Fleming then took the idea and expanded it into a 67-page film treatment complete with a new villain, Emilio Largo.

In July 1959, after seeing the final cut of The Boy and the Bridge, Fleming wrote to McClory: “There is no one who I would prefer to produce James Bond for the screen. I think we will have great fun doing it, and great success.”

Meanwhile, McClory had taken Fleming’s treatment and hired Jack Whittingham, a professional screenwriter, to turn it into a finished script.

By January 1960, when Fleming arrived at Goldeneye, he was “terribly stuck with James Bond”. As he explained in a letter: “What was easy at 40 is very difficult at 50. I used to believe – sufficiently – in Bonds & Blondes & Bombs. Now the keys creak as I type & I fear the zest may have gone.” Unable to come up with a sufficient plot, he took the premise of the screenplay and adapted it into the novel Thunderball. He used Spectre but created a new arch-villain entitled Ernst Blofeld, whose name he borrowed from a member of Boodle’s, his private club in London. .

When McClory obtained an advance copy of Thunderball, due to be published in March 1961, he and Whittingham issued a writ claiming breach of copyright. An attempted injunction to prevent publication failed, but the stress of the legal action resulted in Fleming suffering a massive heart attack and keeling over during the weekly news conference at the Sunday Times. His health, already fragile, would never be the same again.

By June 1961, Harry Saltzman, the Canadian producer, who had an option to develop the James Bond character, had teamed up with Albert R “Cubby” Broccoli, whose previous production company, Warwick Pictures, had recently collapsed, and they set up Eon Productions with a view to making the first Bond movie. It was to be Thunderball but, given the legal complications, they decided instead to start with Dr No. Fleming was to receive $100,000 per movie, with a projected six-film deal and 5 per cent of the producer’s profits.

It was not until two years later, on 20 November, 1963, that McClory’s legal action finally came before the Chancery Division of the High Court. As Fleming told a journalist: “I do not think James Bond would feel at home in the Chancery Division.”

By then, Fleming was worn down and a deal was eventually struck. McClory was awarded all literary and film rights in the screenplay of Thunderball, and all film rights in the novel, which would now carry the acknowledgement: “Based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and the Author.”

This allowed him to make his own James Bond movie of the book, which both Broccoli and Saltzman opposed, and so, thinking it better to have McClory inside the tent that out, they teamed up with him to make Thunderball the movie, which became the highest grossing James Bond film of all time, until Skyfall.

In 1983, McClory exercised his rights to re-make Thunderball and managed to persuade Sean Connery to return to the role of James Bond, paying him 
$3 million to star in Never Say Never Again. Connery had been stung by his treatment from Broccoli, and while his successor, Roger Moore, enjoyed success in the tuxedo during the 1970s, the Scot had secretly teamed up with Len Deighton to develop a re-make of his biggest hit as early as 1978, which was to be called Warhead 2000AD and would feature robot sharks delivering atomic bombs from a secret dock inside the Statue of Liberty.

Broccoli and Eon Productions had deliberately dumped Spectre after falling out with McClory and when they became aware of his plans for what would become Never Say Never Again, they decided to get their retaliation in first.

In the opening credits of For Your Eyes Only (1981), an unnamed, bald-headed villain with a white cat is unceremoniously tipped to his death down an industrial chimney. The villain’s last line is: “I’ll buy you a delicatessen… in stainless steel”, which apparently was suggested by Broccoli as a reference to the bribes offered by gangsters during the 1930s, which is how he viewed McClory.

In 1989, McClory tried to persuade Pierce Brosnan, who had recently lost the role to Timothy Dalton, to appear in second re-make of Thunderball, now called Atomic Warfare. In 2002, McClory took out an advert in Screen International offering to sell the “rights to make James Bond films” along with “treatments co-authored by Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Len Deighton and Sean Connery”. The sale never took place and it would be another six years after McClory’s death before a deal was agreed with Eon to buy up the rights to Thunderball.

The title was not the only revelation at Thursday’s press launch, as we also learned that James Bond may, finally, develop an age-appropriate relationship, as the latest “Bond girl” is set to be Monica Bellucci, who is 50 years old. We don’t yet know though we suspect that the German actor Christoph Waltz is to play Blofeld.

And as for a plot, I bet Spectre is run by a white cat. The purring behind the throne.