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A jolly good show: The debauched life of James Bond’s creator

What ho! Can I interest you in an action-filled British drama about spies, lies and debauchery? A bit Bond-ish? Jolly good. Here's what you need to know.

Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond (Showcase, 10 p.m.) is a new BBC America miniseries that takes the allegedly real adventures of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, and turns them into a gloriously nutty, entertaining drama. Very, very Bond-ish, this thrill ride.

Dominic Cooper plays Fleming and is excellent as the ne'er-do-well toff who devoted himself to drinking, carousing and skirt-chasing until a job in wartime intelligence turned him into an accomplished spy. It also made him a man. And what a man – the drama takes enormous liberties with the real Fleming's life and regularly, with good humour, pays homage to the fictional James Bond we know from several decades of the movie franchise. This Fleming is a man straight out of the pulp-fiction genre he wrote in.

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Things open in 1952, with Fleming and his wife, Ann (Lara Pulver, best known as Irene Adler on Sherlock), on honeymoon in Jamaica. He's writing Casino Royale, drinking and smoking copiously and she's needling him with well-practised skill. Bloody woman is saucy and outright asking for chastisement. Which she gets when she reads the manuscript and Fleming reacts to her teasing. A lot of the story is there in a nutshell – especially the Fleming/Bond attitude toward women.

Then it's back to the late 1930s and young Fleming is a chap with a lot to prove, if he can be bothered. He's a failure to his family, overshadowed by his more accomplished older brother and an object of scorn to his mother. A bit bitter, Fleming loses himself in women and drink. He's the playboy of the West End. Indeed, if this yarn is to be believed, he was irresistible to upper-class women, most of whom, apparently, like to be spanked or tied up. (You are seeing the outrageously pulpy sexism of the early Bond movies being toyed with here, in a knowing, wink-and-nudge manner.) At work, however, he's a loser. Struggling to toil as a stockbroker, he irritates his single important client but is happy to drink the man's champagne.

With war looming, things suddenly look up for Fleming. (The urge to type "Bond" instead of "Fleming" here is hard to restrain, such is the playful muddle.) A man skilled in the cunning stunts used to charm and bed women is, it turns out, an ideal spy. "We need someone to go out there and improvise," he tells his boss, a man whose main concern is that Fleming call him "Sir." And yes, he does improvise his way across occupied Europe, stealing secrets and wooing young ladies. He has a bloody good war.

"Everything I write has a precedent in truth" is the quotation from Ian Fleming used to begin each episode, which again winks at the lack of veracity of what's told here. The point, though, is to be entertaining, and that is certainly achieved. Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond is beautifully made, camp at times and humorous. The possibility that Fleming is a fantasist is never quite lost and this is especially true of the constant, well-choreographed eroticism. When a teaser of the series was shown to critics recently in Los Angeles, mainly the first, charged encounter between Fleming and Ann, you could hear a pin drop in the room and then a "phew!" when it was over. It's whimsical soft porn we were all watching, and we knew it.

Writers John Brownlow and Don MacPherson do an excellent job of teasing the roots of the Bond story from Fleming's more mundane wartime work. The characters in the early Bond stories are an exaggerated version of Fleming's colleagues and cronies. This makes the miniseries fun for Bond lovers as they find out who, allegedly, inspired the characters "M" and Miss Moneypenny.

At the same time, there's an undercurrent of pain and perversity in the chronicle of the tangled relationship between Fleming and Ann. Both are unreliable, twisted people drawn to each other because they see mirror images of themselves. Neither is ever happy and in that we get a necessary reminder that the ecstatically made erotic scenes are fun for a while, but essentially glorify corrupt, miserable people. This isn't real, this version of intense romance.

Getting to that realization is, mind you, jolly good fun. Oh, those spies, their lies and debauchery – what escapism. But only that.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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