Private Eye is very good at sending up journalists who write what are ostensibly tributes to recently deceased celebrities, but which are actually self-aggrandising articles about themselves; “The Bowie I knew”, and so on. Recalling my one encounter with Roger Moore, I admit I couldn’t help appropriating the title of Michael Moore’s breakthrough film. However, I largely do so to confess I didn’t really excel myself in that moment, which came during a date in a speaking tour by Roger Moore when he visited the Cambridge Union. I wanted to ask him something, but I was struggling for a good question of my own. In the end, I asked him almost the same question that Alan Partridge once asked him but couldn’t get an answer to – who would win a hypothetical fight between James Bond and The Saint? Moore took a moment to consider the question, then turned towards me with eyebrow raised archly (naturally) and replied, “It would depend on who was playing Bond”.
This blog was never envisaged as a confessional, but it must be acknowledged for the purposes of this entry that James Bond is perhaps the most significant cultural creation in the life of this writer, or at least the most consistently present companion – Bond has been with me from my earliest memories. However, there is more to it than that. There are generations of fans united by the conviction that James Bond never dies. Not only is the character immortal, but a part of me looked upon the actors who played him as being imbued with some kind of elixir. I have long felt that the moment at which the first actor to have played Bond in one of the “official” movies expired – some actors who played him on television and radio, such as Barry Nelson and Bob Holness, have already passed away – would trigger an unavoidable rendezvous with contemplating one’s own mortality. That moment came this week, and is the provenance of some of my sadness, but I rather suspect Roger Moore himself wouldn’t have had much truck with such morbidity.
It’s been a week for anecdotes about Moore, all of them illuminating his humour and wry amiability. The one that most occupies my mind right now comes from his own autobiography, which I was flicking through one afternoon a few years ago while passing some time in a bookshop in Cork. Naturally I gravitated to the pages recounting the 1970s. I am recalling this story as well as I can from memory, but the gist of it is that Moore had wanted to star in Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal, and was disappointed not to get the lead role that eventually went to Edward Fox. He recounts a later meeting with Zinnemann, who explained that the Jackal wasn’t a glamorous person at all, but rather someone who was adept at concealing himself. Moore was simply too suave and handsome and conspicuous looking for the part. Moore drily concluded the anecdote by conceding that Zinnemann had a point.
Yet Moore was more usually self-deprecating to a fault about his abilities, a position critics were usually only to eager to affirm. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane said that Moore “needed a stunt double for his acting scenes” in the Bond films, and there was more where that came from. But if his range seemed limited, it could be argued casting agents and directors weren’t interested in seeing him stretch himself as an actor, and seldom gave him the chance. This writer takes a different line in appraising Moore. For one thing, lightness is one of the most important yet underrated skills in entertainment. And if what he was doing was so easy, and so easily dismissed, how come there’s never been anybody else like him? Plenty of actors aim at suave self-parody, but nobody holds a candle to the way Moore could do it. He truly was a singular figure in television and cinema. He was also keenly aware of his good fortune, and that graciousness shone through in his performances, in The Saint, The Persuaders, throughout the Bond years, and pretty much everything else he appeared in. No wonder everybody loved Roger Moore.
On Bond, he was perceptive about how essentially ludicrous the setup with Bond was. “What kind of serious spy is recognized everywhere he goes?” In his approach to the role, he was reputed to have said that he walked through the door marked Comedy. Which is a good thing, because there were plenty of silly moments that could have sunk the series in the hands of another actor, whether it was dropping a fish out of the window of his Lotus Esprit-turned-submarine after emerging on a beach, or the frankly inexcusable double take by a pigeon as Moore’s Bond glided across Venice’s St Mark’s Square on a gondola-turned-hoverboat. Not only did Moore elevate these scenes to the extent they became part of the essential fun, but these are the movies from the Bond series that most people enjoy.
Whenever I happen upon a Bond film while channel hopping, I invariably stay watching. I have already programmed my television box to record The Spy Who Loved Me, Moore’s finest Bond outing, which by happy coincidence will be broadcast on Sunday. The umpteenth time is sure to be as good as the first time with the immortal Roger Moore.