From The Spy with the Cold Nose to the adventures of Neil Connery: how 007 inspired some of the worst films ever made
When contemplating the imminent release of the new James Bond film, SPECTRE, the name of Charles Hawtrey very rarely comes to mind. Yet there is an unlikely connection: 51 years ago the camp, bespectacled actor was cast as agent Charlie Bind in Carry On Spying, one of the first films to parody the world of 007.
Between 1964 and 1967 cinemagoers were offered a choice of well over 50 pictures that attempted to benefit from the Bond films’ success. Sometimes the results were diverting and conveyed their own sense of style, such as Our Man Flint, starring James Coburn, or The Spy with the Cold Nose, in which Laurence Harvey (once seriously considered for the role of Bond) played agent Francis Trevelyan (“the third best dressed man in the whole world three years running”).
Sometimes they were not: think of the original Casino Royale (1967), a multi-million dollar vanity project with all the coherence you would expect from a film that employed six different directors. David Niven merited a special award for maintaining his dignity in very trying circumstances.
Far better entertainment value is represented by the episodes of various Sixties spy series reedited to form cheap but serviceable films. Expanded episodes of The Man from UNCLE were sold for overseas theatrical release as To Trap a Spy and The Spy with My Face. Five years before he made his Bond debut in Live and Let Die, Roger Moore starred in Vendetta for a Saint – a fine time-filler.
Lower down the cinematic scale are the Euro-spy epics. In the mid-1960s United Artists, which launched the Bond series, was kept busy by the attempts of various French, Italian and German producers to exploit the 007 brand with cheap rip-offs.
The average Euro-spy star was an American B-movie lead or a faintly over-the-hill British actor, usually supported by a mascaraed leading lady and Klaus Kinski as an imaginatively cast villain. The plots would sometimes use existing fictional spies: the French OSS 117 series featured agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, the creation of the prolific French writer Jean Bruce, who turned out 91 books in the series before his 1963 death in a car crash. Other films would create their own spy, preferably a taciturn one in order to spare the scriptwriter too much strain.
Budgets were tight in the world of Bond knock-offs, so a groovy theme tune was essential to distract cinema patrons from some of the production challenges. The props might be constructed of balsa wood but with a leading lady in a bikini and a swinging title song the audience would hopefully go home happy. Sometimes this would result in a distinct sense of bathos: Target for Killing opens with a fabulous example of Sixties Europop, but the actual film sees Stewart Granger playing “James Vine” with the flair of a supermarket manager rearranging tinned peas on a Monday morning.
But, at their best, the Euro-spy epics have a demented verve all of their own, akin to a Bond film as re-imagined by Alan Partridge. Danger!! Death Ray features Gordon “Tarzan” Scott, sounding as though he has dubbed his own lines in an echo-chamber, battling the type of special effects that only an equal lack of skill and money can produce. The Sunbeam Alpine car chase in Dr No may have looked slightly ropey but it is Bullitt in comparison with Death Ray’s plastic toy Alfa Romeo falling into a garden pond.
The heyday of the Bond spoof ceased in around 1968. But the British-based Canadian director Lindsay Shonteff doggedly continued with the sub-genre well into the 1970s. Shonteff’s first picture in this vein, 1965’s Licensed to Kill, starred Tom Adams (later the face of furniture giant DFS) as Charles Vine (the second-best secret agent in the world). With its cast of hammy bit-actors, and locations seemingly restricted to one country lane in Hertfordshire, Licensed to Kill has the air of a sub-par Saint episode, but despite all this it was a box office success.
Shonteff was absent from the sequel Where the Bullets Fly (the only spy film to guest star Sid James), but 11 years later he returned to direct No 1 of the Secret Service. The hero now operates under the typically derivative name of “Charles Bind” and is played with genuine verve and charm by Nicky Henson, but the shonky Shonteff touch (muddy cinematography, awkward-looking extras) is ever-present.
The next sequel, Licensed to Love and Kill (aka The Man from S.E.X.), replaced Henson with The New Avengers’ Gareth Hunt. The screenplay lacks the sophistication of its predecessor – one character is named “Lotta Muff” – and the production values are slightly below those of an ad for a carpet warehouse. The scenes set in the US are clearly shot in the Home Counties, complete with right-hand-drive Ford Escorts, and a plastic skeleton replicates the effects of a young lady dissolving in an acid-filled swimming pool ("I like my fish off the bone – not my women," muses Bind).
The trademark Shonteff care for continuity is also to the fore when a Jaguar turns into an MG Midget post-explosion. But the sight of Gareth at the wheel of a second-hand E-Type that can fly, an effect achieved by tilting the camera through 45 degrees, is more enjoyable than the many longeurs of Moonraker.
Of all of the Bond tributes, the prize for the most entertaining has to be awarded to Operation Kid Brother aka Operation Double 007 aka Secret Agent 00. Bernard Lee (Q) and Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny), together with Anthony Dawson (Professor Dent in Dr No) and Adolfo Celi (Largo in Thunderball) and Daniele Bianchi (Tatiana in From Russia with Love) all moonlight from the Bond franchise in this 1967 Italian film: a tempting prospect to connoisseurs of the cheap and tacky.
But a fourth alternative title, O.K. Connery, hints at the genuine coup de cinema on the part of the producer Dario Sabatello, who hired Sean Connery’s younger brother Neil to play the lead. The fact that Neil had no acting experience – he was working as a plasterer at the time – did not bother Sabatello in the slightest; overdubbing by an American actor would mask any vocal deficiencies from the novice leading man, and in any case Sean’s brother looked rather dapper.
The narrative has the imaginatively named Dr Neil Connery recruited by one Commander Cunningham (Bernard Lee looking depressed) to defeat the fiendish Mr Thayer (Adolfo Celi looking like an actor awaiting his lunch break). Thayer has invented a low-budget device that will freeze moving metal parts and evidently only Sean Connery’s brother can save the world. Just in case the audience was in any doubt over the family connection, there is dialogue along the lines of “He’s enlisted the aid of that young Scottish doctor, you know, the brother of secret agent 00...”
Neil Connery went on to play a Bernard Bresslaw-like security agent in The Bodystealers, a 1969 British sci-fi drama about aliens in crash helmets trying to take over Middlesex, and a purse snatcher in a 1971 public information film.
The existence of these films is a testament to the original 007 film formula. It remains to be seen whether SPECTRE will inspire its own homages. How about Danny Dyer reprising Charles Bind as a cockney geezer somewhere in Shoreditch? Or perhaps not...