''Now pay attention, 007," as James Bond's gadget-master Q always says. A former holder of the Q title, John Cleese, has been complaining that he was dropped from the films because "they decided the tone they needed was of the Bourne action movies, which are very gritty and humourless. The audiences in Asia are not going for the subtle British humour or the class jokes."
We will leave to one side the subtle humour (or otherwise) of Mr Cleese's performance in the naff Pierce Brosnan Bond film Die Another Day. On this occasion, he does actually have a point.
Too serious ... Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall.
Asian audiences, in particular, have grown substantially; hence much of the recent Bond epic Skyfall being set in Shanghai. And perhaps because of the computer-game expectations of action-loving Asian (and American) teenagers, something in 007's screen DNA has changed.
The fights are extended and jaw-breakingly realistic; the chases and action sequences disorientatingly edited, noisy and interminable. It's a cynical, straight-faced new world that Bond now inhabits. The villains, the glamorous women and even the locations have a certain downbeat realism to them. Daniel Craig's raw 007, from Casino Royale to the recent Skyfall, has certainly brought a vulnerable angle to the venerable character, but you don't see people grinning when leaving the cinema. Is this really the best way for 007 to win over new generations in whatever territory?
Ian Fleming's original novels in the '50s might have been intended by the author as fairly straight thrillers, but in fact they were dazzlingly baroque. The villains had an uncanny, sinister fairy-tale quality: Le Chiffre with his blank "doll-like" eyes; Hugo Drax, who physically resembles a Black Forest ogre; Blofeld in the Alps, wearing emerald green contact lenses to protect his eyes from the glare, but which make him look like the Devil.
Pierce Brosnan as Bond and John Cleese as Q in Die Another Day.
The jeopardy in the novels was often barking mad: in Dr No, Bond gets into an underwater fight with a giant squid; in You Only Live Twice, he is threatened with a molten mud enema. Fleming was always keen to steer away from the Cold War; he believed it wouldn't last. And the Bond films of the '60s and '70s captured that outlandish spirit.
Imagine for one moment the lead female character in any major film today being called Pussy Galore. (In 1964, during production of Goldfinger, nervous US money men wanted her renamed "Kitty" to spare delicate sensibilities, but were happily countermanded.) Then there was the central proposition of those films: that a maniac with a monorail threatening the entire world could be stopped only by a martini-glugging middle-aged British spy. Yes, I know we can hardly expect to return to this paradise lost, but there is something else under all that nonsense that the current films are missing.
The humour then may have veered into Carry On broadness, but it served a deeper purpose. Everyone has a bias towards the screen Bond they grew up with, and I still feel unconditional affection for the Roger Moore incarnation; his eyebrows on constant full alert, every entendre ruthlessly doubled.
The surviving members of the original cast of the Monty Python comedy team (L-R) Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and John Cleese, Photo: Reuters
"Something's come up," he tells a blonde lady in a ski chalet as they lie on a fur rug. He means orders from M. "Nobody does it better," crooned Carly Simon in the opening titles of The Spy Who Loved Me. She was singing about Roger Moore.
But Moore and Sean Connery also understood the vital element of knowingness; their Bonds were involved in a silent conspiracy with audiences. They knew – and we knew – that it was a huge post-colonial tease, a wink to worldwide audiences about ideas of British superiority.
Moreover, it was reliable family fun, too; the films then were never rated higher than PG. Moore, especially, understood that there was a responsibility towards the children watching. Villains such as steel-toothed horror Jaws may be alarming, but Moore's Bond was there to make flip quips.
Britt Ekland as Mary Goodnight and Roger Moore as James Bond in The Man With the Golden Gun.
Recently, however, the violence levels – such as the gruelling naked torture sequence in Casino Royale, or Javier Bardem's villain Silva revealing the deforming after-effects of cyanide poisoning – would make any parent accompanying a child deeply uncomfortable.
Mr Cleese isn't quite right. The new films still make a fetish of Britishness (Skyfall is awash with the Union flag). What they lack is that essential British quality of cheerful escapist nonsense. No longer will we see Bond escaping from a pool of ravenous alligators by using a row of them as scaly stepping stones (the biggest laugh in Live and Let Die).
It's telling that the most memorable recent 007 exploit did not feature in one of his films. Instead, the audaciously amusing image of Bond and the Queen jumping out of a helicopter was part of Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony. Surely that proves that everyone around the world can still respond to 007's traditional British blend of high adventure and self-deprecating absurdity.
The Telegraph, London