In case you hadn't noticed, this year is the 50th anniversary of the release of the very first James Bond film, Dr No, and it also sees the release of the 23rd Bond outing, Skyfall. Bond is such a ubiquitous part of our culture that it's easy to underestimate just how hard it is keeping something alive and popular for so long. Bond could easily have gone out of favour some time ago and been consigned to the dustbin of history like westerns, World War II films, Harry Palmer, Thunderbirds and Tarzan. And, of course, one of the ways Bond has survived so long is that, like Doctor Who, he's managed to keep being reborn.
Each new incarnation of Bond (very loosely) fits a decade and speaks to each new generation. (Except George Lazenby, who spoke for no one and even had half his lines redubbed by the late George Baker.) It's fascinating to chart how each Bond cleverly manages to personify an era and even define it.
So the '50s Bond was the Bond of Ian Fleming's original books. This peculiar decade is often seen as being a bit stuffy and conservative in relation to the more flashy '60s, but it saw more radical change than we give it credit for. There was a dissatisfied generation emerging from the horrors and destruction of World War II, who were impatient to create a radical new world. It was the decade of the Angry Young Men, rock'n'roll, bebop, Brigitte Bardot and Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Jackson Pollock, and it saw the birth of James Bond. Fleming was a radical in his own way. He had witnessed a new breed of heroes in action, the commandos and special agents of the Special Operations Executive, who may have been - for the most part - upper-crust and well educated, but were also tough as old boots and ruthless, cold-blooded killers. They were the inspiration for Bond, an Eton drop-out and government assassin, bored by the staid old conventions of courtship and deference to women. You couldn't do things the old way any more.
Bond's blunt name was a deliberate breaking away from the tradition of limp-wristed, upper-class British ''gentlemen'' crime fighters, such as Lord Peter Wimsey, Roderick Alleyn and Albert Campion. Bond was certainly no gentleman in the old-fashioned sense, but he was still a hero of sorts, and a hero Britain sorely needed. Fleming was writing during the last gasp of British imperialism. Bond still flies the flags but seems unaware that the cracks are starting to show, despite the fact that in his first outing (Casino Royale) he has to be bailed out by the CIA when he runs out of money at the gaming tables.
In an era of post-war rationing and drabness, and a time when Britons were waking up to the fact they were perhaps no longer so great, Bond provided the ultimate escape. He travels the world, defeats exotic villains, eats exotic food, drinks fine wines and beds fine women. This was the era of Playboy magazine, a manual for how to be a modern, sophisticated man about town, and the Fleming books service the same male needs.
The books spilled over into the '60s, but the literary Bond was ill-suited to that decade - he was a square, a man out of time, who hated the modern world of pop music and long-haired youths. Strange, then, that the cinematic Bond became the leading icon of the era, the poster boy for the Swinging '60s - smart, sexy, amoral, sharp-suited, flippant and British down to his silk underpants.
Fleming, who reckoned he'd created something special with Bond, had tried very hard to get films made of his books all through the '50s, but thank goodness he failed. A '50s Bond film might have killed the character off for good. It would have been a watered-down, creaky old black-and-white affair, shot on a soundstage at Ealing with painted backdrops and starring someone reliably unsexy, like Stewart Granger or Kenneth More.
Sean Connery was something new. A proper British film star you could well imagine being a real threat to both the villains and the women, and Dr No kickstarted a new genre: the glamorous, globe-trotting, action blockbuster.
Then came the '70s and Roger Moore. The '70s were the morning after the party that was the '60s, a party that had left Connery looking worn-out and paunchy. The '70s were cold, grey, politically combustible and riven with strikes and industrial action. Would audiences flock to see films about an establishment figure such as Bond? A civil servant in a suit upholding all that was great about Britain and the Empire? Wasn't the idea of Bond more than faintly ridiculous?
The filmmakers certainly seemed to think so, as they gave us ''Disco Bond'', in his camp safari suits, spouting a stream of Carry On-style double entendres. Roger Moore was a fine light comic actor and he steered Bond through some very tricky (shark-infested) waters. As he himself said: ''To me, the Bond situations are so ridiculous, so outrageous. I mean, this man is supposed to be a spy and yet everybody knows he's a spy. Every bartender in the world offers him martinis that are shaken, not stirred. What kind of serious spy is recognised everywhere he goes? It's outrageous. So you have to treat the humour outrageously as well. My personality is entirely different than previous Bonds. I'm not that cold-blooded killer type. Which is why I play it mostly for laughs.''
Moore's Bond limped into the '80s with shrinking budgets and an ageing star, and when he finally called it a day (at nearly 60) he was replaced by poor old Timothy Dalton, who had to fit in with the cultural mores of the time and become ''PC Bond''. No smoking, no heavy drinking, no flippant humour and only one woman per film. It looked like this could be the end of Bond. How could he survive political correctness? Was he too much of an anachronism?
No way. A new decade rode to the rescue: the selfish, designer-obsessed, money-worshipping, politically shallow, PC-backlash, lads' magazine, me generation '90s. Bond was back with a vengeance. Pierce Brosnan was ''Designer Bond'' and this was his world. It was all about the cars, the gadgets, the cocktails, the beautiful girls, the expensive watches, the expensive suits, the designer hotels. Excess all areas. Every magazine on the shelves seemed to be telling us how to live the James Bond lifestyle. London was swinging again. It was cool Britannia time but, like every wild, hedonistic night out that Bond had been on in his long history, there was a hangover. And we're still working our way through it.
The legacy of the out-of-control '90s is Britain's current recession, which Daniel Craig's morally ambiguous, bruised and battered, damaged-goods version of Bond so wonderfully personifies. These murky modern times are edgy, uncertain and doom-laden, obsessed with terrorism, eco-disaster and the rise of international gangsterism. James Bond is just the fantasy hero we need.
The Daily Telegraph, London