Stream On: Ian Fleming, who authored the James Bond novels, wrote what he knew

By on June 1, 2023

“Write what you know” is usually attributed to Mark Twain, but I haven’t found it in his canon or letters. Still, it’s not bad advice, just not the only advice for writers. Kurt Vonnegut wrote parts of Slaughterhouse Five from experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden, but he was never an exhibit in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. Similarly, Ian Fleming never had “a license to kill”—but he did work for British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War. Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond is a 2014 British miniseries of four installments dramatizing that period in his life.


/Amazon /Streaming /Trailer /🍅57% /2014 /TVMA

“Everything I write has a precedent in truth.” (Ian Fleming)

The opening scenes of Fleming could be mistaken for the opening credits of a James Bond movie: a bikini-clad girl is snorkeling in the Caribbean. Colorful fish dance along; a squid releases ink into the frame like a Rorschach blot, and into view swims a man with a spear gun. The music begins to quote a familiar sol-se-la refrain (the opening three notes of the James Bond theme) but instead of returning to the expected se, it resolves to the tonic do. He aims toward the girl, fires—and the sea fills up with ink.

Up top, she climbs onto a powerboat. “You bastard! You nearly gave me a heart attack! What if you had missed?”

He follows her out of the water holding the spear gun and a dead squid. “Who says I didn’t?”

“Murdering your wife on your honeymoon! Even you couldn’t talk your way out of that.”

What we’ve seen could easily pass for an underwater scene from, say, Thunderball [book at Amazon]: the lovely girl, the handsome young man, who, although he lacks the cruelty of a James Bond as played by Sean Connery or Daniel Craig, still possesses the dark geniality of Pierce Brosnan or George Lazenby. The actor is Dominic Cooper (Band of Brothers) and he’s not playing Bond; he’s portraying Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming. (Cooper has said that playing Fleming might also be seen as an audition for playing Bond for when Craig quits.)

As they motor toward an estate on an island, the screen reads “Goldeneye, Jamaica, 1952.”

Thirteen years earlier, Ian and a friend are skiing in Austria, and Ian’s taking chances. In an exploit reminiscent of James Bond’s later mountaintop escape in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service [book], he flashes across a snowy rooftop from a hill—and does a face plant in the snow. He writes some travelogues, but his family’s considerable wealth comes from the merchant bank Robert Fleming & Co.—at heart he’s a dissolute playboy; a failed stockbroker, eclipsed by his dead war hero father and successful brother.

I’m here not for hardcore biography; rather, an entertainment anchored by some facts, about a spy author who was for a time, a spy himself. (John Le Carré was another.) Fleming’s poor showing on Rotten Tomatoes might reflect critics expecting more history. But “entertaining” is key here, and entertaining Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond most certainly is, much like Ian’s James Bond books.

At a bar, he leans toward the bartender: “Martini. Three measures of Gordon’s gin, one of vodka, half a Kina Lillet, shaken not stirred, served in a champagne goblet,” before receiving a bottle of beer. He sighs at it. “Perfect.”

In May 1939 smooth-talking Ian is recruited by Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence of the Royal Navy, to become his personal assistant. He joins the organization full-time in August 1939, in spite of having “no obvious qualifications.” As part of his appointment, he is commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in July 1939 and promoted to Lieutenant Commander a few months later.

On a diplomatic trip with Godfrey and his Second Officer to Lisbon (an open city, like Casablanca in that film) Ian is bored, and tries to win some money at baccarat from two German officers, but unlike James Bond going up against Le Chiffre in his first Bond novel that he will write in 1952, Ian loses—big. He brushes up against the sharp side of espionage, however, when he later stumbles upon the murder of one of the officers. The girl responsible looks at him, saying “I’m Jewish,” before he escorts her out of the hotel and into the night. He’s not bored now.

Back home, now he chafes against his desk, and citing intelligence, successfully argues to go to Paris to clean out British Intelligence’s offices there before they are overrun by the Germans. There he typically exceeds his brief in order to warn off Admiral Darlan from cooperating with the Germans (Darlan indeed later became the head of the puppet French Vichy government), chasing him to Bordeaux ahead of the Wehrmacht, where Darlan escapes, presumably to Germany, on a plane.

Back at home again, Ian, like his creation Bond, is now juggling two women, one the wife of a friend, when the war comes to London.

If, like me, you would like to see the Bond novels filmed in period (the 1950’s) and hewing to the books, Fleming, fictionalized or not, is the next best thing. “Based on a true story. Some names, places and incidents have been changed for dramatic effect.” I give it 4 out of 5 martinis, shaken not stirred.🍸🍸🍸🍸

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers. Columns are archived and updated when necessary here.



  • Jim Brown

    Maybe one day instead of wasting millions on films about grey men someone intelligent in the film industry could make a riveting film based on the life and times of Vadim Bakatin (last KGB Chairman). He has to be one of the greatest spy masters in espionage history. Mind you, no films have been made about many other fascinating spy masters or their top agents. For example, Bill Fairclough (ex-spook, MI6 codename JJ and one of Pemberton’s People in MI6) led an extraordinary life as depicted in Beyond Enkription, the first fact based spy thriller in The Burlington Files series which he nominally wrote. It’s just the stuff classic espionage films should be made of and just like Ian Fleming’s “Trout Memo” it is a must read for all espionage illuminati.

    If as espionage illuminati we are going to discuss the history of intelligence in the Cold War let’s not overlook that which even espionage connoisseurs have little idea about. Namely, the extent the Soviets cooperated with the West in the Cold War. Vadim Bakatin was one of the architects of this co-operation. The KGB and Western agencies frequently collaborated when combatting global crime syndicates involved in certain heinous crimes such as smuggling body parts under the cover of normal human trafficking. An interesting take on this oft forgotten aspect of the Cold War is still visible in the preserved website of a niche global intelligence agency, FaireSansDire.org, based in the UK from 1978 and now supposedly shut or dormant: see The History of Faire Sans Dire in “About Us” on The Burlington Files website.

    A series of novels based on the activities of FaireSansDire’s founders are also worth a peep if you were unaware that MI6 and the CIA combined with the KGB to combat criminals in these extreme law enforcement areas. For legal reasons only one novel (Beyond Enkription) has been published in that series called The Burlington Files. It makes for a compelling read and their website claims most read it two or more times which I believe and did!

    The larger than life characters who met in MI6 in the early seventies and later established FaireSansDire were Bill Fairclough (a not so boring accountant, MI6 codename JJ), Colonel Alan Brooke Pemberton CVO MBE and Barrie Parkes BEM all of whose fascinating backgrounds are easily accessed on the web. Pemberton’s People in MI6 even included Roy Astley Richards OBE (Winston Churchill’s bodyguard) and an eccentric British Brigadier (Peter ‘Scrubber’ Stewart-Richardson) who was once refused permission to join the Afghan Mujahideen. For more beguiling anecdotes best read a brief and intriguing News Article about Pemberton’s People in MI6 dated 31 October 2022 in TheBurlingtonFiles website and then read Beyond Enkription.

    Friday, Jun 2 @ 7:09 am
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice


    Friday, Jun 2 @ 11:23 am