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Burden of maintaining 007's unique image

Next month Skyfall, the 23rd film in what is claimed to be the longest running film series in movie history, will go on general release.

Yes, James Bond will soon be with us again, in all his violent, sexist and subtly subversive glory.

This will be only the third film featuring Daniel Craig as Bond, but his reputation and celebrity are already secure. Even Sean Connery was never given a cameo role with the Queen which was then shown to a world audience. Come to think of it, should our monarch appear in a future Bond film? That would be the ultimate endorsement for the franchise. When it comes to the Bond franchise, nothing would surprise me.

I recently undertook a small informal poll as to who was the best screen Bond. Craig won hands down. To my surprise, only two people, including myself, nominated Connery.

There was confusion as to the worst Bond: most of those old enough to remember nominated poor George Lazenby, who made his only Bond movie in 1969, before Connery was hastily hauled back to resume his most famous role. (My view is that Lazenby was better than at least two of those who succeeded him.) The third Bond was Roger Moore. Timothy Dalton succeeded him, and then Pierce Brosnan assumed vodka martini sipping duties.

There are several downsides to the Bond phenomenon, and one of them is that while it made Connery world famous, I reckon it began, in the mid-1960s, to divert attention from his very considerable abilities as a screen actor.

Between 1965 and 1971 he made three exceptional films – The Hill, The Offence (both intense dramas in which he starred with Ian Bannen) and The Anderson Tapes – each directed by Sidney Lumet. In that trio of fine films he was allowed to show he could act in a way that was becoming impossible in the Bond series. But I have to accept that these three films are largely forgotten now, while all the Bond films are reprised again and again.

Certainly the series gives innumerable opportunity for informal polls of the kind I mentioned above. Who was the best Bond girl? Some would say the very first, Ursula Andress. I'd nominate either Daniela Bianchi in From Russia With Love, or Olga Kurylenko in the most recent film, Quantum of Solace.

The best villain? I reckon Robert Shaw – every bit as fine an actor as Connery – in From Russia With Love.

And the best cameo? For me, the incomparable Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb, also in From Russia With Love.

The best film? Well I suppose it's becoming pretty obvious that I'd pick From Russia With Love, the second film in the franchise. Magnificently and bravely filmed – the director Terence Young was involved in a horrific helicopter crash while shooting on the west coast of Scotland – in a vast variety of locations, it has in some ways dated badly, like all the early films; but there's enough pace and subtlety in it to triumph over the tedious sadism and sexism.

The train sequence, in which Connery and his would-be assassin Robert Shaw first talk and then fight it out, is superb. (In a typically snobbish touch, the British agent Bond begins to realise there's something "not quite right" about Shaw, playing a Soviet agent, when he orders red wine with his fish in the Orient Express dining car.)

And that points to one of the many drawbacks in the series. The films – or the early ones, anyway, which were more true to the mood of Ian Fleming's novels – were almost farcically snobbish.

Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was a senior member of the British establishment; the son of a Tory MP and war hero, he was educated at Eton, Sandhurst and a private university. Then he worked as a foreign correspondent and a senior newspaper executive.

In the Second World War he served in naval intelligence. In the Bond novels Fleming wrote with apparent authority on some of the activities and methods of the secret service.

Starting in 1952, he spent each winter at his holiday home in Jamaica (which he once lent to a Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden) writing a James Bond spy novel. The first was Casino Royale. The books were filled with violence, what was later known as conspicuous consumption, and some pretty crass sex scenes.

Despite all that, they did not sell especially well. It took the success of the first Bond movie, Dr No, exactly 50 years ago, to turn Fleming into a celebrity. But Fleming did not enjoy his fame for long; he died in 1964. Meanwhile his creation became unstoppable, and ever more popular.

Public taste has changed so much in the past 50 years that it's difficult to recall how controversial the early Bond movies were. When From Russia With Love was released in 1963, the Guardian condemned it as "highly immoral in every imaginable way".

The sustained sexism was, or should have been, hard to take. Just think of the names Fleming gave to some of his "heroines" – Pussy Galore, Honey Ryder.

There was also a lot of materialistic self-indulgence; Bond's world was one of exclusive restaurants and expensive clubs. There was sophisticated (by the standards of the 1960s) gadgetry, lots of fast driving in very expensive cars and of course plenty of facile sex.

One of Fleming's friends shrewdly suggested that he had created in Bond a fantasy figure of what postwar British men privately wanted to be like, and at the same time a man whom most postwar women would rather not have met.

All this means that Daniel Craig is sustaining not just a franchise, but a huge cultural burden.

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