FILM / James Bond, for screen and country: Sheila Johnston talks to current action king Joel Silver about Bond's prospects

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Thirty years after James Bond's screen debut, his reputation has been severely shaken, not stirred. He hasn't been activated for three years, has suffered a serious identity crisis, and is being challenged at the box-office by an American arriviste by the name of Ryan, Jack Ryan. ; John Lyttle sizes up Ian Fleming's 007 against Tom Clancy's Ryan; and a new generation of British writers and film-makers suggest how Bond could freshen up his act

THE celebrations surrounding Dr No's 30th birthday (the film opened on 5 October 1962) have been clouded by one regrettable absence: Bond himself. The latest 007-movie, which ought to have appeared in the summer of 1991 with its usual biennial regularity, failed to show, and any future productions have vanished in a snowstorm of litigation. Cubby Broccoli, the movies' 83-year-old producer, is suing MGM-Pathe, the distributors, and has announced his decision to sell Danjaq, the company that owns the rights to the Fleming novels.

One reason for all this is the poor performance of the last two Bonds, in which Roger Moore was replaced by Timothy Dalton. The Living Daylights grossed only dollars 55m in the US; the follow-up, Licence to Kill, dipped as low as dollars 16.6m there. The theories of what went wrong fall into two camps: those which feel that the character himself is hopelessly outmoded, and those which maintain that there is life in the old dog yet and that it's the films which have lost their way.

This, emphatically, is the view of Joel Silver, who is in a position to know, being the most successful producer of action movies of recent years (his credits include the Beverly Hills Cops, the Lethal Weapons and the Die Hards). 'I love being in the sequel business,' he says. 'Audiences know what to expect and want to see it, but it's also a challenge; you have to bring something new to each movie. Early on the series-makers were very conscious of the Bond concept: Thunderball was quite a different film from Goldfinger. Towards the end, the films were almost ordinary.'

Silver also believes that the movies erred fatally in ceasing to take themselves seriously: he recalls that his own worst disaster was also his most (late-) Bondian - Hudson Hawk, which featured a wise-cracking hero, an incredible plot and caricatured villains. 'When you make everything a farce, it becomes like toffee.' he says. 'The key to the action genre is that you have to believe everything that's happening could happen. The early Bonds were fantastical, but they did feel reality- based. And, although they had a lot of whimsy, they didn't make fun of themselves either. The late films began to be parodies, like Naked Gun 2 1/2 .'

007 is not altogether dead: US kids have been watching one James Bond Jnr - Bond's skateboarding teenage nephew, who stars (alongside teen versions of Felix Leiter and Q) in an animated show syndicated to more than 100 American television stations. There are no signs of a live-action comeback, however. Plans were announced last year for a 26-part TV series featuring a less violent, non-smoking, celibate - in short, barely recognisable - Bond, but Broccoli has resisted them stoutly.

At Cannes last May, rumours were flying around that Silver himself hoped to acquire the rights: the producer, it was said, had spoken to Mel Gibson and to Richard Donner, the director of the Lethal Weapons, and had convinced them to commit to three Bond movies. Casting Gibson as the quintessential English hero is not as wild as it sounds: Bond has been played in the past by an American (Barry Nelson - the very first 007, in an hour-long TV drama in the Fifties), a Scot (Sean Connery), an Australian (George Lazenby) and a Welshman (Timothy Dalton).

More importantly, Gibson is a world-famous name. 'Putting in him alone would fresh up the genre,' Silver says. 'He has the same good looks and the same boldness as Connery. And casting an international star would make the film an international vehicle.' That, perhaps, was Broccoli's mistake in casting Dalton, believing that he could - as he had before with Connery - turn a highly respected, but relatively unknown actor into a big box-office draw. 'You can't build a star like you could in the old days. You're better served having a well-known personality; that's the way I would do it.' But Silver's plans have so far come to nought.

Meanwhile, the crypto-Bonds continue: Harrison Ford has taken Patriot Games to dollars 83m at the American box-office so far, and has just signed to play the central character, Jack Ryan, in four more films adapted from Tom Clancy's novels - a contract rumoured to bring him a cool dollars 50m. And, of course, there are Silver's own new breeds of hero.

But Silver is scornful of the idea that these will ever take Bond's place in the popular consciousness, or that he himself, having failed to secure the franchise, might one day field a thinly-disguised 007 clone. 'Some of the reviews of the Die Hards referred to them as blue-collar Bonds. But Bond is an icon. He's part of our communal lives and will go through generations. He's magic] He's not just a man who's a spy - he's James Bond] That's what I think is so valuable and that's why I think he should not be lost.'

The Living Daylights, 6.30pm, tonight, ITV; Thirty Years of James Bond, 9.30pm, tonight ITV

Additional reporting below by Laurence Earle, James Rampton and Siobhan Dolan