Obituary: Desmond Llewelyn
Tuesday 21 December 1999
When the producers left him out of one of the Bond movies, Live and Let Die (1973), claiming that the films were becoming too dependent on gadgetry, there was a storm of protest from fans who missed his trademark cameo. The character was restored permanently and is to be seen in the latest adventure, The World Is Not Enough. During the last week Llewelyn had been attracting large crowds at book signings for a new biography, Q: the biography of Desmond Llewelyn, written by Sandy Hernu, who described the actor as "enormously funny and entertaining and great fun to be with". She said that the man on screen was similar to the real one, except that Llewelyn hated gadgets. He once said, "In real life gadgets explode or expire as I touch them."
The son of a coal-mining engineer, Llewelyn was born in South Wales in 1914. His parents wanted him to be a chartered accountant, but a period as an articled clerk bored him, and after considering several professions he decided on a stage career and enrolled, at the age of 20, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he studied for two years.
As he said later, "I'd tried the Church and that failed. I was too dim for accountancy, too short-sighted for the police force and an insufficient liar to make a good politician. What else was left but to become an actor? I remember Richard Burton saying to me years later that the reason there are so many Welsh actors is because the Church is not very popular nowadays." Fellow students at Rada included Geoffrey Keen, later to appear in several Bond films, and Margaret Lockwood, "to whom I quite lost my heart".
While still at Rada he made his film debut with a walk-on in the Gracie Fields film Look Up and Laugh (1935), but his first professional job after leaving the academy was with a repertory company in Southend, the first of several such companies with whom he gained experience. He was appearing in Bexhill, East Sussex (where he eventually settled) when he met Pamela Pantlin, a member of the "Women's League for Health and Beauty", and they were married in 1938.
The following year, Llewelyn was in another film, the Will Hay comedy Ask a Policeman, but his career was then interrupted by the Second World War, in which he served as a second lieutenant assigned to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Captured by German soldiers in France, he spent five years as a prisoner of war.
He resumed his film career with a war film, They Were Not Divided (1950), in which he was one of two soldiers named Jones, who was thus addressed as "77 Jones" - the other was "45 Jones". The director was Terence Young, who 13 years later was director of From Russia With Love, the film which changed the course of Llewelyn's career.
Llewelyn had been appearing in regional theatre and playing small film roles - he had four lines in Cleopatra (1962) - when he auditioned for the role of Q. The character is not in the Ian Fleming books, though in the first Bond story, Casino Royale, it is "Q Branch" that provides 007's gadgets, and in Llewelyn's first two Bond films his character is billed as "Major Boothroyd", becoming simply "Q" in Thunderball (1965). (In the first Bond film, Dr No (1962), Boothroyd had been played by Peter Burton, who was not available for the filming of From Russia With Love.)
Young wanted the character to speak with a Welsh accent, but Llewelyn preferred to interpret the character as "a toffee-nosed Englishman". "At the risk of losing the part and with silent apologies to my native land, I launched into Q's lines using the worst Welsh accent, followed by the same in English," he said.
Bond was in need of gadgets in From Russia With Love, for he had to contend with two of the most dastardly villains of the series, the blond hulk Red Grant (Robert Shaw) and the sadistic Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), who uses knife-toed boots to kick her victims to death. A booby-trapped briefcase was the principal item with which Bond was equipped, courtesy of Q, who was to become a fixture of the Bond adventures (with the exception of Live and Let Die) and almost as popular a figure as Bond himself. His description of the versatile briefcase was typical of Q's briefings: "Here is an ordinary black leather case. Hidden in these steel rods are 20 rounds of ammunition. Press that button and you have a throwing knife. Inside is your AR7, a folding sniper's rifle and 50 gold sovereigns. This looks like an ordinary tin of talcum powder, but it conceals a tear gas cartridge and is kept in place by a magnetic device . . ."
Guy Hamilton directed the next film in which Llewelyn played Q, Goldfinger (1964), and the actor credits him with changing his approach to the role. "Previously I'd played Q as a toffee-nosed technician, more than slightly in awe of Bond." Hamilton changed that approach. "He said, `This man annoys you. He's irritatingly flippant and doesn't treat your gadgets with respect. Deep down you may envy his charm with women, but remember you're the teacher."
After that, Llewelyn stated, he played Q with "a veiled exasperation coupled with a humorous tolerance to 007's flippancy and aggravating habit of fiddling with the gadgets". That exasperation mounted over the years, and in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Q's first words to 007 were "Now pay attention, Bond", and his last, "Oh, grow up, 007!"
Asked recently which Bond he considered best, Llewelyn chose Sean Connery as "perfect", adding, "George Lazenby played it straight and rather well. Roger Moore was much lighter and more jokey. It was a rather camp portrayal, with a lot more emphasis on humour, but it worked. Timothy Dalton was Ian Fleming's Bond - a real character. His confidence and surliness were straight from the books. It was brave, but people didn't like it. Pierre Brosnan is extremely good. He has the right look and manner."
The character of Q was due to be retired after the latest Bond film, The World Is Not Enough, with his sidekick R, played by John Cleese, replacing him. The actor loved playing Q, but in recent years his private life had been marked by tragedy as he watched his wife suffer from Alzheimer's disease.
Llewelyn appeared in such television series as Doomwatch and Follyfoot and made other films, including Operation Kid Brother (1967), which starred Sean Connery's brother Neil playing the sibling of 007. Bernard Lee ("M") and Lois Maxwell ("Moneypenny") were other Bond regulars cast in this weak film to bolster its appeal. But it is for his performances in 17 Bond films that Llewelyn will have a permanent part in film history, equipping the hero with toxic fountain-pens, exploding toothpaste and dozens of similar gadgets with which to confound or exterminate his adversaries.
Desmond Wilkinson Llewelyn, actor: born Newport, Monmouthshire 12 September 1914; married 1938 Pamela Pantlin (two sons); died Firle, East Sussex 19 December 1999.
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