William Boyd on debut play Longing - and why Daniel Craig isn't right for his James Bond

The celebrated author, set to publish a 007 novel in September, feels 'like a new boy on his first day at school' as his theatrical debut, based on short stories by Anton Chekhov, is staged in London

“I’ve never gone over the top in the First World War, I’ve never killed anybody, I’ve never been a woman…” William Boyd is listing the leaps of imagination he has taken while writing his 11 novels.

Few would question the credentials, however, of the man behind Waiting For Sunrise, Ordinary Thunderstorms and spy story Restless, winner of the Costa Novel of the Year Award and the basis for a BBC television drama starring Hayley Atwell broadcast over Christmas.

But the author's latest test of imagination has seen him become both Anton Chekhov and the James Bond author Ian Fleming almost simultaneously -a mammoth combination for a self-confessedly “idle” author.

The twist is that instead of portraying the authors as characters, like he did with Fleming in Any Human Heart and Chekhov in The Pigeon, Boyd actually had to write like them. His new James Bond novel will be published in September and he has turned two Chekhov short stories, the famous My Life and the little known A Visit to Friends, into a new work, Longing.

We meet at Boyd’s beautiful Chelsea home. Under strict instructions not to spill the beans on his take on Fleming’s spy (“Someone will come and kill me if I say any more”), Boyd repeats what we already know: that his Bond will be middle-aged and the novel will be set in 1969, just five years after Fleming died aged 54, and when “conceivably he might have written another one had he lived”. Boyd does expand on why Daniel Craig won’t play his 007 and why Hollywood will certainly not be keen on it, but more on that later.

Boyd tells me about the “slightly schizoid shift” authors must navigate to speak, think and write like their characters. Channelling the words of two real, historically recognisable people, whose only similarities are that they both died young and were writers who left epic legacies (Fleming's spawning a 50-year film franchise, and the consumptive Russian's plays, such as The Cherry Orchard, still being performed the world over a century on) is daunting to say the least. But Boyd appears unfazed. 

What he is feeling insecure about, however, is that his Chekhov project, Longing, is for the stage and not for the page. Quite surprisingly given his prolific film, television and radio writing it is Boyd’s first theatre play. “I feel sort of stage struck. A new boy on his first day at school,” he says talking about the production set to open at the Hampstead Theatre on 28 February starring Tamsin Greig, Iain Glen and John Sessions and directed by Nina Raine.

In earlier interviews Boyd described his wish to write a play as the monkey on his back. He says he probably put the monkey there himself because he loves the theatre so much. Longing came about because “the story I had could only have been a play” and the enormously successful writer, 60, appears boyishly nervous about it, placing his hands together and fidgeting.

“I wrote one little one act play for the National Theatre’s youth programme called Six Parties a couple of years ago. But it was only on for a couple of nights so I didn’t really lose my virginity, as it were,” he says.

The reason for Boyd’s anxiety when it comes to treading the boards harks back to his student days in Glasgow when he was the university newspaper’s theatre critic. “I went to every first night at the amazing Citizens Theatre which was probably the most exciting theatre in Britain in the 1970s. Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald who ran it were unbelievably audacious in what they did. So as a theatrical education for me it was matchless.”

Longing, set in an unnamed provincial 1880s Russian town, is a comi-tragic hotchpotch of relationships combining the desperation of the wealthy brought low with the ambitions of their social lessers and the sexual and marital pressures withal. Its central male character, Kolia, taken from A Visit To Friends is “very plausibly a self-portrait by Chekhov” Boyd tells me.

Chekhov left the story “which contains the germ of The Cherry Orchard” out of his collected works, very unusually for him. Boyd thinks that the tale of a man who cannot commit to love (Chekhov himself went from one woman to the next) was just too close to the bone. “I think women who loved Chekhov who read A Visit To Friends would think ‘Been there, done that.’ So that’s an interesting subtext, playing with Chekhov’s own analysis of his own particular emotional problems.”

Born in Ghana, Boyd was educated at the infamous Gordonstoun boarding school in Moray, Scotland and his family hail from Fife. His soft Scottish accent strengthens when he talks about the country, marvelling that the Hampstead production has attracted fellow Scots Glen, Sessions, Alan Cox and even, distantly, Greig. “Scotland, this little country, is a bit like Russia before the revolution: decaying aristocrats, a thrusting mercantile class, a working class, an urban working class and a peasant crofter class,” he says.

As well as making use of the cast’s Scottish heritage (Sessions will adopt a strong Glaswegian burr for the part) Boyd is also keen to utilise his director Nina Raine’s whose great uncle was Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak. “She’s got a strong Russian family connection herself so I hope that Russian vibe will pay off for us.”

Taking a schizoid shift of my own I decide to move the conversation on from eighteenth century Russia to make a last ditch appeal for more information about James Bond. Indicating with an uncomfortable glance at the window that snipers might be trailing us from across the street Boyd gives a wry laugh. He tells me there is a joined up 007 PR machine covering both the film and publishing empire that “has begun the drip-feed of information” that he can’t interfere with.

But he is clear about one thing: his novel is not being lined up as the basis for a follow-up to Skyfall, the most successful Bond film to date having taken a record £100m at the UK box office, or any other of the spy movies.

“I don’t think they’ll ever make a retro Bond. Even Dr No which was written in 1955 was set in 1962 when the film was made. All the Bond films from then have been completely contemporary. They wouldn’t go back and make a Bond set in 1969. It would throw the whole franchise askew,” he said.

This is a great shame as Daniel Craig, whom Boyd is friends with, will be 45 in March, the exact age of Boyd’s Bond who follows Fleming’s detailed chronology. Much as we might love a period drama it wouldn’t make sense to cast Craig back, Life On Mars-style, five decades, Boyd insists mentioning the gadgets, cars and styles of the day that have come to define each cinematic instalment.

But, he concedes: “It’s interesting in Skyfall to see them referring back, as it were, to Bond’s biography, but of course it is set in 2012 so Bond would have been 88. In a way I have the easier, or more logical, task, because my Bond is living his history. His schooldays, his parenting and upbringing is all there.”

“There is a disconnect between the film Bond and the literary Bond which is their contemporaneity. I don’t suffer from that.”      

Longing is at the Hampstead Theatre 28 February to 6 April; published by Methuen Drama, £9.99 ISBN 9781472517456

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable