Do writers lead interesting lives? Yes, if you believe the growing number of film-makers seemingly determined to dramatise the stories of real-life authors, whether it be the mildly speculative Becoming Jane, where Anne Hathaway’s Jane Austen suffers maidenly disappointment in love, or the wildly fanciful The Raven in which a washed-up Edgar Allan Poe takes on a serial killer inspired by his stories. Suicide plays well in this genre, from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sylvia Plath to Nicole Kidman’s Virginia Woolf, while the 1978 movie Agatha zeroed in the mysterious 11-day disappearance of Agatha Christie following her husband’s request for a divorce.
The creators of Fleming, Sky Atlantic’s new biopic of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, may have just stumbled on a writer who led a life almost as quixotic as his novels. The four-part drama concentrates on Fleming’s war years when – after premature exits from Eton and Sandhurst and an early career lived under the shadow of his late war-hero father, more successful brother, Peter, and his domineering mother – he was saved from failed careers in banking, stockbroking and journalism by the outbreak of the Second World War.
Fleming’s subsequent job in Naval Intelligence provided an outlet for his powerful imagination, dreaming up the sort of covert schemes so beloved by Churchill, and organising an elite team of intelligence-gathering commandos. Despite having a grandstand view aboard a destroyer during the disastrous Dieppe Raid of August 1942, and visiting Germany in 1945 (where he didn’t, as some would have it, lead the hunt for Martin Bormann), Fleming himself never became embroiled in any actual fighting. Not that you’d know that from this new drama, with Dominic Cooper’s Fleming engaged in hand-to-hand combat with German soldiers.
“Everything’s based on something real but we have sexed it up at times,” admits Fleming’s director, Mat Whitecross. “Fleming spent a lot of time desk-bound, which doesn’t make great drama. But in fact he did get out in the field, he did get to Germany, he did go out to France and so on, but, yeah, he didn’t actually have any fisticuffs with any Nazis. But it felt like it would be cool if he did…”
Cooper had rather more profound reservations about accepting the role than a dose of spicy fictionalisation. “I was worried because I knew for a start I didn’t look like him”, he says. “I always had trouble seeing myself as this person. But then the idea of this person is very much more what he wanted to be, and that takes away the burden of people taking one look at me and going ‘how ridiculous’.”
This is Fleming as he wanted to be, in other words, as the drama’s working title, “The Man Who Would Be Bond”, makes rather more plain. But Cooper, having read two biographies (John Pearson’s officially sanctioned The Life of Ian Fleming and Andrew Lycett’s rather less sympathetic tome) wasn’t sure if he actually liked the man behind the fantasies. “He comes across as a bit of a bastard”, says Cooper. “We don’t want to watch four episodes of a bastard. I find it quite hard – everything was different – his upbringing was very different from mine. His education couldn’t be more different,” continues the 35-year-old actor who went to a comprehensive in the deprived Kidbrooke area of Greenwich, south London, while Fleming attended Eton. “And as for his treatment of women...”
Lara Pulver, who plays newspaper magnate’s spouse Ann Rothermere, Fleming’s future wife, is equally perplexed by her character’s masochistic relationship with the naval commander derisively dubbed “the chocolate soldier” by Rothermere’s smart society friends – much to Fleming’s chagrin (Cooper, by contrast, self-mockingly describes the sight of himself in uniform as looking “like an easyJet pilot”).
“When I first read the script”, says Pulver, “I was thinking, why does this woman keep coming back to this man who on their second date gives her a book and says ‘amuse yourself, I’m not interested this evening’? All the stories you read… I mean supposedly she was the only woman he went to bed with and actually woke up with the next morning and that was a privilege.”
Fleming liked to spank Rothermere, a sharp contrast to Pulver’s role in Sherlock, where her dominatrix Irene Adler had the whip-hand. Even when the couple’s love-making was not incorporating pain and punishment there was often violence not far beneath the surface, and the consummation of their relationship comes after a typical fight-and-make-up. “We were very much of the mind-set that we should never feel that Fleming was abusing or raping Ann,” says Pulver. “They are both very much compliant in what’s going on.
“What’s ended up in the final edit is literally just one camera-angle shot because actually the joy and the darkness were being played by us and it didn’t need any cutaways to any boobs or bums, in the same way you see other classy stuff on TV… like Sherlock.”
The drama’s bookending scenes of Fleming’s post-war Goldeneye home in Jamaica were filmed on Majorca, but most of the drama was shot in Budapest, in a cavernous former journalist’s club with sets that incorporate a jazz club in London, Fleming’s Mayfair flat and a naval intelligence interrogation room – although the scene I watch on my visit is dressed up to be a Lisbon casino, where a chain-smoking Fleming deliberately loses at baccarat, watched by a fellow intelligence officer played by Anna Chancellor, “Lieutenant Monday”.
Monday is the Miss Moneypenny prototype and the only fictional character in the series. On the whole, and after quite a good early gag about Fleming’s taste for martinis, the writers were keen not to over-egg the Bond references. “We weren’t making a pastiche of that genre but we needed to include it”, says Cooper. “It was important to understand where this man got his ideas about Bond from. Up to a point anyway, and then it would become laborious.”
‘Fleming’ begins Wednesday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic