Gilbey on Film: Happy Birthday, Mr Bond

Why we don't really need a Global James Bond Day.

It may not have escaped your attention that today is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Dr No, the first James Bond film. In fact, it is Global James Bond Day, though it’s worth pointing out that this is only on the say-so of Sony Pictures, the current custodians of the cinematic franchise, rather than the governments of the world. No public holidays for any of us, I’m afraid. And, more positively, no amnesty for anyone found using alligators as stepping stones, driving cars underwater or operating a jetpack without the necessary permits.

Yes, it really is half a century since we (OK, not me, but some of us) saw with virgin eyes a cinematic convention described by Adam Mars-Jones in 1995 as “That hallowed piece of montage in which the viewer is shot by Bond while unwisely attempting to hide in a spiral sea shell.”

To mark the occasion, there is all kinds of hoopla, including the unveiling of Adele’s theme song for the next Bond movie (song and film go by the name Skyfall, a clear back-to-basics message after the complaints raised by Quantum of Solace) and the release of a documentary about the series, Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007. I haven’t seen the documentary so allow me a moment’s recourse to its release, which informs us that it “focuses on three men with a shared dream—Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman and author Ian Fleming” and “draws back the curtain to reveal the battles, threats and real stakes unfolding behind the camera.”

The PR appetite-whetting really began in earnest back in July, when the entire Olympics was revealed to be an expensive pretext for a publicity stunt to promote Skyfall by having the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter and into the Olympic stadium. She fell from the sky: Skyfall—get it? That said, the stunt would have worked equally well had the movie’s producers stuck to the other titles that were in contention, among them Queendrop and Monarchplummet.

Personally I don’t need Global James Bond Day, 007 Hour or even a minute’s silence for Countess Tracy di Vicenzo to feel some Bond-related excitement. The prospect of a new Bond movie (I’ll be reviewing Skyfall in the NS when it opens on 26 October) is enough on its own to do the trick. Bond is part of the cultural heritage and education of anyone who has had any truck with mainstream cinema in the past 50 years; it is the only film franchise which still has about it the status of event. None of which has anything to do with the quality of the individual films—perhaps it makes each one’s particular triumphs that bit more pleasurable, and its disappointments more keenly felt, because most us watch them conscious of the historical precedence. (In other words, we are likely to know our Goldfinger from our Octopussy. As each Bond film comes along, it takes its place on the viewer’s personal Bond inventory.)

David Thomson appeared on Radio 4’s The Film Programme this week to promote his new book The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us and complain that there is no longer any sense of cinemagoing as a mass communal event. Regardless of the details of this argument, I think the Bond series is a phenomenon that runs contrary to his theory. Yes, the films all end up on the small screens that Thomson bemoans, but even once Skyfall has taken its place as another bank holiday Monday schedule-filler in 2020 (by which time there will likely be a new actor in the role), there will still be about it the air of the communal.

It also helps the sense of anticipation that the series is in particularly good health. I’m a fan of the Pierce Brosnan era, particularly GoldenEye and The World Is Not Enough, but the special achievement of Daniel Craig’s tenure so far has been to purge the Bond film of its jokiness (even if, in parts of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, fun was also sometimes a little thin on the ground).

I happened to think Quantum of Solace had its impressive moments, though Craig, has expressed publicly some dissatisfaction with it. “We were hamstrung by the writers’ strike,” he told me last year. “We had half a script and lots of pressure. We suffered because of a lack of preparation. That doesn't necessarily mean that Skyfall is going to be better—I don’t want to jinx it—but I can say we’ve worked solidly on this script for two years.”

The appointment of Sam Mendes as director, and a cast that includes Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, is intriguing. “Sam's involvement has brought in people like Ralph and Javier. He’s a very visual director, and I think audiences want something visually beautiful in a Bond movie. Also, we got rid of a lot of the old characters in Casino Royale, the ones that had been set in stone. That’s just the way it happened, and I think now we can start reintroducing them.” Among those is Q, played by Ben Whishaw; though the rumour that Moneypenny will return seems to be without value.

“Before we started, Sam and I sat down together and rubbed our hands and said, ‘Right, what shall we do?’ We watched the films, we read the books again, just to find what makes a great Bond movie. And I think we’ve managed to put in all the wit we love about the series.”

We’ll be the judge of that, Mr Bond. We’ll be the judge of that. [cackles sinisterly, touches conspicuous facial scar and strokes pet tortoise]

Skyfall is released October 26.

Daniel Craig promoting Skyfall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle