Licensed to print money

Fifty years ago, Ian Fleming sat down to write the first Bond book. Since then, 007 has become a glo

I recently returned from Goldeneye, in Jamaica. Built by Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond books, Goldeneye is possibly the most luxurious house in the whole of the Caribbean, and the acme of tropical sophistication.

It seems a pity that the Queen, on her state visit to Jamaica this month, should have chosen to stay at Government House, instead of Fleming's old home. Even the most discerning Bond villain, with regal delusions of grandeur, would feel very comfortable there. Perhaps, in the final analysis, Her Majesty was deterred by the prospect of using Goldeneye's bathrooms, which are located outside, in the miniature private rainforests attached to each bedroom suite (I joke not).

Sadly, there are few copies of Fleming's actual novels to be found in the house, not even a complete set of paperbacks. The damp, tropical atmosphere and turnover of paying guests mean that Goldeneye is perhaps not the best place to leave lying around a first edition of Casino Royale. There is, however, a complete set of the movies on DVD, and, sipping a cocktail in the Blofeld-sized screening room, I decided to watch the first Bond film, Dr No, which is set in Jamaica. Call it homage: I had realised that my visit to Fleming's house marked two important Bond anniversaries.

Fifty years ago, Ian Fleming sat down at his desk in Golden-eye and typed the first words of Casino Royale. It was this book, written in just eight weeks, that introduced the world to James Bond, Agent 007, licensed by Her Majesty's Government to kill. Exactly ten years later, in January 1962, the producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli started shooting Dr No on the island of Jamaica. It cost just $900,000 to make. One wonders why they picked this story. After all, Dr No was the sixth Bond novel, published in 1958 and reviewed, unfavourably, by a younger but hardly less choleric Paul Johnson, in the pages of the New Statesman.

"I have just finished what is, without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read," thundered Johnson. "I had to suppress a strong impulse to throw the thing away . . . Mr Fleming has no literary skill . . . This seems to me far more dangerous than straight pornography . . . This novel is badly written to the point of incoherence."

Sadly, Fleming hardly lived long enough to enjoy the Klondike-type pay-out on his work. In 1964, at the age of just 56, he died of smoking-related coronary and aortic sclerosis, having written his 14th and last Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun. He had seen only one more Bond story, From Russia With Love, reach the screen, although Goldfinger, arguably the best of the books and the films, was already in production.

Forty years later, the franchise shows little sign of running out of steam; which is hardly surprising, when one considers that Bond has generated revenues in excess of $3bn, making the Fettes-educated spy the most lucrative screen character in cinema history.

The 14 books are long exhausted, but that has not stopped "Cubby" Broccoli from continuing to churn out Bond films at the rate of one every three years. Production is already under way for Bond 20, starring Pierce Brosnan, who is, strictly speaking, the sixth actor to play Bond on screen. (I wonder if NS readers can name the first man to play the part of James Bond. It was, in fact, Barry Nelson, in a CBS television adaptation of Casino Royale from 1954.)

Ever since Sean Connery put away his quartermaster-issue hairpiece, the Bond films have been grotesque parodies of the novels and the character who, as Anthony Burgess argued in his introduction to the Coronet paperback editions of the Bond novels in 1985, is very nearly the equal of Sherlock Holmes. "I know there are some who would deny that Fleming practised the literary art," Burgess wrote. "They are the aesthetic snobs who will not grant that the Sherlock Holmes stories are literature either . . . Both, as Shakespeare did, believed that fiction (drama or narrative) should be about well-defined characters in interesting situations."

The books are much better than the films, pace Paul Johnson. But it is to the cinema that Bond owes his immortality as a character. Is there a man alive who has not wished to own a silver-grey Aston Martin DB5, or who has not slipped into a dinner suit without humming Monty Norman's bouncy guitar theme tune?

The Bond effect is all the more remarkable when one considers how ritualised and formulaic the films are. Indeed, a James Bond movie is scarcely like a film at all, more like a celluloid Roman circus complete with clowns, chariot races, numerous fetish objects, maidens in distress and an indomitable hero who despatches villains with maximum ingenuity.

Even before you enter the cinema, you know, roughly, what you are going to see, and over the years it is this predictability that has turned Bond into the Holy Grail of film-makers and publishers alike: a brand - a movie that is always the same but also, somehow, different. The Bond brand is owned by MGM/UA. So it is hardly surprising that other studios such as Paramount have tried, and failed, to create in Ethan Hunt (Mission: Impossible) and Jack Ryan (from the novels by Tom Clancy) own-brand characters to rival Bond. You might as well ask Inspector Lestrade to try to rival Sherlock Holmes.

Of course, it is not just film companies that have tried to climb on the 007 bulletproof bandwagon. Knowing the fantasy effect that Bond has on people, especially male consumers, companies fall over themselves to pay the producers to place their new cars and latest gizmos in a Bond film, often with 007's flip dialogue supplying the equivalent of the pay-off in a TV commercial. For Bond 20, the Ford Motor Company has already paid millions of dollars to persuade Bond to forsake a BMW for the latest Aston Martin Vanquish.

In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, Bond has endured as a popular screen character for 40 years: 007 has survived not just such nasty villains as Oddjob and Blofeld, but also some truly preposterous titles (Tomorrow Never Dies). There have been lots of really laughable scripts (For Your Eyes Only - surely the worst Bond film ever, not counting Casino Royale); performances of Dutch-elm woodenness from animated dinner jackets such as Roger Moore and George Lazenby; and even, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, an accusation of homosexuality from Joanna Lumley ("I know what he's allergic to").

Oddly enough, the films seem to be enjoying something of a renaissance, thanks mainly to Brosnan (surely the best Bond since Connery), but also thanks to Dame Judi Dench, of all people, as M. Will the franchise survive the expected departure of Brosnan? Only if someone tells Robbie Williams - who, by all accounts, seems to fancy himself in the role - that he was a lousy Frank Sinatra and he would be an even lousier Bond. Williams is perhaps the one thing that not even James Bond could survive.