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16 November 2015

James Bond’s real enemy? The British housing crisis

I would argue that Spectre, despite all its aerial gymnastics, also has a subtext dug deeply into the built environment.

By Will Self

I want to write about Spectre, the new James Bond film . . . No! Don’t turn the page! I know you probably read Ryan Gilbey’s judicious review in these pages and the column by the estimable Laurie Penny in which she argued that Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the ultra-violent assassin embodied the messy contradictions of masculinity under late capitalism – which was all well and good, though the same could be said of every Bond iteration, all the way back to the first spunky and sadistic tales to spurt from Ian Fleming’s pen. But fret ye not: my concern is with a different aspect of the film altogether.

Taking £41.3m at the box office in its opening seven days, Spectre has beaten the previous British box-office champ, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, into a sorting hat. This represents a huge crowd of moviegoers – and what do they see once the lights go down but another huge crowd, dressed up as carnival-goers attending the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. I have no idea if this sequence was shot in the Mexican capital but there were no computer-generated stand-ins for the hundreds upon hundreds of extras cavorting in skeleton costumes and skull masks.

Over the past 20 years, film-makers have become deranged by their new ability to summon up great hordes using only keystrokes. It is arguable that a whole subgenre of films came into being merely to capitalise on this. Hugo Dyson’s memorable words on hearing J R R Tolkien reading aloud from The Lord of the Rings – “Oh, no! Not another fucking elf!” – could have been shouted ceaselessly from the rooftops in the early 2000s as the pixellated pixies streamed across our screens.

But there came a point when we ceased to be fooled. Our eyes started to detect the machined masses’ stereotypes – the indistinguishable and blurred faces, the limited palette of movement. I remember watching a DVD of Waterloo (1970) at around this time and marvelling at the lavish battle sequences, in which the Soviet director Sergey Bondarchuk used 15,000 foot soldiers and 2,000 cavalrymen to achieve an indisputable degree of verisimilitude. It was said at the time that Bondarchuk was in command of the seventh-largest army in the world.

But that was before Bond began chest-waxing and everything went to hell in a state-subsidised handcart. Nigh on half a century later, the role of the crowd in epic film-making has, I would suggest, altered significantly. No longer are the masses rendered in all their contrariety and uniformity so as to convey the nightmare of history from which we are all unable to awake, but rather Bond is seen to be singular only in contradistinction to the crowd: it consists of myriad sheep, while he is one among a handful of wolves. A handful of wolves who, having ravaged Wall Street, are now intent on exploiting the London property market for everything they can get.

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In City of Quartz, a marvellous book on the psycho-history of Los Angeles, Mike Davis advances the theory that the subtext to Ridley Scott’s landmark sci-fi film Blade Runner was the downtown LA property grab then being undertaken by Japanese multinationals and property dealers – hence the polyglot (but mostly Asian) crowds that pulse through the rain-drenched alleyways in almost every scene.

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I would argue that Spectre, despite all its aerial gymnastics, also has a subtext dug deeply into the built environment. At the end of Bond’s last outing, Skyfall (2012), the Terry Farrell building on the Albert Embankment that houses the real MI6 as well as the filmic one was wrecked by an explosion. At the beginning of Spectre, its burnt-out, computer-generated shell is still standing but the evil new “C”, Max Denbigh, has persuaded the government not only to integrate MI6 and MI5 but also to supply the new agency with a parametrically designed waveform skyscraper headquarters. This simulacrum of a building is sited directly opposite the “old” MI6 HQ, at the north end of Vauxhall Bridge, and it closely resembles the tacky block of “luxury flats” that is actually being erected there as I type.

The entire Thames littoral between Vauxhall and Chelsea Bridges is undergoing a huge redevelopment, at the core of which is the new US embassy and the massively refurbished Battersea Power Station. Such auto-cannibalism of the built environment is possible only once land values have risen so high that it is cost-effective to demolish buildings that, in some cases, have stood for only a few decades.

If you aren’t among the hordes that have descended on the multiplexes yet, avert your eyes now, because what follows is a plot as well as a property spoiler. The main evil of the film’s villain, Oberhauser, consists not in his desire to gain access to the world’s computer data, but in the insouciance with which he razes the Terry Farrell building, leaving a convenient brownfield site in one of central London’s prime locations.

The lesson of all this is simple: when it comes to the masses’ anxieties, vertiginously rising property prices are far more salient than overarching criminal conspiracies. What 007 really needs is a licence to build affordable homes.

Next week: Real Meals

This article appears in the 11 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain