To evaluate British history in the last 50 years, one doesn’t have to look much farther than the United Kingdom’s most popular secret agent, according to University of Exeter history professor Jeremy Black.
Black visited the College of William and Mary March 18 to give a lecture on the politics of James Bond. This famous fictional spy debuted in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel “Casino Royale” and has since appeared in countless books, films, comics and video games. The event was held at the School of Education with undergraduates, graduate students, professors and members of the Williamsburg community in attendance.
Black is the author of over 100 books, many of which focus on eighteenth century British politics and international relations. His book “The Politics of James Bond” was published in 2001.
Black discussed Bond in the context of British political history over the past 50 years, summarizing the novels and their transformation into one of the highest-grossing film franchises in the world.
“What Fleming was essentially saying in the novels is there is a moral universe, there is a moral purpose; that purpose is the need to defend these values,” Black said. “At the time, the need to believe that there was some kind of moral purpose was a strong one.”
Fleming, the author of the original Bond series, began writing the novels in the 1950s. Thus, the content of these novels reflects British society in a post-World War II world.
“Britain at that stage — the economy was bust, people were poor,” Black said. “To actually have a secret agent that turns up and does exciting things — there is an air of opulence there.”
Black discussed the transformation of the novels into films, beginning in the 1950s and continuing to the release of “Skyfall” a few months ago.
“James Bond has been watched by more than half the world’s viewing public. Since at least 15 years ago, he is probably a more influential or important figure who presents an idea of Britishness, accurate or not, than Churchill in the last 50 years.”
Sarah Martin ’13 attended the lecture for her senior seminar in government geostrategic thought.
“We cover history pre-World War I and then on, so a lot of the stuff was relevant as far as history went to the scope of our class,” Martin said. “I thought it was really interesting because it wasn’t just about British history, but he incorporated a lot of the elements that I think would appeal to a broader audience.”
David Alpert ’13 thought Black highlighted an interesting discrepancy between the 1950s Britain represented in the novels and the historical realities of the country during that time.
“I was intrigued by how very different austere, post-war British life was from the flashy stories Fleming was telling,” Alpert said. “I found it interesting that Fleming became depressed after Britain lost her empire.”
While the novels and films are most commonly seen as entertainment, Black believes their popularity reveals an important and often overlooked role of the series.
“The novels and the films are not designed for academics and intellectuals. They are designed to provide a clear narrative structure about a fight between good and evil, and they do so to brilliant effect,” Black said. “At present moment the financial success of ‘Skyfall’ suggests that they will be doing so for at least another generation.”