Queen ‘put herself up’ for 2012 James Bond sketch says writer
With all the royal rebranding going on – from the King’s cypher on the Beefeaters’ uniforms at the Tower of London, his head on stamps, coins and banknotes, and, ultimately, changes to British passports and post boxes – it’s no surprise the nation’s most famous secret agent should also be updated for the reign of King Charles III.
So in a simple, deeply satisfying twist, Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, published 50 years ago, has been reimagined by Charlie Higson with a brilliant new tale entitled On His Majesty’s Secret Service.
Written in a month-long burst of creativity for the Coronation, and published yesterday in aid of charity, there could be only one mission for 007: foiling a bid to assassinate the king and replace him with a usurper.
“None of this was my idea,” chuckles the author and Fast Show star.
“Charles is apparently a big fan of the Bond books and there was that great moment at the 2012 Olympics where the Queen and 007 came together – our two greatest cultural icons united – so that was the obvious place to start.”
The original plan was for royalties to support The Prince’s Trust and Camilla’s Reading Room literacy charity, but Higson’s regicidal plot – featuring a wealthy, eccentric and anti-‘woke’ wannabe king called Athelstan of Wessex, allegedly a descendent of Alfred the Great – ruled out an official tie-in.
“They said it was probably best not to do a story about trying to stop the Coronation… at which point I thought, ‘But that’s the story, it’s got to be the story’,” continues Higson.
“It’s On His Majesty’s Secret Service; it’s being published two days before the coronation. Otherwise, Bond just goes on a mission as usual, working for ‘King and Country’. This just felt like such a great story, so rich in possibilities. They didn’t argue, and no one had any problems with it; the charities just couldn’t be associated.”
Instead, royalties from the new novella will go to the National Literacy Trust, which works with disadvantaged children, so everyone’s happy.
Talking to Higson, 64, an author of bestselling adult crime novels as well as children’s books, whose previous foray into 007 territory was his Young Bond series, featuring the spy as a boy in a hit series of children’s books, his excitement is infectious.
“The idea originally was to do a longish short story, perhaps 10,000 words, with a month to write it. I thought it would be such a fun idea,” he says.
“I’ve been making a podcast on the history of the British monarchy in time for the Coronation so I’ve been researching the history of the Royal Family and the slightly twisted line of succession from William I to Charles III.
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“I was looking at modern royal scandals and how they compared to royal scandals of the past – which usually involved someone killing someone else. It had to be a story about someone with a rival claim to the throne. If the ideas hadn’t come quickly, I might not have said yes but the stars aligned.”
Higson’s story sends Bond undercover at a Hungarian castle where disaffected conspiracy theorists, far-right hooligans and foreign agitators are awaiting their orders for a series of attacks across London that “will make the [US] Capitol riots look like Aunt Fanny’s tea party”.
The plan had been to pad it out with an extract from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but, in the event, it was unnecessary. On a roll, the Bond superfan wrote 10,000 words, then 20,000 and, finally, delivered 40,000 – about the same length as the shortest Fleming books.
The result – set, obviously, contemporaneously, and featuring perhaps the most thoughtful 007 in print – reads New Scientist magazine, eats kimchi (fermented vegetables), and drinks kombucha (fermented black tea) – is a blast.
Despite these somewhat faddish interests – though the author insists the super-fit spy would naturally do anything to keep his edge, including taking an interest in the “gut instinct that gives you the non-thinking, split-second advantage” – his 007 remains ruthlessly unstoppable. In Higson’s words, he is “a fist, clenched and ready to strike”.
But how did he create something fresh and interesting and still make 007 recognisable as Fleming’s Bond?
“I’d spent so long with 007 back in the day that it all came back,” he says.
“There was a lot of Fleming’s Bond that was valid and viable: he’s a loner, he’s a hard man and he protects himself by keeping people at arm’s length.
“But Bond always has to be about 35 – so I thought about a 35-year-old today. Their thoughts and their position in society are going to be very different to that of a 35-year-old in 1953; his world view, his attitude to other people and relationships.
“I didn’t want to write him as a slightly stuffy man out of time with fifties’ attitudes – the Jacob Rees-Mogg 007. I wanted him to be a contemporary young man.
“My feeling is, as long as James Bond does the things he does and you have enough of the iconography around him, then you can update him and modernise him.”
Despite his many original flourishes, however, there is a ‘Fleming formula’ to be followed. “It’s a formula I used for the ‘Young Bond’ series and it’s one of the reasons I was able to write this as quickly as I did,” he says.
“The best Bond stories start when Bond goes into M’s office, M gives him a file and says, ‘This is the villain, this is what he’s up to, I want you to infiltrate his organisation and sort him out’. Bond’s given a mission and off he goes with his fists and a gun.
“There’s a bit of sparring with the villain, who has a slightly monstrous sidekick and a great lair; he meets a girl, he gets close, he’s captured, tortured, he escapes, he kills the villain and ends up with the girl. That’s the classic structure and it works.”
He adds: “The fun, which is also the difficulty, is ringing the changes. How do you make a new villain interesting?”
Fleming strayed just once from his own formula, he explains, in The Spy Who Loved Me, told from a female perspective.
“It was interesting but not what Bond fans wanted and perhaps his writing as a woman was not done particularly well. A lot is her backstory; 007 arrives quite late and messes things up. Fleming was trying to say, ‘Bond is not this flawless hero, we shouldn’t be applauding him, he’s a grubby killer’. After that he went back to the classic formula.”
Indeed, his next book was On Her Majesty’s Secret service, considered by fans to be one of his best. But the author, who died aged 56 in August 1964, was trapped by his creation.
“He would tell his publishers he’d like to do something different, and they’d go, ‘Great idea Ian, but can you squeeze in another Bond first?’ He only wrote his children’s book, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, because he was recovering after a massive heart attack, and his doctors warned him not to do Bond.”
Higson, who lives with his family in north London, makes it sound easy, and, in truth, the new book zips along with a lovely lightness of touch, but that’s not to dismiss his writing. His Bond Girl, incidentally, is an Icelandic beauty named Ragnheidour.
“It’s pronounced ‘Hragon-hader’,” he explains. “While I was writing, they asked me if I could record the audiobook, at which point I thought ‘I’ve got an Icelandic woman, a guy from South Africa and the character Kenny, the sidekick’s sidekick, was originally a Geordie. I tried reading his lines as a Geordie and it was so poor I changed him to a Scot. But, remember, it’s Charlie Higson reading – not a man of 1,000 voices.”
So how does this former punk rocker – after university in Norwich, where he met Fast Show collaborator Paul Whitehouse, he sang in a band called The Higsons before finding his feet as a decorator and then comedy writer and performer – justify a pro-monarchy plot?
After all, a fellow ex-punk, Nick Cave, drew ire in some republican quarters this week after revealing he’d been invited to tomorrow’s coronation and, having an “inexplicable attachment” to the Royal Family, fully intended to go. Wouldn’t Higson naturally side with those trying to bring down the Royal Family?
“I am neither a monarchist nor a republican,” he asserts proudly.
“If I was trapped by a rabid monarchist who was trying to persuade me I should pledge my allegiance to the king, I could easily come up with an anti-monarchist argument.
“Likewise, if a raging republican cornered me saying they should all be rounded up and executed, I could give an equally good defence of the Royal Family.”
It’s clear he has a sneaking suspicion of the monarchy, part of the whole “mad eccentricity of Britain and British life”, and finds the nature of the pageantry and regalia surrounding it fascinating. However, he adds: “Essentially Bond works for MI6 who work for the Government who ultimately answer to the Crown.
“His mission is to protect Charles but it’s also to stop there being massive chaos and civil unrest.”
If Higson has one regret, it’s that the announcement of the official dish – Coronation Quiche – had been made earlier. Athelstan, who believes England has gone to hell in a handcart, would’ve hated it.
“It would perfectly fit his argument about how, following the Norman invasion, the poncey French have subjugated the English so completely we’re going to have this foreign vegetarian dish,” he says.
“Food was always an important part of the original books. Bond was this fantasy figure who did things a bank clerk in Croydon couldn’t. Readers lived vicariously.
“Fleming always tried to have him eat something that would seem exotic for the folks back home.
“Like when he eats an avocado – they were called avocado pears at the time, so Fleming made the mistake of having him eat one for dessert in Casino Royale.”
As for the Coronation itself, he’ll probably have it on in the background, he admits.
“It’s quite an extraordinary piece of social theatre. I’m 64 and I haven’t had a coronation during my lifetime which is pretty unusual. As a unique event it’s amazing.
“We could go round in circles about the value – what it costs versus what it might bring into the country – but it’s unquantifiable in the end. However, for a lot of British people, it will be a representation on the world stage of what we are and that will include those people who are against it.
“And it was ever thus.”
- On His Majesty’s Secret Service by Charlie Higson (Ian Fleming Publications, £12.99) is out now. All royalties will support the work of the National Literacy Trust. Visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832 for free UK P&P on orders over £20. Willy Willy Harry Stee, Charlie Higson’s history of the monarchy podcast, is available on all platforms
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