How Sean Connery as James Bond made the impossible seem possible – Aidan Smith
Writing on the James Bond star’s 90th birthday earlier this year, Aidan Smith explained why Sean Connery was such a special figure to a young ‘Kia-Ora gawper’ in 1960s Scotland.
You never forget your first time. The first time at the flicks without a chaperone. Not my mum or my Auntie Jean or – the world was starting to open up and, yes, we were middle-class – the au pair. And there on the big screen in a suburban picture-house called the Tudor, blown 50ft into the nicotine-clogged air, seemingly as tall as the spire on the church across the road, was the actor whose 90th birthday we’re celebrating today.
That’s right, celebrating. In books and profiles of Sir Sean Connery you might see mention of his apparent dourness, meanness, chauvinism, thin-skinnedness and other less than appealing traits, but I’ve never met him. Our relationship has been, and will remain, silver-screen idol/Kia-Ora gawper.
Some don’t like his politics or don’t like that in politics they think he’s played the bumptious Highland laird – dressed in tartan one wag called McNotice-me – and absentee-landlorded it about on video link, telling Scotland how to vote from his verandah in Marbella, or latterly the Bahamas.
I am not concerned with any of that, and certainly not today. Nor with his later films failing to set future decades ablaze like the James Bond movies did the 1960s. As if that could have happened again. As if thousands of other leading men wouldn’t kill to have failed like Connery.
For the question is this: was Connery the fifth Beatle, given that the sensational run of 007 thrillers matched the epoch-making impact of the Fab Four’s chart-toppers? Or were John, Paul, George and Ringo just another gaggle of groupies in thrall to the lethal elegance of our man?
Was Dad winding me up?
I did not know Connery was our man until I got home from the Tudor an hour late, myself and two friends having been so wowed by the 1s 9d double-bill of Dr No and Goldfinger that we’d hid under the seats and watched again until the moment where Ursula Andress emerged from the surf to show off her conch-shell collection. “He’s from Edinburgh,” said my father, “and his real name is Tam. Used to deliver milk.”
How could this even be possible? I thought about our milkman – looked like Steptoe, teeth as yellow and occasional as those on his horse – and may have briefly wondered if that beach scene had been filmed at Portobello. No, Dad had to be at the wind-up.
How could it even be possible that someone from a tenement in this douce town who’d begun life sleeping in a bottom drawer was able to go from coalman, art college beefcake, unjolly sailor, lido lifeguard, amateur footballer, print-press scrubber (at sister paper Evening News), Tarmacadam brewer, coffin buffer – and yes, milkman – to very soon the world’s most famous Scotsman and the sexiest man alive?
Now, everyone’s got to come from somewhere, even cinema icons, but still: 176 Fountainbridge to No’s diabolical island lair, gold-foil pintas to martinis shaken, not stirred, boot-faced tram clippies to the bounteous bevy of Bond girls – these were leaps into the fantastical.
Ambitions of espionage
How many young Scottish actors just starting out have been inspired by him? How many from successive generations of Scots, in any field, vowed there would be no limit to their ambitions in recognition of what he’d achieved? These will be big numbers.
I wanted to get into espionage, to nonchalantly and sarcastically save the world like his Bond, and the fact another Scot, David McCallum, was starring in further spy adventures (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) suggested this might be achievable. Already in possession of the Sean accent, I quickly acquired his Aston Martin (Corgi version, obvs) and a plastic copy of the attache case my hero used in From Russia with Love (folding rifle, throwing knife, code-cracking thingummyjig). Plucking a hair from his head and using spittle to fix it to a closed door, Connery could track the movements of the planet’s most insane bad guys, so I copied the trick to check my mother was carrying out all the household chores.
I am not the only obsessed berk. Christopher Bray wrote a book, Sean Connery: The Measure of a Man, which is essentially a 340-page love letter to its subject in which he gushes: “I like watching Sean Connery. I like watching him move through a room. I like watching him sit down and cross his legs. I especially like watching him open and close doors.” None of this is as easy as you might think, not after Connery has portrayed Bond. I don’t mind Daniel Craig but he has a self-conscious, jittery walk, nothing at all like Sean’s panther prowl.
Big Tam to the rescue
Ah, you say, Craig may not have the walk but he’s woke. Well, yes, but is that really the kind of Bond we want? Connery’s was an oversexed undercover agent, overdoing the understatement, which was right for the times, or seemed to be.
He then tried to distance himself from the role, donning a mankini, musketeer boots and pigtails for Zardoz, which was maybe too far, although I love The Hill and The Offence almost as much as those first five Bonds, which were 1960s events not just like Beatles records, but Apollo space missions, too. And whatever the part, the nationality or motivation of his character, Connery always took just three and a half seconds to decide: “I know, I’ll give this guy an Auld Reekie accent.” I love that, too.
All of Connery’s outings as 007 were shown on TV during lockdown and I can’t help wondering if this had been on government orders. While the country was ailing, here was a reminder of when it was its most potent, virile and dashing. Big Tam to the rescue, yet again. Many happy returnsh, shir.
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