It’s no time to die for James Bond, which is a relief, because Britain’s best-known secret agent has plenty of work to do. There are the well-worn problems of tackling Ernst Stavro Blofeld, one explosion at a time, and the not inconsiderable task of reviving Britain’s pandemic-hit cinema industry, one increasingly expensive ticket at a time. But all this pales somewhat against what might be Bond’s true purpose: as a not very secret weapon in the struggle to assert Britain’s place as a cultural superpower.
Some parts of the British state claim to have an ambivalent relationship to 007, not least the real-life version of his employer, MI6. They complain that Bond’s shoot first, cause a diplomatic crisis later approach is hardly a realistic advert for the undramatic work of intelligence – especially when it comes to pay and expenses. “You won’t find any Aston Martins in the staff car park,” a Whitehall insider tetchily said. Despite recent and necessary efforts to bring the franchise more in line with some modern concerns, the films are not considered an advert for the diverse workforce MI6 needs to attract.
And yet … this is the same real-life spy agency that recently decided it wanted to appoint a “Q”, a technology mastermind, just like in the films – played latterly by Ben Whishaw – to act as one of the organisation’s deputies. Quite why this was necessary is not obvious, given the agency is unlikely to be developing dry humour or “smart blood”, although the job advert did insist that “MI6 needs to be at the cutting-edge of technology in order to stay ahead”, in case anybody was in doubt.
The Bond films, however, are more than just a convenient device for recruiting senior spies via the news media. At a time when Britain is struggling to provide fuel for petrol tanks and cheap gas during a warm September, following on the heels of the US in its retreat from Afghanistan and getting involved in a bizarre, Franglais-laden tit-for-tat with Emmanuel Macron, James Bond presents an alternative universe in which a powerful British secret service ranges across the world, albeit to foil dastardly, non-state enemies.
It is not difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, but in the movies some impressions linger. If a Bond movie shows Q controlling a set of vast subterranean screens tracking villains around London, most of the viewing public who do not work in intelligence would be tempted to conclude that glitzy, high-definition capabilities are readily available. Politicians, in Britain at least, are often disappointed by the reality they find, which is partly why Boris Johnson spent £9m to create a new screen-laden situation room underneath Downing Street earlier this year.
Such is the importance attached to Bond that the government provides a level of support to the franchise that if it were a bank it might have to be nationalised. Some of this dates back to the Casino Royale debacle – where much of the 2006 film (the best, surely, of the Daniel Craig era) was shot in the Czech Republic. Preventing a repeat helped justify a revamp of the film tax rules in 2007, with Bond one of the biggest beneficiaries. An analysis published last year concluded that No Time To Die had received £47m in tax credits on a production spend of £200m.
For a movie aiming to gross in the region of $1bn (£741m) at the global box office, this could be argued as generous, although the film industry is an important source of skilled, creative jobs in Britain. But the help does not stop there. Almost a decade ago, Bond was product-placed in the Olympic Games opening ceremony, complete with a once-in-a-lifetime cameo from the Queen, an endorsement so remarkable that it could not have been bought. This time round, No Time To Die features British soldiers, the HMS Dragon warship and part of RAF Brize Norton doubling up for a Norwegian Nato base from an eager-to-help military.
It is not hard to see the thinking behind this, given that the film will draw the bulk of its audience overseas. Whatever the reality of Britain’s standing in the world, the projection of power that comes via a Bond movie is something the UK cannot otherwise buy.
Dan Sabbagh is the Guardian’s defence and security editor