William Boyd on James Bond

It’s a cold day in November; winter has just swept in. I’ve made my way past the glitter of the King’s Road to a cozy house in Chelsea. Here, a fire blazes in the grate of a sitting room piled with books, its walls hung with elegant modern art, its tables set about with family photographs. But let’s imagine: what if nothing was as it seems? “You can’t live without trust,” William Boyd says simply. “Whether it’s your cleaning lady or your doctor, your husband or your wife. It’s so hardwired into our human discourse, so that when you don’t trust you become dehumanised — another sort of person.” And so it is inRestless — Boyd’s 2006 novel, which he has now adapted into a glossy three-hour drama for BBC One.

Restless begins when, in 1976, Ruth Gilmartin (Michelle Dockery, of Downton Abbey fame) discovers that her mother (the incomparable Charlotte Rampling) has been living a double life: she is not Sally Gilmartin but Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian spy for the British Secret Service who has been on the run for 30 years. And so the action begins to shift back and forth between the film’s present and 1939, when a young Eva (Hayley Atwell, also seen in Boyd’s Any Human Heart), becomes embroiled with Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell), a British agent — and the British attempt to bring the United States into the European war. Filmed in the UK and South Africa (which, astonishingly, is able to mimic locales as varied as the Highlands of Scotland, the streets of New York and the desert of New Mexico “all within a couple of hours’ drive of Cape Town”), it makes for engaging TV drama, especially thanks to strong performances from an exceptional cast.

Alongside Boyd’s decades-long career as a novelist — one which encompasses both high praise and excellent sales — he is an accomplished adapter of his own work (A Good Man in AfricaAny Human Heart) and other people’s (Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop; Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter). But when it came to writing a spy novel, “I thought, ‘I can’t write about some macho agent parachuting in.’ So I thought I’d write about a woman spy, which would make it fresher, more interesting. One of the things I love about the film is that you’ve got three great roles for women — Charlotte, Hayley and Michelle, who are all fantasically good at the centre of this web. They all deliver. It’s not James Bond.” No, it’s not — but Boyd and Bond are closely entwined. More on that later.

Boyd’s interest in spying — in the psychology of spying — goes back a long way: in Any Human Heart, his hero Logan Mountstuart has a brief and unsuccessful career as a spy during the Second World War. For Restless, Boyd admits that he had a piece of luck when he came across a little book — privately printed after the war — documenting the activities of British Security Co-ordination, a subsection of the secret service. From an office in the Rockefeller Centre in Manhattan it had one aim: to persuade the citizens of the United States to back the British fight against the Nazis, to believe it was their war, too.

Hang on, what about “the special relationship”? A myth, Boyd says, invented by Churchill after the war.

“Roosevelt was dead, so Churchill rewrote the nature of their relationship, which I think was far frostier and less amicable than we think. But we were manipulating the US media for 18 months for our own ends, the media of these, our putative allies, and very successfully, too. Remember: in 1940, 80 per cent of Americans didn’t want to join the war in Europe. Anglophobia was really quite extreme. Britain was an empire and America was a republic. All of this has been hidden by the rosy glow of ‘the special relationship’.”

The plot of Restless — without giving too much away — hinges on these escapades. “They would plant stories in newspapers and radio stations, or disrupt isolationist meetings. America First — an isolationist organisation famously championed by the great American aviator Charles Lindbergh — “would organise meetings, and BSC would ring up and cancel the venue, or have flyers printed with swastikas on them. Their activities ranged from what were almost schoolboy pranks to very sophisticated double-bluffing.”

That great storyteller Roald Dahl worked for BSC, it’s unsurprising to learn; but its activities, of course, became unnecessary after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

It’s fascinating listening to Boyd explain the constraints of film adaptation. The novel form, he says, “is boundless, limitlessly generous. You can write 200 pages on five minutes, if you want.” Working on film is very different: “It’s photography.”

“Being subjective is very difficult. What tools do you have? You have voice-over; you can use a camera for someone’s point of view, briefly; you have good acting. But the very best actor can’t give you the nuances that one paragraph of a novel will.” Readers of Restless will remember that the novel’s end takes place almost entirely in Eva/Sally’s head: she’s alone in London, trying to change her identity. “But on screen, nothing would be happening. So I changed the ending of the film to ramp up the jeopardy. I had to invent episodes that dramatised the stress she was under, to make it into a real pursuit. That comes about purely because of the difference between the two art forms.” That’s the difference too, he says, between adapting his own books and classics such as Scoop. With the latter “you might get your wrist smacked” for making changes to a book people know and love; with his own books, “I can authorise myself to take massive liberties”.

As to Eva being the anti-Bond: well, it’s little wonder that the iconic British agent is at the forefront of his mind. A couple of years ago he was approached by the Fleming estate and asked if he — like Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver before him — would write a Bond novel. The request came out of the blue: “You can’t audition for the job,” Boyd says, smiling. “But it was a good moment for me; I’d just finished Waiting for Sunrise, so I had a nanosecond to say yes.” But it was, he admits, a perfect fit: he had a long-standing interesting in Fleming, who makes an appearance in Any Human Heart; he’d known Alan Ross, founding editor of The London Magazine, who had been good friends with Fleming at the end of his life. The novel — he is “annoyingly tight-lipped” about the plot, and admits he’s still searching for a good title — is effectively finished, and will be published by Jonathan Cape (publisher of the original Bond novels) next autumn.

He will tell me that the book is set in 1969; the last of Fleming’s novels, The Man with the Golden Gun, appeared just after the author’s premature death (he was only 56) in 1964. Fleming, he says, “effectively committed suicide — if he’d looked after himself better, he could conceivably have written a book in 1969. By then Bond is 45 years old — a middle-aged man. It’s been a fascinating process, and I’ve enjoyed it enormously. I said to the Fleming board that I’m going to write a realistic, gritty novel about a 45-year-old man who happens to be a spy. I’m not interested in bubonic plague sweeping the Earth, or mountains full of atom bombs. This is a man at a certain time of his life with a job to do.”

He is determined, he says, to get back to the “literary” Bond — a very different creature from the cinematic spy. “I know he’s an iconic figure; but I’m interested in Bond as a man,” he says. Needless to say, he went back and re-read all the books, 12 novels and two volumes of stories. “I was looking for evidence of James Bond the human being, not James Bond the superagent. And it’s very interesting — his background is very interesting, his emotions are very interesting. He makes terrible mistakes, Bond, he’s full of doubt. He often vomits. Which you don’t see Sean Connery or Daniel Craig doing! When he’s confronted with something horrific, he vomits. That’s a very different person from the screen image.”

So you’ve not been to see Skyfall? I ask. He laughs, and tells me that he has — but only because he knows Daniel Craig. “Three of the Bonds — Daniel and Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan — have been in films I’ve written. So you could say I have this bizarre connection to the whole phenomenon.” But the films all have modern settings, which make them problematic for Boyd. “In Skyfall there’s a reference to his parents’ deaths — but that was in 1935. So Daniel Craig’s Bond would really be 88 … And they didn’t die in Scotland, they are buried in Switzerland . . .” He laughs and says he could do Bond on Mastermind.

He’s drawn to the glamour of the original books. Think of the opening of Live and Let Die, which has Bond flying into New York’s Idlewild Airport — now called JFK — and hopping into a cab to the city. What’s the big deal? Well, this was 1954: to the vast majority of ordinary Britons such a trip would have been beyond their wildest dreams. “We now know everything about everyone,” Boyd says. “We know what David Beckham has for breakfast and where the Duke of Westminster goes on holiday. There are no secrets. But in the 1950s, that upper-class, wealthy world was completely unknown to 99.9 per cent of the population. What the Bond novels did was lift that lid for the first time. So you have to make an effort of imagination to think what it was like to read these books when they were published. This is a man who worries about what kind of socks he’s wearing, and whether his vodka is cold enough. It’s unbelievably glamorous. InFrom Russia with Love — my favourite of the books — Bond flies to Istanbul. Yawn, yawn, right? But first, you flew to Rome, the plane refuelled. You flew to Athens, the plane refuelled again, and only then you flew to Istanbul — on a four-engine Viscount. It was exotic beyond exotic.”

Despite his promise not to launch the novel “by abseiling down Centre Point”, you can hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about the nation’s favourite spy. But his next project is already on the go: his very first play, to be put on at the Hampstead Theatre in the spring. A “Chekhov obsessive”, he’s taken two stories by the Russian master, picked them apart and re-woven them into a play. “So I’m saying it’s an adaptation, rather than a new play by me.” It will be directed by Nina Raine, daughter of Craig. He’s been working on getting the project off the ground since the author’s centenary in 2004: “It’s very hard to get a play on! Publishing a novel is a breeze compared to this.” He calls hearing a reading a couple of years ago “one of the greatest days of my professional life”.

From one of the most successful — and hardest-working — writers in the business, that’s saying something, I reckon.