James Bond: Pottymouth by Andrew Gunn
Besides being a milestone Bond film for universal acclaim, financial success and for marking fifty years since the release of Dr No, Skyfall also features the series’ first explicit uttering of the word “fuck”. It is, of course, Judi Dench who has the line—we’ve already established that her M is not averse to the occasional creative pejorative, for example when she declares in Casino Royale “Christ, I miss the Cold War” or in Quantum of Solace “I don’t give a shit about the CIA”.
This would make a pretty good T-shirt.
But given that Dr No has Sean Connery shooting Anthony Dawson in cold blood and then putting an extra bullet in his back for good luck as he lies on the floor, and given that Diamonds are Forever has Connery ripping off a woman’s bikini and threatening to strangle her with it, the Bond films are remarkably conservative when it comes to profanity.
The novels aren’t like this. While Ian Fleming never actually typed out the F-word, the books are full of implied bad language. He writes things like “Bond uttered a single four-letter word” and “Bond swore contemptuously”: the point being that his anti-hero had a mouth as grubby and capable as his hands and, naturally, cock.
The films have not exactly pushed but perhaps leaned up against this boundary and smoked a cigarette only twice before.
In 1973’s Live and Let Die, the bayou speedboat chase is so long that an extraneous narrative tangent has time to introduce Clifton James as human cartoon Sheriff J.W. Pepper. When Roger Moore jumps his boat over a strip of land, the sour-faced sheriff looks up in disbelief and says “What the fu—?” as the boat’s motor drowns out his high-pitched South'n drawl. (He says something profane near the end of the scene, too, but the line is dialed down and he’s a difficult man to lip-read.)
Live and Let Die also features the series’ first “shit”, courtesy of another complex, sympathetic supporting character. Mrs Bell, played by Ruth Kempf, has her flying lesson hijacked by Moore so that he can drive around an airfield and break stuff, to which she responds “Holy shit”. Thus begins the tradition of expletives being delivered by older women.
1987’s The Living Daylights brought in Timothy Dalton, who successfully moved the character and tone closer to Fleming’s original prose and is, to date, the only screen iteration of Bond to say the word “fuck”. Dalton’s taxiing a cargo plane down the runway and trying to get Maryam d'Abo, who’s speeding alongside in a jeep, to understand the international hand-signals for “drive behind the moving plane and then up the ramp and into the hold”. While she’s trying to figure it out Dalton turns his head in frustration and clearly mouths “For fuck sake”. It’s explicit but inaudible, drowned out by the plane’s engine. Maybe the cinematic equivalent of Fleming’s saying-it-without-really-saying-it.
Live and Let Die and The Living Daylights both snuck through the BBFC’s Parental Guidance filter. Strangely, Dalton’s harder-edged and 15-rated second film Licence to Kill restricts him to a single “bastard”. This is perhaps a tonal counterpoint to the depressurised exploding head, death by industrial grinder and gasoline-soaked man burnt alive. Well, Dalton does tell someone to piss off, and after the grinder claims Benicio Del Toro he says “Switch the bloody machine off!”, but neither of those are proper swearwords and the latter could be considered an adjective.
Since Licence to Kill, every Bond movie has received a 12 or 12A certificate in the UK, which is like the American PG-13 (our kids are tougher by a whole year) meaning that one or two uses of the word “fuck” are allowed depending on context. Yet the swearing is minimal, and Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig consistently let the supporting cast shoulder the profanity burden. Casino Royale may be the most graphically violent 12A film ever released (The Dark Knight is thematically darker but less explicit) but for all its shooting, nail-gunning and ball-crunching, the script shies away from a “fuck” and I don’t think there’s even a “shit”.
Is screen Bond just too polite, as an aspect of his essential Britishness? I’d love to know if the writers ever gave him a dirty line and then deleted it, thinking “No, he can’t say that, it wouldn’t be right”. Or did it simply end up like this, with Connery’s run too early for swearing, Moore too debonair to get away with it, and by the time Brosnan and the ‘90s came along it had become an unwritten, unbreakable rule?
If so, it’s a rule that needed broken. We’re talking about films for, if not exclusively grown-ups, then at least not kiddies. This is a series where our hero screws two or three women per episode and only very rarely buys flowers or issues proposals of marriage. This is a series where the names of female characters are designed purely to set up sexual puns like “I thought Christmas only comes once a year”. This is a series full of exotic deaths by piranha, dog, shark and komodo dragon; by compressed air capsule, propeller, snow-blower and printing press. Yet swearing, such an essential part of British culture, has been unjustly ignored until now. Thank fuck for Judi Dench.
Her line comes at the perfect point in Skyfall and in the franchise. Having lost her husband (off-screen, not part of the plot), a dozen or so agents and her job, having had her methods and decisions questioned in a public enquiry, having just survived an assassination attempt and waiting for another, Dench is at her lowest point when she says “I’ve really fucked this up, haven’t I?”
It also signals a turning point in the series: what follows in Skyfall is the destruction of Bond’s family home (and his residual childhood trauma), the end of the Craig/Dench relationship, and the formal introduction of a new M, Q and Miss Moneypenny. The word itself is less important than the decision to break the unbreakable rules.
I’m not suggesting the Bond films go all The Thick of It, although it would awesome to see Malcolm Tucker giving Bond a verbal bollocking for some public relations mayhem. But just once, now that the foul-mouthed cat is out of the bag, I’d like to see 007 himself set his jaw, stare into the middle distance and growl an uninterrupted, long-overdue and very sorely-earned “Fuck”.
Originally published 20 September 2013.