Miss Moneypenny is forever
Too bad the Bond secretary was something of a prophet without honour in her native land
MARK STEYN | October 15, 2007 |
I don't know what a Canadian performer has to do not to get into the Order of Canada, but evidently Lois Maxwell managed it. For a quarter-century, she could stake a plausible claim to have played to bigger audiences around the world than any other Canuck thespian. Yet, as her death reminds us, she was something of a prophet without honour in her native land, and elsewhere had to make do with honour without profit. Everybody else on the James Bond franchise got mega-rich -- Ian Fleming; the producer Cubby Broccoli; the composer Monty Norman, whose eternal Bond theme is the only reliable earner in a journeyman oeuvre; the other composer, John Barry, who wrote Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever and almost all the other decent title songs; and, of course, Sean Connery and Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. But, for most of her long reign as M's secretary Miss Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell got a hundred pounds a day for a two- or three-day shoot, and for the first five movies had to supply her own clothes. From Dr. No in 1962 to A View to a Kill in 1985, her total screen time barely adds up to an hour.
But what an hour. Ninety per cent of starring roles don't bring the public recognition that a minute and a half of Moneypenny bantering with her beloved James did. It went pretty much the same way every time. 007 would arrive at MI6 headquarters, having been delayed by the usual horizontal encounter("Sorry I'm late, M. I'm afraid something came up," etc.), to be briefed about the latest global megalomaniac to have caught the eye of Her Majesty's Secret Service. But, regardless of the urgency -- threats to nuke major cities every 24 hours and whatnot -- Commander Bond always had time for a little byplay in the outer office. Verbal byplay, that is. Had she joined the Mounties, Miss Moneypenny might have got her man. But, in the British Secret Service, she stayed unmounted, a unique distinction among "Bond girls."
The character was present at the creation, in Casino Royale, the very first 007 novel 55 years ago, right there on the first page of chapter three:
"What do you think, Penny?" The Chief of Staff turned to M's private secretary who shared the room with him.
Miss Moneypenny would have been desirable but for eyes which were cool and direct and quizzical.
By the second book, Live and Let Die, she'd advanced from "would have been desirable" to "the desirable Miss Moneypenny, M's all-powerful secretary," which suggests that desire arose from her proximity to power. There's something rather crass about nailing your own secretary but nailing the boss's is subversive -- although, in Bond's case, it may have had an element of displacement: in Ian Fleming's novels, 007 spends more timing mooning over M's "clear blue eyes" than he ever does over Moneypenny's. Her first name was Jane, but she was addressed as "Moneypenny" or "Penny," admitted to the boys' school collegiality of surnames and nicknames -- the real male intimacy which Bond's army of ravenous shaggers out in the field would never know. And so, instead of bedding her and finding her a gilded corpse or dropped in the shark tank or any of the other grim morning-afters that await the typical Bond girl, 007 did her the singular honour of teasing her, decade in, decade out.
Fleming based Moneypenny on Vera Atkins, secretary to Maurice Buckmaster, head of the French section at Britain's wartime Special Operations Executive. Miss Atkins lived into her nineties, died in the year 2000, and, although a spinster to the end, didn't recognize herself in Fleming's fictionalization. She was one of those fiendishly smart gals whose talents it took a global conflagration to liberate. It was Vera Atkins who recruited and supervised the over 400 British agents who parachuted into Nazi-occupied France, standing on the runway night after night to watch her boys take off and disappear into the clouds. Like Moneypenny, she was indulgent of the Secret Service's penchant for secret servicing, as long as it stayed brisk and businesslike. Romance was another matter. "Oh, the bloody English!" she sighed, after one of her boys, George Millar, revealed he was in love again. "We never have bother of this sort with the French. They just copulate, and that is that." Where Moneypenny was devoted to just one agent, Miss Atkins was devoted to all of them: 118 vanished in the course of their duties, and after the war she demanded to be allowed to investigate their cases. She discovered the fate of 117, all dead, and brought many of their killers to justice.