Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bond Bios: Q

And then there's Q, everybody's real favorite James Bond supporting character. I'm pretty sure M was the supporting player to appear in the most Bond films (missing only For Your Eyes Only), but Q and Miss Moneypenny are probably tied for second place, since neither of them were featured in either of the Daniel Craig films. Anyway, Q was the "quartermaster" (hence the name) who supplied James Bond with all of his wonderful weapons, toys, gadgets, and vehicles. As the films went on, these item became more and more ridiculous, until they were finally done away with in the current era of Bond films. But let's hope he returns someday, because he was a great character who helped to give a lot of heart and soul and whimsy to the series.

Talking about Q is actually kind of difficult, since nobody is really sure if that is the character's actual title, a nickname, or just a reference to the entire "Q Branch" as his division is also known. Also, like M, there have been multiple Qs, at least two of which are shown on screen together so we know that one is the other's successor. But are at times referred to as Q. Let's start the round-up:

Peter Burton

Dr. No (1962):

Peter Burton played the first quartermaster in the first EON produced James Bond film. He is only referred to as "the armorer," but the credits have him listed as Geoffrey Boothroyd, which is the name given to Q in the novels. He only has one scene, which is a very faithful scene in the novel where he gives Bond his first -- and now famous -- Walther PPK handgun. It's a good scene and Burton is fine in it, but it lacks the charm and humor of the later Q scenes. Then again, this wasn't really Q, and all he was demonstrating was an actual gun that exists in the real world.

Desmond Llewelyn

Um... almost every damned Bond film between From Russia With Love (1963) and The World is Not Enough (1999)

Peter Burton was unavailable to return for the second film, so the role was recast. Too bad for him, great for the movie-going public. Starting with From Russia With Love, the series saw Desmond Llewelyn emerge as the new Q (and perhaps the first Q, since Peter Burton was never actually referred to by that title). Llewelyn played the character for almost forty years over the course of 17 films. He appeared in more Bond films than any other actor in history, and matched wits with every Bond except Daniel Craig. In fact, his near perfect streak was broken only by missing out on appearing in Live and Let Die in 1973. But he didn't miss much by skipping that one.

(Interesting tidbit: Desmond Llewelyn wikipedia page inaccurately stated that he appeared in every Bond film until his death, and that he starred alongside Roger Moore in seven Bond films. Of course, we know that he wasn't in Live and Let Die, so that means he didn't appear in every Bond film until his death, and that he only starred alongside Moore in 6 Bond films. I got to make my mark on Bond history by correcting Desmond Llewelyn's wikipedia entry.)

As far as his performance went, Llewelyn (and, trust me, that name only gets harder to spell the more I have to type it out) was a revelation, perfectly balancing the whimsical nature of his appearances with his proper British manner. With a lesser actor, the idea of Bond being presented with a watch that shoots a laser beam or with an Aston Martin that has an ejector seat wouldn't been ridiculous and maybe even laughable. Llewelyn made it all seem, if not realistic, at least serious and maybe even plausible. Also he was just so damn funny and charming and likable. I love the guy -- and so do you -- and I don't think the series every really recovered after his retirement in 1999.

And that gives us another interesting tidbit: Desmond Llewelyn's Q was the only Bond character who was actually given an official farewell on screen. Nobody cared about Leiter, Bernard Lee and Robert Brown both died in between films, and the Bonds came and went too often for people to make a fuss, but Llewelyn was actually able to retire on screen, introduce his replacement, and then have a very touching goodbye scene that almost made me cry when I saw it in the theater.

John Cleese

The World is Not Enough (1999)
Die Another Day (2002)

How beloved was Desmond Llewelyn? So beloved that they could only replace him with one of the most beloved British actors of all time, John Cleese of Monty Python Fame. The only other choice could've been Rowan Atkinson, but he may have hurt his chances by appearing in the unofficial Bond film Never Say Never Again.  Anyway, Cleese is a brilliantly funny man and his dry wit is even sharper than Llewelyn. He was a joy to watch and his scenes were just about the best things about his two Bond appearances.

But he was no Desmond Llewelyn. It was just a little too forced, and as good as he was, by that point Llewelyn was irreplaceable. They did a fairly good job, of course, both with the send off they gave him and with the casting of Cleese, but I dunno. Maybe it's for the best that the new films have no Q, since Llewelyn's performance was so indelible, but I think it would honor his memory better to continue on with the character. Q is important, and enough time has passed that I think we are ready for the next portrayal.

Interesting tidbit: Cleese's character was originally referred to as "R" when he began, but Bond finally gave him his seal of approval by dubbing him Q in his second film. This sounds kind of dumb, but it was actually pretty clever and somewhat cathartic. Bond's reluctance at accepting this new Q by calling him R reflected our own reluctance as audience members. When Bond finally accepted him, we did too.

Unofficial Qs:

Alec McCowen

Never Say Never Again (1983)

I have no real memory of this guy. I suppose that means he wasn't very memorable. His character is never actually referred to as Q, although he does refer to his position or department as being called Q. His name is actually Algernon. Whatever. He was still supposed to be Q, but he was a fairly poor man's attempt. Alec McCowen is a fine British thespian, but by 1983, Llewelyn had been in about ten films as Q, so there was no way this guy could measure up.

And... that's all. So, basically, there was really one Q. Or, at least, only one Q anybody really has to care about. John Cleese was just attempting to fill his shoes for a bit, and everybody else sucked.

Here's to you, Desmond Llewelyn, the unsung hero of the James Bond films.

1 comment:

Justin Garrett Blum said...

I was pretty sure they referred to the Q branch character in Doctor No as Major (or something) Boothroyd, but maybe not. I may be remembering that from one of the novels.

Anyway, your dedication to cataloging all of these Bondian details is humbling as a fellow blogger.