The Man With The Golden Pun

Was Sir Roger Moore the best Bond? One child of the 1970s makes the case

  • Sir Roger Moore, 1968 Peter Ruck/ Getty Images

In the multi-course meal that is every James Bond film, there comes a palate cleanser of sexual innuendo at the end. During the Sir Roger Moore years, however, the meal seemed to end with a cheese course. Typical is the final scene in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. As The Royal Navy recovers an escape pod in which Commander Bond is engaging in his own brand of between-the-sheets détente with a doe-eyed Soviet agent, the dialogue unfolds:

Minister of Defence, over radio: “Bond! What do you think you’re doing?”

Bond: “Keeping the British end up, Sir.”

Having been forced to utter lines like that, it is understandable why, in the league table of actors who have played 007, many place Sir Roger in third place behind Sir Sean Connery and Mr Daniel Craig. But isn’t it time we give this master of devil-may-care his due? Think Sir Roger and, chances are, you think 1970s Bond: safari jacket, flared trousers, chestnut bouffant, call-girl tan, proto-dad bod and that plummy voice, rich and nutty as fruitcake, all the better to deliver those chalk-on-a-blackboard one-liners, those groaning puns and those dismal double-entendres.

But just as the 1970s (and the safari jacket, which Sir Roger seemed to wear in every movie) are looking better and better, so is his take on the Bond character. In the age of Mr Craig’s wracked and saturnine 007, we have grown accustomed to having our screen heroes tortured and gloomy. The James Bond of Skyfall and Spectre is scarred by unresolved childhood trauma and the violent death of the love of his life (Vesper Lynd). Meanwhile, Jason Bourne can’t remember his own phone number and even cartoon superheroes are neurotic: Batman, as played by Mr Christian Bale, was so miserable you wondered if he wouldn’t have been better off hanging up his cape and seeking the advice of a decent psychoanalyst. Each of those actors takes his action-hero role very, very seriously indeed. Studios and directors demand it, and so do contemporary audiences.

  • Sir Roger and co-star Mr Christopher Walken on the set of A View To Kill, Paris, 1985 Patrick Zachmann/ Magnum Photos

For all those reasons, watched from the perspective of 2015, Sir Roger's seven James Bond films, a louche body of work that extends over 12 years from Live And Let Die (1973) to A View To A Kill (1985), can seem knackered relics of an era so distant from ours that the flimsy popular cinema of the time is unrecognisable from today’s slick blockbusters.

And Sir Roger himself, with his single raised eyebrow, his distracted air of half-engaged irony – sometimes he seems to stare off into space; perhaps he’s thinking about lunch – and his embarrassing uncle antics with women young enough to be his embarrassed nieces, can seem a ludicrous figure. Implausible as a plot to take over the world, creaky as a Whitehall staircase, stiff as a you-know-what, Sir Roger seems to make little or no attempt to make Bond anything more than a two-dimensional figure of fun. He seems, simply, to be having a laugh.

And that, perhaps, is the point. Because all the criticisms of Sir Roger – wooden, unconvincing, half asleep – miss crucial elements. He was too smart, too charming, simply too well-mannered, and with a far too highly developed sense of his own ridiculousness, to insult the audience’s collective intelligence by playing the frankly preposterous character of Mr Ian Fleming’s Bond – wine snob, womaniser, stuffed shirt, a loner who saves all from the megalomaniac Armageddon every time – for anything other than chuckles. This doesn’t mean he was disdainful of the role of 007. He just wasn’t pretending to be Sir Laurence Olivier or Mr Marlon Brando. (Incidentally, the greatest classical actor to have played Bond is Mr Timothy Dalton, and you don’t often hear cineastes naming him their favourite 007.)

Consider Sir Roger’s provenance: born in 1927 in Stockwell, not by any means the wealthiest part of south London, he is the son of a housewife and a policeman. A grammar-school boy, after the war – during which he was evacuated to rural Devon – he was commissioned into the Royal Army Service Corps, becoming a captain. Briefly, he was at RADA, the fabled London drama school. Then he worked as a model.

  • Mr Peter Sellers attempts to paint Sir Moore’s toenails at Sellers’ home in Beverly Hills, California, c. 1974 Terry O'Neill/ Getty Images

In 1954, he signed a seven-year contract with MGM, but the films flopped. It was on television that he became a star. First as the hero of a British adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and then, from 1962, as the suave, quipping Simon Templar, a sort of contemporary Robin Hood (if Robin Hood had worn skinny ties and driven a Volvo P1800) in The Saint, based on the novels by Leslie Charteris. That show ran for six series and was an international hit.

Sir Roger followed this with the impeccably stylish and still very funny The Persuaders! in 1971, in which he and Mr Tony Curtis were mismatched Riviera playboys turned crime-fighters. Sir Roger, who played high-toned British smoothie Lord Brett Sinclair opposite Curtis’ rough-diamond New Yorker Danny Wilde, was reportedly paid £1m for the series, making him the highest paid TV actor in the world at that point. Then, the following year, Sir Roger took over as Bond in the wake of the George Lazenby fiasco (the Aussie model returned to obscurity after one film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and Sir Sean Connery’s slightly grudging return for Diamonds Are Forever.

Every boy has a first Bond, like a first crush, and mine is Sir Roger. The film was The Spy Who Loved Me, and it was love at first sight. He had an underwater Lotus Esprit S1 (so did I, in time, though mine went in the bathtub, not the ocean), and he got to fight off Mr Richard Kiel’s teeth and wrap his tongue around Ms Barbara Bach’s. It’s not just me. Mr Craig’s first Bond was Sir Roger, too. Live And Let Die is one of the first films he saw at the cinema and he still considers it Sir Roger’s finest. “It’s when he was at his most stylish,” Mr Craig told me once. “And his most ‘Roger Moore’.”

  • Sir Roger with Sir Sean Connery at Langan’s Brasserie, London, 1981 Camera Press

And let’s not forget: the man had style. He made his entrance in Live And Let Die in a dark blue, double-breasted cashmere coat, made for him by his long-standing Mayfair tailor, Mr Cyril Castle. (There aren’t many actors now – in fact, I can’t think of any – who commission their own bespoke costumes for a film.) With the exception of Yves Saint Laurent – no slouch himself in the wardrobe department – Sir Roger did as much as anyone to popularise the safari jacket, currently enjoying another moment. And if things got slightly out of hand by the late 1970s – the spy we loved was rocking quite the collar behind the wheel of that sub-aquatic supercar –  by the early 1980s, Sir Roger had returned to the sartorial understatement of Mr Fleming’s Bond.

His suits were made for him by Doug Hayward, of Mount Street, Mayfair – “a sort of genius”, according to Sir Roger – in whose shop he would spend time shooting the breeze with other dapper British actors, including Mr Terence Stamp and Mr Michael Caine. (This is the era when movie stars had style, rather than stylists.) Like Mr Stamp and Mr Caine, none of this glamour and sophistication came to Sir Roger by birth. He is a self-invented man.

Since retiring from the Bond role – at the ripe age of 58 – he has mostly dedicated himself to the good life and to his extensive work for UNICEF. At 88, he has been married four times and has three children. Like a latter-day Brett Sinclair, he lives between Monte Carlo and the Swiss Alps.

  • Sir Roger promotes For Your Eyes Only, 1981 Alain Dejean/ Corbis

As I typically do when writing a piece like this, I turned to the standard critical text on film stardom, Mr David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary Of Film, before I got to work, to find out what I ought to say. But unlike Sir Sean Connery and even Mr Pierce Brosnan, Sir Roger’s not in there. Yet there’s space for Ms Colleen Moore, Ms Demi Moore, Ms Julianne Moore and Mr Michael Moore.

One suspects, of course, he could hardly care less. Plenty have done it differently, but nobody did it better.

What to wear

  • Turnbull & Asser White Sea Island Cotton Tuxedo Shirt