Two things happened in my late 60s childhood. My mother won Herb Alpert’s Greatest Hits in a radio call-in competition and The Champions aired on TV. Thus began my obsession with being a spy (and Bionic) and with Casino Royale (1967).
I also fell in love with Peter Sellers.
Granted, Sellers was not the most natural and obvious of sex symbols. But as far as he and I were concerned he was up there with Rudolf Valentino in the hot stakes.
Born Henry Peter Sellers in 1925 in my native Portsmouth he started in comedy during the Second World War where a talent for mimicry took him out from behind a drum kit, and gained worldwide fame first as a member of The Goons with Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan and then as the hapless Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series of movies.
But when Casino Royale came along his inner romantic lead sprang to life – in both our eyes at least.
Casino Royale did not work out well. Ian Fleming wrote the novel in 1953 – the first in the Bond series – and Charles K. Feldman bought the film rights in 1960 with a view to a major screen production in tandem with Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli, the chaps behind the official Bond movie franchise.
But Broccoli and Saltzman wouldn’t play ball and left Feldman with a product that he had to play for laughs.
The light and fluffy plot centers around the now-retired Sir James Bond (Sir David Niven) who lives in a secluded mansion, plays Debussy on his piano and dreams of his lost love Mata Hari. Coaxed against his will out of retirement he must unite with all the various world spy networks to battle the forces of SMERSH and does so with a complex plan to rename and retrain every single MI5 agent, secretary, and hanger-on as James Bond.
It is unbelievably silly, impossibly groovy, and I love it to pieces.
For starters, the cast reads like a Who’s Who of the 60s great and good with, amongst others:
- Sir David Niven
- Deborah Kerr
- Daliah Lavi
- Barbara Bouchet
- Joanna Pettet
- Peter Sellers
- Ursula Andress
- Orson Welles
- Vladek Sheybal
- Jean-Paul Belmondo
- Terence Cooper
- Jacqueline Bisset
- Alexandra Bastedo
On top of that you get Burt Bacharach and Herb Alpert and Dusty Springfield on the soundtrack, plus worldwide glamorous locations, fabulous mod costumes, and guest appearances by yet more stars (and stars in the making), like:
- George Raft
- William Holden
- John Huston
- Peter O’Toole
- Caroline Munro
- Dave Prowse
- John Le Mesurier
- Stirling Moss
- Anna Quayle
- Ronnie Corbett
The film has a mighty six directors and three writers. Officially envisaged as a portmanteau piece, there are also many and varied stories of Sellers diva behavior on set which lead to walkouts by both the crew and Sellers himself. There are parts of the film that literally make no sense at all above and beyond the usual excuse of “It’s the Sixties”, simply because Sellers walked out and never returned to film the rest. (Famously, the scene between Sellers as Evelyn Tremble/James Bond and Orson Welles as Le Chiffre was shot with the actors on separate lots and on separate days because they hated each other so much.)
I’ve always maintained that Bond is a terrible spy. Everyone knows who he is – how many secret agents do you know who give their real name? – and he always gets captured. So, for me, a Bond film that sends the whole thing up and sticks its tongue very firmly in its cheek is always going to be a winner.
I’ve watched it so many times now that I can pretty much recite it off by heart, and have been known to slip quotes into the conversation, and take every opportunity to play as many tracks as possible on the radio show.
It’s as camp as Christmas, as full of substance as a stick of cotton candy, and the best example of 60s nonsense I can think of.
And why did I fall in love with Peter Sellers?
Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress) recruits the awkward and mild-mannered Evelyn Tremble (Sellers) for his skill and prowess at Baccarat, Le Chiffre’s game of choice and the only way to bankrupt and discredit him. To ensnare Tremble she must first seduce him – cue Sellers, sharp-suited and bespectacled walking across the screen in slow motion to the sounds of Dusty Springfield cooing The Look of Love. Perfection.