Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig... The list of men who’ve played Ian Fleming’s most famous creation is going to get one longer this weekend, as Toby Stephens (no stranger to the Bond universe, having played baddie Gustav Graves in Die Another Day) is playing James Bond in BBC Radio 4’s all-new adaptation of Dr No. We caught up with the new 007 for a chat – for your eyes only...
Did you always harbour the ambition to play Bond?
“I suppose I always had a hankering to be Bond, I don’t think it was particularly to play him but, obviously, like everyone else I wanted to be him.”
Having played a Bond villain, did you think your chance of being 007 might have gone?
“I didn’t expect to ever play him in a visual sense, but to play him on radio was a great opportunity, because [scriptwriter] Hugh Whitemore had gone back to the original story and the original character, which I think was an interesting challenge to me, because I had so many preconceptions of what I’d seen - we all know the movies. In fact, until I did this I’d never actually read any of the books, so reading Dr No was a real experience for me, because I realised how far it had come from the original conception of Bond. And also I think the radio adaptation is very faithful to the original book. It seems very dated in a way, very post war, with the whole idea of MI6 being still very much a wartime thing. I think nowadays the whole idea of Bond is very postmodern.”
So do you look at this as a period piece
“Yes, it’s very much of its time, and that’s why I found it appealing doing it. I find it’s rather nostalgic in a way. I wasn’t around at that time, but I like the simplicity of it, and I like the fact that you can have these larger-than-life villains and they seem somehow to be of that time. I think now Bond is being turned back as it were. When I played the villain in Die Another Day, I think that was the climax of camp Bond, where the plotlines were way out-there and the villains were these huge characters that had vast finances and all that stuff. I think the films are probably going backwards now to a rather more simplistic view, going back to the original books in what they’re doing. Casino Royale is a very tight piece - it’s not like Octopussy where you’ve got these exotic plotlines. It’s very gritty.”
Did you have to put all the other portrayals of Bond out of your mind?
“I found that easier because it was close to the original book and reading the book the description of Bond is quite interesting – there’s one bit where it says he has a rather ‘cruel mouth’ - and we’re going back to something that’s more of that period, someone who is much more military, wasn’t so much the ladies’ man, wasn’t so charming, someone who’s much more direct. It’s basically getting rid of all of the stuff that Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan did of making him this very debonair character. It’s actually peeling all that away to get someone who’s much more linear and who’s on a mission.”
So not quite so arch?
“I think all of the different Bonds have different appeals – Roger Moore was so different from Pierce Brsonan, and Pierce Brosnan is so different from Sean Connery... They all have their own appeal, but I think taking it back to the original character is a very interesting exercise, because so much of what they did with the character has become what Bond is about, whereas actually I don’t think that has anything to do with the original Bond, who was much more of a utilitarian figure. He had a function, and he did it with deadly efficiency, was completely unsentimental and I think he has a wry sense of humour, but he doesn’t have the camp sense of humour that went along with the later Bond films, especially the Roger Moore ones.”
Does being on the radio give you the freedom to tell a Bond story you wouldn’t be able to on the big screen?
“I think it does liberate it to a certain extent. It also gives people the opportunity to imagine it. The thing with the films is it imagines it for you, whereas the radio is akin to the book where you use your own imagination to put it together. You use people’s voices, which helps get an anchor on things, but you still have to imagine Dr No’s lair, what it looks like, and I like. It’s a great opportunity. And also you can reimagine all of the characters in it.”
And this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the original Dr No novel?
“I think it’s much more faithful than the movie was. There are things about Dr No mining guano which is in the book, which seems so strange now – a Bond film about a villain who’s basically making money from mining bird shit, it seems completely ridiculous because one expects them to be much more exotic. Although Dr No is incredibly exotic, with the fact the character’s been rebuilt and had his face altered and his voice is strangulated because of it, , but it’s reimagined in the movie in a very different way.”
Have you gone back and read many of the other novels since you were cast as Bond
“I read Dr No and then I did read Casino Royale because I wanted to know what the first Bond was like. I actually fully intend to [read more] because I fully enjoyed it as a piece of literature. I think it’s so much of its time, but you realise what a good writer he was in that form, and he really invented something with Bond. I really enjoyed them, and I wasn’t expecting to. I had probably a kind of snobbish idea that it was going to be lesser, pulpy fiction, but actually they’re really good reads and very good books.”
Would you like to play Bond again?
“I hope they do some more. I think it’s great for the books to be reinvestigated in radio form. Obviously one can’t go back and do the movies again because they’re there and they’re wonderful, but it is great to re-explore them from the source material and get back to what the books were about. The films, I think, work marvellously as they are, and they do their own thing now and they’ve gone off on their own, but it’s great to go back to the originals and see what wonderful stories they are and what a wonderful character he is.”
Any stories you’d particularly like to star in?
“I’d love to do From Russia With Love, because I just think that’s a great story. But I love all of them, I think all of them are fantastic, and I’m a huge fan of the movies, but that’s my particular favourite.”
Dr No airs on Radio 4 at 2.30pm on Saturday 24 May.