Wednesday 24 May 2017

Sir Roger Moore

It sounds morbid, but I've been meaning to write an obituary for Roger Moore since 2013. I had the immense fortune to interview him for the Empire podcast in the previous October, and while it was everything you'd hope for from an interview with Roger Moore, it did strike me that he was a Very Old Man (he'd just turned 85 that week), and his delicate shuffle and hushed tones suggested that he might not be long for this world. Every now and again I wondered whether to make a start, but each time I put it off - partly because I'm lazy, but mostly because I didn't want to admit that he might not actually be immortal. He, too, evidently decided to put off dying until he'd written a few more books, performed a few more sell-out shows and generally enjoyed the absolute shit out of his ridiculously charmed life. Turns out James Bond is pretty goddamn hard to kill after all.

Still, the day when Twitter could at long last break out its "Roger no Moore" gag has finally arrived, so only now do I sit down to gather my thoughts about the first 007 to ascend to the great damp-fannied-Bond-girl-filled boudoir in the sky. This isn't going to be a biography (read his books for that, they're terrific), but it is going to be tediously personal, so please forgive me if I uncharacteristically go off on a boring ramble about James Bond and Roger Moore for once.
Like most people my age, I was introduced to Rog (and Bond) by my dad and ITV. I'm ashamed to say I can't remember which Bond film I first saw on the telly, but I do know that that's how Roger first exposed himself to me: unconvincingly beating up lesser-paid stuntmen without getting a hair out of place, before making a terrible quip, throwing back a goblet of fizz and sucking the face off an alarmingly young lady who would then probably try to kill him. It's a lifestyle to which eight-year-old me immediately aspired, and has disappointingly failed to achieve thus far. But then I'm not Roger Moore, and nor is anybody else - not least the three actors who took over his role but, for various reasons, chose not to emulate him.

Because how do you follow Roger Moore? You can't, so you don't. You wouldn't get away with it, partly because the world has mercifully moved on from finding sexism and racism funny (not that that was the backbone of Rog's humour, but it would be disingenuous to ignore it), but mostly because with the twinkle of a baby blue eye, the gentle elevation of a beautifully-coiffed eyebrow and a wry grin, Rog's Bond could get away with pretty much anything. I loved this about him when I was a kid, hated it when I became a dull Bond purist in my twenties and have now made peace with it for what it is: cinema history, for better or worse. 

It's easy to dismiss that mercurial run of films that somehow frequently defied quality control to keep James Bond afloat in the '70s and '80s despite increasingly fierce competition in the action movie market. Rog didn't single-handedly turn the franchise into self-parody, but his name and eyebrows were front and centre when Ian Fleming's cold, cruel secret agent glided past a double-taking pigeon in a hover-gondola or defused an atomic bomb while dressed as Bingo fucking Dimples the clown. You can groan all you like (and believe me, I have), but try and imagine any other Bond actor pulling that shit off. Moore turned the Bond films into Roger Moore films, and there's nothing wrong with that in a franchise which frequently needs its pomposity bubble bursting.

Look closely at Rog's Bonds, though, and you'll find it wasn't all cringe-inducing misogyny and pensioners fucking Grace Jones. Occasionally that RADA training and twenty-odd years of pre-Bond acting experience paid off: witness the scene in The Spy Who Loved Me where Bond reveals to his female Russian counterpart that he murdered her lover with a flare-firing ski-pole, or watch him boot a villain off a clifftop in For Your Eyes Only as revenge for the death of a colleague - those are the moments where Fleming's Bond briefly comes alive, and incongruous as it seems it proves that Roger Moore was indeed capable of being somebody else other than Roger Moore.

But could he be somebody else other than James Bond? That's what I decided to investigate when I embarked on That's Rogertainment!, an ill-advised attempt to watch all of Rog's non-Bond films; a project which began in earnest and tailed off somewhat as life got in the way. But of all the actors in the world I wanted to watch more of, it was Moore. Something about his indefatigable attempts to keep plugging away at something he clearly wasn't very good at but which paid for those homes in Switzerland and Monaco made me hungry to see what else he'd achieved in his time. The answer is a fucking shitload, a mere fraction of which I've managed to catch. But I recommend all of it, no matter how bad: North Sea Hijack sees him as the comically-named Rufus Excalibur ffolkes, cat-loving head of an aquatic counter-terrorist unit; Shout At The Devil has him visibly attempting to keep up with a sozzled Lee Marvin before smearing gravy browning on his face and donning a turban; Bullseye is basically Moore and Michaels Caine and Winner having a supermassive megajolly on camera for 90 minutes regardless of literally everything else in the world. Embodying the term "movie star" (in stark contrast to the term "actor"), Rog deployed his overabundance of charisma at every turn to ensure that he at least was always watchable, even if his films were frequently quite the opposite.

But if you want to see the man at his best, check out 1970's madgasm The Man Who Haunted Himself, which I have yet to cover on That's Rogertainment! - a failing I hope to correct very soon. It's a film I love so much I screened it in a cinema on my thirty-tenth birthday, complete with an audio introduction recorded on request by the man himself. That's the kind of guy Roger Moore was: 100% aware of how much his work meant to his fans, no matter its quality, and frequently happy to accommodate those fans' requests. There are numerous stories on Twitter right now that people have told about how lovely Rog was when they met him; see how many equally enthusiastic tales you can dig up about his co-Bonds. Maybe they'd rather move on, but Roger's acceptance that fate dealt him a winning hand with 007 and his gratitude for that make his death that little bit harder for Bond fans.
So as much as I love his Bond (a love which, frankly, has seen peaks and troughs over the years), I consider myself one of the lucky ones whose memories of Roger Moore are enhanced by having spent a brief amount of time in his company, which is why I have to bookend these ramblings with that 2012 interview. I got to ask him about The Man Who Haunted Himself, I got to shake his hand and see up close and personal how immaculately turned out he was, and I got to make a cack-handed attempt to explain the plot of Inception to him. Throughout all of this he was an absolute joy; a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire who insisted we didn't call him 'sir', suggesting we could call him 'Charlie' if we liked. I've no idea why. They say never meet your heroes, but 'they' have obviously never met Roger Moore: a hero for the ages. Rest in peace, Charlie.