Willa Paskin (c) 2013, Slate. NEW YORK — “Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond” begins with a quote from Ian Fleming himself: “Everything I write has a precedent in truth.” This heavily massaged four-part miniseries about the war years of James Bond’s creator, which begins this week on BBC America, seeks to prove that Fleming (played by Dominic Cooper) should be taken at his word. Fleming, though a disclaimer notes that events have been altered for “dramatic effect,” makes the case that Ian Fleming was the proto-Bond, the man who first liked his martini shaken. This makes for an action-packed, boudoir-filled miniseries that incidentally enervates Fleming’s imagination: So thoroughly highlighting an author’s kinship with his creation suggests that his fiction is mere autobiography. But Fleming, who valued excitement in a story as much as anyone, probably would not mind Fleming’s implicit diss of his creativity, since the show goes out of its way to make him seem pretty damn swashbuckling.
As the series begins, Fleming is a dashing dilettante and aristocrat with mommy issues, bedding women and making a mess of his work as a financial investor. He is hired to work for Naval Intelligence precisely because he has no truck with authority, and he soon puts his raffish nature and creativity to good use in espionage. The mischief he manages against the Axis powers sounds like James Bond plots (one scheme in particular prefigured Operation Mincemeat) while putting him in proximity to all sorts of Bond regalia: trick pens, high-stakes card games, shootouts. The phrase “license to kill” is dropped into conversation. Even the trusty M shows up, in the form of a naval assistant named Monday (Anna Chancellor, on her way to becoming the ultimate British TV utility player).
But Fleming is not just purely Bond-lite. It’s equal parts 007 and Merchant Ivory, a British period romance that takes breaks for explosions. Cooper has a dark, cocksure swagger, and his libidinous Fleming initially takes up with a loose but well-born sweetheart named Muriel (Annabelle Wallis) — she goes by Mu, in the fine tradition of ridiculous upper-class names — who knows that the right way to win a man like Ian is not to like him too much, but can’t stop herself anyway. Having no trouble with Ian’s pathologically preferred tango of spite and sex is Ann O’Neill (in real life named Ann Charteris; she is played by Lara Pulver), a married woman also having a high-profile affair with another man. She and Ian spend the entire miniseries torturing each other, sometimes romantically — a kiss as the Blitz blows out windows beside them — but more often cruelly. What turns Ann on, sexually speaking, is a fellow willing to take her almost by force — not so much “The Spy Who Loved Me” as “The Spy Who Spanked Me.”
The Bond stuff is, on the whole, more enticing than Ann and Ian’s psychological pas de deux, which skirts up against real issues — and rape fantasies — before giving them a gauzy gloss of true love. The climax of their story involves them both running for each other on the eve of her wedding to another man, a sequence that would be a lot more dramatic if the entire miniseries’ framing device was not their eventual honeymoon. In real life, Ann did get married to the other man, kept having an affair with Fleming, and only ended up with him when she found herself pregnant with his baby. They both had affairs for the duration of the marriage. Now that is the sort of sordid saga Fleming might tell if it were trying to do justice to Ian Fleming and not Fleming-as-Bond. But James Bond, needless to say, does not get caught up in long, messy relationships, and so in this version of his creator’s life — the creator as doppelgänger — neither does he.
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Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, has written for New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Salon.com