It is entirely appropriate that the fact that the next Bond may be black has been revealed as part of a fiendish plot to undermine the western film industry. Whether it is really the North Koreans who have hacked Sony’s files or whether, as now seems more likely, a new Goldfinger will demand a huge ransom – “I mean English billions , Mr Bond” – to keep shtum about the storyline of forthcoming blockbusters, only time will tell but the latter threat is certainly potent. Think of the endings that could be revealed or, as that is difficult to do without seeing the films, think of what might have been revealed about the endings of the Tinseltown classics of the past. Suppose one had had to watch Titanic knowing that the ship will sink, or war films knowing that the Americans will win, or Pretty Woman knowing that true love will prevail, what a loss of artistic suspense that would be; how much tension would be lost.
A colleague of mine, then in his late thirties, once told me that he was going to see Hamlet for the first time, “But don’t tell me how it ends,” he added quickly. In a way he was lucky. It must be about 400 years since someone last saw Hamlet thinking that it might have a happy ending and, if he was a little disappointed that it did not end with a cheery song and dance, at least he had several hours of hoping for a family reconciliation. What a tragedy if the hackers should deprive cinema audiences of similar periods of tension.
However it is not this aspect of the affair which worries the British public but rather the use of a black actor to represent Bond, a character who is undoubtedly white to his fans. Would a black Bond fail to convince because he would cut across the preconceptions of the audience? Of course, we are used to that sort of thing at the theatre. There a black Henry V would raise no eyebrows, nor indeed a female one. Indeed in Shakespeare’s own day all female parts were played by boys and those who saw Fiona Shaw’s iconic performance as Richard II will know that male characters can be successfully played by women. But then the theatre is different. There it has to be accepted that a full portrayal is impossible and that, beyond the actual words, the representation is symbolic. Woods are represented by boughs, armies by a few men and severed heads, on one occasion at least, by cabbages. In this context it will usually make little difference whether the actor is black or white – with a possible exception where the point is central to the plot. After, all white actors playing Othello generally black up.
In the cinema, however, the game is verisimilitude and there are fewer gaps for the imagination to jump. Here the colour of the actor takes on a different significance in that it represents a change in the story rather than just a change in those who are conveying it. There is no reason, of course, why the Bond franchise should not undergo a change but one can see why those who already have a cherished image of Bond may find that unattractive – fine actor though Mr Idris Elba, who is suggested for the part, may be.
It is hard to know whether the introduction of a black Bond will be a success or not. There is certainly no reason why it should not be tried but, if it is tried and the audiences stay away, remember one thing. Those who say – and, depend on it, they will say – that this demonstrates racism among the cinema going public will be telling you a lie. It will simply be that the story has changed more than they like. That is all.