Too bad the Bond secretary was something of a prophet without honour in her native land
Miss Moneypenny is Forever
Too bad the Bond secretary was something of a prophet without honour in her native land
I don’t know what a Canadian performer has to do not to get into the Order of Canada, but evidently Lois Maxwell managed it. For a quarter-century, she could stake a plausible claim to have played to bigger audiences around the world than any other Canuck thespian. Yet, as her death reminds us, she was something of a prophet without honour in her native land, and elsewhere had to make do with honour without profit. Everybody else on the James Bond franchise got megarich—Ian Fleming; the producer Cubby Broccoli; the composer Monty Norman, whose eternal Bond theme is the only reliable earner in a journeyman oeuvre; the other composer, John Barry, who wrote Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever and almost all the other decent title songs; and, of course, Sean Connery and Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. But, for most of her long reign as M’s secretary Miss Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell got a hundred pounds a day for a twoor three-day shoot, and for the first five movies had to supply her own clothes. From Dr. No in 1962 to A View to a Kill in 1985, her total screen time barely adds up to an hour.
But what an hour. Ninety per cent of starring roles don’t bring the public recognition that a minute and a half of Moneypenny bantering with her beloved James did. It went pretty much the same way every time. 007 would arrive at MI6 headquarters, having been delayed by the usual horizontal encounter (“Sorry I’m late, M. I’m afraid something came up,” etc.), to be briefed about the latest global megalomaniac to have caught the eye of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But, regardless of the urgency-
threats to nuke major cities every 24 hours and whatnot—Commander Bond always had time for a little byplay in the outer office. Verbal byplay, that is. Had she joined the Mounties, Miss Moneypenny might have got her man. But, in the British Secret Service, she stayed unmounted, a unique distinction among “Bond girls.”
The character was present at the creation, in Casino Royale, the very first 007 novel 55 years ago, right there on the first page of chapter three:
“ What do you think, Penny?” The Chief of Staff turned to M’s private secretary who shared the room with him.
Miss Moneypenny would have been desirable but for eyes which were cool and direct and quizzical.
By the second book, Live andLetDie, she’d advanced from “would have been desirable” to “the desirable Miss Moneypenny, M’s allpowerful secretary,” which suggests that desire arose from her proximity to power. There’s something rather crass about nailing your own secretary but nailing the boss’s is subversive—although, in Bond’s case, it may have had an element of displacement: in Ian Fleming’s novels, 007 spends more timing mooning over M’s “clear blue eyes” than he ever does over Moneypenny’s. Her first name was Jane, but she was addressed as “Moneypenny” or “Penny,” admitted to the boys’ school collegiality of surnames and nicknames—the real male intimacy which Bond’s army of ravenous shaggers out in the field would never know. And so, instead of bedding her and finding her a gilded corpse or dropped in the shark tank or any of the other grim morning-afters that await the typical Bond girl, 007 did her the singular honour
of teasing her, decade in, decade out.
Fleming based Moneypenny on Vera Atkins, secretary to Maurice Buckmaster, head of the French section at Britain’s wartime Special Operations Executive. Miss Atkins lived into her nineties, died in the year 2000, and, although a spinster to the end, didn’t recognize herself in Fleming’s fictionalization. She was one of those fiendishly smart gals whose talents it took a global conflagration to liberate. It was Vera Atkins who recruited and supervised the over 400 British agents who parachuted into Nazioccupied France, standing on the runway night after night to watch her boys take off and disappear into the clouds. Like Moneypenny, she was indulgent of the Secret Service’s penchant for secret servicing, as long as it stayed brisk and businesslike. Romance was another matter. “Oh, the bloody English!” she sighed, after one of her boys, George Millar, revealed he was in love again. “We never have bother of this sort with the French. They just copulate, and that is that.” Where Moneypenny was devoted to just one agent, Miss Atkins was devoted to all of them: 118 vanished in the course of their duties, and after the war she demanded to be allowed to investigate their cases. She discovered the fate of 117, all dead, and brought many of their killers to justice.
“Vera Atkins,” like “Lois Maxwell,” sounds as English as you could get. But Vera was born Vera Rosenberg in Bucharest, and Lois was born Lois Hooker in Kitchener. She took the name “Maxwell” from a gay ballet dancer pal in London, and back in Ontario her family liked it so much they all adopted it, too. (Her forthcoming autobiography is apparently entitled Born A Hooker.) Her character isn’t a big part of Casino Royale or any of the books. She’s there, you feel, because Fleming had conceived Bond with a series
in mind and wanted to give the impression of a fully populated world. And, of course, he enjoyed the jest of an organization of global assassins who were British civil servants, subject to all the dreary paperwork and penny-pinching of cheerless postwar London. In the early films, Moneypenny’s office is pretty much like any other Whitehall cubbyhole, low on decor, save for the obligatory hat stand to which Sean Connery would wing his trilby. In later movies like The Man with the Golden Gun, she’d turn up in saucily nautical garb manning the photocopier in a submerged battleship in Hong Kong Harbour, but, in the movie looping endlessly through our minds, like Gene Kelly and the lamppost, Miss Maxwell is never far from the hat stand. For her 75th birthday party, admission was conditional on guests wearing headgear and lobbing it at the spe-
cially replicated civil service hat stand.
Fleming conceived Moneypenny in the heyday of secretaries, of office parties, of “Why, Miss Jones, you’re beautiful without your glasses...,” of Frank Loesser’s A Secretary Is Not A Toy in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, of Della Street pluckily holding the fort for Perry Mason. Hallmark introduced special cards for “Secretaries Week,” now renamed “Administrative Professionals Week,” which takes a bit of the zing out of the verses. When Lois Maxwell, pushing 60, was retired from the service, Cubby Broccoli cast Caroline Bliss, who turned Moneypenny into a giggly Sloane Ranger (as the London slang of the eighties had it), and then Samantha Bond, who was better but definitely more of an “Administrative Professional,” and finally the secretary got downsized completely. They dropped the character from Casino Royale and bragged
about dumping the old “formula.” But the formula—Moneypenny flirting; Q snapping, “Oh, grow up, 007”; the opening titles of underdressed dolly birds floating around phallic gun barrels—is what kept the show on the road. Take out Moneypenny and Co. from most of the Bond films, and all you’re left with is the usual laser thingy in space and Bond running around a hollowed-out volcano shooting people while he looks for the timer.
As for Miss Maxwell, while loyal to M, she wasn’t above a bit of moonlighting. She was one of the voices on Stingray, the cult TV show of bobble-headed puppets (filmed in “Supermarionation”) that, via Thunderbirds, inspired Team America. In Stingray, Lois Maxwell was Atlanta Shore of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol—or WASP, a somewhat improbable acronym for a transnational agency. Atlanta is very much in love with granitejawed hero Troy Tempest, but on his top-secret missions he has a bit of underwater tail in the shape of a mermaid called Marina. In other words, it’s the same old unrequited Bond scenario. And, bizarrely for a children’s show, the closing titles each week dwelt not on the derring-do but on the love triangle, with Troy serenading his piscine beauty with the show’s big ballad:
You’re magic to me!
A beautiful mystery!
I’m certain to fall, I know
Because you enthrall me so!
Meanwhile, up on dry land, Atlanta would be seen staring dreamily at a photo of Troy, and wondering why he hadn’t come in to the office today.
It was a living, and Lois Maxwell carried it off with splendid brio. Almost everyone connected with Bond turns out to have feet of clay: Sean Connery is a dreary Scottish nationalist off-screen; Roger Moore says he doesn’t like guns; and, when Daniel Craig leapt into
HAD SHE JOINED THE MOUNTIES SHE MIGHT HAVE GOT HER MAN. BUT IN THE BRITISH SECRET SERVICE SHE STAYED UNMOUNTED.
his Aston Martin in Casino Royale, it emerged he could only drive automatics. They had to get a stuntman in for the stick shift. But in over a decade of her column in the Toronto Sun, Lois Maxwell revealed a Moneypenny of magnificently robust views. She’d have made a better “Canada’s Thatcher” than Kim Campbell ever could.
She wanted the role Judi Dench got—the first female head of MI6. True, the CIA seems to have dwindled down into the world’s biggest typing pool, sitting around in Virginia monitoring email all day. But even there the stenographer does not get to be boss. And so Lois Maxwell bumped up against the glass ceiling, and never got to be M—the one letter the secretary couldn’t take. M
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