|Network on Air's streaming service is continuing the idea of using the brand's extensive film library for a series of double bills, inspired by the way to watch movies that only started to be widely phased out in the nineteen-eighties. Before that, tradition dictated that if you attended your local cinema before then, you would be treated to a set of two films, plus advertisements, trailers and even short films to supply what would be regarded as a full evening's entertainment (or indeed a full afternoon's entertainment). One of those doubles unites the two Bulldog Drummond films of the nineteen-sixties, posited as an answer to a certain other British superspy.
The impact James Bond made on world culture cannot be underestimated, once Dr. No had been released as a movie in 1962 there was no stopping him, and what had been a successful series of books by writer Ian Fleming went on to conquer the globe with its mixture of sex, violence and callous quippery. That this had all been made palatable for the family audience was an achievement in itself, but with Sean Connery in the lead as Agent 007, a single effort quickly became a franchise juggernaut. So what was the response? About a billion imitative pictures and television shows, from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to Our Man Flint, and an enthusiastic craze that lasts to this day.
The fact we still have Mission: Impossible movies and countless variations on the superspy theme, spoofs included, demonstrates a genre that will likely never die out as long as there is espionage in the world, but once the first flush of success was enjoyed by the Bond filmmakers, why didn't others manage to supplant him, why is Bond the high water mark of these things? For a start, you can always tell when you're watching an authentic entry in the series, there is a formula, not to mention a large budget behind it to fund the hero's adventures, and the mix of thrills, laughs, spectacle and a little sex means that while it looks easy to replicate, getting that formula right is not easy at all.
Take Deadlier Than the Male, the first of Richard Johnson's two Bulldog Drummond efforts. Some will tell you it was as good as anything Cubby Broccoli conjured up, but you can tell the difference with no difficulty between this and Bond. Despite Johnson being earmarked for the 007 role at first, and while a perfectly good actor who could play suave in his sleep, he was not, crucially, Sean Connery: Johnson wound up in Lucio Fulci video nasties later on, while Connery was a star from initially putting on the tuxedo to the blockbusters he headlined in the nineties like The Rock. Their career trajectories were notably different: even Roger Moore, one of Connery's successors, knew how to pick flattering projects, or at least appropriate ones.
Johnson may have been a Shakespearean, but as Drummond he didn't even have to throw his own punches, as he had a stuntman do that for him (OK, shades of Sir Roger there). The plot here centred around Hugh Drummond trying to foil some murderous big busines dealings by his nemesis, Carl Petersen (Nigel Green), a character taken from the pages of Sapper's original, two-fisted tales of adventure. These had been filmed before, since the nineteen-twenties, and proved popular enough as programmers, but the Johnson items were comparatively more lavish affairs, with location work on the Mediterranean. Where they really scored was with those females deadlier than the male, Elke Sommer and Silva Koscina, assassins with a light, comedic but slightly nasty touch, whenever they were on the screen it almost made you forget you were watching a fair facsimile rather than the real Bond. Maybe if they had made a movie of The Saint in the sixties it would look like this.
So Elke and Silva saved the day, or the movie anyway, donning skimpy bikinis and exquisitely made up, the best distraction from the lower budget and lesser imagination in the predicaments Bulldog was trapped in. Virginia North was there as well, a starlet whose career never took off, but will always be remembered for The Abominable Doctor Phibes: here you hear her speak! She also speaks in the intermission to this Network Double Bill, flogging a tie-in contest for a holiday. Also, there's ads for the Morris 1300 car (fawned over on the beach by Europeans!) and Lyons Maid ice cream, and a trailer for a Stanley Baxter Double Bill of The Fast Lady and Father Came Too.
On with Some Girls Do, the second and last Drummond instalment, unless you counted the spoof Bullshot that appeared in 1983 which turned the character into a buffoon, something Sapper would have never condoned. However, considering screenwriters had to tone down his racism and antisemitism from his books, maybe it was for the best that the film versions did not adhere to his vision of the hero too faithfully: Bulldog was still going into situations with the expectation he would have to beat somebody up to get his way, and Johnson in the sequel got to throw more of his own punches than he had in the initial one, aside from the odd shot where stuntmen stood in.
The plot was a familiar one if you knew the sixties concept of spy flicks, taking as its threat Petersen's army of fembots, female robots who carry out his destructive and murderous orders in order to earn him millions of pounds when an aerospace contract goes his way. This trope was so well-used that when Mike Myers employed it for Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, it slotted right in to the parodies of the genre so smoothly that he could have come up with it himself; however, it was there in the sixties, applying the fear and desire factor seen in such Bond rip-offs as Doctor Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. Note it had an Italian-made sequel: Italy was big on Bond.
Maybe no more than any other country that produced its own spy knock-offs, but they did seem to churn out more of these than any other country, even taking in Japan or France's OSS 117 series, for example. Britain, meanwhile, its film industry enjoying an injection of Hollywood cash, developed variations: the anti-Bonds of the John Le Carre adaptations or Len Deighton's Harry Palmer novels where Swinging Sixties icon Michael Caine delivered on a career trajectory similar to Connery's. Some Girls Do was simply another one of those, one step up from Lindsay Shonteff's aspirant would-be Bond epics on a budget, but maybe not that much different from Carry On Spying, even with the addition of colour and the aspect they evidently hoped would sell it, the increased amount of girls.
When Joanna Lumley was in a bit part, you knew the producers were spoilt for choice as to what starlets they could include, and sure enough there were the liked of Vanessa Howard as the most erratic fembot, Virginia North back again - in robot form, American Sydne Rome en route to Italy as the kooky sidekick (and offering a better account of herself than in Roman Polanski's What?), Yutte Stensgaard of Lust for a Vampire as, you guessed it, an android, Adrienne Posta as Drummond’s "daily", and with star billing, Daliah Lavi as Petersen's head schemer, throwing herself into the action with gusto. James Villiers replaced Nigel Green as Petersen, now a master of (not very good) disguise, and Ronnie Stevens was the comic relief agent (see what I mean about Carry On?). It was about as diverting as the opening entry in Johnson's reading of the role, and if it wasn't very interested in the plot, more the jokes and ladies, you understood how perfectly of its time this entertainment was - and yet, we still get the Bond copies to this day.
These double bills are a nostalgic in the right way rendition of the sort of evenings out of yesteryear that so many Brits would experience, and as the prints of the films are pristine, reminiscent of what they would be like to watch as new. Click here to join the Network website.