Before Alan Partridge’s ill-fated James Bond marathon, his PA Lynn suggested that the Timothy Dalton films – the “Welsh ones” – were somehow the less important Bonds. Alan berated Lynn (quite rightly) but failed to reiterate just how important the first Dalton film, The Living Daylights, really is.
Of course, if you asked safari suit-appreciator Alan, “Who’s the best Bond?” he’d shout “Roger! Roger!” until he turned purple, much like he did when Rodge no-showed Knowing Me, Knowing You. It’s the ultimate Bond question – and there’s no definitive answer.
Sean Connery for the purists and readers of the Radio Times, who named the Scot their favourite Bond in a new poll. George Lazenby for the chin-strokers. Roger Moore for anyone who grew up watching repeats of The Spy Who Love Me on their nan’s living room floor. Daniel Craig for the newcomers. Dalton – the 007 who almost never was – has come to be the choice of the serious fan, which could be why he came second in the Radio Times survey.
But the importance of The Living Daylights to the Bond canon isn’t about Dalton being the “best”. It’s the film that proved Bond could be reinvented; that Bond could not only survive the evil machinations of SPECTRE and metal-toothed goons, but also the ridiculousness of double taking pigeons from Moonraker and dressing up as a clown for Queen and Country in Octopussy.
Thanks to Dalton, The Living Daylights shifted the tone and set a trend that would ensure the series’ continued survival – with each incoming Bond, the films adapted and evolved, rebooting 007 for a new era.
The series had tried reinventing itself before with Lazenby in the the stylish On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman brought Connery back for Diamonds Are Forever – a commercial smash but an artistic step back.
Roger Moore, who debuted with Live and Let Die in 1973, brought his own charm, though save the odd raised eyebrow, his early films could easily have been Connerys, following the formula to the letter. Moore’s tenure found its own direction – more Carry On than Cold War thriller – but it wasn’t so much evolving as it was declining in quality.
Rodge briefly went “back to basics” with For Your Eyes Only – notable for Rodge’s most Fleming-like moment, booting a henchman off a cliff – but lost the plot again for Octopussy and A View To A Kill. The Bond films were still profitable, but on a downward trajectory; creatively, they had comfortably settled into self parody.
With The Living Daylights slated for release in the summer of 1987, it was time for a new 007. Mel Gibson and Sam Neil were both considered, but the role ultimately went to Pierce Brosnan, not Timothy Dalton.
Brosnan had made his name in the series Remington Steele, but NBC cancelled it in ’86. Brosnan screen tested and even took publicity photos as 007, before NBC invoked a 60-day clause in his contract to re-sell Remington Steele, ending Brosnan’s tenure as 007 before it began.
Brosnan was devastated, made worse by the fact NBC only made six more Remington Steele episodes before re-cancelling.
Cubby Broccoli’s wife Dana suggested Dalton, a serious character and theatre actor. He understood that Bond’s future success meant returning to the past.
“The first thing you ask a producer is ‘What do you want of me?’” said Dalton, in the documentary Everything or Nothing. “Do you want me to carry on in the vein that’s been set? Or do you want to set off on a new course?’ The safe and easy answer is to say stick with it as it is, in which case I’d have said ‘no’.
“Roger was brilliant at what he did, but I couldn’t simply copy what he’d done… You’ve got to go back to the beginning. Here was a hero who murdered in cold blood. The dirtiest, toughest, meanest, nastiest, brutalist hero we’d ever seen. I wanted to bring people back to believing in this character.”
Screenwriters considered making it an origin story about Bond’s first mission, but the final script took its cue from the original Fleming story – Bond is sent to counter-kill a sniper who turns out to be a concert cellist he’s been ogling – with Bond uncovering a plot by Russian defector General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) and American mercenary Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) to make off with $500 million in opium.
Shooting started in September 1986, with Dalton joining the primary creative team from A View to a Kill – director John Glen and screenwriters, Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson.
According to Bond film biography Some Kind of Hero, Dalton took control of the character from the offset. He wanted to ditch the tux in favour of a casual, more contemporary leather jacket, and insisted on doing as much of the action as he could. In the opening scene – a 00-training exercise gone wrong – Dalton actually clings to the top of a burning Land Rover as it careers down the Rock of Gibraltar.
The finished film premiered on June 29, 1987. It’s remains one of the series’ high points: a proper espionage thriller that’s at its best in the quieter, dramatic moments between action sequences, when Dalton unravels his version of Bond.
He’s instinctive (rumbling Koskov’s phony defection straight away) and devious (later conning Koskov’s girlfriend and assassin/cellist Kara, played by Maryam d'Abo, into thinking he’s leading her to Koskov, who Bond almost certainly intends to kill).
He’s always on verge of going rogue and making things personal. When MI6 man Saunders tells Bond he’ll report him to M for disobeying orders, Bond replies, “Stuff my orders… tell him what you want. If he fires me I’ll thank him for it.”
When Saunders is later murdered, Dalton comes his closest to Fleming’s Bond yet; the more vengeful he is, the more human he becomes. In the the next scene, he forcibly strips a woman to distract a KGB heavy, which feels more ruthless than Rodge kicking that henchman over the cliff
It’s not entirely free of Roger-like shenanigans: the opening scene sees Bond parachute onto a yacht, where there’s a glass of bubbly and bikini-clad woman waiting for him, prompting him to keep the British end up.
Action set-pieces (including one the series’ best, as 007 hangs off a Hercules plane mid-flight) and henchmen are present and correct too.
The Living Daylights was a success, grossing $192m. But Dalton’s follow up, Licence to Kill – which sees 007 go fully dark on a mission of revenge – performed poorly at the US box office.
Financial disputes delayed the next film by six years, by which time MGM/United Artists producers wanted a new Bond – opening the door for Brosnan to return with Goldeneye in 1995. But Dalton’s films were way ahead of their time, and have more in common with the Daniel Craig era of deconstructing Bond than the Brosnan films in between.
The Living Daylights’ greatest legacy is in finding markedly different vision of Bond, shifting the tone and reinventing the series within its own parameters – still the key to the series’ success 30 years later.
Goldeneye didn’t so much reinvent the character, but the world around him, asking whether Bond is relevant post-Cold War or just a misogynistic dinosaur – at a time when lad culture was peaking. Conversely, Craig’s era has been defined by its breaking down of the formula and reassembling the pieces to make a composite of old and new Bond.
The big question is, where does the series goes from here? Instinct says that it’s time for a new Bond, a new era, and a Dalton-like rethink.
Reinvention might be the secret to Bond’s success, but it takes the best of British courage to pull the trigger on a decision. It’s a gamble for producers, one that’s paid off so far, but one that’s also enough – to use Dalton’s words – to scare the living daylights out of them.