Rage, rage, rage for the killing of the light!

ALEX WOODCOCK-CLARKE says a noisy segment of the British population wants to extinguish fireworks

And God said, “Let there be light”: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. God did more than that. He gave it to Man so Man could paint the night skies with stars and fountains of light to the music of thunder. Now it is the modern age, and God is dead. New voices arise from the void, querulous and offended, and what they say (and they are legion) is: “Let’s snuff out fireworks!”.

Is it me? Did I go mad? As I walked along the Bois de Boulogne did an anvil fall on my head in the manner of a Looney Toons cartoon? Is a large, statistically significant demographic of the British population truly mustering to eradicate joy? Has prevailing opinion really come down in favour of darkness and silence?

Transitory and brilliant is the history of fireworks. Though their origins are lost in the smoke of pre-history, the historian of chemistry, Professor J R Partington, notes they were known to the Chinese by the end of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1206-1368 AD) and used as “arrows of flying fire” at the siege of Kai-feng Fu. By the end of the 15th century, one mandarin scholar, Wan Hu of the middle Ming dynasty, devised a flying machine from two large kites, a wicker armchair and 47 large rockets so that he might escape troubled times and go and live on the Moon. His slaves ignited the blue touchpaper and retired. After the gigantic explosion, Wan Hu and his machine were never seen again. Some are sceptical Wan Hu’s lift-off ever took place (its first mention only came in the October 1909 edition of Scientific American) but in 1970 the International Astronomical Union named an ancient crater lunar crater after him. Fifty-two kilometres wide, it is as good a place as any to mark his landing or, considering its depth of five kilometres, impact.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, fireworks were bringing colour and fire to the Enlightenment all over Europe. Not of any historic importance themselves there was no historical figure which they did not throw into relief. Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, incorporated a regiment of fireworkers into his army to put on victory displays. Peter the Great of Russia initiated the tradition of setting off pyrotechnics at New Year’s Eve. In 1693, he put on a high fireworks scenario, cued by a 56 cannon salute, which included a fiery portrait of Hercules prying open the jaws of a lion while live dwarves, dressed as cherubs, “desported themselves madly” within the burning frame.

In France, Louis XIV instituted a tradition of firework displays in the garden of Versailles, some of which went on for five days at a time. The climax of one huge festival entitled, “The Pleasures of the Enchanted Island” culminated in a blazing battle between three sea monsters, which spread to the “Palace of Enchantment” and led to a volcanic cataract of fireworks which exploded the very island itself and blew the wigs off the Sun-King and 600 invited guests.

Of course, wherever there is excitement, there is danger. Fireworks have never been any exception. George Plympton, the editor of The Paris Review and a noted fireworks aficionado, cited Ralph Waldo Emerson: “As soon as there is life, there is danger” in recalling the immense pyrotechnical displays that took place in 1749 to mark the ending of the War of Austrian Succession. At one, in Paris, “there were forty killed and nearly three hundred wounded” when two competing clans of artificiers, one French and one Italian, “quarrelling for precedence in lighting the fire, both lighted at once and blew up the whole”.

Something similar happened on the same date in England. An enormous pyrotechnical machine was built in Green Park by the famous Italian fireworks designer, Gaetano Ruggieri. It was over 114 feet high and designed to be fired while Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, especially composed for the occasion, was debuted before George II and his retinue. On the night, the machine blew up prematurely causing Ruggieri to attack Charles Frederick, the English comptroller of the Woolwich Depot, with his sword;  a man fell off the machine to his death; a boy tumbled from a tree, also fatally; another man toppled into a pond and drowned; a crowd gathering outside Buckingham House panicked and many bones were broken; people on the Surrey shore tried to escape on boats that were so in danger of being swamped their crews threw interlopers into the Thames in batches. The diarist Horace Walpole saw a young girl whose party dress was set on fire by a wayward rocket. “She would have been destroyed if some person had not the presence of mind to strip her clothes off immediately”. On the plus side, there were fewer casualties than it might have been expected since it transpired the Duke of Richmond had previously confiscated twenty-five tons of fireworks on the grounds of “public safety” (and used them at his own party three weeks later). At the end of the evening, Ruggieri was arrested and sent to the Tower.

Walpole’s verdict on the night?

Whatever you hear of the fireworks, that is short of the prettiest entertainment in the world, don’t believe it. I have never passed a more agreeable evening

Few places in the world gave fireworks as warm a welcome as in the British Isles. Alan St. Hill Brock, a member of the great Brock dynasty of British fireworkers (or, more properly, pyrotechnicians) speculates that it was Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a friar known also as a doctor mirabilis, was the actual (if dubious) inventor of gunpowder, as its written formula first appeared in his 1267 Opus Majus treatise. Certainly, one Mr. Guido Fawkes was a fan of British fireworks since the 3,400 pounds of explosive he smuggled into the House of Commons in 1605 were purchased from Pains, the Salisbury-based (and still operating) fireworks manufacturer.

Fireworks have painted the backdrop of British history throughout recent centuries, adding size and drama to the grand events like royal weddings or birthdays or jubilees, or great victories when we used to have them. The enormous extravaganza of 19 July 1919 commissioned from the Brocks fireworks family to celebrate the Treaty of Versailles was the largest show ever put on in the UK, perhaps even in the world. Prints and engravings of the time show the entirety of Hyde Park alive with rocketry, aerial bombs and hundreds of curlicue serpent shells. The finale alone was based on 2,000 rockets exploding in the air at the same instant.

What may be more recurrent in the national experience and perhaps more British are not the giant displays but the smaller, private experiences. Watching dad in the back garden trying to launch a two-inch rocket in the rain with a sodden box of matches. A line of school pals huddled together spelling rude words in the air with sparklers. The Scout pack watching through binoculars a display in the Co-Op carpark lit by the local vicar who has insisted on safety protocols that rival a guided missile test. Such fleeting moments that put the power of Zeus or Thor, all their fire and thunder, in your hands and the hands of people just like you – that’s the British experience. And it’s that experience that a new surge of anti-firework campaigners wish to extinguish.

2020 has seen a surge in resentment against the use and enjoyment of fireworks. Her Majesty’s Government has spent time and money this year reviewing nine live petitions submitted by members of the public to ban, limit, ration, restrict, weaken or otherwise squelch fireworks (out of 164 submitted). The one in 2019 received 753,000 signatures. The most recent one (which runs into 2021) already has 278,000 signatures, well over the threshold to trigger a parliamentary debate. This petition demands fireworks be strictly limited to state-licensed displays. “Better enforcement of existing law is insufficient”, the petitioners insist. Vulnerable people and animals must be protected from “the distress and anxiety caused by unexpected firework[s]”.

There was something approaching ecstasy amongst supporters of a ban when COVID restrictions led to the cancelling of 5th of November firework displays in London, Sussex, the Midlands, Manchester, Yorkshire, Devon and Newcastle, Perth and the Highlands. The renowned Skinningrove Bonfire, in North Yorkshire, which features complex Heath Robinson-type wooden structures like castles and pirate ships, was squelched. Further south in Lewes, East Sussex, Bonfire Night celebrations, which usually attracts 80,000 people, were abandoned, as were the riotous Tar Barrels celebrations at Ottery St Mary in Devon, a tradition dating back to the 17th century. It was the same story for the event at Kenilworth Castle, one of the most-anticipated fireworks displays in the Midlands.

And don’t think you can make up for the cancellation of the organised displays by setting off a few bottle rockets in the back garden. Devon and Somerset Fire Service, for example, reminded anyone caught in breach of lockdown rules on household mixing, even in their own garden, faced a fine starting at £200. If you were found to be the organiser of a gathering of more than 30 people, like a firework display for family and friends, the fine rockets up to £10,000. “Think about your neighbours, particularly older people or those who are self-isolating, pets and, of course, those of us in the emergency services”, says Paul Jennings, the assistant commissioner for fire safety at the London Fire Brigade, says. Yes, think about us. Us, the local bureaucrats, the safety enforcers, the fun police, your paid servants.

“Woohoo!” was the persistent and general reaction on the Facebook page of FAB (FireworkABatement) as news of each of these cancellations rolled in. FAB is not a very large activist group on the face of it, with only a little over than 20,000 supporters on its new media channels. It’s led by Julie Doorne, a fine-looking woman in late-middle age who runs a horse-related business. All she does, and does it very successfully, is exchange information about domestic firework horror stories with like-minded types and then watch them bounce back and forth, always amplifying, always gaining force across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like until they’re picked up by the local and national media. “Puppy was Literally Scared to Death from Cardiac Arrest Due to Fireworks” is one of hers from last year. It’s about an adorable 18-month old black lab, Molly, who heard a firework go off at local firework display, instantly had a heart attack and keeled over, stone dead. If that incident was not terrible enough, the accompanying FAB release adds: “Moreover, some animals also mistakenly eat the remnants of fireworks, and it often results [sic] to choking and death. Lastly, the fumes that fireworks emit might be poisonous to some animals”. This story then appeared unquestioned in Metro, the Independent and the Daily Record.

Ms. Doorne is not asking for much. She doesn’t want to ban all fireworks. Only those used by private individuals. And she doesn’t want to stop fireworks being used whenever we want. Just restrict them to November 5th, Diwali and some other official public holidays when they can be let off in council-sanitised environments.

Well, who cares what she thinks? And yet her campaign has now been adopted, almost point-for-point, by the billion-pound campaigning charity, the RSPCA. Both the Welsh and Scots governments have promised “urgent reviews” of existing laws. Children’s charities and those associated with the elderly and the military veterans are also falling into line. Slowly but surely, the big battalions of moral suasion are coming into line. If you think the humble whizz-bang, the sparkler and 800 years of history can stand against them, think again.

The inevitable consequence of welfare democracy is the dictatorship of “the vulnerable”. The poor, the sick, the stupid, the drama student, you know, chumps. Unlike other tyrannies, this one is babyishly impotent (power vests, of course, in its state-appointed or media self-appointed “carers”) in all respects except one. To wit, stamping on the fun of other people so long, of course, as the fun is utterly inconsequential, and the other people in question are not like themselves. So, after fox hunting, ready salted crisps and guffawing at the sex lives of celebrities, the next simple pleasure scheduled for cancellation maybe not this year, maybe not the next but very soon will be – bang! – fireworks.

“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”

ALEX WOODCOCK-CLARKE says No Time To Die may have become too woke to live

Thrown off buildings, cliffs and dams, out of planes in their death spiral, into pools full of sharks, and once into bed with Grace Jones dressed as Satan. Assaulted by giants with steel teeth and midgets in bowler hats. James Bond has survived all this for 58 years. Yet soon, perhaps as soon as April 2021, No Time To Die, the latest Bond film, may achieve the dream of international maniacs everywhere: killing off the multi-billion dollar franchise he’s led since 1964.

The culprit will not be Netflix-age franchise fatigue nor even the larger ‘wokeness’ now infecting Hollywood, but a surprise villain in the heart of Bondage itself. You know her name. It’s charged with the phonemes of any femme fatale who’s ever shot, stabbed or drugged OO7. Rosa Klebb. Elektra King. Vesper Lynd. Faintly European, oddly evocatory, marked by stressed syllables. She is Barbara Broccoli, and she may be about to blow Bond 25, No Time To Die, sky-high.

Broccoli has been in charge of the billion-dollar Bond franchise since 1995 when her father, the famed Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, handed her control of EON (“Everything Or Nothing”) Productions which owns the entire Bond Intellectual Franchise. Broccoli’s control of IP is very nearly total (she shares ownership with her adopted half-brother Michael G. Wilson), and gives her a billion-dollar net worth that makes Auric Goldfinger look amateur. Such leverage makes her perhaps the most powerful female producer the film industry has ever seen, comments  the Guardian.

She and Wilson have been credited with saving the IP twice. Firstly, by relaunching it as a glamorous, slick Nineties actioner fronted by Pierce Brosnan with 1995’s GoldenEye and then again, when the Brosnan-era Bond staled into CGI invisible cars and diamond faces, by rebooting the franchise as a gritty, grim, shaky cam thriller fronted by her personal pick for the role, knobbly-faced, jug-eared Daniel Craig. “We got too fantastical,” commented Wilson ruefully. “We had to come back to Earth.”

As far as the accountants are concerned, the two co-producers went La Grande each time. While The World Is Not Enough (1999), Brosnan’s last 007, film made $431.9 million, the rebooted, re-Bonded Casino Royale came in at $669,789,482. Craig’s Bond film, 2012’s Skyfall scored the highest gross ($1,218,849,723) of all of them, and a profit of $910,526,981. Forbes magazine calculates that, adjusted for inflation, the Bond franchise has grossed $16,315,134,284. That makes it the fourth richest movie franchise of all time (behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars and Harry Potter). Together Broccoli and Wilson have pulled off a golden grand slam.

But now it’s 2020 and, make no mistake, of the two co-producers, Broccoli calls the shots. How the ownership of EON is divided is not known but Broccoli was Cubby’s blood child while Wilson is his adopted stepson. Even if ownership is equally divided, Wilson is now 77, and press articles suggest his energy is waning while his half-sister, a remarkably well-preserved 60, is just getting into her stride. “Barbara scares the hell out of people,” Wilson told the New York Times in one joint interview only to receive what the reporter calls “an O.K.-that’s-enough look”. In another interview, Variety noted her casting “a reproachful eye at Wilson when his attempts at humour strike her as ill-considered”.

It’s just as well Broccoli now holds a firm grip on EON’s production decisions because No Time To Die is a production already estimated to cost around $250,000,000 and juggles competing distribution, marketing and merchandising responsibilities between Sony, MGM, Omega and Heineken to name a few interested parties.

No one was surprised then when, EON announced on 4 March 2020 that after “thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace”, No Time To Die’s release would be postponed until 12 November 2020. This was the first major production to be delayed as Hollywood responded to the pandemic. Media commentators approved the announcement. “Sensible” said Deadline Hollywood. “Necessary” commented the Radio Times. Launching the film into a dead market might have been catastrophic. The Hollywood Reporter estimates $5 billion has been wiped off the value of cinema receipts by COVID.

Except a closer read of the EON announcement reveals some real red wine-with-fish clues that all is not well with No Time To Die.  The press release was issued before most governments, particularly in the US or UK, had issued advisories, let alone sanctions, relating to the COVID crisis. A careful second reading also reveals it doesn’t mention the pandemic at all.

Delaying a film is expensive. Shifting the release date and sacrificing the time-fixed launch events, advertising and material (all of which are pre-bought sometimes years in advance) is calculated by The Hollywood Reporter to cost EON around $50 million; the whole marketing campaign had to be scrapped just after a $4.5 million Super Bowl ad had been screened. Yet this isn’t the first time No Time To Die’s launch has been delayed. Not even the second, or the third. On 2nd October, a fourth release date was announced, of 2nd April 2021.

The first delay occurred when EON producers fell out with the first choice to direct the film, veteran Danny Boyle. Citing “creative differences”, Boyle departed, and the launch was moved from October 2019 to 2020. A February launch was on schedule until without warning the film’s composer, Dan Romer, was suddenly dropped and replaced by Hans Zimmer. Again, “creative differences”.  The launch date was then moved to July. Then November. Now April. That means a film whose principal shooting was completed in October 2019 could be delayed almost two years before it ever hits the movie theatres.

And now there is another rumour. Emanating from Midnight’s Edge, an internet movie site, and picked up by a number of national newspapers, it reveals that EON ran a number of super-secret test screenings and that

Sources have informed Midnight’s Edge that a recent test screening of No Time To Die did not go well

While skating around specifics, the site concludes bluntly:

…they are using the outbreak as cover to avoid bad publicity

So, what’s gone wrong? And who’s to blame? The answer to both questions is Broccoli.

Broccoli has been positioning No Time To Die as the culmination of a five-film arc that began with Commander Bond’s career from recruitment into the service (Casino Royale) and now ends with his retirement in No Time To Die. This coincides very nicely with Daniel Craig’s own tenancy of the role (“That’s what he’s saying. Yes, he’s saying this is his last movie as Bond. Sadly”, commented Broccoli). More significantly, it’s also the climax of Broccoli’s most radical rebooting of the brand, to make Bond ‘woke’.

In 1962, Sean Connery was interviewed on about his forthcoming appearance in Dr No. He presciently analysed the character that he was to make into an icon:

I see Bond as a sensualist – his senses are highly tuned and he’s awake to everything. He likes his wine, his food and his women. He’s quite amoral. I particularly like him because he thrives on conflict – a quality lacking in present-day society

In just a few words, this galumphing Glaswegian bodybuilder-turned-milkman summarised the essence of what made Bond a hero to men for the next fifty-eight years. His selfish, stylish, combative pursuit of his own appetites that the rest of us must reel in and subsume in our responsibilities to our families, to our jobs, to our assigned roles in society. This archetype is unique amongst modern fictional heroes, and it’s uniquely British. It couldn’t be American which requires an element of self-sacrifice from its modern legends. Bruce Wayne’s crusade against crime derives from his tragic bereavement. Walter White builds his drug empire to support his family after his death. Even Homer Simpson, for all his oral-compulsive slobbishness, is all about family.

For all their differences in tone and style, Connery, Moore, Lazenby, Dalton and Brosnan were always true to that unique archetype. The lone warrior who does not apologise for being good at what he does and doing it for no other reason than he’s good at doing it.

Onscreen, castration is a motif introduced in Casino Royale (1953), the very first of the original books, and recurs through the films (once, in Goldfinger (1956), while strapped to a gold slab in danger of being bisected by an industrial laser, crotch-first). But since 2006, Barbara Broccoli had made some sharp and deep cuts beneath the waistband of the old fellow, and audiences have noticed.

It’s not just that Bond now prefers not vodka-martinis but Heineken beer (thanks to a product placement deal that reportedly netted the film nearly $45 million). It’s not that he now drives an Aston Martin Rapide E, an electric car (since when did the man who blew up a volcano care about his carbon footprint?). It’s not that he has less sex than any other Bond (six across five films compared to Roger Moore’s nineteen). It’s not even the bizarre plot jumps and anti-twists, Broccoli has forced into the story structure. (The villain’s big plan in Quantum of Solace? To steal all the water in Bolivia! Blofeld’s motivation for revenge in Spectre? His dad was Bond’s ski-instructor!)

No, the real reason fans are souring on Broccoli’s vision of Bond is that she has made him weepy, humourless and regretful. He shares tearful showers with his girlfriend at the awfulness of it all and he weeps buckets over the death of M in Skyfall (That said, the vision of Craig’s rubber walnut face melting with misery over Judy Dench’s upturned face is one of the funniest scenes in all Bondom). He doesn’t like his job. Bond doesn’t even want to be Bond anymore. In the new film, according to deliberately leaked information, No Time To Die Bond is retired and his OO7 status taken over by a – gasp! – black woman, Lashana Lynch. The Daily Mail reports this development like this:

A movie insider said: ‘There is a pivotal scene at the start of the film where M says ‘Come in 007’, and in walks Lashana who is black, beautiful and a woman. ‘It’s a popcorn-dropping moment. Bond is still Bond but he’s been replaced as 007 by this stunning woman’

Anthony Horowitz, the novelist and screenwriter hired by the Fleming Estate to write new James Bond books Triggor Mortis (2015) and Forever and a Day (2018), best sums up many people’s objections:

Bond is weak…He has doubts. That’s not Bond… It’s that sort of thing that made me angry

Madeline Grant of the Telegraph puts it another way:

If James Bond has gone woke, he might as well be cancelled

Why has Broccoli turned Bond into this lachrymose capon? The answer is simple. Sometime in the mid-2000s, she saw The Bourne Identity and its follow-ups. This thriller by Doug Liman starred an amnesiac American secret agent who fights shadowy governmental enemies while struggling all the time with severe emotional problems. These films intercut hyper-violent, visually incomprehensible shaky cam action sequences with scenes of Matt Damon, the star, in front of rain-streaked windows, looking out soulfully with brimming eyes into the darkness, like a basset hound finally realising he will never learn to use a doorknob. On a relatively small budget, the Bourne films turned a huge profit and wowed audiences with their ‘realistic’ take on the spy game.  One can imagine Broccoli sitting in a darkened viewing room, rising dramatically from her seat and declaiming to the world: “I’ve found my Bond!”.

The trouble is, Bourne isn’t Bond, and the world is beginning to see through the switch. It already registered its objections when the last Bond film before this one, Spectre, received ‘mixed reviews’ and grossed $879.6 million, an impressive figure until you realise it’s $200 million less than its predecessor, Skyfall (which grossed $1.111 billion).

If No Time To Dies does not match or exceed these figures, considering the vastly excessive additional costs imposed by the COVID crisis added to those of the director and crew changes, then the whole billion dollar franchise could go up like a volcano base. All across Hollywood once great and permanent franchises, from Star Wars to the DCVerse to Universal’s Dark Universe, are learning that one or more bad films can wreck previously rock-solid brands and sink the careers of once untouchable producers, like Barbara Broccoli.

Yahoo Movies recently reviewed the progress of production on the movie. It noted the delays, the sackings, the creative differences, the endless rewriting of the plot by five different writers. It quoted one

…straight-talking source [who] revealed that ‘the crew reckon they’re working on a well-polished shit show’

If true, then Bond may be looking down a gun barrel for the last time – and the finger on the trigger will be Broccoli’s.