Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Name’s Whittingham, Jack Whittingham

With Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care sitting pretty atop British bestseller lists, espionage fiction seems to be all the rage. There is, however, another book, also featuring iconic British secret agent James Bond, that’s had an evolution almost as complex as one of Ian Fleming’s plots. That book is of course the revised second edition of Robert Sellers’ The Battle for Bond, a controversial work detailing the legal wrangling over the rights to Thunderball (1961).

The first edition, which contained a foreword by Raymond Benson (who was the last Bond writer prior to Faulks), was withdrawn from sale shortly after its 2007 release due to legal action from the Fleming family and estate. There a few copies of this collector’s item knocking around, but you’ll need a big checkbook to secure one. If you haven’t done so yet, though, I am pleased to report that Sellers and the independent publisher Tomahawk Press have finally released the second edition, sans the sections that caused the Fleming estate to complain. This revision features a foreword Len Deighton, who concentrates in his essay on long-ago charges of plagiarism leveled against author Fleming. This is a topic that should be familiar those of you who pay attention to the Rap Sheet, since we recalled the case in an obituary of Kevin McClory, the Thunderball collaborator who died in 2006. That case’s resolution included a provision stipulating that all future editions of the novel Thunderball include the writing credit “based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming.”

Very little has been written about the relatively enigmatic Whittingham. But earlier this week the London Times carried a longish report focusing on his daughter, Sylvan Whittingham Mason, who apparently provided much of the background mosaic for Seller’s book. As writer Giles Hattersley explains:
Like a latterday Ms. Moneypenny, she holds the secrets of James Bond. Her name is Whittingham. Sylvan Whittingham.

Is she Ian Fleming’s daughter? God, no. Fleming’s name is anathema here. Her father was Jack Whittingham, a celebrated screenwriter of the 1950s and 1960s. It was Jack, she claims, who gave us Bond as we know him.

In 1959, Whittingham’s father had been brought in by the film producer Kevin McClory to work on an original screenplay based on Fleming’s famous secret agent. (Fleming had had an earlier bash at writing his own, but forgot to put any action in it.)

The problem of how to film Bond had rumbled on for years. What passed for steely cool in the books would come off as charmless froideur on screen. But man-about-town Jack turned out to be the fire to Fleming’s ice. In a tobacco-stained study at his Surrey home, the dashing, hard-drinking ladies’ man produced a thrilling tale called Thunderball. And he injected Fleming’s uptight gentleman spy with quippy humour, arch sexuality and plenty of action. Rather like Jack, in fact.

“I always say that Daddy was an honourable man,” says Whittingham, now 64, in a voice that seems to come courtesy of Diana Rigg. “Except when it came to women, of course.” She smiles.

“But he was a marvellous writer and they’d had real trouble with Fleming’s novels. The violent, sadistic, colder, misogynistic Bond of the books didn’t work on the big screen. The audience, back then, didn’t want it. There was no humour, no charm. Daddy turned Bond into the suave hero they needed.”
This is a fascinating article, really, detailing the playboy similarities between Bond, Fleming, and Wittingham. In the Times, Mason quite clearly credits her father (who died in 1972) with molding 007 into the man who could support a successful long-running film franchise.
... Jack had been toughened by a Bond-like life of fast cars and faster women. Born the son of a Yorkshire wool merchant, he had oozed confidence as a young man and made a splash with the ladies when he went up to Oxford.

“He met Betty Offield there, heir to the Wrigley’s gum fortune,” says Sylvan. “They fell in love and she invited him over to America to stay. They used to go shark-fishing off her island in California. Later, he bought a solitaire diamond ring and went to Chicago to propose--but by the time he got there, she’d fallen for somebody else.

“In a bar, drowning his sorrows, he met a female gangster called Texas Guinan--a glamorous blonde--who took him on. She sent him all over town with deliveries for her, probably drugs. He became her pet for a while, before he sold the ring so he could afford to get home.”

After a stint in Iceland during the war--where he was permanently sloshed and would often fall down on parade--Jack returned to England and his wife, Margot, whom he had married in 1942. He was never faithful. “My mother was stunningly beautiful, with a frightened-rabbit look in her eyes, which were violet. She was a lost soul: mental problems, breakdowns, depression,” Sylvan says.
Read the Times piece in its entirety here.

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