Book review: Catching up with ‘Catching Bullets’



The first thing I noticed when I saw the cover to Mark O’Connell’s book Catching Bullets was its subtitle: Memoirs of a Bond Fan. I thought, You can do that? You can write a book about being a Bond fan? Why have I been knocking myself out writing a teen spy novel when I could have been writing my memoirs?

That supposes writing your memoirs is easier than writing a novel, which I doubt. I also doubt my memoirs would be more interesting than O’Connell’s. He has a hook to make the rest of us Bond fans envious: his grandfather, Jimmy O’Connell, was the chauffeur to Bond producer extraordinaire Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli.

O’Connell’s second, and actually better, hook is that he remembers the order he saw the Bond films and the exact date he first saw each film. He is able to chronicle his evolution as a Bond fan, and later on as a person, from one viewing experience to the next.

Now I’ve always considered myself an obsessive Bond fan, and those who knew me in high school could testify to this, but I could not tell you exactly when I saw every movie for the first time or the order I saw them. Like O’Connell I grew up in a time when the only way to see an older Bond movie was on network television, and you never knew which one ABC would broadcast next. There was the time Home Box Office had a James Bond film festival, showing one Bond movie a month for nine months. Inexplicably they skipped Live and Let Die and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but HBO at least offered me my first chance to see most of the movies uncut and without commercials.

Living from Bond to Bond

ABC would show a Bond movie every three or four months, but there would be nothing special about the date. According to O’Connell, Bond movies were close to a ritual on Britain’s ITV. Bond would appear on Christmas for sure, right after the queen’s speech, and would often show up on bank holidays. I suspect this made it easier for O’Connell to exactly tally his history with the 007 movies.

At any rate, this gives Catching Bullets an inviting narrative throughline, living life from Bond movie to Bond movie. “It is the biography of watching James Bond movies,” O’Connell writes in his opening chapter. He got hooked on Bond several years younger and a few films later than I. O’Connell was 7 when his father took him to see Octopussy when it opened in the summer of 1983 (just after I graduated from high school). At the same time, O’Connell was starting to realize his grandfather worked for the man who produced the film and often drove its star, Roger Moore, around London.

When I picked up the book I thought I would read tales of the young O’Connell playing Spritle and Chim-Chim from Speed Racer to sneak into the back seat of the famed Rolls Royce with the CUB 1 license plate and steal some quality time with Cubby or Roger. It turns out O’Connell’s grandfather kept his family life and professional life separate. Mark O’Connell never met Cubby Broccoli, and met Roger Moore only after his book was published. However, Jimmy O’Connell was able to get his grandson into the cast and crew screenings of Bond movies from The Living Daylights onward. There’s that envy again. His grandfather also presented him with posters, soundtrack albums and T-shirts straight from the Eon offices. It’s a wonder I don’t hate Mark O’Connell.

An ecumenical Bond fan

After reading a few pages, though, it would be impossible to hate O’Connell. He comes across as the kind of easy-going Bond fan I would enjoy killing a few hours with discussing the finer points of 007 lore. O’Connell is not any sort of purist (he never really got into the Fleming novels) and his view of Bond is an ecumenical one, finding the good in every actor to play the role.

It helps that O’Connell’s opinions are mostly in line with mine. We both grew up with Roger Moore and share a similar soft spot for his suave interpretation of Bond. I wouldn’t go as far in my praise of A View to a Kill, but at least O’Connell isn’t a member of the “Let’s Hate Moonraker Because It’s Moonraker” club.

O’Connell’s reminiscences are far warmer than those in the only other Bond fan memoir I’m aware of, Simon Winder’s acerbic The Man Who Saved Britain. Many Bond fans despise Winder’s book, which is as much social criticism as memoir, because he just stops short of disowning his childhood love of Bond. I enjoyed Winder’s book, respecting his opinions even when I disagreed with them. I once had an enjoyable conversation with Winder when I interviewed him for a Chicago Sun-Times article on Ian Fleming’s centenary. He didn’t sneer at me at all when I defended Roger Moore.

You won’t find any sort of recriminations in O’Connell’s recollections. Even when discussing a movie he likes less than the rest — such as The World Is Not Enough, which he categorizes as “the misfired bullet” — he finds kind things to say about them. Me, I would be at a loss to say anything charitable about The World Is Not Enough, the one film in the series I come close to hating.

When O’Connell does express the occasional unkind word he can be very funny (he has found his place as a comedy writer for British television). Of Eric Serra’s notorious GoldenEye orchestrations, he writes, “The rest of his score is a weird musical potpourri of Santa’s sleigh bells, cod Russian singing apparently played backwards and what sounds like a series of heavy manhole covers being dropped down numerous lift shafts.” You will not find a more accurate description of the GoldenEye soundtrack.

I really got a chuckle when O’Connell describes his plunge into the world of online Bond fandom and its bewildering array of acronyms and abbreviations: AVTAK, FYEO, LTK, TMWTGG, etc. “The fingers of all die-hard online Bond fans are pathologically unable to write a whole title,” he observes. Again, I’m on O’Connell’s side, maintaining that the only legitimate abbreviation is OHMSS.

Comedy isn’t always pretty

If Catching Bullets has a fault, it’s that the comedy writer in O’Connell doesn’t know when to cool it. Some pages are crammed with contorted, Bond-related metaphors. And with any pop culture-laden memoir that describes life in another country, Catching Bullets is filled with references to British TV personalities I’ve never heard of.

Speaking of British television references, in a famed Alan Partridge clip, Steve Coogan shouts, “Stop getting Bond wrong!” Only Bond fans can understand that rage, when someone says For Your Eyes Only when they mean Live and Let Die, and I am happy to report O’Connell never gets Bond wrong. Not once. Hell, even Ian Fleming slipped up from time to time, but O’Connell gets every character name, every background actor, and every quote right. Bravo.

The narrative shifts from O’Connell’s experiences watching Bond to the development of his personal life beyond Bond (yes, it is possible) to updates on his grandfather. Although Mark O’Connell never met Cubby Broccoli, we learn a lot about the producer from the way he treated his chauffeur, allowing him to “house sit” the Broccoli home in Beverly Hills as a paid vacation, and we learn a lot about the Broccoli family when Cubby’s daughter Barbara (one of the two Broccoli children now running the Bond films) attends Jimmy O’Connell’s funeral and spends several hours afterwards at a pub sharing memories of the man who used to drive her to school. Eon still sends cast-and-crew screening invitations to the O’Connell family, and Mark O’Connell still gets an early look at the movies.

As O’Connell moves through adolescence and beyond he realizes he is gay. He briefly wonders if this disqualifies him from continuing to idolize that most heterosexual of British heroes, then shrugs and says, “Why not?” He also sees no reason to end his boyhood crush on Maud Adams (who contributes the book’s afterword).

Overall, the Bond films bring escapist fun to O’Connell and he wastes no effort trying to discredit or debunk them. He allows fellow Bond fans to experience anew that thrill we felt the first time we watched every Bond film, even if we don’t recall the details as clearly as he does. He’s my kind of Bond fan.

Catching Bullets has not been published as a physical book in the US. I ordered my copy through Amazon UK. If you don’t want to pay the shipping costs, which get more expensive every month it seems, the book is available domestically as an ebook on Kindle and Nook.

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