Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Miss Moneypenny unmasked

Few books have ever generated as much money as the series of thrillers written by Ian Fleming, from the 1950s onwards, featuring the British secret agent, James Bond. Today's Times suggests that, taking all sources into account, the Bond franchise has so far generated about $10 billion; that's billion with a b, and it is serious, serious money.

Not surprisingly, the literary estate of the late Ian Fleming is handled with due care and attention. Decisions are made by a company known as Ian Fleming Publications (IFP). The company's web site is currently under maintenance (it says) but it is normally found here.

One of the minor characters in the Bond books was Miss Moneypenny. She was, you may recall, the secretary to James Bond's boss, who went by the code-name M. And, as we noted here last July, Miss Moneypenny is currently in the process of publishing her diaries.

Sort of.

If you look back at my two earlier references to Miss Moneypenny's diaries, on 8 July and 29 August 2005, you will find that the publication of the first volume of a proposed trilogy of diaries was surrounded by mystery and confusion.

In summary, what happened was this. In July 2005, rumours of a Miss Moneypenny book began to circulate, and James Bond fanatics naturally checked with IFP for details. IFP denied all knowledge. Details of any forthcoming book were hard to come by -- no entry on UK Amazon, for example.

Then, in August, the Sunday Times ran an article which stated that the publisher of the Moneypenny diary (John Murray) had, at least for a while, tried to pretend that the book was somehow 'real'. The named author, Kate Westbrook, was, they maintained, a distinguished historian, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and so on. All of this the Sunday Times writer, Arts Editor Richard Brooks, quickly showed to be nonsense.

More importantly -- much, much more importantly -- there was confusion last July over whether, in order to publish a 'diary' by a character in the Bond books, the publisher and author needed, and had obtained, the permission of IFP, controllers of the Fleming estate.

The quotes from IFP in July, and in the August article in the ST, certainly left me with the impression that, initially at any rate, no such permission had been sought or given. 'In normal circumstances,' IFP's managing director was quoted as saying (August), 'we would have stopped this book. However, after detailed negotiations with John Murray we have reached an agreement.'

Which quote, I am sorry to say, I take to mean something like this: 'These slippery buggers at Murray thought they could get away with not giving us a cut, but now that we've hammered their heads against the wall several times, hard, they have seen sense.'

Why would IFP's boss say that 'in normal circumstances we would have stopped this book', if the project had been cleared with IFP from the very beginning, and there was every prospect of earning some income from it? IFP has, after all, commissioned several new Bond novels, written long after Fleming's death.

Volume one of the Moneypenny diaries duly appeared in October 2005, and, if the world subsequently wobbled on its axis, I am bound to say that I failed to notice.

Volume two of the diaries has just been published, nicely timed to fit in with the filmic debut of Daniel Craig as the new Bond. And, as part of the book's publicity drive, the author has written an extensive article about Miss Moneypenny; this article appeared in last Saturday's Times magazine.

The first thing we notice about this article is that the use of the pen-name Kate Westbrook has been all but abandoned. The article's heading tells us firmly that 'Samantha Weinberg celebrates the loyal and long-suffering secretary who helped put the ooh into 007.' And at the end of the article we are reminded that Secret Servant (volume two of the Moneypenny diaries) was 'written under the pseudonym of Kate Westbrook.'

What is more, we get a big picture of Samantha Weinberg 'doing her best Miss Moneypenny' impression. (The piccie is a good deal smaller on page 2 of the online version.)

Who is Samantha Weinberg? Well, it turns out that she's a pretty distinguished journalist and non-fiction writer, with a substantial track record. She also lives in Wiltshire, which shows remarkably good taste. But her agent's biography of her makes no mention of the Kate Westbrook alter ego.

What really caught my eye in last Saturday's Times article, and made me gulp a bit, was the first couple of paragraphs.

A little under three years ago, my agent, Gillon Aitken, made a chance remark over lunch. “What do you think of the idea of a Moneypenny book?” he asked. “It’s brilliant,” I said without a second thought. “I’d kill to write something like that.”

As it happens, I didn’t have to. Gillon introduced me to Ian Fleming’s literary arbiters, I wrote an outline for a series of “Moneypenny Diaries”, which they seemed to like, and in a few short months had plunged myself into the world of James Bond, SMERSH and Miss Moneypenny.

In other words, the story now is that IFP were involved, and gave permission for the Moneypenny diaries, from the very beginning. And there is no mention whatever of the publisher trying to persuade IFP (as reported in the Sunday Times last August) that the book was based on the diaries of a real MI6 secretary.

Corrine Turner, IFP's managing director, was quoted last August as follows: 'If this is fiction then it is very hard to tell the difference between fact and fiction. It’s very well put together. We were certainly led to believe by the publishers that there was a real Miss Moneypenny.' By the publishers, note. Not by Gillon Aitken, Samantha Weinberg's agent, or by Samantha herself.

There was no mention last August of Samantha Weinberg being introduced to IFP by Gillon Aitken, or to IFP being shown 'an outline for a series of "Moneypenny Diaries", which they seemed to like.'

All of which I find rather confusing.

That being said, the Moneypenny article in last Saturday's Times was tolerably interesting, as these things go. And whoever it was who persuaded the Times magazine to publish a blatant four-page plug for a new book, I take my hat off to them.

3 comments:

Blogaulaire said...

Miss Moneypenny unmasked --

Thinking in terms of the Ian Fleming estate, the property of the James Bond image down through half a century to today, I am not so intrigued by their protecting revenue in terms of spin-offs and movies as by the threat Moneypenny material could pose as a serious cross-over of Bond into a completely different genre, viz Romance.

I guess 007 is intellectual property. Would a complete leap into romance novels or some weird confessional lit posing as the celibate secretary's diary about MI5 encounters rate as a rip-off of the Ian Fleming canon?

I think the patent the estate has is on the name Moneypenny and little else if someone jags off on the image she could embody.

I've been handling to much pulp romance lately and this Moneypenny possibility seems ripe for the picking. If the estate, as I'm calling it, cannot run with it, I hope somebody will.

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