Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend the preview of the new James Bond film, Skyfall. Not at the Royal Albert Hall for the official premiere, but rather as a guest of the Dutch beer maker Heineken.
Now, one shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds, so I won’t detail my despair that the Bond franchise, surely one of the UK’s most successful exports, had to be propped up by a Dutch product that sits so uncomfortably against all that Ian Fleming had designed.
In reality, the bottle’s cameo is surprisingly mild; I feared rape, whereas in fact it’s little more than a wolf-whistle. Yet its brief appearance still managed to incite one of the biggest laughs of the night, even in a Heineken-sponsored cinema (the suggestion is that sex and Heineken are the secret agent’s go-to restoratives after yet another near-death experience).
Herein lies the nub: Had there not been such outrage at Heineken’s involvement we would barely notice the bottle at all. Had Smirnoff, Gordon’s Gin, or any other brand with a credible 007 connection stepped in to bail out the ailing project, then their return on investment would have probably been weaker than a 4.3%ABV lager because none of us would have noticed. (Yes, I am conscious as I write that it is people like me that are doing Heinken’s bidding for them by even talking about it.)
When Bond drinks it is to forget, to seduce, and to trick. As the figurehead of the work-hard, play-hard man his trademark drink is the Martini, the symbol of a man or woman who wants not to get drunk quickly, but rather to not be sober as quickly as possible.
So why does the image of Bond and beer grate so harshly? Well, alcohol is undeniably one of the lynchpins of Bond and Fleming’s lives. It appears in every book, and the detail and delight with which Fleming describes each drink suggests a man who was deeply devoted to booze. Bond has a drink for every possible situation, and yet he never opts for beer or cider.
All-nighters with the sniper rifle require a “large aluminum flask filled with three-quarters Bourbon and a quarter coffee.” Exposing card sharks is
vintage champagne; grey dates end with a creme de menthe Stinger; and for everything else there is the trusty Vesper Martini.
Fleming’s aversion to beer is possibly clearest in For Your Eyes Only, as Bond deliberates on which drink to begin an evening spent in the company of a Parisian prostitute. One by one each drink is dismissed in favor of his final choice, an Americano; a pavement in the sun is no place for gin or vodka, cognac is “fairly serious but it intoxicates without tasting very good,” champagne is “a bad foundation for the night”—whereas Pernod with its liquorice taste reminds him of his pained childhood. Rather tellingly Bond never even contemplates ordering a beer despite the fact it’s early evening, the sun is still shining, and he is sat outside.
And why would he? He is not a character to lounge languidly in pubs seeking slow intoxication. When he drinks it is to forget, to seduce, and to trick. As the figurehead of the work-hard, play-hard man his trademark drink is the Martini, the symbol of a man or woman who wants not to get drunk quickly, but rather to not be sober as quickly as possible. It is the only drink I know of that contains an eighth of a bottle of liquor and yet has to be drunk within ten minutes to avoid spoiling. It is a drink that epitomizes power, danger, and sophistication—three brand values that Heineken, through a sleight-of-marketing osmosis, may now be associated with.
The film itself is superb, a tour de force steeped in the darker side of the Bond books, the fallible hero addicted to drink and prescription drugs, over the hill and ready for the knacker’s yard—or is he? The casting, the set design and direction are impeccable. It makes one proud to be British, the Olympics all-over again, squashed into two and a bit hours of what we do best: silence, sarcasm and bulldog stoicism.
The film itself is superb, a tour de force steeped in the darker side of the Bond books, the fallible hero addicted to drink and prescription drugs, over the hill and ready for the knacker’s yard—or is he?
And for me, this was what set this film apart, that even the product placement was carefully tied into the story. It wasn’t Bond at the roulette table ordering a Heineken, it wasn’t Bond at all—it was a broken man, washed up somewhere on a beach. So weak he couldn’t possibly handle the cocktail glass or its potent contents, the lost agent afflicted by bullet holes and betrayal.
Wouldn’t you love to have seen the contract between Heineken and the film’s producers: ‘Bond will appear in a Heineken commercial, but he will not be seen to drink the beer. Bond will sip from a bottle of beer in the film, but only when he is broken and bereft of his licence to kill’.
With that, I will say thank you to the good people of Heineken for saving such a great addition to the Bond canon, and I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Bond drinking episodes, an excerpt from Thunderball that shows Bond back on ‘tough’ drinks form. Here is all the chauvisim and machismo of the films, but also the side of Bond that seems to never make it further than the books—his desire to marry, to settle, and ultimately find calm:
“Bond drank and heard the reassuring, real-life tinkle of the ice, he thought: This is the most splendid girl. I will settle down with her. She will give me effleurage all day long and from time to time a good tough drink like this. It will be a life of great beauty. He smiled at her and held out the empty glass and said, “More.”