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Foodism, design and lifestyle in 1960s espionage fantasies

Len Deighton Action Cook Book

A glossy emphasis on design and lifestyle (those killer bespoke and tailored suits, for one thing) permeates the new throwback international espionage movies like Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. To contextualize why these trappings were essential to the genre, I rewound to the 1960s and had a rummage around shows like The AvengersDanger Man (aka Secret Agent), The Saint, The Baron, the James Bond movies and The Ipcress File. That style-focused essay is in my regular spot at The Globe and Mail, here.

But as usual, there was so much more! In his book Reading Between Designs, Piers Britton also thinks that the exotic locales of Danger Man influenced the location shoots of later series like The Persuaders, suggesting that shows like it (and the James Bond adventures) were an early and ostentatious “conspicuous consumption of travel,” for example.

As with the nascent Bond film franchise in that era (and even more so now, thanks to overt product placement and sponsorship deals), there’s a lot of stage business from both Vaughn and Ritchie about style and taste. Of note, the costumes worn by the female leads in The Avengers – fashionable clothing expressly designed for the characters by Frederick Starke and John Bates, respectively – were both spun out into branded real-world retail collections, just as Kingsman recently did with menswear by Mr. Porter.

Moviegoers in the period also got a sense of being in-the-know with glimpses of exotic gadgetry. By 1973’s Live and Let Die, M arrives at 007’s flat early morning unannounced to put him on assignment after a fellow agent has been killed and 007’s response is “Baines? I rather liked Baines. We shared the same bootmaker.” Bond then leads his boss into the stylish, Marimekko-wallpapered kitchen and grinds coffee beans in a Mazzer before noisily pulling him an espresso from a hissing La Pavoni Europiccola (“Is that all it does?”). When Bond and Dr. Goodhead land in a field in their evening clothes in Moonraker, she checks if he’s all right. Has he broken anything? “Only my tailor’s heart,” is Bond’s lament for a ruined tuxedo. In the 2006 Casino Royale Vesper Lynd is making observations that become the most repeated lines of the film, like, “There are dinner jackets, and there are dinner jackets.”

For men who read Esquire magazine for more than the swellegant entertaining tips, the series and films of the day boasted portable surveillance and defence doodads and souped-up watches and beautiful cars,  like Roger Moore’s Volvo P1800 coupe in The Saint, or any one of Bond’s Aston Martin and prototype vehicles. Boy-toys, yes, but also vicarious toys for boys – revived in U.N.C.L.E.’s teak speedboat and helicopter, for example. These are also in Adam Reed’s current hit animated spy pastiche Archer. It follows intelligence operatives-for-hire in a spy landscape that mixes fiction and anachronism. Archer’s domestic histrionics and ironic side-eye notwithstanding, the show hits on the combination of wit, vanity and gadgetry.

The holy trinity also come together nicely in one scene from A View to a Kill. Macnee is Sir Godfrey Tibbett, an MI6 operative attending Ascot alongside an undercover Bond, posing as his valet; the pair spar loudly about the state of 007’s packing and wardrobe to cover that they’re searching the room for bugs. To slip away, they eventually turn on a pre-recorded conversation that continues prattling about his clothing.

Macnee, who died last month, certainly lives on in Kingsman, in Colin Firth’s debonair agent Harry Hart — particularly patrician John Steed’s smug insouciance (remember, in the Avengers title credits a champagne cork is shot off by his partner Mrs. Peel, who pauses to smoothe her hair before shooting, then adds a red carnation to his Milanese buttonhole). Hart’s aristocratic mien and tricked-out brolly are straight from Steed (his contained both a radio and a sword), but his name and squared Cutler & Gross spectacles are borrowed from Michael Caine in Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File (1965).

Caine’s streetwise agent Harry Palmer happened to loved haute cuisine. After all, espionage writer Deighton is the one who wrote Action Cook Book, the first cookery book to be a hit with British men, in 1965 (the cover showed the barrel of a gun, and a sprig of parsley).

The new ‘foodism’ of the 1960s is in both Kingsman and U.N.C.L.E. In the former, it’s the proper ordering of a proper martini (ahem) and barely ten minutes into the latter, it’s a CIA boss telling his reluctant, apron-wearing agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) that contrary to what he may think, “we are not in the haberdashery business.” Solo is a lantern-jawed aesthete in three-piece grey flannel (or more often, patriotic blue) suits that come complete with ticket pocket and five-button waistcoat (crafted for the costume designer Joanna Johnston by contemporary London tailor Timothy Everest, who is the real-life tailor to Tom Cruise and David Beckham). The wardrobe of nipped and tightly tailored suits on the beefy British star (who at least has original Solo Robert Vaughan’s cleft chin down pat) are the least of it; Solo also packs exotic produce, even on a dangerous Iron Curtain extraction, so he can make mushroom risotto—a moment that’s an overt wink to Ipcress’s grocery store scene, where Palmer’s boss chastises him for buying tins of expensive “francy French” mushrooms.

As Steven Poole writes in his treatise against gastroculture You Aren’t What You Eat, at that time a man cooking for himself had cachet: “A female chore was suddenly recast as a male socio-sexual accomplishment.” Add to that, “the titillating equation of food with fighting….the gun motif was no accident. Indeed, foodism can be made to appeal particularly to men of a wannabe-macho bent by saying that cooking is like war.”