What Makes James Bond Sound Like James Bond?
My wife and I have a favourite date night. We love to visit the Royal Albert Hall and watch a film with the accompanying score played live by an orchestra. There is something uniquely wonderful about watching a favourite film with the musical score being played live. We both love James Bond films and we have now seen three of Daniel Craig’s five appearances as 007 at the Albert Hall.
Watching Spectre last month I discovered a truth about the character of James Bond. The aural experience of the character is utterly and inextricably linked to the timbre of the Bond actor’s voice. This might seem obvious but trust me, hearing 007 speaking in a giant venue to an audience of 4,000 people gives you a very different sense of how important that voice really is to our perception of the character. Indeed, our perception of the film franchise as a whole is shaped by James Bond’s voice.
With Film being a visual medium it’s quite understandable that most focus on what James Bond looks like. The character’s creator, Ian Fleming, gave us many helpful pointers on Bond’s look in the 14 original books. But Fleming was much less detailed about how Bond sounded. He never even specifies 007’s accent. Given the era and Bond’s status as a senior civil servant with a decent education it’s fair to assume that he was intended to speak with some sort of RP. But what about the parts of the voice that are not governed by accent? What about tone, pitch and effort?
The way Sean Connery went about his dialogue in Dr No gives us a good baseline to work from. It’s said that producer Cubby Broccoli liked Connery’s audition because he moved like a big panther. The warm, gently resonant tone that we hear from his very first scene definitely supports the big cat analogy. Pitch-wise, Connery is low but not excessively so. It’s a lovely, even baritone sound that underlines the relaxed authority he brought to the role. As for the all-important effort level, Connery employs what we call a glide. This means his speech patterns are light, direct and sustained. A glide lends calm authority and focus to a voice. It’s the sound employed by a person who’s comfortable in their own skin. Someone who doesn’t have to impose themselves as their power is self-evident. Someone, in fact, very much like James Bond.
When Connery got bored of the constant kiss, kiss, bang, bang of playing 007 the reins were handed somewhat rashly to a 28-year-old Australian model. George Lazenby was cast because he resembled Connery, but did he sound like him? Well, his tone is similar. The pitch is low but without the effortless warmth of Connery’s Edinburgh brogue. The effort level is in my opinion, more of a float than a glide. What I mean by the term float is that Lazenby, while being light and sustained in his vocal effort, is far more indirect. This was probably a consequence of his massive lack of experience on taking the role and it makes his Bond seem less confident than his predecessor. Given the tragic climax of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a lack of confidence in vocal effort could actually be regarded as an effective choice, even if it wasn’t deliberate!
In 1973 Roger Moore took the role for 7 films. We are now in very different vocal territory. Years of army service and RADA hammered the Stockwell out of Moore’s voice and his James Bond packs a vocal punch. Quite literally. A punching vocal effort is strong, direct and quick. Moore had the deepest natural pitch of any of the Bond actors. But whereas Connery purred, Moore intoned with a vibrating, chesty richness. There was nothing subtle about Roger’s delivery! Connery would stroke the immortal “Bond, James Bond” line. Moore always whacked the consonants like a military man. Despite Roger Moore being associated with the most frivolous of 007 romps, there was nothing lightweight about his punching vocal style.
When Timothy Dalton assumed Bond’s shoulder holster in 1987, it was said that his was a 007 living on the edge. Dalton was very keen to bring our Bond’s more jaded and introspective qualities and vocally he did this by applying a throaty wring to his brooding Welsh tones. A wringing effort is strong, indirect and sustained. It’s the indirectness of his delivery that makes Dalton’s Bond sound interesting. Augmented by his baritone pitch and somewhat curt tone it gives the impression of a man who’s always thinking about something dangerous lurking in the shadows. He’ll look you in the eye whilst checking what’s over your shoulder, vocally speaking. This was such a contrast to Moore’s directness that audiences probably didn’t realise just how intelligent Dalton’s portrayal was. A pity we only saw it twice.
Speaking of contrasts, a greater one could not be found between Dalton’s moody 007 and his 1995 successor, Pierce Brosnan. For the first time in his cinematic history Bond was being portrayed by a man who definitely did not have a deep voice. On the contrary, Brosnan is possessed of a light and somewhat lyrical Irish voice. His accent is definitely mid-Atlantic these days, but in the 1990s he played it down and went for a lilting RP as Bond. This light pitch was complimented by a suave and confident tone. With those tools at his disposal it’s little surprise that Brosnan chose the light, direct and quick dab effort. It’s less insouciant than Connery’s glide. More debonair and definitely heroic. His lightness of touch made Brosnan felt like a very safe pair of hands as Bond. It’s a shame that his time is lazily remembered as being no better than the weakest parts of his last film, Die Another Day. In fact, nobody looked morelike Bond than Pierce Brosnan. Even though, perversely, nobody has sounded less like 007 than Brosnan did!
And so, we come to Daniel Craig. When you’re the sixth actor to play an iconic role how on earth do you find a different way to do it without disappointing audiences’ expectations? Daniel Craig is by far the shortest actor to have taken the part. But conversely Craig is the most conspicuously muscular actor to play 007. In interviews Craig has said it was important for the audience to believe in his Bond’s ability as an assassin. And it’s not hard to believe that Daniel Craig’s Bond really does kill people for a living. So how did he realise this vocally? The answer is: power.
From the first moment that his Bond arrives on screen in Casino Royale, Daniel Craig emphasises how powerful he is by delivering his deep pitched, slightly gravelly tone with a press. A pressing effort is strong, direct and sustained. People who speak with a pressing effort are confident sounding, relentless. The sound of a press radiates energy and purpose. Unlike Roger Moore’s punching effort though, a press is not harsh and military sounding. Craig modulates the heaviness of his vocal effort with a relaxed jaw and slightly rounded lips. This makes his tone more attractive and less strident than Moore’s. It’s also more insistent and menacing than Connery’s effortless glide. Coming out of Daniel Craig, a pressing voice sounds dangerous!
It made for a memorable evening to witness a James Bond epic backed by a large orchestra. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there is no better way to experience that type of film. It also gave me a chance to reflect on how remarkable it is that no two Bond actors really sound alike despite playing a relatively uncomplicated character. Each has a vocal style that is charming and engaging in its way. Perhaps we’re so used to watching Bond that we just don’t realise how important the actors voice really is. But having thought about all of them I can honestly say that for me (to coin a phrase) nobody does it better.