Interview: Desmond Llewelyn: “Q: Part I”

The unreplaceable Desmond Llewelyn, whose letter, “Q”, is as well known worldwide today as our man 007`s three digits, is sorely missed this week and always. We at 007Forever present this first of a two-part series of interviews from Fandom`s Steve Biodrowski, representing one of the last interviews the beloved ambassador of the Bonds gave the world. Within is a haunting look at one of James Bond`s very best friends, on screen and off.

Before his death, Bernard Lee appeared as M in all the James Bond films from DR. NO (1962) to MOONRAKER (1979). Lois Maxwell lasted even longer, continuing with the series until 1985`s A VIEW TO A KILL; after that, the casting of Timothy Dalton as a new, younger Bond necessitated the casting of a new, younger Miss Moneypenny. With those two stalwarts long gone, the closest thing to a perennial player in the series is Desmond Llewelyn, who joined up as the head of Q Division for FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and has appeared in all the official James Bond films since then, except for LIVE AND LET DIE . (Obviously, CASINO ROYALE and NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN do not count.) So it`s sad to see unmistakable signs that he, too, may not be with the series for very much longer: for THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, the actor returns to his familiar role (“back again,” says Llewelyn, like “a bad penny”), but now Q now has an assistant (played by John Cleese), and openly discusses retiring.

“I`ve been saying for quite a long time that I ought to have an assistant,” explains Llewelyn, who has survived numerous changes to the series, including the casting of Pierce Brosnan following the six-year hiatus after LICENCE TO KILL. “I was very, very lucky: after that long gap, when Pierce took over, everyone went, but they kept me on. I said I was very grateful and everything like that, but I said I ought to have an assistant, because as much as I`d like to, I can`t go on forever. They sort of took no notice. I said so again for the next film, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH; in fact, I wrote a sort of idea for an assistant, and they pooh-poohed it. Then this time, at last, I have got an assistant.”

As the only cast member to work with all five different Bonds, Llewelyn has his opinions on the various stars who filled the role, from Sean Connery through to Pierce Brosnan. “Well, they`re all highly professional,” he states. “They`re all extremely good actors. And they`re all very, very easy to work with. With Sean, obviously, he was sort of a big star, and I wasn`t really established as Q, but he was marvelous to work with. I think he helped me a certain amount because, in the character of Bond, he was always fidgeting with the gadgets.” Llewelyn explained that this habit helped make his own natural frustration seem part of the character of Q. “As I`m very bad at learning lines and remembering them–and not really understanding what I`m talking about–a lot of my irritation is not so much about him as `Oh, stop fidgeting–it`s making me forget my lines!`”

Regarding Roger Moore, who took a more humorous approach to 007, Llewelyn recalls, “Of course I knew Roger [Moore], and he was great fun to work with. He used to muck about an awful lot, and he used to give me extra lines to say that I didn`t understand. When I did a close up, he`d stand there shaking his head as if to say, `You`re going to dry [forget a line], aren`t you?` And of course I immediately would, and he`d shove up a big idiot card saying `Bollocks.` He wasn`t very helpful,” Llewelyn laughs.

More recently, Llewelyn has worked with younger actors playing Bond, first Timothy Dalton and then Pierce Brosnan. “Timothy was different, in a way, because he was a stage actor, and I was a stage actor, years and years ago. I think perhaps there is something in that–I don`t know quite what it was, but I got on very well with him,” he says. “And of course Pierce is marvelous. He sort of looks after me and treats me rather like old granddad. So he`s very helpful and kind, and he`s marvelous to work with.”

As a result of passing time and changing casting, Q seems to have changed somewhat in his attitude toward Bond. Of course the familiar irritation (“Try to pay attention, 007!”) is still there, but now it seems more a pose born of habit than genuine dislike. “Yes, I think he`s mellowed,” says Llewelyn. “I still don`t think he likes Bond. I don`t think he likes his way of life and certainly the way he treats his beloved gadgets and all that sort of thing. But I think over time he has certainly mellowed. I think he would, but he still gets pretty annoyed.”
In fact, because of the age difference, coupled with the casting of Judi Dench as a female M, Q has become almost a de facto father figure for Bond. “Especially with Pierce, that is much more evident, that sort of feeling between us, than with the other Bonds,” Llewelyn agrees. “I know a lot of people have said the interplay between me and Pierce is the best that it has ever been. But then, he`s extremely sympathetic; he`s wonderful to play with. I think he has brought more depth. I think there`s one scene which always stands out in my mind, a scene in GOLDENEYE, when he`s on the beach with the girl, explaining what life is like. I think that is one of the best Bond-girl scenes of anyone. He out-acts or out-whatevers Sean, Roger, or anybody with that sort of feeling he has for that girl. I think it`s a beautiful scene, and it`s beautifully played. It really is terrific.”

As Bond has changed, so have the films, and not necessarily to Llewelyn`s liking. “The last film [TOMORROW NEVER DIES], being an old man, for me there was too much action,” says the actor. “It went on and on and on and on. But the young people love it! The more action and the more noise in the film, the happier they are. In the old films, you had pistols and machine guns. In the new films you have hundreds of those blasting away! The last film I thought was incredibly noisy. I think–I haven`t seen it, but they`ve told me this new one has sort of gone back a bit. I mean, we`ve got such a very, very good cast in this–I think a better cast than we`ve had for a long time, which of course all helps.”

All the action has been revved up for modern audiences, Llewelyn suggests the promiscuity has been toned down. Was there really more sex in the older Bond films? “Oh yes, there was,” he insists. “But then, I suppose things have moved on. Somebody was saying with AIDS and all that you can`t have Bond sleeping around with everybody nowadays. I don`t know why not. They keep talking about being politically correct, but I don`t think you want any of that nonsense in the Bond films. Just keep on with the fantasy. Oh, we cut out cigarettes, but I suppose we had to. Perhaps it makes it more real, because on the whole it was quite ridiculous for this secret agent to be smoking his own special brand. I mean, the villains have only got to come in and look at the ashtray: `Oh, Bond`s been here!` So perhaps it makes him more real.”

Having been with the franchise for over three decades, the actor has formed a few ideas to explain Bond`s longevity. “Well yes, I`ve got my own theories,” says Llewelyn. “I think the main thing was it`s pure fantasy: everything is bigger and larger than life. We live in this rather drab world, and we`re out there looking at this wonderful world of beautiful women and beautiful scenery. [Late producer] Cubby Broccoli, you see, followed Fleming`s dictum. Fleming was asked what makes a good thriller. He said, `To any adventure story, add all the advantages of expensive living. Give Bond the right background, the right clothes, and the right girls; set your story in the most glamorous and beautiful of places; describe everything in detail; and take your story along so fast that nobody notices the idiosyncrasies in it.`

“Cubby agreed with that,” the actor continues. “What he also added is the Hitchcock thing–which is that, when you come to a climax, you then have another one, and another one. For example, in [OCTOPUSSY] when he diffuses the bomb in the circus, that should be the end of the film, but no: we have a balloon sequence; then we have the thing on top of the airplane. So you`re on the edge of your seat the whole time. And it doesn`t matter how many times you`ve seen these damn films, you`re hooked. You know bloody well that Bond`s going to do it, because you`ve seen it before; if he didn`t, there wouldn`t be another Bond. But it still holds you. How they do it, I don`t know.”
Llewelyn has a favorite Bond film. “Yes, naturally, LICENCE TO KILL, because I had the biggest part in it. That was wonderful.” He`s not sure, however, why the producers decided to emphasize him so much in that particular outing.” God knows! I wish it would happen more! I loved it; it was very fun. But I think they all think I`m too old to go out in the field, but you never know. Keep you fingers crossed.”

Despite the greater screen time in LICENCE TO KILL, Llewelyn acknowledges an appreciation for the older films. “To watch, I think those early films are really remarkable. They are classics in their way. Of course, they were Fleming`s stories, and they were brilliant adapted by Richard Maibaum, and we had Terence [Young] to direct FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and THUNDERBALL and Guy Hamilton to do GOLDFINGER. I`m not saying the other directors aren`t as good–we`ve been very, very lucky, with marvelous directors. But those perhaps first three films were so good–absolutely classics.”

Normally, Llewelyn films his scenes in only a day or two–which must make for a spectacularly strange career, being called back every two years to play what must be the world`s most memorable bit part. “I was very lucky in this film,” says the actor. “I got three days out of it. I got three days out of the last one, too. On the first one [with Brosnan], I got two days, and that was chiefly because of the explosions. I came in, in a wheelchair, and the first explosion worked, but it didn`t satisfy the cameraman and the director, so then it took a couple of hours to set up again. That is the great thing about my part: I do get extra days because of all the gadgets, which is very nice.”

Although he has a favorite Bond film, the actor most emphatically does not have a favorite Bond gadget. “I haven`t got one,” he states. “I mean, they`ve got so many wonderful gadgets. I suppose it would be a car. I can`t think of [anything else].” He adds, “You see, I loathe gadgets. I`m absolutely useless with them. I haven`t got a mobile telephone. I haven`t got a computer; I wouldn`t know how to work one or anything like that. I`m completely untechnically minded, if that`s the word.” That`s right: the actor who plays the head of MI6`s Q-Division prefers to avoid anything more high-tech than a toaster. And his real area of expertise is…decorating! “I am–or was very good at gardening and house decorating. I`ll decorate anybody`s room, wallpaper for them; I`m very good at that. I`ve been offered lots of jobs, if I give up acting, as a painter–not artist-wise, although I dare say”–he smiles–“I could do some modern painting: just put dabs all over the place and call it `La Reggae.`”

With the non-acting job offers rolling in, and with John Cleese firmly in place as R, does this mean that Llewelyn is actually planning on retiring from his role as Q? “No, I`m not going to retire,” he declares. “No, I`m there as long as the producers want me and God doesn`t.”

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