Friday, November 17, 2006

Always Have an Escape Plan: the Irrepressible Desmond Llewellyn

Q: "I've always tried to teach you two things. First, never let them see you bleed."
Bond: "And the second?"
Q: "Always have an escape plan."
(Desmond Llewellyn's last words uttered in a Bond film, from The World is Not Enough)

With Casino Royale being released in theatres throughout America today, I thought it might be a good idea to remember my favourite actor from the Bond films. That would be Desmond Llewellyn, the man who played MI-6's gadgeteer Q. While Bonds would come and go, Desmond Llewellyn played Q through 15 007 films, appearing in the franchise more than any other actor.

Curiously, for a character who would become so important in the movies, Q did not play a major role in Ian Fleming's original novels. It is established fairly early in the novels that "Q Branch" provides the weaponry and gadgetry for MI-6. It isn't until From Russia with Love that Major Boothroyd (re-christened "Q" in the films), the service's master armourer, makes an appearance.. The character of Q was then largely a creation of the movies. That he proved to be so central to the films' success is perhaps a testament to Desmond Llewellyn's talents as an actor.

Llewellyn was born in Newport, Wales in 1914, the son of an engineer for coal mines. While young he wanted to be a minister, but while at Radley College he found himself enamoured with the theatre. Llewellyn made his film debut in a bit part in Ask a Policeman in 1938. His career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a second lieutenant. He was captured by the Germans in 1940 and was a prisoner of war for five years.

Back from the war, Llewellyn appeared in various small parts on television and in movies. Among his most notable appearances may have been in an episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood and the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf. In 1963, however, his fortunes changed. Llewellyn was cast as Q, head of Q-Branch and chief weapons engineer for MI-6, in the film From Russia With Love (the second Bond film, in case you don't know). He appeared only briefly in that film. Indeed, it wasn't much more than a bit part. Furthermore, Llewellyn had been asked to play Q as a Welshman. Llewellyn disagreed, believing that the character should be thoroughly English. He then played Q in From Russia with Love with a very bad Welsh accent--no small feat for a native Welshman! Regardless, something about Llewellyn as Q struck a chord with audiences. Not only would he appear in every Bond film, except Live and Let Die, through The World is Not Enough, but his role would increase in the movies until he was as central to the 007 mythos as M or Miss Moneypenny (perhaps moreso).

The appeal of Llewellyn as Q was perhaps the fact that he seemed one part mad inventor, one part schoolmaster, and one part secret agent. Indeed, his life appeared to be almost totally devoted to developing gadgets for Her Majesty's Secret Service. Major Boothroyd (Q's real name in the movies, taken from the master armourer of the novels) seemed happiest when he was either developing a new gadget or demonstrating one for Bond. And he always insisted that his gadgets be returned to Q Branch in pristine condition. This is not to say that Q was not gifted as a spy. He did go into the field on a few occasions, such as when he delivered Little Nellie (the high tech autogyro in You Only Live Twice) to Bond in Japan or his assignment in Las Vegas in Diamonds Are Forever or his unauthorised field work in Licence to Kill. Q also has a sense of humour, albeit a very dry one. He was known to hurl the occasional odd remark towards 007, particularly when he failed to return a gadget in working condition (which was rather often). In fact, perhaps the greatest appeal of Q was his relationship with Bond. He often treated Bond as if he was a schoolboy in dire need of further instruction or a misbehaving nephew. Despite this, the two are clearly close, and there should be no surprise at this. Both are nonconformists in positions which usually demand conformity. It is notable that Q is one of the few people at MI-6 who addresses Bond by his given name (albeit only once, in Her Majesty's Secret Service).

As the movies progressed, Q would often have some substantial bits in them. Among the most memorable for me was Q accompanying Bond in a hot air balloon at the end of Octopussy. There, as usual, Q was unflappable. Being fawned over by many beautiful women, he still remained his stiff upper lip. And while it is probably my least favourite bond film, I must admit that it was good to see Q in the field in Licence to Kill (besides Wayne Newton, he was easily the best thing in the movie). Perhaps my favourite bit with Q comes from Diamonds are Forever, in which Q has a gadget which will make the casinos' slot machines pay out every, single time... It was also often the case that Q had the best lines in any given movie. Among my favourites is one from Octopussy, "You must be joking! Double-0 seven on an island populated exclusively by women? We won't see him till dawn!" Another great Q quote came from Die Another Day, when Bond tells Q that he is cleverer than he looks, Q replies, "Still, better than looking cleverer than you are." Of course, perhaps the line that sums up Q perfectly came from Goldfinger. When Q tells Bond that his latest car has an ejector seat, 007 tells Bond that he must be joking. Q simply deadpans, "I never joke about my work, 007."

Desmond Llewellyn would appear in other roles than Q over the years. He made guest appearances on several British TV series over the years. He even had a regular role in the TV series Follyfoot as "the Colonel," the owner of a retirement farm for old or unwanted horses. It was his commitment to this series that kept him from appearing in Live and Let Die. The Colonel was in many ways a very different role from Q, although both characters are eccentric. By way of example, in the middle of the farm on Follyfoot stood tree long ago killed by a lightning strike, which the Colonel was convinced would bloom again--so much so that the required everyone who walks by it to water it!

Llewellyn also appeared in the films Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Prisoner of Rio, Merlin, and Taboo. But he would remain best known to the world as Q, the weapons master of MI-6. Strangely enough, while he played a master of technology, Llewellyn confessed to being at a complete loss with regards to technology himself. Although The World is Not Enough gave the impression that Q was going to retire, Llewellyn had no such plans. He wanted to play Q as long as he possibly could.

Tragically, Llewellyn died December 19, 1999 in a car crash at the age of 85. He died shortly after the release of The World is Not Enough. Fittingly, the video release featured a salute to the man who had played MI-6's master armourer so many years. As for myself, I can honestly say that I actually mourned Llewellyn's death in a way that I have not better known actors. I had grown up watching Llewellyn in Bond movies and Q was and still is my favourite character in the Bond mythos. To me, his loss to the 007 franchise was devastating.

Indeed, my thought was that John Cleese's character, who first appeared in The World is Not Enough, should have remained "R." For myself, there can only be and will ever only be one "Q"--that was Desmond Llewellyn. To me it would have seemed only right if they'd retired the letter in his honour.

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