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Why Miss Moneypenny deserves a spin-off
Conversations about the casting of the world's most famous secret agent have provoked much debate (which has included FANGRRLS fave Idris Elba) regardless of whether the creative team is on the hunt for a 007 replacement. Now that Daniel Craig's tenure is coming to an end, these discussions are about to take center stage once again.
In a recent rare interview with the custodians of the James Bond franchise, the question of who can play this character was raised. While talking with Variety, Barbara Broccoli explained that after Craig hangs up his license to kill, the next Bond "can be of any color, but he is male" before adding, "I believe we should be creating new characters for women — strong female characters. I'm not particularly interested in taking a male character and having a woman play it. I think women are far more interesting than that."
When Miss Moneypenny is sitting right there (often behind a desk) just asking for a spin-off, this sentiment is hard to argue against.
A woman doesn't need to be Bond because there are plenty of other fascinating spies up for the taking. Sure, Bond has the legacy but any gender-swap story comes with an often unsurmountable amount of baggage, expectation, and online vitriol (see Ghostbusters). And Moneypenny is already a character that exists both in Ian Fleming's books and a majority of the movie installments, from Dr. No in 1962 to the current iteration as portrayed by Naomie Harris. In Skyfall, Moneypenny finally got referred to by her first name, Eve — in the book spin-off The Moneypenny Diaries she is called Jane — and was seen out in the field. The latter didn't go well, which is how she ended up back behind a desk, again. But this doesn't mean she should stick to a non-field agent position as M's assistant.
Moneypenny returned for Spectre and Harris reprises this role in the forthcoming No Time to Die, but it appears she has little to do in the trailer aside from making a quip. While this run of films has left her in the same desk-bound position as the women who came before her, Harris has a desire to play the lead in a solo adventure with an Oscar-winning director at the helm. This isn't just a pipe dream, as Harris explained in an interview last year: "Actually, Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, he always said that he wanted to do a Moneypenny spin-off, so maybe."
As with all things Bond, EON Productions are the gatekeepers to the Ian Fleming characters, so Harris followed this Barry Jenkins comment to ComingSoon, saying, "I got him together with Barbara [Broccoli], and they had a little discussion, but nothing's happened so far, but you never know." If EON is looking for a reason as to why they should consider this expansion of the 007 universe, we will gladly explain why Moneypenny deserves the headline slot.
Beginning with author Ian Fleming, the Timeless episode "Party at Castle Varlar" showcased the Bond creator's experience out in the field as an intelligence officer during WWII — albeit with a flair for the dramatic. As with his lead James Bond, several real-life people inspired the character of Moneypenny, women whose stories would make for fascinating biopics of their own. Special Operations Executive Vera Atkins (whose path crossed with the recently portrayed in Doctor Who Noor Inayat Khan) performed a variety of key spymaster roles during the Second World War, including recruiting and deploying British agents to occupied France. She was the principal assistant to Colonel Maurice Buckmaster — Fleming's inspiration for M — and helped train spies who would be operating behind enemy lines.
Fleming's WWII secretary Dame Paddy Ridsdale no doubt also factored in heavily to the conception of Moneypenny, particularly as she played a major role in the crafting of the fictitious officer for "Operation Mincemeat." One of Fleming's tasks as a Naval Intelligence Officer was to orchestrate and deploy deceptions that would give a strategic advantage. This particular plan involved drawing attention away from the forthcoming Allied invasion of Sicily, which would later be immortalized in the 1956 movie The Man Who Never Was. One of the most famous acts of subterfuge during WWII involved a cadaver who was dressed as an officer, complete with a briefcase full of fake documents to fool German spies. Love letters written by Ridsdale were included and the plan (by all accounts) was a success.
As with Bond and Moneypenny, nothing romantic occurred between the pair — though unlike her fictitious counterpart, Ridsdale had no interest in the real-life cad: "He was always wooing me with presents of silk stockings and lipstick from strange places. But I was never taken in by his charm because I knew what he was like. He was always on the telephone to different women, taking them to lunch and dinner at the Ritz. He had so many girlfriends that I was not tempted to become one of them."
Two other potential Moneypenny influences were Joan Bright Astley and Joan Howe. The latter was Fleming's secretary who typed up Casino Royale whereas he and Bright Astley were a couple during the war itself. Her role as Winston Churchill's secretary, as well as one of the architects who set up the Special Information Centre (SIC) for Commanders-in-Chief, was a vital cog in the war effort. She also attended the conferences in Tehran and Yalta between Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill, demonstrating her lofty administrative position. While it would be amazing to see Moneypenny out in the field again, as many women proved during WWII, it is worth noting the role of secretary was vital.
The women Fleming interacted with in real life were dedicated to their jobs during a time of great crisis when clerical work sometimes came with a side of danger. But just existing in this time was a risk. Whether training new recruits as a spymaster or performing counter-intelligence document gathering or forging, Miss Moneypenny was first built on a foundation of brave and tenacious women. This is why it is ultimately disappointing that over a nearly 70-year span since Casino Royale was first published, her character has typically been reduced to a confidant for Bond with a big dollop of flirtation and unrequited longing.
Unlike the many other women that have starred in this franchise, Moneypenny is not considered a "Bond Girl" — partly because the pair have never slept together, but she also isn't someone who is briefly part of his life as a quick hook-up and then inevitably ends up dead. And unlike the other host of spies and assassins he crosses paths with, she is not disposable: the ultimate of backhand compliments from 007. In the above promotional image for Thunderball (1965), it is easy to identify the secretary — she's the one not in a frock or romper, giving side-eye to the bevy of beauties.
Moneypenny is essentially Bond's work wife: she knows everything about him, provides comfort, is reliable, and frequently makes fun of him. The jokes often veer into double entendres; in 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, Samantha Bond's Moneypenny quips to Pierce Brosnan's Bond, "You always were a cunning linguist, James."
Four different actresses have portrayed this character in the official EON produced movies — Barbara Bouchet played Moneypenny's daughter in the 1967 Casino Royale and Pamela Salem portrayed the secretary in Never Say Never Again — across a total of 23 installments. By far the longest tenure (and playing opposite two different Bonds) is Lois Maxwell. Making her debut in Dr. No, Maxwell appeared as Moneypenny in 14 movies across three separate decades. Maxwell's pre-acting days are an exciting story fit for a Bond movie, which includes running away from home at 15 so she could serve in the Canadian Women's Army Corps during WWII before becoming an actress.
"It was a great pity that, after I moved out of Bond, they didn't take her on to continue in the Timothy Dalton films," former Bond Roger Moore commented after Maxwell's death in 2000. "I think it was a great disappointment to her that she had not been promoted to play M. She would have been a wonderful M." Even though Judi Dench went onto play M in the mid-'90s, it was sadly not Maxwell's fate to get the deserved promotion from Moneypenny to M.
In a 1981 interview with The New York Times, Maxwell explained, ''Ian Fleming once told me that he had a lot of plans for Miss Moneypenny and Bond. But unfortunately, he died before he could put them down on paper." Maybe he was going to incorporate what occurred during WWII, maybe he was going to give Moneypenny more of an at-home life. In any event, this character deserves more than casual flirtation and being seen as part of the MI6 furniture.
Caroline Bliss took over this role in 1987 but only lasted two movies, followed by Samantha Bond in the four Brosnan outings as the iconic spy. This brings us full circle back to Naomie Harris, who made her first appearance in Skyfall and the subsequent Daniel Craig movies. Her relationship with Bond includes the usual banter, which is expected from the dynamic. Accidentally shooting her co-worker during her brief time in the field means the jokes are frequently laced with references to this moment.
Even though she was following orders from M (Judi Dench), it is a bit of a bummer that Moneypenny made a mistake while on active duty because it suggests she is far better in a clerical or an analyst role. While we can look forward to the fact that No Time to Die is set to introduce Lashana Lynch as a new agent in Bond's stead, it shouldn't be a case of only one or none at all (Highlander, this is not). After more than half a century since Fleming first created Moneypenny, it is time for this iconic character to get a promotion — and leave her long-standing crush in the dust.