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Saturday 30 October 2010

Don No

Last Sunday, by chance, I saw a bit of the first James Bond film, Dr No, released forty-eight years ago in 1962. It was, of course, made before Bond became a franchise that multiplied and morphed. The makers were trying it out to see whether or not it would fly with consumers.

My interest was drawn as I realized that I was seeing in historical time, as it were, the film background to the American TV series Mad Men. It had not struck me before just how much the series protagonist, Don Draper, is a version of Sean Connery’s portrayal of Bond as a hard-boiled, long-zipped hero. It’s not just a question of the male hair applications, or the women poured into girdled moulds, but even, despite the difference in accents, down to some intonations.

Dr No links male tradition and female corsetry. Men bear and command; women pour, and just can’t help it if they like a pillar of strength. But it is an escapist fantasy - I was particularly fond of James Bond turning the radioactive level explosively up and then looking for the girl chained into a sloping Angelica position.

Unless you’re a fashionista, Mad Men is less escapist. I think of the series as skilful Balzac for today, but rising from time to time into a stylish existentialism and, just occasionally, into wonderfully scrappy bits that mean living people clash at indecorous, often unknowing levels of deference, self-respect, discomfort and resentment. From that point of view Mad Men is rather sophisticated. I understand the character of Peggy Olsen is, to some extent, based on the female founder of Cosmopolitan magazine. In other words, a boss is not a lover, but may be even more time-consuming and influential. Her narrative danger? Just a little too much of the Ad-woman’s pilgrim’s progress.

But what really struck me is that it is TV series like Mad Men, (and The Sopranos and The Wire) that lead the way in popular narrative terms. Written narrative, though it gradually assumed the cuts associated with film, is still not sharing that freedom and those possibilities.

It may be of course that the audience for written fiction feels happier with more traditional exposition and explanation, but it is probably more to do with the producers’ economic model.

Take, for example, last Wednesday’s episode (in the UK, that is.) in which Peggy casually mentions Margaret Mead. In a book, I suspect the author would need to add ‘the anthropologist’. And very likely ‘author of Coming of Age in Samoa’. The fact is, that by mentioning Margaret Mead, Peggy is misreading male irritation and confusion with a vending machine. She is about to get a crash course in ‘Mating in Manhattan’ and ‘The position of crude innuendo in the work place’, and finds out that solidarity amongst women can lead to being called a ‘humourless bitch’ by another female - the recipient of the original Margret Mead remark.

I am aware that some people, particularly of my mother’s generation, find Mad Men uncomfortable, or even unwatchable. It can seem a very sharp portrait of the extent to which conformity and decorum, and what was regarded as important, look, in retrospect, pointless and trivial and cruel.

Don Draper’s ex-wife, Betsy, would-be but failing model of the supported, supportive and fragrant trophy wife, described his date as ‘at least fifteen’ - reflecting her own emotional age rather than accusing her ex-husband of cradle snatching. ‘He has it all,’ she complained, with considerable envy.

The girl in question, poured exactly into the same hairdo and fashion sense as she is, is a younger clone of herself. With one exception. The young lady made Don ‘comfortable’ before trotting demurely and knowingly back to her dorm.

Yes, at one level it is excruciating. But I’d point to two justifications. It's scalpel sharp. And if anyone thinks this could not be applied to life now, they might like to think again before it’s too late.

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